Food, Days Out and Travel stories from Brighton, London and the Rest of the World


Fanny runs away from the King - The Burney Society go to Kew

Having just gone to Kew gardens for the annual Burney Society meet up I can't help but put up a post in celebration of this great journal and novel writer.  What I love about Fanny’s writing is the immediacy with which she recounts events, the below excerpt is a good example of where the whole scene comes to life as the drama unfolds. The other aspect I love about her retelling is the way in which personalities, in this instance the royal family are revealed, the King a likeable, vulnerable, well meaning chap and the Queen a concerned and loving wife. 

2nd February 1789 and the King has been gravely ill with porphyria, which no one understood at the time and it was considered that he had gone mad. Fanny Burney employed as part of the Royal Household in the capacity of Second Keeper of the Robes for the Queen kept a journal of events during this period. It is largely due to these private journals, written for private consumption by her sister and friends that we have a record of events of this period, famously dramatised in the Madness of King George.

What an adventure I had this morning, one that has occasioned me the severest personal terror I ever experienced in my life.

This morning, when I received my intelligence of the King from Dr. John Willis, I begged to know where I might walk in safety. ‘In Kew Gardens,' he said, 'as the King would be in Richmond.' Taking, therefore, the time I had most at command, I strolled into the Gardens.

I had proceeded in my quick way nearly half the round, when I suddenly perceived, through some trees, two or three figures. Relying on the instructions of Dr. John, I concluded them to be workmen and gardeners; yet tried to look sharp, and in so doing, as they were less shaded, I thought I saw the person of his Majesty. Alarmed past all possible expression, I waited not to know more, but turning back, ran off with all my might. But what was my terror to hear myself pursued, to hear the voice of the King himself loudly and hoarsely calling after me, Miss Burney! Miss Burney! '

I protest I was ready to die. I knew not in what state he might be at the time . . . and that the very action of my running away might deeply offend him. Nevertheless, on I ran, too terrified to stop, and in search of some short passage, for the garden is full of little labyrinths, by which I might escape.

The steps still pursued me, and still the poor hoarse voice rang in my ears as more and more footsteps resounded frightfully behind me with the attendants all running to catch their eager master, and the voices of the two Dr. Willises loudly exhorting him not to heat himself so unmercifully.

Heavens, how I ran . . . My feet were not sensible that they even touched the ground. Soon after I heard other voices, shriller, though less nervous, call out ' Stop ! stop ! stop ! '

I could by no means consent. ... I knew not to what I might be exposed. . . . Still, therefore, on I flew. . . . ' Doctor Willis begs you to stop ! '

I cannot, I cannot ! ' I answered, still flying on, when he called out, 'You must, ma'am; it hurts the King to run.' Then, indeed, I stopped in a state of fear really amounting to agony. I turned round; I saw the two doctors had got the King between them, and three attendants of Dr. Willis's were hovering about. They all slackened their pace as they saw me stand still. ... As they approached some little presence of mind happily came to my command; it occurred to me that to appease the wrath of my flight, I must now show some confidence. I therefore faced them as undauntedly as I was able, only charging the nearest of the attendants to stand by my side.

When they were within a few yards of me the King called out, 'Why did you run away?'

Shocked at a question impossible to answer, yet a little assured by the mild tone of his voice, I instantly forced myself forward to meet him, though . . . this step . . . was so violently combated by the tremor of my nerves, that I fairly think I may reckon it the greatest effort of personal courage I have ever made.

The effort answered; I looked up, and met all his wonted benignity of countenance, though something still of wildness in his eyes. Think, however, of my surprise to feel him put both his hands round my two shoulders and then kiss my cheek!

I wonder I did not really sink, so exquisite was my affright when I saw him spread out his arms! Involuntarily I concluded he meant to crush me; but the Willises, who have never seen him till this fatal illness, not knowing how very extraordinary an action as this was from him, simply smiled and looked pleased, supposing, perhaps, it was his customary salutation.

He now spoke in such terms of his pleasure in seeing me, that I soon lost the whole of my terror. Astonishment to find him so nearly well, and gratification to see him so pleased, removed every uneasy feeling, and the joy that succeeded in my conviction of his recovery made me ready to throw myself at his feet to express it.

What a conversation followed! When he saw me fearless, he grew more and more alive, and made me walk close by his side, away from the attendant, and even the Willises themselves, who, to indulge him, retreated. I own myself not completely composed, but alarm I could entertain no more.

Everything that came uppermost in his mind he mentioned; he seemed to have just such remains of his Mightiness as heated his imagination without deranging his reason, and robbed him of all control over his speech, though nearly in his perfect state of mind as to his opinions.

What did he not say! He opened his whole heart to me, expounded all his sentiments, and acquainted me with all his intentions.

He assured me he was quite well as well as he had ever been in his life; and then inquired how I did, and how I went on and whether I was more comfortable.

If these questions, in their implication, surprised me, imagine how that surprise must increase when he proceeded to explain them! He asked after the coadjutrix, (Fanny’s Line Manager, who bullied Fanny) laughing and saying, 'Never mind her, don't be oppressed I am your friend, don't let her cast you down, I know you have a hard time of it, but don't mind her'

Almost thunderstruck with astonishment, I merely curtsied to his kind 'I am your friend,' and said nothing.

Then presently he added, 'Stick to your father stick to your own family let them be your objects.' Again he repeated all I have just written, nearly in the same words, but ended it more seriously; he suddenly stopped, and held me to stop too, and putting his hand on his breast, in the most solemn manner he gravely and slowly said, I will protect you, I promise you that and therefore depend upon me'

He talked to me a great deal of my dear father (a celebrity at the time), and made a thousand inquiries concerning his History of Music. This brought him to his favourite theme, Handel; and he told innumerable anecdotes of him. . . . Then he ran over most of his oratorios, attempting to sing the subjects of the several airs and choruses, but so dreadfully hoarse that the sound was terrible.

Several times during the discourse, which continued much longer, Dr. Willis interposed to induce the King to cease from this unusual exertion, and to allow Miss Burney to go home; but the King always exclaimed eagerly, " No! no! no! not yet; I have something I must just mention first." At last, however, it became necessary to put an end to the conversation.

Finding we must now part, he stopped to take his leave, and renewed again his charges about the coadjutrix. . . . Then he saluted me again just as at the meeting, and suffered me to go on."

I went very soon after to the Queen to whom I was most eager to avow the meeting (the Queen and Princesses had been kept apart from the King during his madness). Her astonishment and her earnestness to hear every particular were very great. I told her almost all. Some few things relating to the distressing questions I could not repeat; nor many things said of Mrs Schwellenberg (the coadjutrix) which would much and very needlessly have hurt her.

The print room

Paean to Love

Kew Palace

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