Johnson in his later 30s (by George Zobel)
Dear friends and readers,
For about 10 weeks on EighteenthCenturyWorlds at Yahoo, a few of us read and two or three discussed David Nokes’s readable and mostly (to me) very enjoyable biography of Samuel Johnson (published around the time of Johnson’s tercentenary and just before Nokes’s death). To do this was to return to the origin of the listserv community, which started when a group of us wanted to read Johnson and Boswell on a list intended only for novels.
I felt sad when I shut it, sorry to leave Nokes’s congenial companionship and Johnson’s presence. It’s one of these biographies which attempts to marginalize Boswell. It also has a couple of serious flaws: e.g, Nokes detests Johnson’s wife and thus imagines Johnson learned to have a strong distaste for her too, and this shapes his presentation.
Nevertheless, the book is a genuine work of art as biography in the sense that Nokes’s presence interacts with Johnson’s, and you come away with a feel for the man as Nokes sees him. Nokes’s perspective is that of Johnson as a man who saw himself as having failed: Johnson disappointed himself. I think the parable of the talents rather cruel myself, and Nokes’s is a book filled with a quiet compassion. Johnson wanted Boswell to write his autobiography for him (so to speak), and when I got to the end of Nokes’s book I thought Nokes had demonstrated the truth of Georges Gusdorf’s idea why people engage in life-writing: Johnson wanted to have written down what he believed and wished himself “to be and have been,” to confess or display this privileged content that felt thwarted, to confess his recognition of himself and his losses (paraphrased from “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography” in Autobiography, ed. Olney).
In order to call attention to Samuel Johnson: A Life, then, and offer some detailed analysis, what follows is a little of what I wrote over those weeks. The reader could use what follows as an accompaniment, a companion to his or her reading of Nokes. Or you could read it as a retelling and commentary.
Week 1, Chapters 1-3:
I’m delighted to be able to say there are new things of interest (at least to me) in Nokes’s book. I’ve read and remember reading a few straight biographies of Johnson: Boswell, Thrale Piozzi, Clifford, Bate, Wain; but otherwise while many of the essays written about Johnson once upon a time, and still today to some extent, are strongly biographical and I’ve read some of the older ones (Johnson Agonistes comes to mind; Holmes on Johnson and Savage), plus introductions to books of Johnson’s works, and other books on other people which biographical sketches of Johnson, still my repertoire of straight biographies is small.
First, Nokes is more than readable, he’s nearly as light in feel as John Wain. He can’t be quite that light as he has some darkly meditative thoughts implied as he goes along, but I’d recommend this to non-scholars as I would not Nokes’s book on Gay or Swift. He has learned how to write for an average reader. His Jane Austen is by the way worth reading and readable and somewhat different in outlook from most in the way of this.
When Nokes opens on Johnson’s Dictionary, he is situating Johnson’s letter to Chesterfield, and the way he does that makes it much more understandable. It’s not just an extraordinarily unworldly angry letter of high eloquence. Nokes imagines where Johnson was sitting, and it was not clear what the world’s reaction would be, and as far as I can tell from Nokes Johnson had not yet got his pension. No wonder he exploded at this man taking credit. Then the incident fans out as what Nokes wants to explain, who the man was who wrote this letter. The biography may be considered as an explanation of the bitterness of this letter.
Chapter 1 is the early childhood and young manhood in Lichfield.
View of Lichfield, early to mid-19th century engraving
What’s new here: Nokes brings home out how terrible Johnson looked (we know that) but also how Johnson paraded it in his Annals in the 1770s (ah, he is using Johnson’s Annals a lot). In telling of his infant life, he patronizes his parents. Yes. Fast forward a little in this chapter; Nokes brings out how Michael Johnson was probably a gifted sane and decent man; how he rose from nothing to be a bookseller, how he did go bankrupt but kept people’s real respect, and how the father and son probably fought fiercely (see especially p. 33). Thus many years later Johnson standing out in the rain to make up for his unwillingness to stand and sell with his father comes out as Johnson understanding how hurt his father had been. Johnson’s pride had been so exacerbated by watching his father’s failure and also his pride in his older son.
Johnson’s bullying emerges early on. It was how he learned to cope: “his intelligence and bulk” could compensate by domineering at school and home. I’ll connect the brother here. I’ve read little about Nathaniel. Nokes brings out the tragedy of his younger brother/son’s life. Johnson does not come out well here at all. Nathaniel never managed to escape; he had no time at university; Johnson said of him he committed some crime but we don’t know what that was. He was not the kind of sober man who makes a posture needed for bookselling; he did have a plan to go to Georgia in the US but needed money. An irritated comment from a letter by Michael shows something of the brothers from Michael’s point of view; “As to my Brothers assisting me I had but little reason to expect it … when he would scarce eer use me with common civility … ” To make a long story (even in a short life) short, he never got to America, and something happened that broke his spirit (“something essential in Nathaniel’s life had been extinguished and in early March he died”), It’s over for him by p. 52.
