Leaf, Button, Dog

Susan Eilenberg

  • According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge
    Little, Brown, 242 pp, £16.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 316 85867 6

Who would believe Goldy when he told of a Ghost? a Man whom One could not believe when he told of a Brother.

Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, marginal annotation to Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Here is a museum. Visitors may see in it Nero’s couch, a statue of Cerberus and a skeleton of an Ethiopian, the bones stuck with porcupine quills. Here is a cabinet of curiosities. In it are a ribbon pretending to have belonged to Frances Thrale (dead in infancy) but in fact stolen from a nurse’s work-basket and fraudulently labelled, a poem about sunsets written by Mrs Williams all by herself with no help at all from Dr Johnson, a tuft of hair looking like something ‘plucked from the rump of a squirrel’ and purporting to come from the head of Mr Pope, together with an empty space reserved for a promised monkey’s paw. Here is a dissection table on which have been anatomised dogs which, before being hanged, had their stomachs cut open and filled with milk, for the better understanding of the absorption of fat through the abdominal lymphatics into the thoracic duct.

Here is a novel modelled on that wonder museum, that cabinet of curiosities, that dissecting table, on which last now lies the opened body of the man who made the great dictionary. The left lung, a slice of scrotum and a gallstone have been removed for study, while a half-flayed dog dangles above. The novel’s specimens and exhibits, unaware that to us they are already dead, are afraid of dying and afraid of being left alone. Some of what they say and much of what they suffer, though new and sometimes bewildering to them, is old to us, and if we are bewildered, it is the nature of exhibits to bewilder. It is easy enough to close the drawer.

We have read Boswell’s anecdotes and Fanny Burney’s and Mrs Thrale’s. We know that, half-blind, hot-tempered, scrofulf-scarred and melancholic, Johnson laughed like a rhinoceros and talked like a whale, that he ‘had sometimes fits of reading very violent’, ‘like a Turk’, that ‘when he walked, it was like the struggling gait of one in fetters; when he rode, he had no command or direction of his horse, but was carried as if in a balloon,’ that

while talking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly held his head to one side towards his right shoulder, and shook it in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction, with the palm of his hand . . . [making] sounds with his mouth, sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, too, too, too: all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile.

‘The great business of his life,’ he told Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘was to escape from himself; this disposition he considered as the disease of his mind, which nothing cured but company.’ He ‘loved late hours extremely, or more properly hated early ones. Nothing was more terrifying to him than the idea of retiring to bed,’ and he would force one, ‘by his vehement lamentations and piercing reproofs, not to quit the room, but to sit quietly and make tea for him . . . till four o’clock in the morning’. His favourite thing was to drive in a coach, for ‘the company was shut in with him there; and could not escape, as out of a room.’ ‘If (said he), I had not duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman.’

By the time he met the Thrales in 1765, Johnson had published The Idler, The Rambler, Rasselas and his Dictionary of the English Language. He was just finishing his edition of Shakespeare; The Lives of the Poets still lay ahead. He had been married to a woman twice his age, been widowed, and elaborated his sorrow into a cult of remorse. He had met Boswell and won his devotion. Around him, Mrs Thrale sneered, he had gathered ‘a sort of odd Levee, for distress’d Authors, breaking Booksellers, & in short every body that has even the lowest Pretensions to Literature in Distress’ and had also made up for himself a substitute family consisting of a blind poetess, a rusty surgeon, a ‘stupid slut’, a daughter of his godfather (quondam nurse and sometime bed-surrogate for his dead wife) and a black servant, all grizzling and quarrelling together. ‘Williams hates every body; Levett hates Desmoulins, and does not love Williams; Desmoulins hates them both; Poll loves none of them,’ Johnson observed. ‘There is as much malignity amongst us,’ he added, ‘as can well subsist, without any thought of daggers or poisons.’ Madness, he suspected, lay always just around the corner; his dread of it – less only than his dread of death – drove him into frenzies indistinguishable from genuine insanity.

