Boswell's painterly masterpiece
Among the great encounters of literature, none ranks higher than the one that took place between James Boswell and Samuel Johnson in Tom Davis’s bookstore in Russell Street, Covent Garden on Monday, May 16, 1763. Boswell, a 22-year-old Scot with literary ambitions, had long been desiring to meet the great man of English letters, but without success, and was sitting in the back parlor of the shop having tea when Johnson suddenly entered the store.
The bookseller, spotting Johnson through the glass door, “announced his aweful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost. ‘Look my Lord, it comes.’”
Things got off to a less than auspicious start. Boswell, being a bit nervous, began by apologizing for his Scottish origins, which only earned him a verbal slap from Johnson, the backwardness of Scotland being one of his pet notions. And when Boswell tried to rejoin the conversation, he was told off for talking about persons he did not sufficiently know. Most people, as Boswell notes, would have given up after this, but persistence was one of his primary characteristics.
A week later, Boswell sought out Johnson in his lodgings in the Temple, this time with greater luck: “He received me very courteously; but, it must be confessed that his apartment, and furniture, and morning dress, were sufficiently uncouth. His brown suit of clothes looked very rusty; he had a little old shrivelled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt neck and knees of his breeches were loose, his black worsted stockings ill drawn up; and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers. But all these slovenly peculiarities were forgotten the moment he began to talk.” And talk Johnson certainly did — to such an extent that he became the best-recorded person in history prior to the invention of film and tape, all faithfully documented by Boswell.
Out of this friendship grew Boswell’s ambition to write the biography. The result has become the gold standard for the genre.
It is hard to think of two more different people: Johnson, the towering figure of the Enlightenment, sole compiler of the Dictionary of the English language, moral essayist, and the greatest conversationalist of his age. And Boswell, the young rake, forever on the prowl for strumpets, starting with the girls at that house of ill repute, the Blue Periwig. With acute self-knowledge, Boswell once confessed: “I am a weaker man than can well be imagined. My brilliant qualities are like embroidery upon gauze.”
Wishing “to meet famous men of any description,” Boswell was what today would be called a celebrity hunter. After meeting Johnson, he tracked down Rousseau, who was living in the wilds of Neuchatel after his books had been banned in France; and near Geneva he forced himself upon Voltaire (who could not speak English, as he had lost his teeth and was unable to pronounce the th sound). But it was Johnson who would provide the steady rock in his life.
Out of this friendship grew Boswell’s ambition to write Johnson’s biography, and the result has become the gold standard for the genre, against which all subsequent biographies are measured and invariably fall short — a virtuoso demonstration of interviewing techniques, in-depth psychological portraiture, narrative drive, and pure fun. What is extra impressive about it is that Johnson was not a political or military figure. Except for a trip to Scotland, all these men basically did was sit around and talk about life and literature.
Not only does Boswell provide a portrait of Johnson in full, but ’round this massive central figure is grouped the whole of literary and artistic London: Sir Joshua Reynolds, the prominent portrait painter who became the first president of the Royal Academy; David Garrick, Johnson’s pupil and the leading actor of his generation, who provides much of the mischievous fun of the biography; the poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith, whose vanity is the butt of many a joke; the politician Richard Burke, who came closest to being Johnson’s equal, “calling forth all Johnson’s powers”; and the sneaky historian Edward Gibbon, always “muttering sarcastic pleasantries in a low tone of voice,” but never daring to confront Johnson head-on.
No wonder that, observing this glittering crowd, Boswell “just sat and hugged myself in my own mind.”
With johnson’s blessing, Boswell had been keeping a journal of their friendship, and in a letter to an acquaintance in November 1775, he stated his wish to write Johnson’s biography. After Johnson’s death in 1784, and with his own legal career going nowhere, he got down to the task, limbering up by first publishing his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, commemorating the trip the two had made to Scotland in 1773, when Johnson was 64, and then turning to the Life proper.
