Posts Tagged ‘samuel johnson’

Andrew Marr on Winston Churchill: a superlative treatment of Churchill as a painter, showing, explaining, contextualizing many of the paintings:

One of Churchill’s paintings

What unites the best of popular documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks).

The particular pleasure of these documentaries with favored character-personalities at the center is how much I like to watch and re-watch them. Far more than a fictional narrative movie.

During this profoundly worrying summer when it appears that a minority party, the Republicans, as headed by a criminal liar, is readying up to prevent the majority of US citizens from voting or having their votes counted lest they rightly throw out of office these people who are doing all they can to inflict harm, take away economic security, ruin the environment, make warring arms deals & money with the worst dictators around the world (consider 150,000+ Americans dead in 5 months, and a devastated economy), not to omit destroying even the ancient post office, it would seem understandable that no one notices in print the prevalence of documentaries in on-line movie theaters.

Or on YouTube — many a nowadays virtual conference places part of their presentations on YouTube. Comedians, people lecturing on areas of concern to subgroups of people (Tony Attwood and Temple Grandin on Aspergers and autism), universities sharing lectures, to which are nowadays added thousands of people coming online to cheer one another up: reading whole novels, reading poetry, playing instruments, doing dungeons and dragons. I’m there too with my “The Modernity of Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset.

Let’s admit among all this outpouring, some are inevitably very poor (if well-meant), many banal (there needs no ghostly presence come from an ipad to tell us this), more troublingly, some made by crazed fantasists (QAnon, people who hate others and encourage hatred and violence), and political groups, nowadays many fascistic (see above) determined to spread misinformation, to screw up democratic elections.

More commonly as on popular TV stations, some are superficial, gimmicky (this is true of too many of Lucy Worseley’s — exceptions are Jane Austen At Home and Suffragettes), disappointingly insidiously right-wing under a patina of liberal wit (alas too often Marr himself in for example his History of Modern Britain), too compromising (Spaceship Earth), too careful, guarded, worried lest they give offense (“Just one of those things:” on Ella Fitzgerald), which seems odd as the makers cannot really believe they will gain a large audience outside those sympathetic to their subject.

It is also true the professional or paid-for movies are probably there because the movie-theater operators are holding off on their movie “block-busters” for when all the millions of people are (it is imagined) to begin to return to going out to crowded movie-theaters once again. I would not hold my breath.  (Maybe 2022?  but not in the same way.)

Yet many of these are within the terms they set out to cover, on their own terms, remarkably good, excellent — as the above by the famous BBC interviewer, journalist, once strong man of the left, and now a centrist maker of documentaries, Andrew Marr about Winston Churchill’s incessant hobby and apparently real achievement as a painter of effective contemporary pictures. These (along with online university level courses when they are good, e.g., Future Learn) are the silver lining in a dark and frightening time.

What unites the best of documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks)

Not all are this way: it’s the distinction of Frederick Wiseman to remain absent from his severely controlled documentaries. They are famous for nothing much happening at intervals except the rain or quiet daily life. In Central Park, a duck goes upside down in the water to capture a fish and eat it. Wiseman, let me say it, makes genius level films with serious insightful critiques of the way organizations are at the heart of reality. Cathy Come Home (Tony Garnett), Culloden (Peter Watkins), and other British radical political films are unforgettable. When the subject is a revered or political hero, the documentary maker may make him or herself secondary. So in the documentaries about John Lewis, Malcolm X. Ada DuVernay wants us to pay attention to what the realities of African-American life have been since the inadequacy of the 13th amendment, how it has been undermined almost from the very beginning. But I think the most popular type documentaries, the ones where the documentary maker keeps making them are those where the documentary maker is our chief character, whom we are made to delight in

I’ve written about a few of both types these over the years: Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians some years ago; more recently Mary Beard’s excursions into classical history across Europe on her bike. John Lewis: Good Trouble. But you can’t do better if you are looking to cheer yourself with a realistic (not fatuous) slice of life than Ceyda Torun’s Kedi: Cats of Istanbul. All three women. Women do documentaries: I don’t say they prevail in numbers, but their woman’s point of view is not the usual rare minority. Lucy Worseley is a case in point.

Beyond calling your attention to the numerous good documentaries available at a single click for not much money or for free (once you’ve paid your electricity and internet computer bill) I mean to alert the reader of this blog to a couple of Marr’s lesser known documentaries about literature because they are very good, and may serve to divert the viewer’s mind from the over-arching calamity (Trump winning again, or stealing the election and then turning the US into a deeply dangerous rotten brutal fascist dictatorship) while leaving us with some relevant knowledge-food for thought and perspectives.

