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, February 1992, 0 19 811287 4
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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.

We can see in his letters how much Johnson responds to the presence of women. His voice changes a little when he is conversing – if only on paper – with a woman. The note of tenderness is welcome to him. The reader is, however, quite startled in this first volume of stiff reticences to come upon the few surviving letters to Hill Boothby. Hill Boothby was a contemporary (b. 1708), a devout and learned woman of good birth. Biographers agree that Johnson thought of her for his second wife. Hill Boothby had, however, made a sacred promise to care for the children of her friend Mary Meynell, who died in 1753, and Hill committed herself to the task until the end of her life in January 1756. We know that Johnson had a long correspondence with her. He tells John Taylor in 1756: ‘I never did exchange letters regularly but with dear Miss Boothby.’ The letters were probably destroyed by Hill herself, and Bate suggests that the few at the end of her life survive because she was too ill to destroy them. Johnson’s tone is expressive, moving, as he addresses ‘Dearest Dear’, ‘My Sweet Angel’, ‘Dear Angel, do not forget me. My heart is full of tenderness’; ‘I am afraid to say much, and cannot say nothing when my dearest is in danger.’ We have stumbled upon a hidden love story. A sad tale’s best for winter – this is a sad tale, this story of a January death. Johnson at this point seems battered by life, almost afraid of giving love lest it be taken from him.

Johnson’s need for love substantiates his tremendous loyalty. The troubles of his parents seem to have been too psychologically perplexing and painful for him to act responsively, but he is always staunch when a friend is in trouble. With friends his own age – or younger – he is almost always sympathetic. Loyalty is a great quality, but it does not strengthen the judgment. When John Taylor, an old schoolfriend, is in marital difficulties, Johnson rushes to his epistolary support, rallying his friend and acting one of his favourite roles, as legal adviser. Taylor’s wife (his second) left him in May 1763 and went to live with her sister, complaining – as she was later to do in a Chancery suit – of ‘very personal Ill Usage’, and claiming she feared for her bodily safety in remaining with him. Johnson is absolutely determined not to believe this charge, and he would rather not believe the accusation that Taylor had sex with the maid Hannah. He asks the appropriate questions in trying to get Taylor righted, as he sees it, before the law:

What is the abuse of her person which she mentions? What is [the] danger which she resolves never again to incur? The tale of Hannah I suppose to be false, not that if it be true it will justify her violence and precipitation, but it will give her cause great superiority in the publick opinion and in the courts of Justice, and it will be better for you to endure hard conditions than bring your character into a judicial disquisition.

  I know you never lived very well together but I suppose that an outrage like this must have been preceded by some uncommon degree of discord from which you might have prognosticated some odd design ...

  You know that I have never advised you to any thing tyrannical or violent, and in the present case it is of great importance to keep yourself in the right, and not injure your own right by any intemperance of resentments or eagerness of reprisal ... I suppose she cannot live long without your money, and the confession of her want will probably humble her.

Johnson transfers Taylor’s alleged violence to his errant wife, and has no qualms about admitting that the male hold over the female is economic: ‘want’ will make this woman humble. In the next letter to Taylor he continues this strain, reinforcing his disbelief in the accusations:

You enquire what the fugitive Lady has in her power. She has, I think, nothing in her power but to return home and mend her behaviour. To obtain a separate maintenance she must prove either cruelty to her person or infidelity to her bed, and I suppose neither charge can be supported. Nature has given women so much power that the Law has very wisely given them very little.

It is rather a relief to see this celebrated dictum of Johnson’s about Woman and the Law in its context. In the heat of our support for a friend going through a divorce or separation, there’s almost no nonsense any of us won’t utter on occasion. But ‘the Law’ did in fact give Mrs Taylor at least the power of separating from her husband, and in 1764 Taylor agreed to a separate maintenance of £160 annually. Mrs Taylor’s success in conducting her suit indicates that the court found much to believe in her statements about her husband’s cruelty. Taylor, a clergyman, should have found this embarrassing, but he seems to continue unembarrassed, living in the country very agreeably and varying the dullness of existence with protracted lawsuits and quests for preferment. Perhaps his first calling, as attorney, was one to which he was more suited.