But how to capture a vast intellect like Johnson’s? Early attempts to cash in by Sir John Hawkins and by Hester Piozzi, the former Hester Thrale, a society hostess with whose family Johnson had stayed, had been amateurish and inaccurate. Boswell had something infinitely more ambitious in mind, and the opening pages of the Life show how carefully he had thought about the subject: “Indeed I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man’s life, than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought; by which mankind are enabled as it were to see him live, and to ‘live o’er each scene’ with him, as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life,” confidently adding that he had rendered Johnson “more completely than any man who has ever yet lived.”
One of the criticisms leveled at his Tour was that it contained some negative points, as this snippet complains: “Johnson’s faults and blemishes are outweighed by great virtues, and when that is the case only the virtues should be remembered while the flaws should be glossed over.” In this view of biography, which one still can encounter, the end result is hagiography, not a realistic and recognizable portrayal.
This was not Boswell’s view: “And he will be seen as he really was; for I profess to write, not his panegyrick, which must be all praise, but his Life; which great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be entirely perfect. To be as he was, is indeed subject of panegyrick enough to any man in this state of being; but in every picture there should be shade as well as light, and when I delineate him without reserve, I do what he himself recommended, both by his precept and by his example.”
A further complaint against the Tour was that Boswell had included so much private conversation and so much trivia. Again, Boswell did not agree, quoting Plutarch, the leading biographer of antiquity, in support of his practice: “Nor is it always in the most distinguished achievements that men’s virtues or vices may best be discerned; but very often an action of small note, a short saying, or a jest, shall distinguish a person’s real character more than the greatest sieges, or the most important battles.” As he noted, Johnson had himself pointed out how “the incidents which give life to a biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the memory.”
Elsewhere Boswell had frequently complained about the inadequacy of words in conveying our impressions: “Words cannot describe our feelings. The finer parts are lost, as the down upon a plum.” And he had expressed his intense envy of painters and their medium: “With how small a speck does a painter give life to an eye.” What he particularly admired were the Flemish painters, with their almost photographic attention to detail, mapping out the wrinkles of a face or the folds and embroideries of a piece of clothing.
Translated to the realm of the written word, this means a search for the characteristic detail in a person’s manner of speech, his gestures or way of walking. As Boswell had learned from Adam Smith, whose lectures he had attended in Glasgow, the reader takes pleasure in knowing tiny details about great men, like say, the fact that Milton wore latches instead of buckles on his shoes.
It is of crucial importance that such details and the facts in general are accurate, a concern Boswell absorbed at Johnson’s feet: “All who are of his school are distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy,” wrote Joshua Reynolds. Thus, Boswell tells how he would “run half over London to fix a date correctly,” and he constantly points out the mistakes of his competitors.
Not only is it vital to get the facts straight, but the emphasis also needs to be right. After all, it is perfectly possible to tell a story in which all the individual facts are correct but marshalled and weighted in such a way that the whole constitutes a lie or a caricature. Thus, one of Boswell’s main objections to Sir John Hawkins’ efforts is “the dark, uncharitable cast” of his book.
Finally, the use of language must be precise: On the Tour, Johnson had warned Boswell against exaggerations and using “big words for little matters” when Boswell had referred to a mountain as “immense.” “No,” Johnson had corrected him, “but ’tis a considerable protuberance.” There.
People who saw Dr. Johnson for the first time were likely to form a somewhat odd impression. Boswell describes the painter William Hogarth’s first meeting with Johnson at the house of the novelist Samuel Richardson, where the discussion was about George II and the Stuart plot to unseat him: “While [Hogarth] was talking, he perceived a person standing at the window of the room, shaking his head, and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner. He concluded that he was an ideot [sic], whom his relations had put under the care of Mr Richardson, as a very good man. To his great surprise, however, this figure stalked forward to where he and Mr Richardson were sitting, and all at once took up the argument.” And this with “such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment and actually thought that this ideot had been at the moment inspired.”
