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I’m reminded by the following entry in The Writer’s Almanac that today is the 271st birthday of the famous scribe and biographer. Read much more about him and his contemporaries in my essay for the Chicago Literary Club, “Samuel Johnson and His Clubbable Friends’ (www.chilit.org).

“It’s the birthday of the biographer James Boswell (books by this author), born in 1740 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His family was descended from minor royalty, and they had occupied the same more than two hundred years. Boswell’s father was a judge who insisted that his son study law. So James Boswell passed his bar exams in Scotland, but he didn’t really like law and he didn’t really like Scotland. Boswell loved gossip, drinking, and traveling, and he wanted to be in London, to be in the company of the rich and famous. He also wanted to be known as a great lover, so he bragged constantly about his love life.

“James Boswell was a good writer with an incredible memory, and he started keeping a journal as a teenager, and he kept it for the rest of his life, filled with reflections and anecdotes about the famous people he befriended—Voltaire, Rousseau, Oliver Goldsmith, John Wilkes. Most of all he wrote about his friend Samuel Johnson. When Boswell was just 22 years old, he met Johnson, who was his idol, in the back of a bookshop. Johnson was 53, and he gave the young Boswell a hard time when he met him, but Boswell went back to visit him anyway and they soon became good friends. Over the next 20 years, Boswell followed Johnson around, and he always had paper and took notes constantly. Johnson was often frustrated with Boswell, and Boswell could be critical of Johnson, but they still liked to spend time together, and they traveled together through Scotland and the Hebrides.

“After Johnson’s death, Boswell spent years writing a biography of his friend. He used letters, interviews, as well as his own diary, of which he said, “A page of my Journal is like a cake of portable soup. A little may be diffused into a considerable portion.” Finally, in 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson was published, and people loved it. There had never been a biography like it before. Instead of a dry recitation of facts, Boswell filled his book with personal anecdotes and vivid descriptions, and overall it was fun to read, and he made Johnson sound like a real person who wasn’t totally perfect. It’s still considered one of the greatest biographies ever written, and it’s a big part of the reason why Samuel Johnson is still so famous today.”

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.

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