Johnson as adviser in this case is more loyal than realistic. He is also loyal to Henry Thrale when Thrale had suffered what was called an apoplectic fit – actually a succession of strokes. Johnson urged him to run again for Parliament and encouraged Mrs Thrale to feats of canvassing. It does not seem to have occurred to Johnson that neither Thrale nor his constituents would be best served by his sitting in Parliament ill and exhausted and waiting for the next stroke. Despite the frequent pessimism of his view and his writings, Johnson in dealings with friends sometimes preferred the dangerous optimism which does not see danger.

Johnson’s loyalty to Henry Thrale extended to an idealised view of his conduct as a husband. Johnson had to make himself believe that the Thrales were a superbly happy couple. He wrote in his letter of condolence to Hester: ‘He [i.e. God] that has given You happiness in marriage to a degree of which without personal knowledge, I should have thought the description fabulous, can give You another mode of happiness as a Mother.’ Hester’s marriage must be fabulously – nay, more than fabulously – happy. This was ridiculous, and Samuel Johnson was close enough to Hester Thrale to have known, had he chosen to let himself know it, that her marriage was a long vexation beginning and ending in nightmare. Johnson had too much investment in the Thrale marriage to let himself face the truth – however strongly his theoretical and moral writings all urge us to seek and repose upon truth.

His acquaintance with the Thrales was the great blessing of Johnson’s life. On reading the letters through, it is impossible to ignore the extent to which the Thrales acted as patrons and surrogate parents; there was more dependency in the relationship than Johnson’s admirers can be quite comfortable with. He writes to Hester Thrale in February 1776, ‘Give my love to my Brother and sisters,’ playing a game of adoption that makes him Henry’s and Hester’s child, along with Harry, Queeney, Susy and Sophy Thrale. The Thrales gave Johnson the love that he craved, as well as something that had been missing all his life, a family group which could also function as a wider collective and community – not just a family parlour but a salon. His acquaintance increased, and he had more opportunity to enjoy his friendships with intelligent women as well as with intelligent men. The Thrales also supplied material luxuries: servants to wait upon him, beautifully prepared meals, warm rooms in winter, a trip to the Peak District, and even to Paris, as well as a journey to Wales, which Johnson thought less of than Hester (a Welshwoman) wished. Johnson was still hoping near the end of Henry Thrale’s life for the long-promised journey to Italy. We know from other sources that Hester became tormented with anxiety over this scheme, her husband’s manic phases making the projected journey a horrifying prospect.

Desire for travel emerges quite frequently in Johnson’s letters; he writes to Hester in 1775: ‘Perhaps, if You and Master did not hold me I might go to Cairo, and down the Red Sea to Bengal, and take a ramble in India. Would this be better than building and planting. It would surely give more variety to the eye, and more amplitude to the mind.’ It is interesting that the author of Rasselas had toyed with the idea of getting to Egypt, and to India as well. But Johnson was not the sort of man to set out on a lonely adventure. He could have travelled in his youth had he been willing to put up with great hardship. Young Oliver Goldsmith hiked over the Continent, staying at various universities and earning his way by debating. This was not Johnson’s style: he could endure physical deprivation, certainly, but not the psychic deprivation of loneliness. His expansive centrifugal mode, surveying Mankind from China to Peru, was at odds with his centripetal desire for the safe observation point – the reassurance of familiar friendship.

James Boswell read Johnson very well, partly because he shared some of his needs. One can see in the letters that Johnson often regarded Boswell as a tease and something of a nuisance, and indeed at moments Boswell must have seemed a frightening companion – being with Boswell was rather like taking a walk with his own epitaph. But Boswell’s perseverance, we can see, paid off. Boswell knew how to demand love: his letters from Scotland wondering if Johnson loved him had the required effect. Nothing that James Boswell ever did or said can be thought of as ‘sincere’, if that means artless, spontaneous and unstudied, but Boswell’s neediness was certainly not a sham, and he contrived to elicit from Johnson the kind of tenderness that Johnson associated with friendship with women. Boswell’s great triumph was engineering Johnson’s journey to Scotland in 1773, a journey sufficiently centrifugal to include the Hebrides. ‘I have now the pleasure of going where nobody goes, and of seeing what nobody sees,’ Johnson writes to Hester Thrale from the Isle of Skye. His physical hardihood on the journey surprised even himself: but he would have needed the same kind of companionship to make such a trip at 30.