Johnson was a huge man for his day, six feet tall. When walking, “what with the constant roll of his head and the concomitant motion of his body, he appeared to make his way by that motion, seemingly independent of his feet.” This led to assumptions that he was suffering from St. Vitus dance, which involves involuntary convulsions and unsteadiness of one of the legs, “which the patient draws after him like an ideot.” But Joshua Reynolds did not buy this, pointing out that Johnson “could sit as still as any man when told to.” This suggests a psychological affliction, what nowadays might fall under the category of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
So bad was Johnson’s eyesight that he ate his fish with his fingers because he could not see the bones.
To corroborate, Boswell records an incident from another party where Johnson was seen “stretching out his right leg as far as he could before him, then bringing up his left leg, and stretching his right leg further on.” Upon seeing which his host hastily assured him that that “though it was not a new house, the flooring was perfectly safe.” This snapped Johnson out of his trance and proves Reynolds’ point.
In terms of sheer physical power, Johnson comes across as a force of nature: At one stage in Scotland, to underscore a point, he kicked a piece of rock with such force that he positively rebounded from it. He “laughs like a rhinoceros,” and his laughter “resounds from Temple bar to Fleet-ditch.” He had a voice to match. In the Hebrides, he could be heard even above the “loud and wild howl” of the weaving women, singing themselves into a frenzy in the ancient language of Erse as they worked the cloth. Johnson’s accent, though educated, was north country. Trust David Garrick to mimic it, “squeezing a lemon in a punch bowl, with uncouth gesticulations, looking round the company, and calling out, ‘who’s for poonsh?’” — reflecting Johnson’s Staffordshire origins.
In addition, Johnson was slightly deaf, practically blind in one eye — a result of the scrofula he suffered as a child — and extremely nearsighted in the other. (Incidentally, he was quite touchy about his nearsightedness. From Mrs. Piozzi we know that when David Reynolds painted him holding his pen close to his eye, he was annoyed, not wanting to be known “for his defects only.” Being reminded that Reynolds had painted himself cupping his hand behind his ear did not help: “He may paint himself as deaf if he chuses, but I will not be Blinking Sam.”)
Among Boswell’s exquisite painterly touches of the “Milton’s shoe latches” variety, we learn that due to his poor eyesight Johnson had a rather hazardous way with candles, down-turning a candle to make it burn brighter and dripping wax on the carpet, which did not endear him to Mrs. Boswell. For the same reason, he ate his fish with his fingers, as he could not see the bones.
As to his eating habits in general, he had a huge appetite, verging on the gross. (He had been known to plop huge amounts of cream and, according to Mrs. Piozzi, “even butter” in his hot chocolate.) But he could also be very particular about his food: He famously informed the hapless waiter at an inn that his roast mutton was “ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept and ill-dressed.” In Scotland, when he noticed a servant plonking a sugar cube “with his greasy fingers” into his lemonade, he flung it out the window, and almost the servant with it; and in France, he observed with disgust that a lady had her servant blow into the spout of a teapot to remove an obstruction.
Of particular interest are his reading habits. Dropping by for a visit, Boswell found Johnson dusting his books, with a “cloud of dust flying around him,” “wearing a pair of large gloves such as hedgers use,” and living up to Boswell’s uncle’s characterization of him as “a Herculean genius, born to grapple with whole libraries.” (When visiting others, Johnson would make a beeline for their bookshelves and lose himself completely, “almost brushing the books with his eyelashes,” as the novelist Fanny Burney has noted.) One of the Life’s nicest images shows us Johnson outside “swinging upon the low gate” of the Thrale residence without his hat, totally absorbed in his book.
