Dear Miss Boothby

Margaret Anne Doody

  • The Letters of Samuel Johnson: Vol. I: 1731-1772, Vol. II: 1773-1776, Vol. III: 1777-1781 edited by Bruce Redford
    Oxford, 431 pp, £25.00, February 1992, ISBN 0 19 811287 4

Life is never perfectly happy for the hero of a Collected Letters. One of the things that letters rather than biographies display is how much incidental illness human beings tend to undergo, even those of reasonable health who are destined to make old bones. Johnson has all the 18th-century’s bluntness on matters of health. ‘The old flatulence distressed me again last night,’ he tells Hester Thrale in 1775, adding with comic intent: ‘The world is full of ups and downs, as I think I once told you before.’ In the next month he is still describing his problem: ‘I cannot get free from this vexatious flatulence, and therefore have troublesome nights.’ Johnson had his fair share of self-pity, though more on matters mental than physical. Self-pity has had a bad press lately, but someone who has no sorrow for themselves will hardly have pity on others. Johnson’s capacity to feel for himself can readily be related to his strong capacity to feel for others, especially the ill, the helpless and the poor.

The new edition of Johnson’s Letters is clear-headed and rational. New letters have been found, including six letters to the novelist and critic Charlotte Lennox. The annotation is the only element likely to stimulate any carping. The editorial intention is evidently to keep notes down, to repress any yeasty overgrowth of annotation. Nevertheless, shortage of notes is sometimes irritating. It would be desirable to supply the reader at the beginning of Volume I with a short article describing some of the chief personages with whom Johnson corresponded, and whose life history was intertwined with his. It would be helpful to have explanations of Lucy Porter, Hill Boothby, John Taylor and the Thrales, as major figures in Johnson’s life and letter-writing. The notes are self-referential in a cryptic way, with a delicately archaic use of ante and post; these are not as helpful as the editor thinks, for the reader who is reading straight through can pick up what happened ante for himself (who is going to forget the death of Henry Thrale?), while the reader who is trying to look something up will be helped just as much by a sufficient index. There is much more that we would wish to know than is offered by the notes. For instance, in Volume I the only note on John Taylor, Johnson’s friend from his schooldays in Lichfield, says that in 1732 he ‘was practising as an attorney in Ashbourne’. When we next encounter John Taylor, in a letter to him ten years later, Johnson addresses the letter ‘To the Revd Dr Taylor at Market Bosworth, Leicestershire’. When and why did the attorney become the ‘Revd Dr’? We have to go back to the biographies to dig this material up.

The editor very occasionally supplies material from published biography, but his usual source is James Clifford, and one can tire of Clifford’s editorialising – for instance, on Hester Thrale’s behaviour after the death of her husband: ‘Mrs Thrale’s usual reaction to death was to run away.’ If we’re going to have occasional opinions from biographers in the notes, then why not include comments by John Wain and W. Jackson Bate? We expect Boswell, and we get him, but sometimes nothing more when we need more. In June 1781, for instance, Johnson writes to Reynolds: ‘It was not before yesterday that I received your splendid benefaction.’ There is a long note quoting Boswell’s description in the Life of Johnson of how he came upon this letter, but there is no account of what the ‘benefaction’ was or might have been (in Boswell’s Life the context indicates charitable giving).

We don’t have any very early letters of Johnson. With some writers, even in the 18th century, we have epistles written in their teens, and from the early twenties (Frances Burney and Horace Walpole). Johnson was born in September 1709; the first letter of Volume I is dated 30 October 1731, when Johnson was 22. There must have been some letters by the younger Johnson – to his relation and benefactor Cornelius Ford, for instance – but his youth has gone missing. No letters survive from his time at Oxford – an odd circumstance when one remembers that university students do write letters to family members and benefactors. The next letter is dated 1732, and there are a few from 1734-35, nothing from 1736. By 1738, Johnson is writing fairly frequently to Edward Cave, on business connected with the Gentleman’s Magazine. In the 1740s he is launched – from our point of view – as a letter-writer, with a circle of friends and acquaintances sufficient to elicit sequences of correspondence. The Johnson of Redford’s Volume I is rather shy and preoccupied, formal in relationships with his new London acquaintance. An impression of sorrow and of a peculiar kind of lethargy makes itself felt. We see at first hand how he promises and promises that he will go to Lichfield – and yet does not go. Only after his mother’s death can he bear to return. His boyhood home was always problematic. Early in his acquaintance with Hester Thrale, in October 1767, he writes from Lichfield: ‘I have felt in this place something like the shackles of destiny. There has not been one day of pleasure, and yet I cannot get away.’ This sense of being shackled, becalmed, of being gigantically stuck, comes through often in these letters. One feels the weight of life in the presence of one who finds life difficult.

The heartbreak he suffered over the death of his wife Tetty (Elizabeth Porter) can be caught even though it is expressed only indirectly. There are no letters directly describing her death, and the letters do not reflect the agony of the private prayers (which we also have), but any of Johnson’s references to his loss carry a good deal of force. Male friends like John Taylor, Garrick and Boswell (who was a late acquaintance) tended to mock Tetty and evidently wished to deny that this older woman could have been important to the philosopher, the lexicographer, the great Man of Letters. But she was important. Bate’s biography informs us that Johnson ‘wrote a sermon that he hoped Taylor would preach at the funeral. But Taylor ... refused, finding the sermon’s praise of Tetty’s virtues too excessive for him to stomach.’ Johnson had to stay all alone in that grief, which friends, especially male friends, didn’t quite wish to believe in.

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