In his wider ranging work (like telling us “the history of the world”!), he often slides by serious and unexamined art. He has a ready wit with quips that can dismiss Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in a memorable (if misleading phrase — for the sake of the joke) but in these two he is sincere, earnest even, taking us (and himself) back to the younger man who meant to make the world better and acted at times bravely, with some integrity. That’s why Noam Chomsky bothered to chide him.


But in these on literary and art topics and with enough time given over, he is superb.  He is himself by birth a Scotsman (born in Glasgow).

I treat first (in time) his Great Scots, a 2014 three-part series where he explores some of the problematic aspects of Scottish identity and political and geographical history through meditations on four male Scottish writers and one English: Part One is on James Boswell, whose work cannot be separated from Samuel Johnson, and their famous tour to through Scotland to the Hebrides. Part Two is mostly on Walter Scott with Robert Burns brought in as a strong contrast. Burns, Marr rightly says, was a political radical who had to suppress himself, or communicate indirectly to protect what income he had (Burns nonetheless died at 37, partly from hard work and exhaustion, poverty) while Scott was politically high Tory and very much a unionist, though endlessly trying to do justice to specifically Scottish culture, sensibility and the old Jacobite cause (at least explain it).

The series was made in 2014, just before the referendum on devolution and it’s clear that Marr is on the side of “no” (stay, not leave England) in Part Three which he devotes to Hugh MacDiarmid (born Christopher Murray Grieve): while Marr presents the beauty, depth of thought and interest of MacDiarmid’s poetry fairly and with high praise, he treats MacDiarmid’s separatist point of view as a fantasy which for a long time was not taken seriously by those who read him. All three hours have beautiful photography, the sections of the books read aloud are done brilliantly by actors and readers, we are taken to the truly appropriate interesting places. I knew nothing of MacDiarmind before I watched this hour and now feel I do understand something of the man; I know a great deal about Boswell & Johnson, Burns & Scott (I have read far too much Scott over my life — especially in my teens and early 20s) and can vouch that they are presented with real insight.

I do wish he had included a couple of women, at least mentioned one (?), and was hoping (when I learned of the series) for a survey, but I admit his choices are well taken and by sticking to three primarily he treats the writings of these men in depth. I wish even more that these were online for American viewers. At best there are podcasts, commentaries, and if you are lucky, you may find them reprinted on DVDS in sets of Marr’s work on Amazon at UK.

More recently (2016) he has made a quietly brilliant three part analysis and feelingful projection of the popular subgenres of the novels he identifies as Sleuths, Sorcerers, and Spies. I rejoice that these are on YouTube, though not transferable

Marr’s persona comes across more strongly in these three than his series on Scotland or his political series: he portrays himself as decidedly un-aristocratic, far from a member of any elite or academia, a “smart-aleck” who is, if not anti-intellectual (he cannot present himself that way as he is so patently perceptive and analytic), at least not a self-satisfied public one. The subtext of these is a kind of vehement anti-snobbery: he wants to counter anyone who looks down on these “paperback heroes” (and heroines) and their best-selling authors to show that their books mirror the eras and worlds they wrote in and bring home to the alert viewer their deeper problems and anxieties and needs. He presents himself as uncovering the “rules” each genre follows religiously.

Yes, they are formulaic. It may be said he hams his material up, but the result is fun, and his interviews with working novelists and quotation from those no longer literally living are of real interest. As this is more popular entertainment, I cannot find a serious review — so perhaps he failed at his seeming aim. Not so, when you can watch them over and over.


How to close? Myself I’m a lover of Scots literature (as the reader to this blog and my Austen Reveries must know), went to Edinburgh for the equivalent of a honeymoon, and have visited Scotland now three times, once all the way to Inverness and up to the Hebrides (across the way, still the mainland on a bus). One of my favorite 19th century novelists is Margaret Oliphant. In my studies of historical novels and romance, I often find the authors whose books I so enjoy also wrote in this distinctively different genre (these thrillers are until very recently usually masculinist even when women write them) and try to understand the relationship between these genres in book and movie form.

My most recent reading for sheer pleasure and interest has been Nancy Brysson Morrison’s The Gowk Storm, to learn the truth of a still wrongly maligned destroyed woman, Margaret Macaulay’s The Prisoner of St Kilda (the true story of the indeed unfortunate Lady Grange, shocking even today), Elizabeth Taylor Russell’s Tomorrow (it takes place on an island off Denmark — in the same kind of edge-marginalized culture).

