(DR) SAMUEL JOHNSON 1709 - 1784

(AN, G1, G2, G3a, G3b)

xxxxxAs we have seen, for Samuel Johnson, fame came in 1755 (G2) with the publication of his brilliant Dictionary. In this reign he is best remembered for his edition of Shakespeare’s plays and, above all, for his Lives of the English Poets, the biographies of no less than 52 poets. These pulled no punches, either on the quality of their lives or their poetry, and they were particularly notable for their independence of thought and their accurate recording of the smallest character trait. But he was not only a critic, author and lexicographer. Indeed, he excelled above all as a conversationalist, be it amongst his learned friends at a club or dinner party, or airing his views in some back-street tavern. That we know so much about what he said - including his wealth of witty sayings - is due to his close friendship with his biographer James Boswell. He recorded the great man’s conversation at every opportunity, and none more so than during their three month visit to Scotland in 1773. Two years later Johnson gave a lively account of this trip in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. As a person, Johnson was often blunt, irritable and truculent, but behind his gruff exterior was a religious, upright man of compassion. And he was, deep down, a troubled, nervous man who was prone to depression and ill-health. This was the man of letters whose great talent dominated English literature during the second half of the 18th century.

xxxxxAs we have seen, in his early days, the English man of letters, Samuel Johnson, made his living as a hack writer. He wrote numerous articles and reports of parliamentary debates for the Gentleman’s Magazine, for example, and then went on to produce his own publications, The Rambler and The Idler. Worthyxof special mention during this period is the sympathetic biography of his wayward friend the poet Richard Savage (c1697-1743), and his The Vanity of Human Wishes, a moral satire which is arguably his finest poem. Fame came in 1755 (G2) with the publication of his brilliant Dictionary, a comprehensive work which contained 40,000 full and lucid definitions and - remaining valid for over a century - proved the model for future works of its kind.

xxxxxBut, as noted earlier, Johnson was not just an accomplished critic, author and lexicographer. Nothing pleased him more than when he was in conversation (mostly his conversation!), be it amongst the learned at a dinner party or club, or “holding forth” in some back-street tavern or chop house. Here he could argue his case and indulge in repartee. Many of his witty sayings remain in everyday use today. And it was with conversation in mind that in 1764 he and his friend the painter Joshua Reynolds formed The Club (later called The Literary Club). Meeting at the Turk’s Head, it attracted all the eminent people of the day. Among its members were the playwright Oliver Goldsmith, the politician Edmund Burke, the dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the novelist Fanny Burney, the economist Adam Smith, the historian Edward Gibbon, and the writer James Boswell, his close friend and biographer. He also belonged to a number of other clubs, including the Ivy Lane Club, where he could indulge his passion for company and conversation, and he met many of his fellow club members at dinner parties given by another valued friend, Hester Thrale.

xxxxxMeanwhile, having received a government pension in 1762 and escaped the poverty trap, Johnson embarked upon another major enterprise, an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Produced in 1765 after some delay, this scholarly work in eight volumes attempted to gain insight into the bard’s aims and motives, defending him as a “poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life”. The text is well annotated, and his preface continues to be regarded as a masterly piece of literary criticism. In the same year - doubtless in recognition of this work - he was awarded an honorary doctorate in civil law by Trinity College, Dublin, a title he did not use himself, but which was employed by others, particularly by James Boswell.

xxxxxIndeed, it was while working on this edition that in 1763 he met the young Boswell, then 22, and they struck up a friendship which lasted for over 20 years. Out of it came one of literature’s greatest biographies, the Life of Samuel Johnson, a work based on careful observation of Johnson’s activities and verbatim recordings of his conversations. Boswell never lost an opportunity to study his much-admired friend at close quarters and make notes of what he saw and heard. One such opportunity - and a golden one - came in 1773 when they both journeyed together to the highlands and islands of Scotland, an arduous trip stemming from Johnson’s desire to see strange places. Two years later Johnson gave a lively and fascinating account of this visit in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. This early version of a travelogue combined historical and social comment, and included a meeting with Flora Macdonald (illustrated), “a little woman of genteel appearance” in the words of Boswell. The book itself caused much ill-feeling in Scotland because of its disparaging remarks about the Scots and aspects of their lives.

xxxxxHis last major work, and probably his finest contribution to English literature, was the classic The Lives of the English Poets. It was begun in 1778 and, running to ten volumes, was not completed until 1781. It ended up as a set of critical biographies of no less than 52 English poets, from Abraham Cowley to Thomas Gray. Each biography was divided into three clearly defined parts - an account of the poet’s life, an appraisal of his character, and an assessment of his major works. He pulled no punches in any of these parts, but his comments were not without sympathy, and he was as quick to praise as he was to condemn. And notable throughout was his minute detail of every day events, and his rugged independence of thought. Among the best of the lives covered are those of John Milton, John Dryden, Joseph Addison and, perhaps the finest, Alexander Pope.

xxxxxDuring the 1770s, it should be noted, Johnson produced a number of political pamphlets supporting the government. His The False Alarm of 1770 strongly supported the House of Commons’ decision not to readmit the member of Parliament John Wilkes (found guilty of libel), and another, written the following year, came out strongly against a war with Spain over the Falkland Islands, that “tempest-beaten barrenness”. His strongest indictment, however, was reserved for the American Colonies and their demand that there should be no taxation without representation. In his Taxation no Tyranny, written in 1775, he argued that the colonists left England of their own accord and had thus lost the right they had to representation. It was now beholden upon them to support the mother country and contribute towards the vast sums it had spent on their behalf. “How is it”, he observed, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” Needless to say, such comment did not go down at all well in North America, where Johnson was seen as an arch Tory.