He had been complying for about a year with invitations from Henry and Hester Lynch Thrale, a newly-wed pair with a fortune made in brewing, a first baby nicknamed Queeney, unusually eatable dinners and an intent to lionise, when he was overtaken by what it maddened him to think was the madness he had feared. The Thrales intervened and carried him off to be nursed and soothed. For the next 17 years Johnson lived with them and their children, talking (‘his life, at least since my acquaintance with him,’ Mrs Thrale noted, ‘consisted in little else’), playing off Mrs Thrale’s schoolboyish wit, fending off with cups of tea attacks of the ‘Black Dog’ of melancholy, travelling with them, teaching Latin to Queeney (and, later on, to Fanny Burney, too), and returning to Johnson’s Court at intervals in order to attend to his other quasi-family, until, Mr Thrale dying and Mrs Thrale growing tired of the smelly old man who insulted her guests, slopped his food and required such exasperating quantities of late-night tea and attention, he found himself cast out at last. He had been unable to compete with the charms of Gabriel Piozzi, the Italian music master Mrs Thrale abandoned her children and defied the world in order to marry. Why Johnson believed he would be more tenderly treated than her children (‘turned out . . . like Puppies in a Pond to swim or drown according as Providence pleased’, Queeney remarked) is unclear. ‘I never speak of her, and I desire never to hear of her more,’ he told Fanny Burney three years after Mrs Thrale’s abandonment. ‘I drive her, as I said, wholly from my mind.’ A month later he died.

‘O poor Dr Johnson!!!’ Mrs Thrale wrote in her diary, then set about to turn the matter to her advantage. Her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, published barely a year after his death, had to be reprinted four times within the year. Outraged by what he saw as her malice, her self-serving and her inaccuracy, Boswell set instantly to work on his Life of Samuel Johnson, the defects in his own records of Johnson’s conversation supplied by a biographical imagination ‘strongly impregnated with the Johnsonian aether’. Mrs Thrale scoffed at the result: ‘how miserably do all these Wits and Scholars show in such a Concave Mirror as this Book is.’ More biographies followed – satires and invectives, too. Giuseppe Baretti, formerly Italian master to the Thrale children, published a series of ‘Strictures’ accusing Mrs Thrale of having abused her children, Queeney and Harry especially: Harry’s death, he insinuated, had been caused by his mother’s administration of quack vermifuges against which her doctor had warned her, and Queeney might soon follow, he added, for down her eldest daughter’s throat Mrs Thrale continued to force tin-pills. The following year, The Sentimental Mother, a Comedy in Five Acts; The Legacy of an Old Friend, and His Last Moral Lesson to Mrs Hester Lynch Thrale, Now Mrs Hester Lynch Piozzi presented in the figure of Lady Fantasma Tunskull the vanity, hypocrisy, false sentiment, selfishness and cruelty towards children with which the former Mrs Thrale was now associated. She blamed Baretti for that as well. Hints in Johnson’s and Mrs Thrale’s journals of a shared interest in bondage, whipping and an unnamed secret, together with the discovery that among the items of Mrs Piozzi’s property offered for sale in 1823 was a padlock labelled, in her handwriting, ‘Johnson’s Padlock committed to my care in the year 1768’, though susceptible of more than one interpretation, shattered any remaining romantic notions of a Thralian idyll.