But from years ago and more recently, I am a strong admirer of Liz Lochhead, a brilliant poet, playwright, polemicist too. So (as my title promised), first two poems by Liz Lochhead:


& just when our maiden had got
good & used to her isolation
stopped daily expecting to be rescued,
had come to almost love her tower,
along comes This Prince
with absolutely
all the wrong answers.
Of course she had not been brought up to look for
originality or gingerbread
so at first she was quite undaunted
by his tendency to talk in strung-together cliches.
Just hang on and we’ll get you out of there!
he hollered like a fireman in some soap opera
when she confided her plight (the old
hag inside etc. & and how trapped she was);
well, it was corny but
he did look sort of gorgeous
axe and all.
So there she was humming and pulling
all the pins out of her chignon,
throwing him all the usual lifelines
till, soon, he was shimmying in & out
every day as though
he owned the place, bringing her
the sex manuals & skeins of silk
from which she was meant, eventually,
to weave the means of her own escape.
All very well & good, she prompted,
but when exactly?
She gave him till
well past the bell on the timeclock.
She mouthed at him, hinted,
she was keener than a TV quizmaster
that he should get it right.
I’ll do everything in my power, he intoned, but
the impossible (she groaned) might
take a little longer. He grinned.
She pulled her glasses off.
All the better
to see you with my dear? he hazarded.
She screamed, cut off her hair.
Why, you’re beautiful? he guessed tentatively.
No, No, No! she
shrieked & stamped her foot so
hard it sank six cubits through the floorboards.
I love you? he came up with
as she finally tore herself in two.

from Part Three of Lochhead’s The Grimm Sisters collection: ‘Hags and Maidens’

Everybody’s Mother

Of course everybody’s mother always and so on…

Always never
loved you enough
or too smothering much.

Of course you were the Only One, your
a machine
that shat out siblings, listen

everybody’s mother
was the original Frigid-
aire Icequeen clunking out
the hardstuff in nuggets, mirror-
slivers and ice-splinters that’d stick
in your heart.

Absolutely everybody’s mother
was artistic when she was young.

Everybody’s mother
was a perfumed presence with pearls, remote
white shoulders when she
bent over in her ball dress
to kiss you in your crib.

Everybody’s mother slept with the butcher
for sausages to stuff you with.

Everybody’s mother
mythologised herself. You got mixed up
between dragon’s teeth and blackmarket stockings.

she failed to give you
Positive Feelings
about your own sorry
sprouting body (it was a bloody shame)

but she did
sit up all night sewing sequins
on your carnival costume

so you would have a good time

and she spat
on the corner of her hanky and scraped
at your mouth with sour lace until you squirmed

so you would look smart

And where
was your father all this time?
at the war, or in his office, or any-
way conspicuous for his
Absence, so

what if your mother did
float around above you
big as a barrage balloon
blocking out the light?

Nobody’s mother can’t not never do nothing right.

And then she is online too — at the Edinburgh Festival:


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‘How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?’ [Thoreau, Walden Pond] — And how many more a woman?

This is the edition I’ve read this book in so many times ….

To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive. — R. L. Stevenson

Friends and readers,

Day 9/10: of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. For my second to last I have to go with Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands, unfailingly published with James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. They are sometimes (in a new excellent edition by Canongate edition) referred to as one book called the Journey to the Hebrides and an audio Recorded Books (only available in a download version) of them very well-read combines the two in alternative sections:

I spent three hours today reading half of Johnson’s part of the journal yet again and yet again it exercised its pull

I sat down on a bank, such as a writer of romance might have delighted to feign. I had indeed no trees to whisper over my head, but a clear rivulet streamed at my feet. The day was calm, the air soft, and all was rudeness, silence, and solitude. Before me, and on either side, were high hills, which by hindering the eye from ranging, forced the mind to find entertainment for itself. Whether I spent the hour well I know not; for here I first conceived the thought of this narration.

We were in this place at ease and by choice, and had no evils to suffer or to fear; yet the imaginations excited by the view of an unknown and untravelled wilderness are not such as arise in the artificial solitude of parks and gardens, a flattering notion of self-sufficiency, a placid indulgence of voluntary delusions, a secure expansion of the fancy, or a cool concentration of the mental powers. The phantoms which haunt a desert are want, and misery, and danger; the evils of dereliction rush upon the thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness, and meditation shews him only how little he can sustain, and how little he can perform. There were no traces of inhabitants, except perhaps a rude pile of clods called a summer hut, in which a herdsman had rested in the favourable seasons. Whoever had been in the place where I then sat, unprovided with provisions and ignorant of the country, might, at least before the roads were made, have wandered among the rocks, till he had perished with hardship, before he could have found either food or shelter. Yet what are these hillocks to the ridges of Taurus, or these spots of wildness to the desarts of America? — Anoch

