Burney on Johnson

I came across this extraordinary description of Samuel Johnson in a letter by Frances Burney, written in 1777, when she is about 25. This is her first encounter with Johnson:

He is, indeed, very ill favoured, — he is tall and stout, but stoops terribly, — he is almost bent double. His mouth is almost constantly opening and shutting, as if he was chewing; — he has a strange method of frequently twirling his Fingers, and twisting his Hands; — his Body is in continual agitation, see sawing up and down; his Feet are never a moment quiet, — and, in short, his whole person is in perpetual motion:

His dress, too, considering the Times, and that he had meant to put on his best becomes [most becoming attire], being engaged to Dine in a large Company, was as much out of the common Road as his Figure: he had a large Wig, snuff colour coat, and Gold Buttons; but no Ruffles to his shirt, doughty fists, and black worsted stockings.

He is shockingly near sighted, and did not, till she held out her Hand to him, even know Mrs. Thrale. He poked his Nose over the keys of the Harpsichord, till the Duet was finished, and then, my Father introduced Hetty to him, as an old acquaintance, and he cordially kissed her. When she was a little girl, he had made her a present of The Idler.

His attention, however, was not to be diverted five minutes from the Books, as we were in the Library; he poured over them, shelf by shelf, almost brushing the Backs of them, with his Eye lashes, as he read their Titles; at last, having fixed upon one, began, without further ceremony, to Read to himself, all the Time standing at a distance from the Company. We were all very much provoked, as we perfectly languished to hear him talk; but, it seems, he is the most silent creature, when not particularly drawn out, in the World.

My sister then played another Duet, with my Father; but Dr. Johnson was so deep in the Encyclopedie, that, as he is very deaf, I question if he even knew what was going forward.


I feel a little bad, actually, typing up that passage about Johnson’s appearance, emphasizing the man’s physical problems (but not bad enough to refrain from doing it — it’s so interesting). The book’s editor says that people now speculate Johnson had Tourette’s Syndrome, which would explain some of his quirks and twitches. I love the part about Johnson ignoring people to pay attention to the books.

I’d like to read more by and about Johnson; I started Boswell’s Life of Johnson, but never finished it, so I must return to it. I like his novel Rasselas very much and I’ve read his travel book Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. What I’d like to read more of are his essays. I’ll have to get my hands on this book (selected essays), although I do have this book (selected writings), which would be a good place to start. I also have Helen Deutsch’s book Loving Dr. Johnson on my to-be-read list, and I came across Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage in a used bookstore recently, and failed to buy it, and now I regret it. I must find it again; it’s by Richard Holmes, whom I’ve never read but have heard good things about. These aren’t terribly high on my list of things to read, but Burney did spark my interest again.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

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