Johnson’s times away from home: very important. First to his mother’s nephew, Cornelius Ford. Johnson came for the fall and stayed until May (Whitsun). Ford was his first adult companion of the heart, 31 to Johnson’s 16. Very interesting to me, Nokes finds some glimpses of homosexual love in one poem to Ford (p. 19 of my version).
When Johnson returned home, he found he was not allowed to return to school. So pupils could be thrown out. I hadn’t thought of that. Of course. Hunter refused to have him back. Johnson was very open with his scorn for teachers who had nothing to teach him and repeatedly they can’t take it. So he worked with his father in the bookshop (binding). Then he is taken up by Gilbert Walmseley and again find himself in an environment where he can thrive and be appreciated, and a bond is forced (despite Walmsely being a whig).
The Oxford story is known by all: what Nokes adds is Johnson began optimistically; he was eager and so happy to be there, but hid it under a carapace of apparent indifference. Nokes persuades you of how hard Johnson worked in his room, how he loved his 100 or so books. And then it’s all over for him. He runs out of money. He was eager, idealistic at times, loving his work (or wanting to), and at the same time so discouraged and he had to leave. It was horrible for him. Heart-breaking how gifts don’t matter in the least Well he is a person who has no connections that can be used to wrench a position and no money and he spends this desperate after period.
John Radner suggested Johnson’s depression afterwards was brought on by religious guilt. I remembered still that Peter Gay wrote in his The Modern Pagans that Johnson read deeply in the Latins, this connected him to the French enlightenment, and also was in conflict with the kind of faith his mother and environment pushed at him (so to speak). The terror of death continues to strike me and I have an unconventional view of it; I wonder if he did have fears he would “cease to be”. He studied Shakespeare too.
Finally he is taken up by an old school friend, Edmund Hector and goes to Birmingham. There he begins his career in journalism. Nokes adds how mortified Johnson was in comparison with his hopes and that’s why his translation of Lobo is not what it ought to be. Nokes depicts Birmingham at the time, what it looked like and how it was regarded (snobbery).
Elizabeth Johnson when a much younger woman
There he meets Tetty Porter. Nokes adds and makes a strong case that Johnson married her for the money. 600 pounds. This apparently has been denied all along by many but it makes sense to me especially it the context Nokes creates for us. And then alas lost most of it with his school venture which got nowhere after again high hopes and plans. Now a fault I notice: Nokes doesn’t like Tetty. He talks of her as someone who got a “hold on Johnson,” and how she played up to him with “her fleshy figure, large eyes, and pouting lips.” These are Nokes’s words. Well, yuk of course. On the other hand, he presents their early jockeying for position coolly; I don’t like Johnson here at all — the way he was determined to be master on the ride back from the wedding.
Ah, no one, not a soul came to the wedding. All against it. I admire our young couple for holding out and doing what they wanted to.
Week 2, Chapters 4-6:
There’s a continual depth of thought and a lot of sheer information gotten in in a very small space. For example, the rich depiction of London, of Johnson’s lack of status and means there, and the real subtlety of his approach to Johnson and Tetty’s relationship. Nokes has it in for Tetty, but he does make her real, and Johnson’s keeping away from her and guilt too also brought out. Johnson’s earliest attempts at a literary career, the places he lived, the texts he produced (the poem London done justice to from origination and achievement), his earliest professional relationships, all got in and very readable. Even something of what we may surmize of his sex life, and not omitting the Richard Savage phase.
Still Nokes has no basis for saying Tetty refused Johnson sex or they didn’t have a strong sexual relationship. That he didn’t live with her all the time is nothing; it cost to live with her (bigger quarters) and sexual intercourse doesn’t take a lot of time. It seems to me his portrait is way off the mark. She was not a dreadful woman. Nokes is Neanderthalian on Tetty’s drinking. Why shouldn’t she have? He is disgusted by Johnson’s sexual choice. Much that he says of her spending has no documentary basis.
As to Johnson’s sexual faithfulness I doubt it strongly. It was not socially acceptable to write down his encounters with prostitutes – of which the London streets were full. So we don’t get any thing of Savage’s sex life too. One root cause for his terrible guilt was his sexual life – and that’s just a terrible shame, for if he did find solace and companionship there (and empathized as may be guessed by Misella in the Ramblers) how horrible that he hated himself for it and dreamed he’d go to some terrible hell — if he did. As I suggested, there is reason to infer that he also thought annihilation awaited him (preferred it in Hamlet’s way).
He was no catch and none of the women we find him involved with romantically (Hill Boothby, Mrs Desmoulins who he had sexual relationships with) was attractive to us, or rich, or even very smart. Who would go for companionate marriage with him anyway? He didn’t keep a steady clean house, had no visible means of steady support, was often strongly depressed, half hysterical at night. Not good husband material I’d say even if a great writer, good man, and genius.