In my first term in graduate school, in a course called “Intellectual Currents in the 18th century,” the professor, Frank Brady, nonetheless, spent half the term on the writings of Johnson and Boswell. I was 24, and deeply impressed by all that Johnson wrote; and when we got to the twin travel books by Johnson and Boswell, I conceived a desire to follow in their footsteps and go to the Hebrides too. The reason I’m reluctant is I dislike Boswell so (personally, as a gang-rapist, for many of his ultra-conservative attitudes, for having framed Johnson in his image of him) though the Life of Johnson ended up entrancing me (in an abridged Signet at the time). A few years later I read Johnson’s Ramblers, Idlers, Adventurers one a night before I went to bed– to steady myself. Jim and I had gone to Edinburgh for our first weekend together two or three years before this class, and I had been so disappointed we could not get further north since we had no money for a car (not much for a train either). In 2001 I led a group reading and discussion of the the twined tours here on the Net and my description was published in the Johnson Newsletter, and letters, poems, meant us to reach out. This fall one of my set texts for a course in the Enlightenment will be Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands (alone or with Boswell, depending on the student’s preference).

Iconic still from Outlander, one of whose sources is DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand (narrator moves from Cornwall 20th century to Cornwall 14th)

I don’t know why Scotland has exercised this fascination on me. Among the books of my teenagehood was a torrid historical romance called The Border Lord; the author attribution is a pseudonym; I couldn’t get enough of Stephan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scots

Just as the historian pays little heed to slow and stagnant epochs, and his interest is focused upon a few and scattered but dramatic and decisive moments — so, for the biographer, who is concerned with the inmost story of a life, only the pulses of passion count. A human being is not fully alive except when his best energies are at work; and when feeling is active, time moves swiftly though the clock-hands circle at the customary pace … as in dreams, one under stress of powerful affects lives through measureless epochs between two ticks of the pendulum; and with each of us it is as with the enchanted man in the folk-tale who fancied that he had spent a thousand years in the interval between two heart-beats.” –Stephan Zweig, Mary Queen of Scots

and went on to read other biographies of her, her poetry, and the attributed casket letters to Bothwell. Much Scott (Walter). I always liked R. L. Stevenson. About 10 years ago I came to love Margaret Oliphant’s works after reading her Scots ghost stories and The Ladies of Lindores. I read and love Scottish women’s poetry and books. A dream came true last summer when with Road Scholar I went to Inverness, Aigas House. That year my favorite book was John Prebble’s Culloden and I spent much time watching Outlander, and listened to the first two of Gabaldon’s (pernicious) historical romances, partly riveted by its Scottish highlander setting, partly by the central love story and my bonding with Claire. This summer my Road Scholar trip to the Lake District includes two days at the border lowlands of Scotland.

The trails are for me many. I am drawn to the Poldark books because set in an analogously Celtic fringe area: Cornwall — which I finally visited two summers ago. Marginalized places, places on the edge … Such books include even include Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, nominally set in the Hebrides, actually in Cornwall:

And Jim enjoyed Johnson, wrote a paper as an undergraduate defending Johnson’s poetry from the standpoint of the (much maligned at one time) prosody. Jim could quote the line by Johnson about the superlatively gay time he and Boswell enjoyed at Skye:

In Raasay if I could have found an Ulysses, I had fancied a Phaeacia (where Odysseus is entertained perhaps Corfu)

The alert reader may notice that I have skipped Day 8/10: that is another I thought more appropriate for my Austen Reveries: Mlle Julie de Lespinasse’s letters (to M. Guibert most of the time) and Mme Marie-Anne Du Deffand’s letters (to Voltaire, Horace Walpole, Heinault among others).


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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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Thomas Holcroft by John Opie

Memoires of Francoise de Motteville, 17th century historian

Dear Friends and readers,

Here is my second blog about panels and papers at this year’s MLA in Philadelphia. Here I stay with long 18th century matters. You will learn about the radical Jacobin writer, Thomas Holcroft, his life, translations, and memoir (as revised by William Hazlitt). More briefly: Johnson’s aesthetic ideals and how he was used in the marketplace, a Bengali rewriting of Defoe’s Crusoe by a woman (and a rape in The Further Adventures of Crusoe where it’s ignored); two French women romancers, Mesdames de Scudery and LaFayette. Then again more detailed the remarkable histories of the Fronde told by Mesdames de la Motteville and Guette, one a kind of Machiavelli, the other a 17th century Lady Brilliana Harley as crossed by the spirit of Christine de Pizan.

First up, perhaps the best session (for me) that I attended this time: a Monday afternoon session (3:30-4:45) on the English Jacobin writer, Thomas Holcroft.

The first paper, by Miriam Wallace, “Translating Culture: Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield and Holcroft’s theories of translation,” thrilled me because she talked at length — at length — about Isabelle de Montolieu’s epistolary novel, Caroline de Lichtfield, for which I have made an e-text edition of the net, together with a biography, bibliography, account of other of Montolieu’s works, and an e-text of a selection of her meditation-walks from her travel book, Les Châteaux Suisses, Anciennes Anecdotes et Chroniques.