Due to the “slovenly and careless manner” with which he treated books, his friends were somewhat reluctant to lend him from their collections. Again, from Fanny Burney we know that one of Garrick’s favorite routines was imitating Johnson reading aloud from the actor’s rare and “stupendously bound” edition of Petrarch, and then, “in one of those fits of enthusiasm which always seem to require that he should spread his arms aloft in the air, he suddenly pounces my poor Petrarca over his head upon the floor!” promptly forgetting all about it. Some, however, wisely chose to keep the books Johnson had mangled as curiosities.
But it is of the volume of Johnson’s conversation the Life contains that Boswell is most proud, “of which the extraordinary vigour and vivacity constituted one of the first features of his character.” By the time Boswell met him, much of Johnson’s life’s work was done — though he was working on his edition of Shakespeare and had yet to do the Lives of the Poets — and Johnson’s main delight lay in conversation: He compared himself to a physician who has retired to the countryside but still practices. Thus, we get Johnson’s views on everything from the origin of evil and the Mercy of God, down to his hatred of parenthesis and his contempt for clergymen taking elocution lessons, for the most part demonstrating that common sense which his wife, Elisabeth, saw as his most valuable quality.
Boswell confesses that in the beginning, being overawed by Johnson, he was less skillful in recording him, but that with time, becoming “strongly impregnated in the Johnsonian ether,” he became more and more used to reproducing the great rolling cadences.
Sir John Hawkins had already noted how Johnson’s “bow wow” way of speaking added to his meaning. And in the Tour, Boswell describes himself as “listening to every sentence as to a musical composition” and as wishing “it could be preserved like musick is written.” He compares Johnson’s voice to the great organ at Canterbury playing Handel’s Messiah: “While therefore Doctor Johnson’s sayings are read, let his manner be taken along with them.”
Boswell listened “to every sentence,” wishing “it could be preserved like musick is written.”
The taking down had to be done “without delay.” “To record his sayings, after some distance of time, was like preserving or pickling long-kept and faded fruits, or other vegetables, which when in that state, have little or nothing of their taste when fresh.”
True to his preoccupation with accuracy, Boswell freely admits when he has forgotten the exact words Johnson used on some occasion and instead supplies the general drift. His handling of Johnson’s visit to a school for the deaf on the Tour is particularly instructive: Here Johnson asked if the pupils could pronounce any long words and wrote one on the blackboard to test them. Boswell of course realizes that his readers would like to know what that word was, but is honest enough to state that he does not remember. A lesser man would just have invented one. But the effect of such scrupulousness is to strengthen his credibility as a recorder of the vast quantities of Johnsonian conversation he does remember.
And, not content merely to give us Johnson’s words in the form of a quotation, he carefully fills in the background. As Boswell scholars never fail to point out, in addition to his painterly eye for detail and his ear for dialogue, Boswell displays a strong dramatic sense: He actually created little scenes, complete with stage instructions, with himself playing the triple role of director, co-player, and commentator, all with the purpose of showing Johnson in action.
He even went to the extreme measure of transporting Johnson to the wilderness of Scotland to test how he would react to unfamiliar surroundings and how people would react to him; we see him stalking around the landscape “like a giant,” dressed in his greatcoat with its mighty pockets, “which might have almost held the two volumes of his folio dictionary,” and his big boots, carrying his trusted English oak stick as Hercules with his club.
Both Boswell’s abilities as a fixer and his dramatic sense are demonstrated in his engineering a meeting between Johnson and John Wilkes, the notorious Whig politician, an event about which Edmund Burke declared there was “nothing equal to it in the whole history of the corps diplomatique.” Johnson detested Wilkes and everything he stood for — in his opinion the first Whig was the Devil — but Boswell cleverly played upon Johnson’s view of himself as a man who could handle any company if he had a mind to it. Right up to the last minute, the reader is in suspense as to whether Boswell will actually pull it off.