He really makes Johnson’s play, Irene important to Johnson: he has Johnson using it to shush his wife in hopes of a big sum of money, of hoping for a career through it. He presents the episode fully weaving it in with the rest of the man’s life. I discern early now a train which suggests Nokes sees Johnson as slowly feeling himself a failure in his own eyes: first the play career flops; then his Vanity of Human Wishes doesn’t sell, and he writes no more long poems; this after the failure at Oxford (it was since he left), the failure to run a school. Then we get how the Rambler sold so poorly.
An idealized “Roman” portrait of Johnson by Reynolds
The hard life of the literary man is before us, and the resort to the Dictionary a strong hope — again the bitterness at Chesterfield is made understandable.
I really enjoyed his account of The Rambler itself. I love these meditations and they can’t be quoted from too often for my taste, and to end this week’s posting, I loved this aphorism by Johnson: “Credulity, obstinacy and folly are hourly making havoc in the world.”
Weeks 3-4, Chapters 6-10:
Nokes is now allowing his distaste for Tetty Johnson to present a somewhat false view of Johnson’s relationship with her. As this was central to his whole life, it misshapes other comments and views. What he keeps doing is sticking in wholly gratuitious and unproved assertions, sometimes graced with a perhaps. “No one siehd to malign the dear departed, but he must secretly be relieved.” Yes, and perhaps he owned five dogs and must secretly have detested them.
Nokes has shown an intense masculine distaste for this woman from the time he describes her first entrance on his stage. He can’t stand she’s not intellectually equal to Johnson; senses her frivolity and common place allegiance to the nonsense status struggles (expensive) of imagined social life (see Lacan). He has Johnson eager to remarry; there was a love for Hill Boothby and they didn’t marry and now this becomes mysterious. When things start to become mysterious in a well researched biography something has gone awry.
Johnson showed intense hysteria and grief when Tetty Johnson died, and it seems to me the causes were complex and we don’t know enough because we don’t know enough about his sex life. I feel his famous compassionate and unusual portrait of Misella comes from experience of prostitutes. Now I’m not writing any biography just an email but this is the sort of thing Nokes’s determination here obscures.
I did love the chapter on Frank Barber, in effect Johnson’s son, the little black boy he brought up and who lived all his life with him, and to whom he left his estate. You do have to imagine these people using fictional techniques because so little is told and I’m willing to imagine with him. I’m not against this sort of thing, but then to move Barber into a central figure for Johnson, replacing Tetty goes overboard.
However, once Tetty is gone from the scene, Nokes finds himself comfortable again and the book becomes very good. I liked his literary critical essay (that’s what it is) of the Dictionary itself very much (pp. 154-56). I’ve not read much literary critical analysis of the entries for the dictionary. He says (as one might guess anyway) the unusual words and occasional passionate lapses into an egoistic or personal take on a word are too emphasized, and goes on to discuss Johnson’s entry for the word “put” — not an easy word to deal with I’m do (like “do”) and shows us how the entry for this word as “little auxiliary verb” becomes “a self-contained narraitve of human hopes and fears.”
Chapter 10: how difficult it was to face the reality that now that this dictionary is done, one cannot fold up shop and rest on the laurels. First, the laurels were thin on the ground and money used up. He had to live on, and we see his disillusion and coping with the need to make money, the hard life of an author continues. “Nothing is concluded” is a good chapter title.
On the literary criticism parts: Nokes says the Idlers are thin; I know they are short but among his most memorable writing in the journalistic kind is here. All the trouble over the Shakespeare edition is narrated and explained well and frankly. I liked the discussion of Rasselas but there’s nothing new (so to speak). He does connect it to Johnson’s life of course.
Nokes sees into Johnson in a way that acknowledges his vulnerabilities: for example, Johnson finds it hard to get close to Lucy until well after Tetty’s death and after his mother’s, “feeling only then that he would not be spurned or laughed at.” (p. 175)
Like Nokes, I find Johnson’s indifference to his material surroundings very appealing, especially the three-legged chair. (I believe there is one in Dr Johnson’s house, but wouldn’t want to vouch for my memory not fantasizing.)
Chapter 10 he is still seeking — a really fulfilling companion, meaning, coping with the unenthusiastic reception of Rasselas. Again we have this theme that to Johnson his life might have seemed a failure — given the world’s response to him and his work. All this is BB – Before Boswell as well as BHTF — Before Hester Thrale Piozzi.
Francis Barber was not happy in his school. I ‘m not surprised, imagine the prejudice against him. He goes to sea but finds it much worse (well that’s a lesson I’ve seen others have) and Johnson lacks the connections to help him get discharged.
I ended on the realistic imagining of what war is like that underlies Johnson’s fierce polemics against war. They apparently would fall on dear ears today too.