Woman on a Balcony (1824), by Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869)

The son of a shoemaker, wholly self-educated, Holcroft came to London and, as a writer and radical, became a close friend of William Godwin, Tom Paine, Joel Barlowe. To support himself he had worked at a race course, been a prompter for small parts at theaters, and, having taught himself mathematics, French and German, lost himself (as it were) in books, in the 1780s he sought a respectable living as a translator. He translated French texts, among them The Marriage of Figaro (it’s said from memory) and German, and there has been some scholarship on his translations from German.

Prof Wallace then outlined the story of Caroline de Lichtfield, its nature as an epistolary novel of sensibility with a woman-centered point of view (about the education of a young girl). See my Note on the E-text, the novel’s source. Prof Wallace saw elements in the novel which anticipate Holcroft’s 1792 epistolary Anna St Ives.

“Le comte de Walstein retrouve sa soeur Matilde et son ami le baron Lindorf s’aimant enfin”

She then compared the first volume of the translated text with Montolieu’s first volume. Holcroft is much harder on the courtier-father who, and ancien regime values which, coerce Caroline into marrying Walstein, though in both there is a clear judgement against parental tyranny. Holcroft has less idyllic passages. She saw this book as serving transnational purposes in Holcroft’s mind. I’ve argued in a paper and will in my book, The Austen movies, that it was this book which inspired Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. See my note on the contemporary reviews. At this point because of the proliferation of facsimile texts by google, you can buy all 3 volumes Holcroft’s text for around $90.

There was some brief talk after the paper and I asked her if she knew what Holcroft’s translation of Felicite-Stephanie’s Adele et Theodore was like — I own a copy of Genlis’s French text. She had not compared these texts but she did talk about the importance of these women’s texts, and how his translations of them were seen as a sign of his revolutionary sympathies.

Hilary Freezer’s paper, “Thomas Holcroft’s Translation of Male Desire in Anna St Ives,” was of intense interest to me because she articulated for the first time what I have left to be true: the homosocial loving friendship between the suitor-rivals for Caroline’s hand, Walstein and Lindorf is far more intense than the love of either man for Caroline; she then found a parallel for this in first Jacobin Anna St Ives. Frank Henley is working class, sone of a gardener, and becomes close to the predatory rake, Coke Clifton; in this depiction Holcroft comes closer to delving real male sexuality intimately inwardly and candidly in an earnest way than anyone else in the era. For example, Frank becomes impotent before Clifton. As in Caroline de Lichtfield, both men are competing for one woman, and the passages Prof Fezzey quoted reminded me of the French novel.

Clifton and Frank debate idealistic morality, and Clifton calls Frank visionary (naive). Clifton says “I was born to rule, not to be ruled.” There is much sexual tension between them: one says of the other: “I could kiss him one moment and kill him the next. Tellingly, Coke slaps Frank after seeing Frank come out of Anna’s room. Frank does win the contest for Anna’s love, partly because he’s feminized. An Irish character is called black, boisterous, is presented as the “other” and it’s he who abducts Anna and almost rapes her. Coke plans the crime, but does not act.

Holcroft also means to redefine what is a gentleman, and this is an egalitarian ideal which includes sensibility traits. Consciously, though, Prof Fezzey said, the novel does include surprisingly conservative or establishment views. Holcroft’s concept of manliness excludes drinking, gambling (as in life he had seen how destructive these can be). His hero, Frank, is against sexual promiscuity, for balance, benevolence. He hesitates to court Anna not because he’s of a lower class, but because he wants to keep his passion under control. Holcroft saw the Gordon riots as the result of people losing control over their baser passions, as an unparalleled daring outrage which led to desolation and destruction. Holcroft does not seem to blame catholicism here either: for example, Clifton is the one who pursues Anna; yet it’s he and not Frank who criticizes the murky climate (so to speak) of Catholicism. Holcroft’s most basic instincts were for moderation; he presented a heteronormative story for Anna and Frank; concludes with a bourgeois marriage story.

A 1792 painting: Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthé by H. P. Danloux

Arnold Markley’s excellent paper was on Holcroft’s memoir of his life, which exists nowadays only in the revised and censored form Hazlitt made it into under Godwin’s orders: Holcroft, Thomas and William Hazlitt (1852). Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft: Written by Himself; and Continued to the Time of His Death. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. Holcroft had dictated these memoirs, and had gotten up to Chapter 17 and his seventeenth year when he died. Holcroft wished to show how his specific experiences of a childhood of abject poverty led him to become a strong reformist. Hazlitt was hired to finish it because Hazlitt knew Holcroft and was felt to sympathize strongly with Holcroft’s ideals. The money they made was to help Holcroft’s widow.