In the event, the two men got on very well: Johnson initially sat aloof and unapproachable, but Wilkes broke the ice by helping him to some fine veal, and by being suitably deferential: “Some fat, Sir — A little of the stuffing — Some gravy — Let me have the pleasure of giving you some butter — Allow me to recommend a squeeze of this orange; — or the lemon, perhaps, may have more zest.” They found common ground in telling Scottish jokes and making fun of Boswell. They even met again for a second time and were perfectly civil to one another once more.
In such encounters, Boswell prided himself on his talent for being a catalyst and leading the conversation, by which, as he says in the Tour, “I do not mean leading as in an orchestra, by playing the first fiddle, but leading as one does in examining a witness: starting topics, and making the company pursue them.” As Johnson normally did not initiate discussions — “Sir, you are like a ghost. You never speak till you are spoken to” — this was a crucial function.
And in his attempts to draw Johnson out, Boswell was not afraid to appear ridiculous, as when he asked Johnson: “If Sir, you were shut up in a castle, and a new born child with you, what would you do?” Though reluctant to pursue the subject, Johnson answered that he would bathe the child in warm water, not cold, but he would not coddle it. Would he have a pleasure in teaching it? “No, Sir,” came the firm answer, “I should not have a pleasure in teaching it,” revealing that small children’s pedagogy was perhaps not his area. (Others have reached the same conclusion: Once Johnson asked a little girl whether she had read The Pilgrim’s Progress and got a reply in the negative: “No! Then I would not give one farthing for you,” he huffed, then put her down and ignored her.)
However, taught by the reaction to the Tour — critics did not grasp what Boswell was trying to do when asking questions out of left field — in the Life he is slightly more reserved and sometimes just lets himself appear as “one of the company”; but it is normally easy enough to guess who is the person asking the “dumb” question.
When “talking for victory,” Johnson was not the most gentle of men: Conversation was an intellectual discipline for him, a jousting match, the purpose of which was to come out on top. “Sir, treating your adversary with respect, is striking soft in a battle,” he noted at one point. Boswell recounts that Johnson once dreamt someone got the better of him in a contest of wit, only to realize upon awakening that in the dream he had been supplying both himself and his antagonist with arguments and punch lines, much to his relief.
In the words of Oliver Goldsmith, “there is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” This he might do, for instance, by accusing his opponent of being drunk and beyond the reach of sense. (Johnson at this time only drank water or lemonade and consequently believed everybody else was drunk out of their skulls.)
Johnson would also happily engage in sophistry and argue the opposite of what he believed just because it was a difficult position to defend, something he would never do when writing. At the end of a performance, he would blow like a whale as if contemptuous of his opponent’s puny powers of reasoning. One member of the circle was so frequently subjected to Johnson’s drubbings that he became known as the “literary anvil.”
At the end of an argument, he would blow like a whale, as if contemptuous of his opponent’s puny powers of reasoning.
A favorite target was David Garrick, whom Johnson tended to regard as his personal property, to treat as he pleased — and here one detects a certain envy at Garrick’s success. Garrick was the most genial of men and mostly took it easy; he got his revenge by mimicking Johnson among his friends. Writes Boswell: “I recollect his exhibiting him to me one day, as if saying ‘Davy has some convivial pleasantry about him, but ’tis a futile fellow;’ which he uttered perfectly with the tune and air of Johnson.”
Others were less relaxed. Goldsmith, who took himself very seriously and was anxious to shine in conversation, once threw his hat on the floor in frustration over not being able to get a word in edgewise. On another occasion, a German visitor interrupted Goldsmith in mid-sentence: “Stay, stay, Toctor Shonson is going to say something.” One can feel Goldsmith seething.
Boswell himself certainly comes in for his share of hits. Certain topics were likely to produce this effect: free will versus predestination, the alleged happiness of savages, and death. “Dr. Johnson shunned tonight the discussion of the perplexed question of fate and free will, which I attempted to agitate. Sir, (said he,) you know our will is free , and there is an end on’t.”
