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I just returned from the Lake Geneva premiere of the newest and 50th anniversary James Bond film, Skyfall. It was a large crowd of filmgoers, perhaps as many as 25, for a late afternoon showing here. The theater auditorium has a capacity of several hundred, but today’s turnout was as much as 25 times normal.

For regular James Bond fans, the film contains several surprises, some right at the end, involving Q, M, Miss Moneypenny, and even a classic Aston Martin of Bond film fame.

Don’t miss Skyfall. It does…

From today’s Writer’s Almanac: Today is the birthday of English novelist and diarist Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752). She was born in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, the daughter of a music historian. She didn’t learn to read and write until she was 10 years old, but once she did learn, she wasted no time in putting her skills to work writing plays, poems, and songs. Her mother died when she was 15, and her father remarried that same year; her stepmother didn’t think writing was a suitable hobby for young ladies, and Fanny burned all of her early work.

When she was 16, she began keeping a diary, a practice she maintained for more than 70 years. She was a keen observer of society and manners, and her journals recount visits by such luminaries as Dr. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, and Sir Joshua Reynolds — all friends of her father. She also described the Battle of Waterloo, the madness of King George III, and her own mastectomy, performed without any anesthesia beyond a single glass of wine.

Her first published novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), was a comedy of manners, informed in large part by her own observations and experience as a young woman in society. She published it anonymously and disguised her handwriting, afraid that publishers would recognize her hand from her work as her father’s literary assistant. The novel was a great success, and she followed it with a second — Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) — which would inspire Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Burney succeeded in making novel-writing an acceptable enterprise for women, and she paved the way for many 19th-century social satires.

Burney went to the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte in 1786, and she served as “Second Keeper of the Robes” for five years. She was unhappy in her post, since she was too busy to write novels, though she kept up with her diaries. When she was released from service, she married French expatriate general Alexandre d’Arblay, and proceeds from her third novel, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth (1796), paid for a house for the newlyweds. In 1802, they took their young son to France for a brief stay that ended up lasting 10 years, due to a renewal of the Napoleonic Wars. She recorded it all in her diaries, and her account of the Battle of Waterloo may have provided Thackeray with material for Vanity Fair.

She wrote one more novel, The Wanderer (1814), and several plays, only one of which was staged in her lifetime. And near the end of her life, she dedicated herself to publishing her father’s memoirs and to organizing her sizable collection of diaries and personal papers. She died in 1840, at the age of 88.

Hodge, Samuel Johnson’s beloved cat, surveys London’s Gough Square, looking toward the home of his master, who would go to the market to buy oysters for him. Johnson, greatest wit of 18th century London, wrote the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language in this now restored house, which we visited a couple years ago when researching “Samuel Johnson and His Clubbable Friends” for my essay presented to the Chicago Literary Club (

As the story at this site explains, McDonald’s in the UK will take the lead in training the 70,000 volunteers for the 2012 London Olympics. These “games makers” will be integral to the operation and success of the Olympics, according to Lord Sebastian Coe, legendary runner and chairman of the London games. McDonald’s expansive expertise in training its tens of thousands of employees is cited.

Spring, 2008

Samuel Johnson’s most famous cat, Hodge (see Hodge’s statue in a previous post), came to live with him in the late 1760s, when Johnson was working on his famous dictionary. Hodge is the best known of all of Johnson’s cats as he figures in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

“I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail.”

By 1750, in Samuel Johnson’s era, the population of London had reached 650,000, more or less. It had been growing at a steady rate since 1500, and by 1650 had outstripped Paris and Naples, and by 1750 had overtaken Constantinople, Peking and Cairo. One in six of the population of England had been drawn to London at some time in their lives. As Johnson wrote, “It is not the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human inhabitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London exists.” On another occasion, he uttered the enigmatic line, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

For the privileged of mid-18th century London, those steeped in the professions and arts, “clubbing together” had become a way of life. Johnson enjoyed the club life as a way to take his mind off his dictionary-in-the-making and “enjoy literary conversation, and amuse his evening hours.” His biographer Boswell went to a club that Benjamin Franklin belonged to, at St. Paul’s coffee-house, every other Thursday. “Wine and punch upon the table, some of us smoke a pipe…at nine there is a side-board with Welch rabbits and apple-puffs, porter and beer. Our reckoning is about eighteen pence a head.”

The most famous of the periodic gatherings favored by Johnson, Boswell and their friends came to be known as the Literary Club, and here a few similarities with our own club of the 21st century begin. For many years they met to talk over dinner and drinks at an agreeable inn, on Monday evenings at 7pm, much as we do today.

While there were many differences between the membership and activities of London’s original club and today’s Chicago Literary Club, there is also a lineage that seems to me comprehensible, and almost tactile, if not exactly direct. So, I’d like to take you back nearly 250 years to meet Dr. Johnson and some of the “clubbable” personages of his cozy assembly, early on simply called The Club. We’ll look in on their backgrounds, their foibles, their personalities and relationships. We’ll even sit in on a meeting of their club.

Our silent interlocutor tonight is probably today the best-known of Johnson’s fellow club members, and that is James Boswell, among the most candid and prolific diarists and biographers of all time.

The rest of the essay can be fond at

May 2022

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