William Hazlitt, a Self Portrait

Hazlitt supplemented the 17 chapters with letters, interviews of Holcroft’s friends and passages from Holcroft’s books. He finished the new book in 1810, but, having been castigated for his truthful memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin insisted in alterations which were expurgations. Hazlitt remained committed and tried to do his best. He sought interviews with people who turned him down, including Wordsworth and Coleridge.

What can we tell about Holcroft from this memoir that has come down to us? Holcroft passionately wanted to tell the pure truth of this life, to show how he had ovecome difficulties by endurance and developing (not stifling or ignoring) his hidden talents, even if they did not seem to be remunerative to others at first. He shows how an adult emerges from a child. Specifics include how he taught himself math, acted in pantomimes, and taught himself not to be gulled (cheated, deluded). He wants to teach the reader never to gamble. Somehow he had taught himself how to care and trains race horses at the new market races where he saw such cheating, gambling. He was passionately against capital punishment: we see this came from his experiences his tramping of roads with his parents where they would sell tiny things; he saw the turmoil of such a life, the “singular wretchedness.” At age 15 he saw a man hanged and never forgot it; it was “intolerable” to him to look at the gloating mob.

How great the irony that this moderate man who worked so hard to improve himself was accused of treason in 1794 and for a while was waiting to be hung. What must he have thought and dreamed while this coming punishment was about to be inflicted on him. He and the others with him were reprieved; he was one of those released as not guilty; others were transported. But afterwards for a long while Holcroft was shunned, felt himself the target of venal manipulation and ugly tongues and left England. Hazlitt offers a length treatment of this trial. The whole experience was a particularly painful stigma for Holcroft to have to endure.

Hazlitt’s book includes accounts of Holcroft’s novels and plays which mirror Holcroft’s life and political goals. An early comedy, Duplicity, is on gambling; soo The Road to Ruin. A later novel (Hugh Trevor, 1797-8?) shows with horror the ugliness of a gambling life. We have a social climbing hero who is expelled from school for cheating; it’s a kind of map and dictionary of common vicious behaviors, cant language, showing criminals stealing big sums. Holcroft criticized capital punishment nonetheless, for it was meted out for tiny thefts too. He insisted people can be rehabilitated, and can be turned into useful members of society. Holcroft’s memoir, a major effort by a dying man, was his last effort to reach people with his exemplary life story and belief in the power of virtue.

There were not many people in the audience and the papers had been long; we had some comments right after each paper and then, alas, it was time to stop.

Unfortunately, my hands seem not to have been firm for two of the other three sessions, and my notes are too poor for me to do more than summarize the papers briefly except when it came to the Bengali Crusoe by a woman writer and the material on women historians. For the latter I was helped by my own knowledge of the era and woman historians so could get down more.

Earlier on Monday (10:15-11:30 am) I heard three superb papers on Samuel Johnson, part of the ongoing celebration of his three hundredth birthday (he was born in 1709). Molly O’Hagan talked about Johnson’s involvement in the production of the Lives of the Poets from the point of view of conflicts and struggles between Scots and British publishers over control of the texts of poets; Johnson’s name wanted for respectability. The publishers had only wanted the briefest introductions; in the event Johnson produced gems of biography that became a separate great work in its own right. She read a letter by Johnson where he eloquently defended the author’s ownership of his text.

Samuel Johnson intensely reading by Joshua Reynolds

Carrie Shanafelt showed how Johnson was critical of strong demands for realism and personal egoism in imaginative work. Thus Johnson praises Thomson’s visions in his Seasons and the beauty of ideals as well as detachment in Addison’s work: both understand the limited nature of an individual’s observations; the writer must move beyond the solitary nature of judgement (writing and reading too) to the outside world, avoid isolation. He wanted realism to be tempered by having ideals shape what is created; amoral fiction destroys out hope for bettering ourselves. Johnson attempted to maintain hope in literature as a guide, support, and expansion of experience.

Nicolas Poussin, Winter; or, The Flood

I have to admit that Sara Landreth’s “How Doctor Johnson broke the laws of motion,” went over my head. The admiral was with me; in case you don’t know, gentle reader, Jim is ABD in math and had many courses in physics, and he said the paper was superb, better than any of three he heard in a session on 18th century science.