Hester Thrale Piozzi (much later, 1793, by Dance)
Although not yet in the book (not even the greenroom), Nokes talks of Johnson as “loving” Hester Thrale Piozzi in language that suggests far more than friendship-love. When Nokes talks of Johnson’s essential sanity despite the huge depressions (the two can exist together), he alludes to a very few papers showing an unbalanced mind. Surely this is a reference to those famous letters by Johnson to Hester in French and the business about locking Johnson in and masochism before Hester Thrale Piozzi. Not that this is not mentioned by others, but Nokes seems to buy a little into Johnson as Jacobite. He held himself in readiness in 1745 we are told (p. 104)
Weeks 5-6, Chapters 11-14:
I found Nokes’s comment that from the moment Johnson’s mother’s died, “his wish to have his own life commemorated came to be a minor obsession” (p. 183). I am wondering if John Radner agrees with that. To me it helps explain why Johnson latched into Boswell in an intense way and encouraged him to keep his diaries and was very cooperative with this young man who was in many ways so different from him. Again Nokes has Johnson thinking about how a biography about him need s “another man” (not himself), sufficiently close, as he had been to Savage, and yet sufficiently detached to write from his own point of view” (p. 186).
I was very moved by Johnson’s writing on behalf of the prisoners of war and decrying the mistreatment of these people.
“there is no legal provision; we see their distress, and are certain of its cause; we know they are poor and naked, and poor and naked without a crmie … let animosity and hostility cease together; and no man be longer deemed an enemy, than while his sword is drawn against us.”
Nokes says: “it is testimony to his word that, two centuries later, they are reprinted in French, in the official journal of the International Red Cross.” I wonder if the Red Cross people know they have a French translation of a text by Samuel Johnson on their bannerheads.
Johnson against slavery on basic grounds: “No man is by nature the property of another” (p. 191)
I mentioned how much I liked the pictures of Johnson in his lodgings and at the taverns, and working and travelling as a writer for money — Nokes is identifying here and connecting his own life probably. Nokes is breaking down that hierarchy of values that Boswell continually supports. Once again, there Johnson is in these tiny shabby thoroughly lived in quarters, and a group of young male Africans, friends of Frank Barber’s, by his fireplace. Suddenly a world of friendships, connections, feelings which never come near Boswell’s book is in front of me.
Alas, I wish Nokes could make comparable vignettes with women of the streets wherever it happened and if it happened in Johnson’s rooms too.
Oliver Goldsmith by Reynolds
A very different Goldsmith is put before us, not Boswell’s clown. Thomas Percy is done justice to.
On Johnson’s depression: I was probably originally drawn to Johnson as someone who suffers from depression too. That’s why I find his Ramblers, Idlers and Adventurers so strengthening and comforting. So when Nokes write that one Easter Johnson “poured out the wretched feelings of loneliness that assailed him” (p. 194), I ask myself is it that a person feels lonely because he or she is depressed, or is it the loneliness that some lives end up ending that makes for depression or at least reinforces it. I think this an important question. Depression can make you feel empty and without self-esteem, certainly without confidence. Johnson’s well known procrastination (in these chapters on his Shakespeare) can come from that: his bullying presentation of himself a kind of overcompensation for keeping his feelings of inferiority well out of public view. (By empty I don’t mean hungry — joke alert.)
I have little to say about the ghost business that Johnson credited ( pp. 195-201) beyond that it shows Nokes again building up a picture of the London and other worlds Johnson lived in.
I liked how Nokes treated Johnson’s travelling with Reynolds to get away from ridicule and pressure to finish his book (pp 201-2), and sympathize very much with Johnson getting drunk and saying “Sir Joshua I think it is now time to go to bed.” I wonder if Johnson was a good-natured man when drunk — drinking brings out aspects of ourselves usually repressed and it’s impossible to predict which (like driving does). How Johnson was disappointed when he saw Lucy and realizes his dreams of her had glorified her in his mind.
How awful to be promised a pension and then not have it be paid. Everyone making fun of him and meanwhile he’s not got the money. Very lucky indeed to have had a few friends really do it for him — like people today helping someone get a job. In the US no one can get a job without connections today (even bagging groceries at the supermarket requires a relative/friend in place).
I am hoping the pension begins to be paid for I’ve read so often of 17th century people promised payment by government flunkies and powerful men too who starve (Aphra Behn comes to mind). Charles II knew whereof he spoke when he said (if he did) Let not poor Nelly starve.
I find I underlined this utterance by Johnson “Men will submit to any rule, by which they may be exempted from the tyranny of caprice and of chance.” You see before you why people in academia do what they do to get tenure.
In Chapter 12, Nokes is concerned to distance himself and his portrait of Johnson from Boswell’s — as Boswell is now on the scene and no one can escape using Boswell’s texts. He is also concerned to show Johnson’s sexual experiences as far as we can more candidly because it’s now he is seen by Mrs Thrale, turns up in her house, and before you know has moved in.
This time I will repeat what’s common knowledge for the numbers are important: “In total, Boswell spent just 426 days with Johnson during the last 21 years of Johnson’s life, of which 101 were on their tour of the Hebrides” — far far less than Tetty Johnson, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Frank Barber. For Johnson’s first 54 years we have 180 or so letters; after that, 1300; from his marriage 1 letter; from his love for Hester, 366 (Nokes, p 210).