Johnson’s impatience with these perpetual questions, with all this “what and why,” on one occasion made him explode: “What is this, what is that, why is a cow’s tail long? why is a fox’s tail bushy?” At another point, Johnson told Boswell bluntly, “Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am sick of both.”
Once, after having suffered a particularly brutal drubbing, Boswell complained that he did not mind being “tossed and gored” when among friends, where he landed safely on the grass, but he did mind it when among enemies. Johnson immediately apologized.
Accordingly, Boswell compares Johnson to a “warm west Indian climate” with “a bright sun, quick vegetation, luxurious foliage, luscious fruits,” which “sometimes produces thunder, lightning, and earthquakes in a terrible degree.”
Much of the time, Johnson himself was blissfully unaware of the effect he was having on people: Thinking of himself as “a very polite man,” he occasionally wondered “how I should have enemies, for I do harm to nobody.” To Boswell’s suggestion that his manner might hurt “people of weak nerves,” Johnson snapped: “I know no such weak nerved people.” And when Johnson on another occasion, “stretching himself at his ease” and “smiling with much complacency,” remarked, “I look upon myself as a good humoured fellow,” Boswell gently corrected him: “No, no, Sir: That will not do. You are good natured, but not good humored.”
Though certainly not free from hero worship — describing Johnson as a child as “The infant Hercules of Toryism” comes to mind — Boswell realized that to make his portrait convincing it was vital for him to be seen as his own man, not as a mere sycophant or toady — always a danger for an authorized biographer.
In the area of literature, for instance, Boswell did not agree with Johnson in his dismissal of Swift and Gulliver’s Travels (“When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest”), nor on his low opinion of Fielding’s Tom Jones (“I scarcely know a more corrupt work”), nor on John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera (“such a labefactation of all principles, as may be injurious to morality”). In fact, Boswell enjoyed Gay’s play for its depiction of real-life London and for its wit.
On politics, they disagreed over America, with Johnson ready to burn down the houses of the rebels, while Boswell found himself “more and more an American.” On religion, Boswell notes that Johnson’s religious orthodoxy imposed limits on his mind and, though he was a skeptic on other matters, made him too likely to accept people’s religious protestations at face value.
Nor does he neglect to point out Johnson’s weaknesses: A one-play dramatist, Johnson lacked a proper sense of drama, and his female characters talked funny, as he was “too masculine for depicting women.” Thus, in all his writings, even in his tragedy, Irene, “of which the subject is the distress of an unfortunate Princess, there is not a single passage that ever drew a tear.” Boswell also includes Goldsmith’s crack on Johnson’s unsuitability for writing fables, one of the instances where someone hit back effectively at Johnson: “Why, Dr. Johnson, this is not so easy as you seem to think; for if you were to make little fishes talk, they would talk like whales.”
Instances of Johnson’s whale-speak provide some good clean fun. Boswell records how Johnson occasionally would improve himself when he thought he did not sound sufficiently Johnsonian. Not quite satisfied with having said about a comedy that “it has not wit enough to keep it sweet,” Johnson amended it to: “It has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction,” which certainly buries the sucker.
Boswell also includes some of the parodies of Johnson’s style but rightly notes that normally clarity was his hallmark, which is abundantly illustrated by the many quotations from Lives of the Poets.
Occasionally, Johnson’s manner made his friends snicker like naughty schoolboys. As Boswell shows, Johnson did not handle ridicule or criticism well: Once, after inadvertently having used the word “bottom” in connection with a girl, causing a titter among his friends, he adjusted it to “fundament” and pulled himself up to his full height, daring them to laugh. “We all sat composed as at a funeral. “
Johnson had certain blind spots, music and acting chief among them (areas, incidentally, in which Boswell was strong). “All his life, Johnson used to talk contemptuously of actors,” Boswell says, ascribing it to Envy of Garrick, and the fact that a mere actor can have more success than the person who writes his lines.
