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ENL 6236: Restoration and
Eighteenth-Century Literature

Civility and the Public Sphere

Class 15

Reading Assignment:

Dec. 6: Public and Private Selves - Biographical and Autobiographical Writing
    Pepys, Diary (2122-2132)
    Boswell, The journal and Life of Samuel Johnson (2749-2783)
    Burney, Journals and Letters (2783-2806)

    Report Topic: Journals, Letters and Autobiographical writing

    Bibliography -- Susan

    Due: Post #14 Group A


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 in the later two. 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. In this sense, there are sharp contrasts between the self-representation of Pepys and that of Boswell and Burney, who write a century later. As we read these pieces, keep in mind the way the author of the work constructs the story of an individual and how it differs when the author is conscious of writing for an audience. 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?

As our last class for the semester, it may be appropriate to reflect on how these writings develop our course theme on Civility and the Public Sphere and raise any questions or draw some conclusions regarding the corpus of works we have read this semester.


1. Pepys's Diary

Reading the section on the fire in London is a gripping experience, and a bracing alternative to Dryden’s panegyric on the city and the king in Annus Mirabilis (see 2073). Reading this with a map of London would be instructive (see the back cover of the NAEL if you have no other). Teaching the Deb Willet affair provides an interesting counterpart to the sexual repartee of Restoration comedy and the libertine verse of Rochester and Behn. It represents the cultural standards for sexual behavior most explicitly in the conditional toleration of male promiscuity and the sexual access to females of the serving class. The representation of serving girls as sexual objects anticipates a scene from Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina and provides interesting context for that story.

The excerpt on the fire of London offers some insights on The Public Sphere and Civil Society because of its detailed representation of the geography of the city, its inhabitants and the great concern people (or is it just Pepys?) have for their “goods.” One gets the sense of traveling through the city and the utility of the river Thames for movement. Pepys was both an acquisitive and social person, and the excerpt highlights the “things” of daily life as well as a sense of the rhythms of social exchange. This non-fictional representation suggests alternative ways to view Addison and Steele’s representation of the city and its inhabitants in The Spectator.

Looking at a seventeenth or eighteenth-century map of London, what parts of the city did the fire consume?

What are Pepys’ principle concerns in reviewing the progress of the fire? What emotions does he experience and why?

What conditions make the fire’s progress so extraordinary?

Why don’t people attempt to extinguish the fire? What role does Pepys play in controlling the fire?

What happens when the fire (or fear of the fire) reaches Pepys’ own house? What are his principle concerns?

With regard to the Deb Willet affair, how does Pepys feel about Deb? How do you know? What can we tell about her feelings for him?

How does Pepys regard his wife? What is her reaction to walking in on her husband being intimate with Deb? What does he do in response?

What does Pepys prolonged agony over (and persistence in) the affair suggest about his character? About his marriage?

Why does Pepys write these entries? What do they record? What is their value for contemporary readers?

James Boswell


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?

Frances Burney


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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