The huge difference in knowledge for a famous writer is not uncommon. For Trollope until he begins writing Barchester Towers, we have a handfull of letters (that that includes the writing of 4 previous novels where there is suddenly correspondence); for afterwards two volumes of 700 pages each fills N. John Hall’s edition. Trollope destroyed all his letters and all those that came to him — or tried to. But after he became famous others saved them. Ditto situation for Margaret Oliphant only she began to write much earlier, because she became desperate much earlier, her husband having died of consumption, leaving her with 3 children. She also did not destroy her letters or those sent to her. Yet the proportions are the same.
Boswell at age 25, by George Williston (1765)
Boswell’s presence shapes our sense of Johnson from here on in, even in Nokes’s book — though he is careful to show how this is happening. So suddenly we get these famous anti-feminist, anti-women comments: well that summer of 1763 Boswell as a “boon companion” of Johnson. The sayings have “an authentic ring” but we should remember there were probably others and they were not written down (let’s say) and they are a function also of “Boswell’s preening sense of self-esteem at the company he kept.” At one point (I can’t find it just now) Nokes says Boswell did not have such a perfect memory.
I might as well confess my slant now: I am no Boswell lover; he amuses but it’d be fair to say I don’t like him. I take one long sequence of scenes in his first London journal to in effect describe a gang-rape of a girl in the streets where Boswell is exulting.
In these later years Johnson has the experience many of us have: seeing other people change or aspects of their personalities emerge which are very dismaying to us. So Lucy Porter turns out to love property and money; she inherits a lot from a brother and proceeds to build a big fancy house; Johnson gradually stops going to see her (in an earlier chapter Nokes says Johnson was dismayed by her in an earlier visit too). It is interesting how a man like Johnson might find himself awed by a younger man. Such is the power of social capital: Johnson recognizes Langton has it.
As to sexual exeriences, in Johnson’s diary he uses the code “M” and Nokes persuades me these are him recording his times of masturbation. Why someone would record this sort of thing is a puzzle to me, but then why do I write so much? Each of us has to cope with being alive as best we can and I feel Nokes suggests (but does not say directly) such records for Johnson come out of “loneliness”. Well, like Dr Jekyll in RLS’s Jekyll and Hyde, Johnson was very guilty and berated himself intensely for “sinful images” — and acts too. That these includes more than Ms is probable but what we can’t know. Nokes (who is careful to tell the truth in his way) says Johnson prays to avoid idleness and prays for Tetty,and cries over her. On p. 224 there is a reference to a Lucy who Johnson pays small sums to — a prostitute-companion? Nokes doesn’t say this, it’s my guess.
During this time Johnson finally gets his act together, finishes his Shakespeare and publishes it. He actually had written it much of it before. He is not made happy by the response — the same kinds of obtuseness that met his other work is found again, and he is needled for his pension.
The big moment for meeting Mrs Thrale was Thursday, January 1765. Hester was 24 and already married to Thrale and had that daughter Queeney. She still hoped to make Thrale love her. Forget it, he was dull and mercenary, cold; his daughter turned out to be a real monster. I won’t take that one back, a mean spiteful horror is what she was, resentful of her mother precisely because her mother had a loving heart and much better brain and (yes) wanted the girl to love higher things (like books); the girl got back. Alas, all Hester’s surviving children took after her husband. She devoted decades of her life to them. Later in life, her adopted son turned out to be a cold unsympathetic leech too.
People do know the story of how Johson at first was taken by Mrs Thrale and she by him. Meanwhile as after the dictionary life went on, and he does write more and comes under pressure. He wants to visit people and it doesn’t come off. He is pressured to become a government spy and resists. Good for him. More masturbation and now Nokes brings in the heavy drinking. It seems that Johnson did drink alcohol pretty heavily for some years; he tried to stop himself but for a long time couldn’t. It was solace, why not? It did get in the way of reading and doing projects. Chemical experiments come in to relieve his mental tensions.
But all no go and in the midst of one terrible clutch of depression, the Thrales come upon him, the man is shocked and Hester takes Johnson in. This story has often been told.
Nokes again reiterates his idea that Johnson was drawn to Boswell as a potential biographer. I do feel in the text that Nokes is one of those who prefers Hester Thrale Piozzi’s “take” on Johnson and the Johnson that spent time with her to Boswell’s Johnson. For Nokes the important relationship is with Hester.
I did like this chapter for all the comments drawn from Johnson’s Shakespeare’s edition which are scattered throughout as Nokes weaves the story of the publication and response in. The editor’s princples, the noble (it is) preface, the deeply felt readings.
Chapter 13: Johnson ceases referring to Tetty for 4 years. She has at last been replaced by Hester. He fits into the Thrale house, grateful to be with him. Cleaner shirts for example,
He is become a respected and known figure by this time — by those who count, like Reynolds too. He writes secretly a set of lectures for a friend not up to it (Chambers); this fills him with pride. Lyttleton suggests he writing a literary biography of English literature.
The book becomes very thick with detail. One continual “tick” I notice is Nokes continually throwing cold water on the tightness of Johnson’s relationship with Boswell even if Boswell has become a main source.