Art also did not have Johnson’s interest, which may have had something to do with his nearsightedness. As he once stated to Mrs. Piozzi, if he found himself in a room full of masterpieces and they were all facing the wrong way, he would not bother to turn them. His interest, such as it was, was restricted to portraits of people he knew, because of the portrait’s role in “defusing friendship and reviving tenderness” and in remembering the dead, as he had noted in the Idler. He was not big on sculpture either, which he dismissed as “spending half a year to produce something in stone that hardly resembles a man.” “The value of statuary is owing to its difficulty. You would not value the finest head cut upon a carrot.” This is clearly criticism of the crackpot kind.
Johnson was not everyone’s cup of tea: Horace Walpole in his Memoirs of George III dismisses him as bombastic and vicious — “with all the pedantry he had all the gigantic littleness of a country schoolmaster” — while Boswell is written off as “the quintessence of busybodies.” There were plenty of contemporary caricatures of the two, and an outsize personality like Johnson’s naturally lends itself to caricature.
Johnson was a host of contradictions: by turns kind and brutal, stern and forgiving, a subtle intellect which could be incredibly rigid, an intellectual bruiser and a kind and humane man, and for Boswell it was imperative to get the emphasis right.
Thus, he constantly shows how Johnson’s occasional roughness was amply outweighed by countless instances of kindness, tact, and generosity. Johnson was the sort of man who, having known acute poverty for much of his life, would slip a coin into the hand of a homeless urchin sleeping in a doorway so he could have breakfast, or carry a prostitute home on his back and see to it that she was restored to health. And not subject her to any moral preaching.
He also looked after the strange coterie of live-in dependents, which he once humorously referred to as “his seraglio,” consisting of blind Mrs. Williams, brusque Dr. Levett, and quarrelsome Mrs. Desmoulins, who all detested each other. He took a great interest in the affairs of his black manservant Barber, and he would himself go out and buy oysters for his cat Hodge, “lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature.”
Johnson was always willing to help people with their literary projects and the first to apologize when told that he had caused hurt.
As for Johnson’s treatment of Boswell, though he would sometimes hammer him, he could also be remarkably tolerant when Boswell was drunk or behaving foolishly. (He was less tolerant when Bowell tried to get him to endorse the principle of concubines.) And though irritated by Boswell’s constant need for reassurance, and by his phony claims of melancholy, which Johnson ascribed to “a desire for distinction,” he patiently showed Boswell how to arrange his life more rationally and often helped him write his legal briefs.
Johnson patiently showed Boswell how to arrange his life more rationally and often helped him write his legal briefs.
He also praised Boswell as “the best traveling companion in the world” and confessed to an acquaintance that “if I were to lose Boswell, it would be like a limb amputated.” Thus, Johnson tended to take people as he found them, which moralists do not always do.
In his eagerness to make Johnson appear lofty and majestic, the one area Boswell was probably guilty of underplaying was Johnson’s lighter side. According to Fanny Burney, “Dr. Johnson has more fun, and comical humour and love of nonsense, than almost anybody I ever saw.” And Johnson’s friend Bennet Langton recalled an occasion where, reaching a steep hill behind his house, Johnson declared his intention “to take a roll down” as “he had not had a roll for a long time.” Which, after having emptied his pockets, he proceeded to do, “turning himself over and over till he came to the bottom.”
There are certainly instances of a light-hearted Johnson in the Life, such as his speaking of his delight in “driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman,” adding, however, that “she must be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation” — no Paris Hilton types need apply — but one would have liked more.
One would also have liked to know more about his relationship with his wife, Elisabeth, or Tetty as he called her; but it is hard to get a handle on her, as she had died years before, and Boswell had never met her. Again, Garrick steals the show: “Mr Garrick described her to me as very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, with swelled cheeks, of a florid red, produced by thick painting, and increased by her liberal use of cordials; flaring and fantastic in her dress, and affected both in her speech and her general behaviour.”