Among the varying accounts, accusations and enigmas it is hard to tell what the truth of the situation was. That there was something wrong in the Thrale family is beyond doubt. Mrs Thrale had married Mr Thrale on five minutes’ acquaintance, at the wish of her mother, and although she respected her husband’s solidity and he her fortune and her intellect, neither ever pretended anything resembling passion for the other. For all her flirtations, Johnson apparently among them, Mrs Thrale boasted of her immunity to love. ‘Miss Owen & Miss Burney asked me if I had never been in Love,’ she wrote a month after her husband’s death; ‘with myself said I, & most passionately. When any Man likes me I never am surprized, for I think how should he help it? when any Man does not like me, I think him a Blockhead, & there’s an End of the matter.’ Baretti, she noted, was the only man who had ever resisted her attempts to attach him. ‘I am not used to People that do not worship me,’ she wrote. This was unfortunate for her children, only one of whom, Lucy Elizabeth, could be counted on to respond to her erratic displays of affection. Her favourites were among those, seven of twelve, who had died. For the living children her feeling rarely rose even to affection. They had disliked her, she believed, from infancy. While she recorded signs of prettiness and precocity where she found them – no maternal partiality led her to imagine attractions where there were none – her diaries show that she saw her children as empty-hearted and malevolent, rivals for the attention she thought due to herself. Fantasies that her children were in peril alarmed her violently; real threats left her comparatively unmoved. Harriet, for instance, died alone because her mother, away at Bath, remained where she was, not wanting to risk catching the child’s whooping cough; but not even death would induce Harriet to leave her in peace, for there was the further ‘vexation’ of the funeral. Leaving her children behind in England to raise one another when she remarried and went to Italy, she spoke of them as ‘my ungrateful Daughters who have treated me & my Husband so ill’ and joked with her friends about her Goneril and Regan. Three years’ partying on the Continent did nothing to salve her resentment, nor did her return to England revive any maternal feeling: encountering her daughters unexpectedly in the park, she told her diary that she ‘absolutely and bonafide did not recollect their Persons’. Her outrage at their opposition to her remarriage did not similarly fade: ‘At Sight of a Murderer the wounds even of a dead man whom he has killed unclose and bleed afresh – so do mine, when Chance has thrown those Ladies, or their Adherents in my Way.’ The daughters never understood what they called these ‘injuries from a quarter where it was least to be expected in the common course of nature’, but Cecelia’s theory, reported years later by Queeney, by then happily married to Baron Keith of Stonehaven Marischal, Admiral of the North Sea Fleet, was that ‘it was from original and persevering dislike and real hatred of us all, from her hatred of our father, and certainly her general conduct to the whole family strongly savours of that nature.’

Such is the material Bainbridge draws on in composing her story. Some of it she sets forth explicitly; some of it – the odder and more arcane bits especially – she seems (inconsistently) to assume her readers will already be familiar with. Or perhaps she does not assume it. How could she, after all? How many of those readers who need to be reminded which one Mrs Williams was (she was the blind poet) will be up to speed on Johnson’s brother’s death? The less background a reader has, the more of the novel he is likely to believe to have been invented and the more likely he is to think it has been invented ineptly. The more a reader knows, the more unnerved he is liable to feel by the pieces of the story he cannot trace. These are not effects most historical novelists would aim at, but they seem to be deliberate here.

Bainbridge sets her scene among the Thrales sometimes and sometimes among Johnson’s grubbier and more obviously unhappy adoptive family at Johnson’s Court, interleaving episodes from Johnson’s life and Queeney’s childhood with Queeney’s recollections of these episodes, or at least with what Queeney says are her recollections of them, misremembered long afterwards in unwilling and possibly untrustworthy response to unwelcome questions from her old acquaintance Leatitia Hawkins (whose memoirs of the Johnson circle would revisit material her father, Sir John Hawkins, had treated in his 1787 Life of Samuel Johnson), and all about a past Queeney would rather forget.

Although the characters do things (fart, masturbate, cross-dress) that Boswell never told us about and fail to do things (persuade us of their charm or intellect or moral profundity) that Boswell led us to expect they would, they are nevertheless recognisable, if only in the way an identikit is recognisable. Recognisable, too, are the general outlines of the plot, which conform more or less to what we know happened: parties, domesticities, travels, witty remarks (though fewer and oddly duller than one might expect), obsessions, jealousies, misunderstandings, rejections, deaths, all dating from the period that began when Johnson first met the Thrales and ended when he died.

Realistic effects are incidental, however. Vividness is not the point. We are distracted from engagement with the characters by a subliminal awareness of the shuffling of index cards. Passages from Bainbridge’s sources obtrude themselves, unmarked and often only semi-assimilated, their style, sometimes even their spelling, marking them as alien to the sometimes awkward prose. Gratuitous detail and dutiful paraphrase, lumpy expository filling-in: Bainbridge seems to find much of it tedious and encourages us to regard it the same way. When she puts it into her characters’ mouths, she tells us that they babble or that they bore the others, and it is true that much of the vitality, humour or pathos such material has in the original sources drains away here, leaving behind primarily an irritating and irrational expectation of footnotes and a sense that something – the nub of truth, perhaps – must be missing. The pedantry serves to remind the reader not only that Bainbridge has done her homework but also that homework, lots of it, is precisely what anyone writing such a work would have to do. How other than through the retrieval of facts would one set about mending the gaps made by the collapse long ago of living connection? But for all the labour of recovery, it is the emptiness that matters and not the fossilised ephemera poured into it like sand.