The talk afterwards was lively and led us into Defoe. Somehow Defoe’s Moll Flanders came up as work intendedly realistic where there is no sense of consistent shaping ideal, and someone said how students enjoyed it from an unconscious or unexamined cynical perspective. I wondered how cynical they were since both 1996 Moll Flanders movies show the film-makers shaping the story to promote a moral outlook consonant with our own time: Pen Densham makes her into a poignantly good mother and anti-racist as his version of ideal feminism; Davies turns her story into a parable of survival in a hard capitalist world. The talk then turned to films — which people usually enjoy talking of. Not that Johnson was forgotten altogether 🙂

The third 18th century session I attended devoted to an individual was on Daniel Defoe (Wednesday, 10:15-11:30, shortly before we left to return home). The papers attempted a new perspective on Defoe’s work caught up in the title: the Global Defoe. Jeongoh Kim discussed how Defoe’s works are filled with the power networks, information and commodities of human geography in his era. Rivka Swenson discussed The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; she suggested that Defoe was writing to promote the union of Scotland and England but his texts shows how communities are becoming refragmented despite all efforts to join them nationalistically.

Moll (Alex Kingston) and her third husband, her brother as it turns out (Tom Ward) sail to the US (1996 Moll Flanders)

Christopher Loar dwelt on the importance of technology and violence in the same book: an island is discovered by colonizers; the two different groups want control, and a massacre ensues. Crusoe dreams of a neutral space where trade and improved lives can take place; it is quickly shattered when someone kidnaps a woman, and a group of people seek revenge, a rampage using guns erupt so a free peaceful place becomes a murder zone. Loar dwelt solely on the nature of the warfare.

At the end of the session when I asked him about the woman, who she was, why did it matter so much, was she raped, was she returned to her original tribe or did she stay with the new group, he appeared startled at the questions. He had not thought about this central event which began the barbarism. At first he made a slight joke, well, it seemed someone had “taken liberties” with her, but he changed his tone partly because of the next and last paper and partly because it was obvious he had omitted a significant part of the event and suffering.

Consider, gentle reader, the massacre is begun when “a woman” is “kidnapped” or raped. Neither speaker Knew for sure what had happened. I asked if she survived. Neither had noted that detail.

Women’s experience in the Global Defoe was represented by Rashmi Bhatnager’s paper on “Heroines in the Bengali Muslim Robinsonade in Colonial India, 1908.” Robinsonades refers to a multitude (really) of rewritings, elaborations, free translations and adaptations of Robinson Crusoe since it first was published. Isabelle de Montolieu did one of the free translations: Journal d’un père de famille naufragé dans une île déserte avec ses enfants.

The novel Prof Bhatnagar discussed is Englished as The Sultana’s Dream (translated by Barnita Bagihi, a 2005 Penguin paperback). It’s a story of a girl’s rebellion against a coerced marriage. A non-European woman is imitating Crusoe’s rebellion against his father, and she gains a sense of power by imagining herself a castaway on an island. The heroine’s brother teaches her English when her father is asleep. Language, the vernacular Bengali becomes a place and way for one to fight one’s predestined fate. Urdu was identified with Islam and oppression. In the book the heroine does marry an enlightened husband and becomes Begum Rocaca; her husband encourages her to go to the library as an act of liberation; he and her brother support her against her father.

It was the public libraries with English books (some in translation, some not) set up in Bengal in the 1840s which allowed this, a sphere of freedom for the reader to formulate an identity for herself by reading and translating. In these places there was a readable translation of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. These readers also enjoyed Victorian melodramas which when translated into Bengali with memories of Defoe’s book plus Defoe-like Robinsonades took on Indian values too. A new amalgam emerges. Defoe’s book is thus opening new worlds and ideas and freedoms.

Such a book presents the condition of Indian womanhood indirectly. We are in a female imaginary which escapes the narrowing of Purdah society. The heroine is exhilarated and awkward as she walks the streets and public space. Often, though, these dreams have not a single man on the street too. Still this is a place or text where female subjectivity can be expressed, a kind of Utopia where women are not secluded.

I asked if the book dealt with the fear of rape. She said yes, the heroine is nearly raped. I wondered why she had not brought that up herself as women are secluded precisely to prevent them from having sexual experience their families can use for themselves. I never got a chance to ask as the session ended.

Again Moll (Kingston) stirred deeply as she looks out at sea and imagines the adventure before her

The last 18th century session I went to brought me back to multiple writers, two of whom were women historians of the Fronde. This area is of particular interest to me since I’ve read so much about the English civil war, and especially books by English women, memoirs, letters, biographies, poetry, recording their experience of what happened — and 20th century studies of this literature too. It was called Histories/Histoires (held on Tuesday, 3:30-4:45 pm).

The first paper was Helene Billis’s on Corneille. She saw Corneille as engaging in the real politics of the day through the themes and characters of his idealized tragedies where he supported the absolute state as the only way to stave off war and have grandeur (experience beauty?) in life.

