British Literature 1616-1780
Nov. 29: Boswell and Burney
Excerpts from Boswell's writings (NAEL 2749-89); and excerpts from
Burney's The Journal and Letters (NAEL 2783-2805)
The prose writings for today are biographical in nature and share several points of contrast and
comparison, most notably around the representation of Samuel Johnson. As biographical writings, the works
reflect the eighteenth-century reader's growing interest in the development of an individual as it comes to be
recorded in moments of conversation, meditation and narration. As we read these pieces, keep in mind the way
the author of the work constructs the story of an individual. What information does he or she include? What
inferences does he or she draw? Who is the audience? What is the purpose of writing? What is the style of
writing and is it effective?
As biographical writings, we can compare this work with other biographical writings we have studied this semester,
including the semi-fictional biography of Oroonoko and the actual biography of Olaudah Equiano. What do the writings
for today share with these other works? How are they different?
Keep in mind also the role that gender plays in the representation of lives and in self-representation. What do
these works tell you about the conditions of writing for women as compared to men?
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:
The excerpts from Boswell's monumental Life of Johnson take up the greater
amount of space and we will devote our discussion of Boswell primarily to that work.
As an example of life-writing, the opening excerpt on Boswell's plan for the life is an important document
because it explicitly outlines the rationale for his methodology. Boswell does not attempt in any way to
remove himself from the biography, and so one can also discern something of the author in this work. Pairing this
with his journal entry on meeting Voltaire, discuss the strengths and limits of the biographer
himself. How does Boswell's character affect his representation of Samuel Johnson?
What principles does Boswell use in assembling his biography of Johnson?
Why does Boswell want to write a biography of Johnson?
What are some of the inconsistencies in Johnson's character that Boswell develops?
Is there evidence that Boswell manipulates Johnson? That Boswell manipulates the facts of Johnson's life?
Evaluate Boswell's records of Johnson's conversations. What are the chief characteristics of Johnson's conversation?
Why is it worth recording? To what extent can we rely on this as an accurate record?
Boswell insists early on that he will follow Johnson's own plan for writing biography (and you can learn more about that
by reading Rambler #60 in NAEL page 2716), which means that he will not write mere panegyric. Does Boswell avoid this?
Does Boswell discuss any of Johnson's flaws? If so, how does he do so?
To what extent might this biography be a memorial to Johnson? Does that take away from its legitimacy as a biography?
To what extent is this a biography of Boswell? What are the strengths and limitations of Boswell's appearance in the text?
How does Boswell's representation of Johnson affect your view of the author of Rasselas?
The excerpts in the NAEL demonstrate clearly Burney's expertise in narration, dialogue and creating a character.
They also cover a range of experience -- from 15 to 60 -- and subject matter, from light banter to the excruciating
narration of her mastectomy. From gentle irony to intense emotion, Burney's writing conveys humor and
realistic human behavior. Like Boswell, she brings the eighteenth-century social world to us with personal
insight, and her perspective as a woman and a quiet observer brings to light a side of this world that we
seldom see in the literature. Here is the embarrassment of a woman denying a suitor; here is Samuel Johnson
gossiping in the parlor; here is a woman facing breast cancer.
The first entry of Burney's journal often receives attention for the connection between the "nobody" to whom
she addresses the journal and the young female "nobody" of her first novel, the heroine Evelina.
Evelina represents in some ways the non-identity of unattached women in Burney's society. Why does Burney begin a journal?
Why does she address it to "Nobody"?
The details of her unwanted courtship with Barlow also seem to find a place in her fiction, as many of her heroines,
particularly Cecilia, have to decline assiduous suitors. How does she represent the suitor? What is the source of her
discomfort? What prevents Burney from quickly dispatching Barlow? What do we learn about eighteenth-century courtship from this episode?
Have you seen representations like this in any of the literature
we have read this semester?
The passages on Samuel Johnson in conversation with Mrs. Thrale offer an excellent counter image to Boswell's public,
masculine Johnson of the tavern. How is Johnson represented here? What is different? Why might this be just as accurate
a portrayal as Boswell's?
How does Burney represent her father in the journal and letters? What role does he play in her life?
What role do other family members play in Burney's journal and letters? How does she represent them?
Why is Burney so surprised by the young, agreeable infidel? What does infidel mean in this case? Compare this to
Boswell's interview with Voltaire and Johnson's reflections on death. Why is faith in the immortality of the soul so
important a theme to these writers?
Likewise, Burney's encounter with King George III in 1789 presents a dramatic contrast to Johnson's much earlier interview;
Burney's empathetic portrait of the ailing king is surprisingly touching. What is Burney's overriding concern in the
episode on meeting the king on her garden walk? How does this representation of King George III compare with
your knowledge of him from history?
What does this episode indicate about the social
strictures that govern behavior at the highest levels of society? How does gender inform this behavior?
The most significant of the excerpts, however, is Burney's astonishing account of the mastectomy she underwent without
anesthesia in 1811. Why does Burney write an account of her mastectomy? Why does it take her six months to write?
Does Burney's account of her mastectomy read like a novel? Why or why not?
What is the value of Burney's account of her mastectomy? What do we learn from it?
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