The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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January 21, 2019

A biography with something new...

I've promised myself to try this year to read more of the books that I've bought but left long unread, and decided to start with this one.  I haven't read any of Fanny Burney's novels (though I want to, now. ... have you?), but I became interested in her when I read, somewhere, that she spent several years as a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Charlotte (the wife of George III). She's a very interesting, complex, unexpected person, who seems to have done a lot of rewriting of her own life, and her family's, and finding a biography written  by Claire Harman made reading about her even more appealing. In addition to her life at the court, it was fun to read about her meetings with Germaine de Stael, and the how she delighted and inspired Jane Austen. (One of my favorite things about reading biographies is coming across these connections.)

But I found something else that was fun, at the end of the book, something I've never come across in a biography before:  a list of the words (or usages) -- six pages of them -- that were added to the Oxford English Dictionary when they were found in her writings. Some of them are commonplace now, and others aren't ...
  • acquaintance {as a verb, as in 'Mrs. Milner ... has sent me, lately, a message to desire that we should acquaintance,' from her published journals}
  • break down {'...we had not proceeded thirty yards ... for the coach broke down!', in Evelina}
  • dizzying {'You waft me from extreme to extreme,with a rapidity absolutely dizzying,'in Camilla}
  • elbow {'Clermont, now elbowing himself into a crowd of gentlemen,' in Camilla}
  • far from it {'No, indeed! far from it!', in Camilla}
  • plain sailing {'... the rest would become plain-sailing, in Camilla}
  • unjulyish {'I am very glad the Weather was so good. It was particularly kind of it, for I am sure it has been very unjulyish since.' From her journals.}
  • unrobustify {'I have been able to seeher but twice!  --the roads are so indifferent, & we are both so unrobustified as yet.' Same.}

There was also a passage in the book about how her writing changed as she grew older, noting some other words she invented that didn't get in the O.E.D.  I couldn't find it to share with you, unfortunately, because they're even better.

Fanny Burney, by Claire Harman
Alfred A. Knopf, 2000
From my bookshelves


Lisa said...

I read one of her novels, many years ago now, just because Jane Austen read them. I've never been tempted back, I must say. But it's not first time we have disagreed over books - I was so disappointed in The Mysteries of Udolpho!

Cosy Books said...

I listened to a Woman's Hour podcast and was horrified to learn that Fanny underwent a mastectomy with only a wine cordial to calm her. Whenever I hear or see Fanny's name I can't help but wince for her trauma.

Audrey said...

That passage was absolutely harrowing, with seven black-clad doctors descending on her -- and she apparently was aware enough of what was happening to he that she could write a detailed account of her surgery that is still studied by medical historians. The good news was that she survived for 29 years after it!

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