So, for example, on p 238, we are told “Back in London at the end of September, he saw Boswell, though less often than the guileful presentation of conversations in the Life would make appear.
I found Nokes’s discussion of Johnson’s The False Alarm interesting partly because I’ve read very little of Johnson’s straight political pamphlets. On the slavery issue, a new book by a Seymour Dresher, who has written this way before again argues that it is fatuous to say slavery was on the decline and would have withered away without the bloodbath of the American civil war. Slavery is profitable and people don’t let go of their property without murderous ferocity. This historian points out that slavery quickly reappeared in the 20th century in the vast slave labor camps, extermination camps, and sex trafficking (which means snatching of people).
Life carries on in Chapter 14: among other signal events in this one is the sudden crash of Thrales’s business and Johnson and Hester Thrale’s heroic attempts to help salvage it. We see how deeply Johnson became emotionally and perhaps physically (if not conventionally physically — I do not mean they were lovers) involved. They also had periods of relative estrangement too (see p. 262). The chapter goes into other notorious details from Johnson’s and Hester Thrale’s private papers, the fetters, the padlock. Other women companions have been mentioned earlier.
It seems that Johnson (not unusual) had a strong liking for female companionship. Nokes simply says Johnson also had a strong masochistic streak, and does not try to invent scenes from the details we have in the French letters and other diary writings and letters.
Boswell is now being recognized as Johnson’s probably biographer. In the earlier chapter we saw Johnson attempt to thwart some of Boswell’s staged scenes (Boswell would deliberately invite people to be with Johnson, as Wilkes, to get copy.) By the end of the chapter Johnson is on his way to meet Boswell for their tour of the Hebrides.
Things are looking up, he’s happier because he’s with the Thrales — or at least can seem so for longer periods.
Weeks 7-8, Chapters 15-16: travelling about
Map of Hebrides at time of Johnson and Boswell’s trip
I have been bold enough to substitute a different title for Nokes’s: this is a chapter where our hero travels about. Not only is there an excellent analysis of Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, but Nokes also takes us through the evidence for a perhaps happier tour with the Thrales in Wales, and a time on the continent where the “four” (Johnson, Mr and Mrs Thrale and Queeney) made it to Paris and Versailles.
On the section of the tour and experience with Boswell in the Hebrides and book itself: I think Nokes’s sense of Johnson’s mood more accurate than any other account I’ve read. Johnson was ambivalent, but I’m not sure whether Nokes exaggerates Johnson’s distance from Boswell, for example, while Johnson’s “attitude was always cordial, there was little real warmth of affection.” It’s probably a little unfair to say Boswell’s journal leaves us with an image of “the two of them, arm in arm, as the Laurel and Hardy of a joint enterprise,” but I agree to read some popular accounts of this time you gather the particular reader took Boswell’s account this way. I haven’t the time to go back to my notes and postings on the twin tour books, only remember how I thought Boswell was determined to make the Scottish world and society appealing in his book.
I thought Nokes’s sentence here spot on: “The third element by whch [Johnson] invoked a sense of distance between the reality he saw before him adn a mythic world of dreams was his use of classical comparisons” (p. 271). I am myself drawn to Johnson’s instinctive response to Macpherson: it was a lie, a bunch of lies the man told, and the man was a real bully, threatening Johnson physically. Talk about thug academic politics
I have read his letters to Hester and concur with Nokes’s comments that Johnson wrote out to her what was in his innermost mind. Myself I love the poems that he wrote during this trip (which Nokes doesn’t include but I will):
“Ponti profundis clausa recessibus” Englished, presumably by J Fleeman, the editor of a St Martin’s edition of Johnson’s poetry:
Enclosed in the deep recesses of the sea,
howling with gales beset by rocks,
how welcome, misty Skye, do you
open your green bay to the weary traveller.
Care, I do believe, is exiled from these regions;
gentle peace surely dwells in these places:
no anger, no sorrow plans traps
for the hours of rest.
But it is no help to a sick mind
to hide in a hollow crag or wander
through trackless mountains
or count the roaring waves from a rock.
Human virtue is not sufficient unto itself,
nor is the power granted each man
to secure for himself an untroubled mind,
as the over-proud Stoic sect deceitfully boasts.
Thou, almighty King, govern, sole arbiter,
the onrush of the stormy heart
and, when Thou raise them,
the waves of the mind surge up
and, when Thou calm them,
they fall back.
The statements Nokes makes that the journal is dry, without emotion, no emotion, about the Journey to the Western Islands are unfair and misrepresentative. I’ve always thought Johnson has a good time — his movements into and out of depression are just par for the course for him (that’s how I see it, his depression was what he fought daily). I did say I think Johnson’s book a magnificent anthropolgical meditative book.
I remember when reading Johnson and Boswell’s books together that Johnson was reading Boswell’s account and that part of the experience was this dual shared reading and writing. Nokes is over-anxious at times to separate Johnson from Boswell.