Disconnected and frequently self-absorbed, the characters are as unreal to one another as they are to us. In conversation they exchange non sequiturs, misunderstandings and evasions more often than they exchange ideas. Here are Johnson and Mrs Williams talking after Johnson’s return from his first dinner with the Thrales:

‘Was it engaging?’ she had asked. ‘Was it worth the effort?’

‘At least we were spared musical entertainment,’ he replied and then, in spite of himself, blurted out: ‘Mrs Thrale is an unusual woman.’

‘How so?’ countered Mrs Williams. ‘In looks or in intellect?’

Had he thrown aside caution and spoken the words in his head, he would have confided that Mrs Thrale had sparkling eyes, narrow shoulders, penetrating wit, scholarship of the female kind, a favourable interest in himself and a leakage of milk from her right breast.

Instead he said: ‘James Woodhouse has an impediment of speech, which is all to the good, as what he has to say is of little importance. Though a poor versifier, it is probable he’s a competent maker of shoes.’

‘How many at table?’ probed Mrs Williams. ‘What order of placement?’

‘From an upper window,’ he said, ‘Mrs Thrale pointed out the site of Shakespeare’s theatre. She maintains there are several timbers still standing.’

‘And you saw them?’ cried Mrs Williams.

‘I saw nothing,’ he said. ‘The night was too black.’

The absence of explanation or response that elsewhere in Bainbridge might be evidence of interiority is here merely a blank that insulates loneliness from loneliness, oblivion from oblivion. One character registers another’s presence as an absence or emptiness, regards him as an object of love incapable of return, a perverse insensibility, or an annoying irrelevance. Intimate recognition is confined mostly to fantasy, and even in fantasy it often comes too late and allows for no response: ‘When I am alone and dying,’ Mrs Desmoulins thinks, ‘Sam shall hear my voice calling his name, and weep at the sound of it.’ He will not, though, wouldn’t even if he survived her; his heart has been given where it is not wanted any longer, as is everybody else’s, or everybody who has a heart to give. With the sole exception of Mrs Thrale’s devotion to her mother, Mrs Salusbury, and, briefly, to Johnson, no one here takes altogether seriously the unhappiness of others. As the narrative wanders promiscuously from perspective to perspective, visiting Johnson’s romantic adoration and self-absorption, Mrs Thrale’s eruptive and labile passions, Queeney’s vulnerability and cynicism, Mrs Desmoulins’s longing and spite, the characters remain within themselves, isolated even in collision, and even in rare contentment: ‘Entangled in separate dreams, the party swayed through the balmy morning to the hum of bees.’

According to Queeney is not the historical novel one might expect. It is not even the historical novel one might expect from Bainbridge. Every Man for Himself, Master Georgie, The Birthday Boys and Watson’s Apology proved her enormous talent for re-creating the past in all its homely strangeness and for making the dead live again – usually in order to die again, for it is life on the verge of death, or at the far edge of what we can understand, that most interests her: a corpse propped up to balance the composition of a photograph of battle survivors; a Latin phrase found among the papers of a murderer, the clue to madness that, speaking of love and harm, just eludes translation; unlucky men at the South Pole, ‘the ice chunks heaving in the black water amidst the bucking whales, Birdie grotesquely riding that dying pony, Titus swinging the pickaxe against a sky the colour of blood’. In her earlier work, story always secreted and absorbed, reabsorbed and resecreted its own mystery, containing and controlling emblems of epistemological unease (a seashell, a painting) that might puzzle us on our way but would not bring us to a halt.