Back at Johnson’s short-lived boarding school, Garrick and “the young rogues used to listen at the door to his bed-chamber, and peep through the keyhole, that they might turn into ridicule his tumultuous and awkward fondness for Mrs Johnson.”
This rather vulgar woman does not quite tally with what little we know of her from other sources: Mrs. Piozzi recalls having seen a picture of a rather lovely woman and Johnson’s having told her that his wife’s hair was “eminently beautiful,” “quite blonde like a baby”; and it does not tally with what we know of Johnson. In contrast to Boswell, who liked his women subservient, Johnson liked them smart, and it is inconceivable that he would have married a harebrain.
In fact, elsewhere Boswell himself tells us that Johnson “had a high opinion of her understanding” and great confidence in “her judgement and taste.” And in return, we learn that she saw Johnson “as the most sensible man she had ever met in her life” and that with his Ramblers, she thought he had exceeded all expectations: “I thought very well of you before, but I did not imagine you could have written anything equal to this.” These are the words of a very solid person.
Whatever the case, to the end of his life Johnson saw her as he had always done, and he missed her deeply.
The trickiest question Boswell faced in the Life was how to deal with Johnson’s bouts of depression, his fear of going mad, and his fear of death. “I inherited a vile melancholia from my father. Which made me mad all my life, at least not sober,” Johnson stated. (Significantly, his favorite book was Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.”) “To Johnson, whose supreme enjoyment was the exercise of his reason, the disturbance or obscuration of that faculty was the evil most to be dreaded,” writes Boswell.
Boswell carefully distinguishes between madness, where the patient is not aware of his own condition, and a “disordered imagination, which is conscious of delusion,” which is what afflicted Johnson, and again and again he demonstrates how Johnson’s depression did not impair the workings of his judgement.
The central, controlling image of Johnson in the Life is thus that of a heroic figure battling his demons and keeping them at bay: “His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Colisæum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which, like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drove them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.”
Boswell carefully recounts Johnson’s various ways of “preventing his mind from preying on itself”: by walking to Birmingham, by studying mathematics, by conducting experiments, by avoiding being alone and, as he could not moderate, by staying away from drink for long periods. “He could practice abstinence, but not temperance.”
What is particularly moving is Johnson’s moral fortitude, his constant striving for self-improvement, as seen in the many passages Boswell quotes from Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations. In Johnson’s view, a person remains basically the same throughout life, the child being the father of the man, but that does not mean that he should give up trying to improve.
As regards his fear of death, Johnson was certainly no coward physically (he once separated two large fighting dogs, and he hurled a man who had taken his chair in the theatre into the pit, chair and all). Rather, he has been compared to Mr. Fearing in The Pilgrim’s Progress, who does not “difficulty, lions or vanity fear, ” but only “sin, death and hell.” He particularly feared the notion of not existing — he was once suddenly struck by the thought that “We shall receive no letters in the grave” — or ending up in everlasting hell.
Thus, on one occasion, when Boswell continued to press him on the subject of death, “he was so provoked that he said ‘Give us no more of this;’ and was thrown into such a state of agitation, that he expressed himself in a way that alarmed and distressed me; shewed an impatience that I should leave him, and when I was going away, called to me sternly, ‘Don’t let us meet to-morrow.’” (Johnson did forgive him the next day, when Boswell showed up.) And he later mused whether in the moment of death “I should wish to have a friend by me, or have it all between God and myself.”
Though beset with illness, Johnson fought to the very end. “I will be conquered; I will not capitulate,” he defiantly declared, and his prolonged struggle with death is a passion worthy of Rembrandt: Feeling that his physicians were too timid, he at one point grabbed a lancet and plunged it deep into his own swollen leg in the hope that the fluid would drain.
Boswell need not have felt envious of the old masters. With the Life, he proved that there is nothing that paint can do that words cannot do as well.
Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.