Maybe what I liked best about this chapter was its equal emphasis on Johnson’s other two trips. I don’t know where I read them, but I have read excerpts of the Wales and Paris diaries, and like Nokes, I came away with a sparkling sense of the enjoyment he felt and wished he had worked these up into books. They would perhaps have been more entertaining and just as deep and far-reaching in their general application — for _Journey to the Western Islands_ is a great anthropologial and philosophical meditative book.
Take Johnson’s response to Versailles: “a mean town”! “Mean shops against the wall.” I don’t doubt it for an instant. He was not interested in the palace, but the menagerie (of animals”),. Johnson’s quick sense of humor and pragmaticism emerges again and again.
Not that he’s not alive to historical beauty (as he was in Aberdeen and the cathedral towns of Scotland). His “paean” of praise to Cambrai cathedral is just right; the choice of general words and eel is just such as Austen’s style projects: “very elegant and splendid” is the church at Compiege, “very beautiful” and “splendid choir” at Cambria, “very high and gran” nave.”
I underlined Johnson’s comment to Hester to “get the children ‘into Habits of loving a Book by every possible means’, for, he remarked with injudicious candour, “You do not know but it may one Day save them from Suicide” (p. 280). My only objection is, Why injudicious? If Johnson had not said it, and Hester written it down, it could not have survived to cheer and teach us today.
The account of the fiercely contested election was good too, though Johnson was happier travelling about. I have concluded from essays and books on Hester (as Nokes does here) that she enjoyed these times: “We lead a wild Life.” (p. 286)
Each time Johnson exhibits these intense worries over a coming childbirth of Hester and Nokes records it, my feelings for Johnson go up yet stronger.
At its close we see how Johnson had a good time by getting away: it can be refreshing when you are with congenial people (Hester, and pace Nokes, Boswell). He was not above being chuffed when Antoinette asked after Queeney. Nokes concludes:
His was a life ‘turned upside down,’ he thought; having been ‘fixed to a post’ when he was young, he was now ‘roving the world. I am wholly unsettled,’ he wrote. ‘I am a kind of ship with a wide sail, and without an anchor.’
There is sadness in that last clause: no life’s partner, no close relative (for he and Lucy really didn’t understand one another), no child. Well, these things are overrated, a lottery (especially a child where the genes mix by total chance). Too bad there weren’t buses and trains while Johnson was alive; they are fun too, especially a bus from the top on a bright windy day passing Portsmouth harbour (I admit I had my younger daughter with me that day, but I was trying to provide cheer for both of us, hard work but I did it).
Weeks 9-10, Chapters 16-17
John Opie’s Johnson
Basically Nokes retells Johnson’s life during the period when the idea for the huge collection of poets was adumbrated in both London and Edinburgh and a group of publishers conceived of the scheme of having the poets introduced by little lives by Johnson, by then famous. It was a selling ploy. In the event Johnson took much longer because he wrote real lives, not just sketchy introductions and his book was published separately.
We learn about the politics of this and also Johnson’s declining health, his relationship with Boswell and Hester Thrale (poor women kept getting pregnant, watching babies die, under pressure to have a son, until that horror of a husband died), and Thrale’s own demise. He ate himself to death it was said. Mrs Boswell is beginning to decline too — too many pregnancies with consumption did it.
Hester herself sees early on that her eldest daughter was a monster of resentment, narrow cold prestige oriented, spiteful: she wrote in her book there is “something strangely perverse” in Queeney’s temper; she was “full of bitteness and Aversion to all who instruct her.” p. 301. This is not as unusual as people like to suggest or one would think given out little is written about this kind of person in real life (in fiction versions of them turn up frequently)
I felt Nokes’s book winding down too early in Chapter 16. A problem has been that it’s too short, and he has had to leave out too many trails and individuals which he could have done justice to. Goldsmith, Reynolds. Here again we see Johnson’s depression. Nokes wants us (again) to see Johnson keeping his distance from Boswell, trying to escape or elude him. Johnson is quoted more than once scolding Boswell for nagging him to write; or “He shook off Boswell as much as Boswell could be shaken off, and Boswell covered it up, speaking of benig ‘unaccountably neglient’ during this visit” (p. 317). But Nokes’s own text (he admits) shows that Johnson kept himself apart from a lot of people.
Curiously in this super-social book (in our era of pressure to be so super-social), Nokes does produce a portrait of a man who stayed apart far more hours than we realize and who chose that even if it left him subject to depression.
Again I loved the quotations from Johnson and in this chapter some of the analysis of the little lives.
“Are you playing the same trick again, and trying who can keep silence longest?. Remember that all tricks are knavish and childish.” (That ought to be engraved somewhere, say in a hall dedicated to an analysis of human relationships.)
Or: “I live in stark solitude … nobody has called on me this livelong day.” This one made me laugh. I cannot remember the last time someone called on me — well, four weeks before Xmas my neighbor from across the street put an invitation to her party under my doorstop so I called on her (crossed the street) to thank her and say hello.
