If you know anything about Fanny Burney, you probably know that Samuel Johnson was a great admirer of her first novel, Evelina, and that his admiration was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between them. I’m rereading the book for the first time since college and finding it just as disarmingly funny and irrepressible as the first time. Edward A. Bloom, in the introduction to my Oxford World’s Classics edition, details the making of the Burney-Johnson friendship:
When eminent figures like Sir Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke joined the growing company of Evelina‘s admirers, Fanny was elated. But no one’s approbation meant more to her than that of Dr. Johnson: upon learning that he had read the book, she ran out on to the lawn at Chessington and danced around a mulberry tree. The elderly Johnson was indeed so intrigued by the characters–especially the vulgar ones–that he memorized their scenes and was convulsed with laughter.
The book will do that to you. The vulgar characters in Evelina’s circle, especially the perpetually battling Frenchwoman Madame Duval and English Captain Mirvan, are eager to point out each other’s vulgarity but, of course, blissfully unaware of their own: “he has no more manners than a bear,” Mme. Duval says of the captain; he just laughs at her–and never more than in Letter XVI, when she and her escort M. Du Bois not quite accidentally fall into a mud puddle.
All eyes were then turned to Monsieur Du Bois, whose clothes were in the same miserable plight with those of Madame Duval, and who, wet and shivering, and disconsolate, had crept to the fire.
The Captain laughed yet more heartily; while Mrs. Mirvan, ashamed of his rudeness, repeated her enquiries to Madame Duval; who answered, ‘Why, as we were a-coming along, all in the rain, Monsieur Du Bois was so obliging, though I’m sure it was an unlucky obligingness for me, as to lift me up in his arms, to carry me over a place that was ancle-deep in mud; but instead of my being ever the better for it, just as we were in the worst part,–I’m sure I wish we had been fifty miles off,–for, somehow or other, his foot slipt,–at least, I suppose so,–though I can’t think how it happened, for I’m no such great weight,–but, however that was, down we both came together, all in the mud; and the more we tried to get up, the more deeper we got covered with the nastiness,–and my new Lyon’s negligee, too, quite spoilt!–however, it’s well we got up at all, for we might have laid there till now, for aught you cared; for nobody never came near us.’
This recital put the Captain into an extacy; he went from the lady to the gentleman, and from the gentleman to the lady, to enjoy alternately the sight of their distress. He really shouted with pleasure; and, shaking Monsieur Du Bois strenuously by the hand, wished him joy of having touched English ground; and then he held a candle to Madame Duval, that he might have a more complete view of her disaster, declaring repeatedly, that he had never been better pleased in his life.