Reconstitutions of the record are evidently no longer her aim. It is the resistance of the record to reconstitution, even to judgment, that chiefly interests her here, its tendency to shimmer and blur and bifurcate and deceive, irremediably multiple, hostile to trust. The establishment of the simplest point (whether an old woman is asleep or awake, whether a pair of shoes has been polished or not) collects around it a cloud of variation and contradiction that here and there thickens to something resembling ectoplasm. The impulse to pedantry and the cultivation of indeterminacy show not just as inverse operations but as parallel responses to the same thing: the novel is not more hospitable to Johnson and his need for definition than to the ghosts he would explode or to the ‘mistress of inaccuracy’ whom he loved. And perhaps the scholar and the flirt are not so entirely different as they seem: ‘Fickleness,’ Bainbridge’s Mrs Thrale tells the daughter she is about to abandon, ‘arises from a feminine need to fix one’s soul to another. If that is denied, a woman may never know the reason for a deep and inner dissatisfaction.’

Bainbridge is a connoisseur of confusion, requiring more (and more exquisite) misunderstanding than ordinary human perversity and error can supply. Her novel constructs grotesque and intricate mistakes with the concentration of a watchmaker. Entire episodes, inexplicable as illustrations of character or workings-out of motive and lacking the momentum one associates with plot, read like detailed instructions for the ingenious engineering of misleading impressions. Thus, in a triumph of complication over plausibility, a flash of sunlight against a wet amulet becomes a ghost, a compound miscommunication becomes an act of fellatio, a turnip becomes a dead child.

According to Queeney is driven by mutation and permutation as its characters are by fears of the betrayal and instability and loss that these inevitably figure. Autumn leaves appear and reappear; so do idiots and madmen, amber necklaces (unstrung, stolen, occasioning deceit and amnesia and quarrel), letters (written, intercepted, painted, lost), dogs (faithful, maternal, ageing and snappish, engraved on buttons, black and signifying melancholy, fragmented into Johnsonian barks and growls, tortured, drowned, flayed, anatomised) and buttons (embedded in a fan, engraved with a dog, stolen by a dog, flung into the dark, lost from a waistcoat, missing from a portrait, coughed up by a child, transformed by dream into the rolling head of Marie Antoinette, made a matter for wit: ‘Without buttons, we are all undone,’ Queeney remembers Johnson saying). Dutiful but indifferent to its own realism, the novel moves from motif to tableau to emblem and enigma, foci of its true and obsessive energies. A story is told, surmised, remembered, over and over, sometimes whole and sometimes in fragments, always with a difference. It involves a button and a dog and a seduction and an abandonment and a drowning and perhaps another death as well, though who drowns, what happens to the dog, and how the button comes into it changes with each repetition. Something is being worked out, something to do perhaps with fidelity or connection or remorse, but when will it be got right, and when will it be over? A figure – a succession of figures – holds out its arms (their arms) so as to break a fall or embrace the future or to submit to fetters or to hold the dead or to hold a child or to drop a child or to re-enact in madness the holding that is also a letting go and a killing. In one version this figure’s wife drowns. Something is being worked out, but what, and by whom?

In the perpetual return and recombination of leaf, button, dog, in the reticulation of fetish and revenant, According to Queeney reads like a mad, grim villanelle or second-order shell game that pretends to steal our sympathies but cheats, stealing our bafflement and indifference instead. It empties itself of anything solid, advancing from and then retreating into paraphrase, offering a hold and then taking it back, the nub of truth escaping among its variants, sympathy vanishing among its infidelities, until we feel as off balance as the characters the book won’t quite let us believe in and as uncertain as the author who must judge (though she cannot) among the many versions of the past that present themselves to her.

The museum of improbable wonders, the cabinet of frauds, the life whose inwardness is accessible only through dissection, the death-mask whose making tugs open the dead man’s eyelids: in these objects the novel seems to recognise something of itself and through them it warns against readerly credulity. The book is too scrupulous, or perhaps too fickle, to permit any detail of significance to remain long in place. It withdraws or alters scenes as fast as it presents them, giving the reader nothing to believe, as if there were nothing believed worth crediting. Or is it that credit isn’t worth soliciting? As an invitation to suspend disbelief it must be judged a self-defeated failure, but its discouragement of belief may spring as much from indifference as from diffidence. The novel seems to have as its object something other than readerly trust. Less a work of representation than an expression of identification, According to Queeney enacts its characters’ dreads, guilts, obsessions, compulsions, solipsisms, apathies, indecisions and inconstancies as if they were its own. For a work absorbed in an act of radical sympathy with its subjects, the reader’s suspension of disbelief must be at last beside the point.