I love Johnson’s tender heart — brought out by Nokes here: while Johnson is made busy by the squabbling over the poets, he neglects his household, and we are told
“Hodge, his car, alone had fare well, with Johnson gonig out himself to buy oysters from fear, if he left it to the servants, they ‘should take a dislike to the poor creature” (p. 314)
The last chapter is taken up with Johnson’s increasing debilities and dying. Today he’d have medication and operations and probably would have lived on to his 90s. Basically he drowned in his own fluids. The chapter shows hurry: two pages have the same structure repeatedly: “having decided” X we are told, and then again “having decided” Y. I also don’t get the title: “The Town is My Element.” It’s made up an insistent going over the real last letters of Johnson, facing up to them as long, nagging, lonely, melancholy letters of a dying and disappointed man. Nokes’s insistence here and showing how many of these there are made me remember an email letter he was kind enough to write to me (he wrote a couple) on his screenplay and the production of the 1991 BBC Clarisas. He regretted that the fourth volume of the book has been scotched by the executive producer. He would have included far more of the death and dying and later scenes too (second attempt at rape, humilation by women in sponginghouse, attempt to make Clary a prostitute, fights again in family).
Johnson wrote such letters to everyone it seems. He was stuck in his house. His pension paid irregularly (I had not thought of this before but it’s certainly probable), and basically was often deserted or alone — except for Frank. Most people are alone when older — people don’t visit one another all that much except when interest or fun is going. We see the troubles Boswell begin to have and he is not much in this chapter — though Boswell’s Life makes you feel he was around, I remember being aware he was giving testimony from those who were.
There is much more than a man dying, stranded and disappointed. I reread the three letters John referred to (they are in the Oxford Classics Life of Johnson paperback, pp 1343-46). I see in them Johnson’s own disappointment and sense of himself as “going back” (when you do not progress you go back), loneliness, and querulousness, but there is much more too. He reaches out because he’d like to do more and see more yet and it’s not happening.
But here we should remember Nokes: he was ill when writing this book and died soon afterwards. Surely he’s recording himself here too. It’s very sad when you grow old and sometimes puzzling why people aren’t doing more to enjoy themselves and with you (this latter is a natural thought). I remember how Johnson wanted to go to Italy and was even offered the money as a gift. He was not well was part of the reason he didn’t go (as I recall).
One of Johnson’s many plans not carried through: a history of the revival of learning in Europe
I agree too that Johnson continues not to take Boswell’s depression seriously, and that seems to have been his stance all along. He couldn’t get why this younger man who had been born to and gained so much (to Johnson’s way of thinking) would be depressed. Boswell not having the money or wherewithal to move to London makes me empathize with him.
While Nokes does justice to how good for Hester Thrale was her love affair and liaison and marriage to Piozzi, and how cruel her daughters especially (cold, selfish, and Queeney needling, scornful), we also see the marriage from the lonely Johnson’s point of view. In fact Nokes shows she kept apart from him once she moved from the house she shared with Thrale; she did want to get away: she didn’t answer his letters, didn’t invite him to come to her and didn’t visit him — except perhaps once (some ambiguous evidence she came once towards the end).
We see how Johnson did not go gently into that good night. How he fought death, accepted painful procedures and did all he could. How he saw others as ill and dying too — and some of them were. We are none of getting older and I thought of Austen’s Persuasion where her narrow vain father sees everyone but he and his oldest daughter as haggard and decaying from tmie so did not dislike Johnson for seeing this. I see it.
How appropriate he left all to Frank who is there throughout.
The chapter is not made melancholy and we are not led to cry. It’s curiously abrasive and even curt at moments. When Austen lay dying, she laughed and joked in the nervous hilarity of Sanditon (how many teeth have you had out today, one sister has several and you’ve no idea how it deranaged her nerves, but I daresay did her a lot of good), so Nokes may be constrained here from himself — he never mentions himself until the last line of the book.
The epilogue tells of how shocked Hawkins and those who were related to Johnson were that Johnson left everything he could to Frank. How Frank didn’t hold onto the money — alas. The race to publish biographies: Thrale and Hawkins beat out Boswell and the book ends before Boswell’s masterpiece really begins to be written in earnest.
I liked Nokes’s last line: He reminds us that Johnson “once declared that it was the ‘biographical part’ of literature that he most loved; I trust that, in writing this account, I may not wholly have disappointed in that hope.”
So Nokes would like us to learn about life from this biography: he wrote at least three others: Swift, Gay, and Austen; I’ve read the Austen and part of the Gay.
Well I come away remembering some things I like to remember and didn’t know or think of before: how Johnson as a young man was cheerful at Oxford and loved the work, the reading, being there and had enthusiasm and idealism at first (from the work he did); how one night Johnson came back to his lodgings in London and found Frank, his black young servant-friend grown up sitting round the fire with three other young black men; Johnson hurrying out to buy oysters for his cat because while he was so busy with the lives of the poets and its book politics he feared his servants would dislike the cat and mistreat it if they had to forage out for food for it. Johnson worrying each time Hester had to give birth. That kind of thing.
Our cat, Ian
Those interested in a general assessment, some quotations and a little material on Nokes, read on [in the comments].
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