xxxxxJohnson was, without doubt, the leading writer and scholar of his day. However, his outstanding literary talent aside, he was not always an easy man to get along with. He could be extremely irritable, overbearing, self-opinionated and truculent in argument. Yet behind his gruff exterior was a witty, sensitive man who showed immense compassion towards the less fortunate in society. And in all his writings and sayings, there was a sturdy injection of plain common sense. Furthermore, he was a man of high ideals, a moralist who used his considerable talent in an attempt to make the world a better place. His Prayers and Meditations, published after his death, showed him to be a very religious man who feared death and damnation. He was, as Alexander Pope revealed, a nervous, troubled man at heart, who, nonetheless, bore his life-long ill-health (mental as well as physical), with immense courage. Despite the great circle of friends he had gathered around him over the years, he died a sad man, due in large part to his disapproval of the remarriage of his very close friend Hester Thrale (illustrated) in 1784. He seemed to regard this as a personal betrayal. He died later that year and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

xxxxxIncidentally, during his visit to Scotland, Johnson was pleased to discover that the Highlanders were willing to drink the loyal toast to the King. Wisely no doubt, Boswell felt it best not to tell him that it was their custom, when making the toast, to pass their wine glass over a glass of water, thereby drinking to the Stuart king in exile “across the water”!


Johnson: by the English portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), 1772 – Tate Gallery, London. Macdonald: by the Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), 18th century – Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, England. Thrale: by the English engraver Samuel Freeman (1773-1857), 1842, after the English portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) – private collection. Burney: by her cousin, the English artist Edward Francis Burney (1760-1848), 1782 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Hastings: by the English portrait painter Lemuel Francis Abbott (c1760-1802), 1796 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Napoleon: detail, by the French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), 1812 – National Gallery of Art, Washington.





xxxxxFanny Burney (1752-1840) became a prominent member of Johnson’s literary circle after the publication of her novel Evelina in 1778. Centred around the trials and tribulations of a young girl's entry into society - anticipating the writings of Jane Austen - it took London by storm. She wrote three other novels, but she is best remembered today for her diaries, written over 70 years. Apart from her own personal feelings, these provide excellent pen-sketches of the prominent people and major events of her day. She was the daughter of the musical historian Charles Burney and is sometimes known by her married name, Madame d’Arblay.

xxxxxA prominent member of Johnson’s literary circle was the novelist and diarist Fanny (Frances) Burney (1752-1840). She was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, and was the daughter of the musical historian Charles Burney. The family moved to London when she was eight and, having no schooling, she taught herself to read and write. It was here, at musical evenings arranged by her father, that she first met some of the elite of London society, including Samuel Johnson, the actor David Garrick, the politician Edmund Burke and the novelist Richard Brinsley Sheridan. And it was here, too, that, unbeknown to her father or his guests, she observed and recorded the goings on around her, preparing material for the makings of a successful literary career.

xxxxxHer first novel Evelina (or The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World) was published anonymously in 1778 and caused a stir. Centred around a young girl’s innocent uncertainty as to the behaviour expected of her in polite society, it broke new ground in the genre of the elegant novel of manners, paving the way for the celebrated heroines created by the English novelist Jane Austen. And once the identity of the author had leaked out, the quiet, unassuming Miss Fanny became the talk of the town. She was introduced to London’s literary circles by the society hostess Mrs Hester Thrale, and she was soon mingling with the members of Johnson’s prestigious Literary Club. Her novel was warmly praised by many persons of distinction, including Samuel Johnson himself, the painter Joshua Reynolds, the politician Edmund Burke, and perhaps most significantly, the writer Horace Walpole.

xxxxxBurney later wrote three other novels, Cecilia in 1782, Camilla in 1796 and The Wanderer, published in 1814. All followed the same sentimental theme, and the first two made money, but none managed to achieve quite the same impact and spontaneity of her first work. And in addition to her writing, she spent five years at court as keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte. She resigned in 1791 and two years later married the French royalist in exile, General Alexandre d’Arblay.

xxxxxBut Fanny Burney’s fame (or Madame d’Arblay’s fame) does not rest solely on her work as a novelist, far from it. Today, she is remembered above all for the diary she kept for 71 years. During her early days in London she was supported in her hopes of a literary career by Samuel Crisp, one of her father’s friends. It was to "Daddy Crisp" that her first letters were addressed. Beginning in 1768, they included accounts of the musical evenings held by her father and the celebrities who attended them, her plans to write a novel, and the satisfaction she felt on finding unexpected fame. It is to her credit that, while working at court she made no reference to the gossip surrounding the king’s mental state, but she did cover a number of public events, including the trial of the colonial administrator Warren Hastings (illustrated). Published posthumously in two parts, these journals provided a fascinating series of pen-sketches describing the major events and people of that time. They made up one of the finest English diaries of the 18th century.

xxxxxIn 1797, on the proceeds of her novel Camilla, she moved with her husband to a house in Surrey, but, whilst on a visit to France with her husband and son in 1802, they were caught up in the start of the Napoleonic Wars, and were obliged to stay on the continent until after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The family then returned and settled in Bath but, following the death of her husband in 1818, she retired to London and gave time to the publication of her father’s memoirs.

xxxxxIncidentally, while in France she attended one of Napoleon’s receptions and caught a glance of the great man himself. She wrote, later: “I had a view so near, though so brief, of his face, as to be deeply struck by it….. He has by no means the look to be expected of Bonaparte, but rather that of a profoundly studious and contemplative man. ….. The plainness, also of his dress, so conspicuously contrasted by the finery of all around him, conspires forcibly with his countenance … to give him far more the air of a student than a warrior.”