Despite Boswell’s triumphant attachment to Johnson during this journey, he had to know that almost every day Johnson was writing to Mrs Thrale. Indeed, to Johnson’s book A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, the work resulting from the trip, Hester Thrale may be seen as a contributor almost equally with Boswell. Writing the journal letters, writing, as his friend Samuel Richardson called it, ‘to the moment’, gave Johnson an invaluable record of his travels and responses to draw upon in shaping his travel book. He was never a diarist, in the sense of a journal-keeper: his diaries were for private prayers and self-admonitions, terse expressions of spiritual struggle. Johnson never wrote narratively, discursively or descriptively except to communicate to others. Hester became the perfect public, the ideal reader – and respondent. In his all too brief Preface Bruce Redford is the first editor to give Hester Thrale her due, taking issue with the condescension of Chapman and others who have followed Boswell’s lead in disparaging her and trying to suppress her role in Johnson’s life and writings. Redford contends that the friendship with Hester Thrale turned Johnson from a man of letters who occasionally had to write letters into a true letter-writer. ‘Johnson grew into an epistolary vocation,’ Redford contends, ‘in his correspondence with the Mistress of Streatham Park.’ The new epistolary habit of mind contributed to give more flexibility to Johnson’s later work, including the Journey and the Lives of the Poets. The essayistic form mastered in the 1750s, in the Rambler and again in the Idler, is modulated into a more expressive, personal, sustained and flowing discourse.

Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, which grew out of a booksellers’ scheme, is a great work with a conscious political bias. Johnson acknowledges this: ‘I got my lives put neatly together, and sent them to the King ... If the King is a Whig, he will not like them; but is any King a Whig?’ The Lives are indeed a Tory work, and there was soon an anonymous ‘furious fellow’ protesting in print against Johnson’s Life of Milton. No Whig could wholeheartedly like most of Johnson’s writings. He was a Tory thinker from his first appearances in print. In his early work for the Gentleman’s Magazine, composing and indeed making up the debates in Parliament, Johnson ‘took particular care that the Whig dogs should not have the best of it.’ Johnson’s Toryism explains the occlusion of his writings from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century. Macaulay cobbled together a caricature of Johnson and got schoolteachers to believe in it – a wonderful stroke of Whig propaganda. Johnson becomes a weirdo, a benign eccentric and harmless antique, rather like Addison’s caricature of the Tory gentleman in Sir Roger de Coverley. Macaulay’s propaganda is not unrelated to our own day: the English Tory Party, the so-called Conservative Party, has suffered in this century from a lack of contact with traditional Tory thinkers, and this deficiency sufficiently weakened Toryism to allow the progressive infection of the Tory Party by what were really Whig principles.

Johnson was an admirer of Locke, as any man of his era must have been; Locke is extensively quoted in the Dictionary. Yet it is in perusing Johnson’s letters that we can see most clearly what it is in Johnson that prevents his being a post-Lockean individualist. He does not believe in the splendid isolated individual, the man and the citizen held together by the power of his conscious mind. Johnson certainly believes in the splendid powers of the mind, and is reluctant to see these powers curtailed by a notion of inborn talent, as that would preclude a concept of the mind as supple, spontaneous and creative. At the same time, man on his own is a poor thing. He writes to Hester Thrale in a moment of the kind of loneliness Lichfield was likely to bring on: ‘Here sit poor I, with nothing but my own solitary individuality; doing little, and suffering no more than I have often suffered; hearing nothing that I can repeat; seeing nothing that I can relate.’

Like Locke, Johnson believes in the mind’s need for external stimulus. This belief, however, leads him in another direction from that of the Whig thinkers to whom the mind’s liberty and representational power offered rationales for new uses of power, new forms of exploitation of the raw world, as Locke had advised. The strong moneymaking individual that the Whigs constructed seemed to Johnson a travesty. Whig philosophy and capitalist practice were producing monsters who aggrandised themselves (in the name of their own ‘rights’), while exploiting others with unprecedented ruthlessness. Slavery had become an accepted element of new British wealth creation – and Johnson abhorred slavery. He refers with loathing to ‘the Planters of America, a Race of Mortals whom I suppose no other Man wishes to resemble’. This reference appears in his letter of protest against those who wanted to veto translating the Bible into Celtic languages, in the hope that these languages would die out. This seems to Johnson a callousness unequalled except by slave-owners, as well as a misunderstanding of the value of a variety of languages. Johnson is, in fact, all for what we now call ‘diversity’. Whiggism was perfectly suited to the rule of oligarchy, and one of the values Johnson sees in monarchy is that it can override oligarchy, making the proudest rich man into a ‘subject’ as much as the beggar under the bridge. No king is really a Whig.