Emily Kugler also discussed romance and historiography in the work of Mesdames Scudery and Marie-Madeleine LaFayette. She spoke of a similar movement froma God-centered history to one concerned with human motivation. She said stylization, character development and plot-design shaped the partly romances they wrote so when they wanted to include history and signficant themes the problem was how to weave history in.

Prof Kugler then quoted a funny passage from Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote. Lennox had made money by translating French letters and publishing editions of Madame de Maintenon (among others). We see our heroine is having a hard time distinguishing romance from reality because she is viewing the world through Scudery romance eyes.

She then quoted Devoney Looser’s book on history in England in the 18th century, a book I haven’t been able to see as about history since it’s mostly about novels. A new definition of history and respect for the subjective approach of memoirs, the fragmented nature of letters and autobiographies, as well as travel books has to come in before any new understanding can be achieved. Since Prof Kugler too did not seem to have thought about considering a non-fiction text as history which male chroniclers, and objective historians since don’t think of as history, she really couldn’t get say much that was new beyond see how romance and historical memory mix.

I have read parts of Clelia (in a 17th century English translation), La Calprenede’s Cassandra, which purports to tell the private lives of post-Republic classic heroines and heroines; also read several times and taught the masterpiece novel, La Princesse de Cleves twice. I read Zayde once and remember thinking of how beautiful and still it was; a distillation in little of the enormous books of Scudery. All these books are women’s novels, very different from Lafayette’s history of Charles II’s sister, Henrietta, and Scudery’s letters, or say Lucy Hutchinson, Anna Halkett or Catherine Macaulay.

I did enjoy listening to Kugler quote some passages from these books aloud in French with an English translation (provided by her). The famous map of tender love by Scudery (above) and the quietly erotic cover of the recent edition of Zayde epitomize the tone of these romances she concentrated on.

Mihoko Suzuki discussed the memoirs of Mesdames de Francois de Motteville and Catherine de Meurdrac de la Guette. Her paper was lucid, well thought-out, informative, in short excellent. She began by telling us that these two memoirs are ambitious books with events told from the subjective point of view so often taken by women; they are consulted by historians and read today.

Like Lady Brilliana Harley, Guette was a provincial wife and mother protecting her property. She supported Mazarin and the Regent and involved herself successfully in negotiating on behalf of peasants as a mediatrix, and she presents herself as having a gift for negotiation between opposing parties. Her credibility derives from her distance from the court and knowledge of local conditions and nobility, her grandfather having been a nobleman of the robe. She does exaggerate her mother’s education.

In Catherine de Meurdrac de Guette’s work we find extreme violence; she remembers scenes of rapine, solders breaking down and destroying all before them, pillaging. She experienced hunger herself and as someone who had to cope with the results of the violence afterwards. She does try to mitigate the inferences one might draw from such scenes but she is resolute against any praise of them. Like Brilliana Harley, she copes with a seige; in her case, she persuades a Duke and his army not to attack her land and people. She is of course the heroine of the piece (she tells us she read widely — and she apparently did as this book shows it), but the overall result is an exposure and critique of the violence of the era.

Francoise de Motteville was a woman in the court itself, and her memoirs may be read something in the spirit of Madame Campan’s on Marie Antoinette. Motteville is witty, satiric, fills her book with aphorisms. Her purpose is to explain and justify the private motives of powerful people in public dispassionately; she assesses Richelieu, deconstructs state-level rhetoric. She shows he was working for himself, not the public good at all. She was Anne of Austria’s confidant, but when her judgement is not in accord with the queen, she criticizes her. She displays real independence of thought.

She also renders character sketches with credibility, men and women both, and uses the interpolated tale in the manner of Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette as a way of ironically commenting on her major story and characters. In her book women as centrally causes of what happens as men. She insists on the truth of what she has written. She retrieves for us what happened behind the public scenes, outside the documents, thus explicating enigmatic pamphlets.

Prof Suzuki suggested that Motteville is the closest historian of the French 17th century to Machiavelli in his Discourses. Guette is a 17th century Christine de Pizan in her gravity, morality, and woman-centered perspective.

I asked if she thought any particular woman beyond Brilliana Harley was analogous to Motteville or Guette. She felt perhaps Lucy Hutchinson was an historian equal to Motteville but her tone and outlook were so different that the books can’t be compared fruitfully. She thought we needed to move to the 18th century (say Catherine Macauley and Mary Wollstonecraft) to find equivalent broad and sceptical views like those we find in Motteville.

A 19th century illustration for Alexandre Dumas’s romancing of these women historians (Le collier de la reine): the illustator has imagined the intelligent woman being appealed to by a subordinate court male; notice the powerful body she’s given

My friends, I relearned a lot by transcribing out these notes tonight.


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