Fanny Burney on the illness of George III

Fanny Burney (1752-1840) was one of six talented children of Dr. Burney, a famous music teacher and music historian in London during the 18th century. Fanny herself was a noted author (Jane Austen called her "our first woman novelist.") Her first novel, Evelina, was published in 1778. In 1786, Fanny Burney became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte. Her period of service in this position ended in July 1791, due to Fanny's ill-health, but her diaries of this period are one of the best sources of information of the Court of George III.

Cheltenham, Oct. 25, 1788 ... I had a sort of conference with his Majesty, or rather I was the object to whom he spoke, with a manner so uncommon, that a high fever alone could account for it; a rapidity, a hoarseness of voice, a volubility, an earnestness--a vehemence, rather--it started me inexpressibly; yet with a graciousness exceeding even all I ever met with before--it was almost kindness!

Heaven--Heaven preserve him! The Queen grows more and more uneasy. She alarms me sometimes for herself, at other times she has a sedateness that wonders me still more.

Sunday, Oct. 26th.--The King was prevailed upon not to go to chapel this morning. I met him in the passage from the Queen's room; he stopped me, and conversed upon his health near half-an-hour, still with that extreme quickness of speech and manner that belongs to fever; and he hardly sleeps, he tells me, one minute all night; indeed, if he recovers not his rest, a most delirious fever seems to threaten him. He is all agitation, all emotion, yet all benevolence and goodness, even to degree that makes it touching to hear him speak. Nobody speaks of his illness, nor what they think of it.

Windsor, 1788. Wednesday, November 5th.--O, dreadful day! ... I found my poor Royal Mistress, in the morning, sad and sadder still. ... I was still wholly unsuspicious of the greatness of the cause she had for dread. ... Meanwhile, a stillness the most uncommon reigned over the whole house. Nobody stirred; not a voice was heard; not a step, not a motion. I could do nothing but watch, without knowing for what: there seems a strangeness in the house most extraordinary. At seven o'clock Columb came to tell me that the music was all forbid, and the musicians ordered away! This was the last step to be expected, so fond as his Majesty is of his Concert ....

...The King, at dinner, had broken forth into a positive delirium, which long had been menacing all who saw him most closely; and the Queen was so overpowered as to fall into violent hysterics. All the Princesses were in misery, and the Prince of Wales had burst into tears. No one knew what was to follow--no one could conjecture of the event.

A little after one, I heard a step--my door opened--and a page said I must come to the Queen. ... My poor Royal mistress! never can I forget her countenance--pale, ghastly pale she looked; she was seated to be undressed, and attended by Lady Elizabeth Waldegrave and Miss Goldsworthy; her whole frame was disordered, yet she was still and quiet.

I gave her some camphor julep, which had been ordered her by Sir George Baker. "How cold I am!" she cried, and put her hand on mine; marble it felt! And went to my heart's core!

The King, at the instance of Sir George Baker, had consented to sleep in the next apartment, as the Queen was ill. For himself, he would listen to nothing. ...

Thursday November 6th.--I rose at six, dressed in haste by candle-light, and unable to wait for my summons in a suspense so awful, I stole along the passage in the dark, a thick fog intercepting all faint light, to see if I could meet with Sandys, or any one, to tell me how the night had passed. ... I feared approaching without permission, yet could not prevail with myself to retreat. She was looking down, and did not see me. Miss Goldsworthy, turning around, said, " 'Tis Miss Burney, ma'am."

She leaned her head forward, and in a most soft manner, said, "Miss Burney, how are you?"

Deeply affected, I hastened up to her, but, in trying to speak, burst into an irresistible torrent of tears.

My dearest friends, I do it at this moment again, and can hardly write for them; yet I wish you to know all this piercing history right.

She looked like death--colourless and wan; but nature is infectious; the tears gushed from her own eyes, and a perfect agony of weeping ensued, which, once begun, she could not stop; she did not, indeed, try; for when it subsided, and she wiped her eyes, she said, "I thank you, Miss Burney--you have made me cry--it is a great relief to me--I had not been able to cry before, all this night long."

O, what a scene followed! what a scene was related! The King, in the middle of the night, had insisted upon seeing if his Queen was not removed from the house; and he had come into her room, with a candle in his hand, opened the bed-curtains, and satisfied himself she was there, and Miss Goldsworthy by her side. This observance of his directions had much soothed him; but he stayed a full half hour, and the depth of terror during that time no words can paint. The fear of another entrance was now so strongly put upon the nerves of the poor Queen, that she could hardly support herself.

The King--the Royal sufferer--was still in the next room, attended by Sir George Baker and Dr. Heberden, and his pages, with Colonel Goldsworthy occasionally, and as he called for him. He kept talking unceasingly; his voice was so lost in hoarseness and weakness, it was rendered almost inarticulate; but its tone was still all benevolence--all kindness--all touching graciousness.

It was thought advisable that the Queen should not rise, lest the King should be offended that she did not go to him; at present he was content, because he conceived her to be nursing for her illness.

But what a situtation for her! She would not let me leave her now; she made me remain in the room, and ordered me to sit down. I was too trembling to refuse. Lady Elizabeth soon joined us. We all three stayed with her; she frequently bid me listen, to hear what the King was saying or doing. I did, and carried the best accounts I could manage, without deviating from truth, except by some omissions. Nothing could be so afflicting as this task; even now, it brings fresh to my ear his poor exhausted voice. "I am nervous. But I love you both very well; if you would tell me the truth: I love Dr. Heberden best, for he has not told me a lie: Sir George has told me a lie--a white lie, he says, but I hate a white lie! If you will tell me a lie, let it be a black lie!"

This was what he kept saying almost constantly, mixed in with other matter, but always returning, and in a voice that truly will never cease vibrating in my recollection.

Excerpt from The Diary of Fanny Burney, selected and edited by Christopher Lloyd. London, 1948, p. 156-57, 159, 163-169.

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