Johnson continually questions the liberties the Whigs are asserting for themselves. He wrote in ‘Taxation no Tyranny’ (his counterblast to the American colonists’ manifesto): ‘If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’ One of the reasons he could be persuaded to go to Scotland was that he wanted to see what had happened to the country which had been the loser in the great Whig victory of 1745-46; he had some sympathy for the subjugated Scots, and his Journey to the Western Islands is an analytical commentary rather than a mere travel book – more Joan Didion than H.V. Morton. There is a good dose of irony in his analysis: ‘To hinder insurrection by driving away the people ... is an expedient that argues no great profundity of politicks ... it affords a legislator little self-applause to consider, that where there was formerly an insurrection, there is now a wilderness.’

Johnson is quick to perceive and to analyse the constructions and abuses of power, especially the power that emanates from superior wealth. He argues against Henry Thrale, who in 1773 wanted to support his brother in forbidding the marriage of Thrale’s niece to her sweetheart. The family wanted to bind Miss Fanny Plumbe by a promise. This Romeo-and-Juliet situation draws from the Johnson of the Letters some of his most emphatic writing against the swelling power of new middle-class ideas (enforced in Hardwicke’s Marriage Act) which had made the marriages of the middle classes into dynastic arrangements under control of the parents in the name of property. The new ethos, strongest where there was property to be transmitted, had freshly recreated an elaborate code of filial obedience. Johnson will not subscribe to it:

I think an unlimited promise of acting by the opinion of another so wrong that nothing, or hardly any thing can make it right. All unnecessary vows are folly, because they suppose a prescience of the future which has not been given us ... and superinduce a kind of fatality, from which it is the great privilege of our Nature to be free. Unlimited obedience is due only to the Universal Father of heaven and earth. My Parents may be mad or foolish; may be wicked and malicious; may be erroneously religious, or absurdly scrupulous. I am not bound to compliance with mandates either positive or negative, which either religion condemns, or reason rejects. There wanders about the world a wild notion which extends over marriage more than over any other transaction. If Miss Plumbe followed a trade, would it be said that she was bound in conscience to give or refuse credit at her Father’s choice? And is not marriage a thing in which she is more interested and has therefore more right of choice?

This last sentence might have been quoted against Johnson in his pronouncements about the unfortunate Mrs Taylor; the only people whose privilege of eternal freedom Johnson cannot clearly see are married women. The reader may also have some sympathy for the alderman who didn’t want his 15-year-old daughter to elope, without denying an impressive grandeur to Johnson’s statement. It was the new Whig philosophy rather than the traditional Tory one which gave additional power to the citizen and father of the family, a growth of power political and spiritual adumbrated in Rousseau’s Émile (1762). Johnson’s scheme of things might be called ‘revolutionary Toryism’, for his theories by no means rule out the propriety of insurrection under certain circumstances, even against a king – certainly against slave-owners.

The adoration of the family which Whig philosophy had strongly enhanced was always a problem to Johnson. One of the reasons he liked the Thrales was that their lives were not too familial – they always had visitors, outsiders. Their mental life was exogamic. Johnson believes in the value of going out – even for women, who were then customarily exhorted to cultivate love of home. ‘I have just had your sweet letter, and am glad that you are to be at the regatta,’ he writes to Hester Thrale in June 1775, adding: ‘You know how little I love to have you left out of any shining part of life’. Too much emphasis on domestic existence creates tight inturned groups and psychic monotony: Johnson is all in favour of gadding to parties. The tightly-knit Burney family were a source of astonishment to him. At first he was willing to attribute to affectation Frances Burney’s anxiety about her family during the Gordon Riots. Later he wrote: ‘I love all of that breed [i.e. the Burneys] ... and love them because they love each other. Of this consanguineous unanimity I have never had much experience, but it appears to me one of the great lenitives of life, but it has this deficience that it is never found when distress is mutual – he that has less than enough for himself has nothing to spare’.

Characteristically, Johnson finds out the defect: when members of a family are in trouble or distress they are all in it together, and, if over-dependent on each other emotionally, they have no resource in time of trouble. Johnson is evidently antagonistic to all enclosures. The various kinds of happiness – the experience of ‘the shining part of life’ reflected in his letters from 1731 to 1781 – would not have been available had he not been outward-turning, responsive to acquaintances, events and places. The letters represent the triumph of sociability over solitude.

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