Let us breakfast in splendour

Charles Nicholl

  • BuyThe Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir by Michael Bundock
    Yale, 282 pp, £20.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 20710 1

The engraving called A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s shows nine men seated around a table convivially cluttered with decanters and after-dinner debris. From left to right they are James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Pasquale Paoli, Charles Burney, Thomas Warton and Oliver Goldsmith. Their names appear below the image, cursively engraved, appositely placed: one might almost be looking at a signed group photograph of 18th-century luminaries. In fact the picture is Victorian, painted in about 1845, but the artist – James William Doyle, an uncle of Arthur Conan Doyle – was known as a meticulous historian, and the figures are vividly and accurately presented, using known 18th-century likenesses. Dr Johnson is holding forth, with the professional eavesdropper Boswell at his shoulder; Sir Joshua has his ear trumpet in, to catch the flow of Johnsonian wit and wisdom; at the far end of the table Warton leans away from the group to mutter confidentially in Goldsmith’s ear.

James William Doyle, ‘A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s’ (c.1845)
James William Doyle, ‘A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s’ (c.1845)

Nine celebrities, nine names inscribed below – but there is a tenth man in the picture, who does not apparently merit a namecheck: a black servant. He is in the background, visible between the heads of Burney and Warton, carrying a salver with a pair of wide-bodied decanters on it. His shoulders tilt slightly forward; he moves with the butler’s measured plod as he bears the precious cargo of wine or port to the table. This anonymous figure is almost certainly Doyle’s depiction of Francis Barber – Dr Johnson’s ‘faithful negro servant’, as Boswell calls him. We cannot be quite sure, because Reynolds himself had a black servant, but he was a good deal younger and less prominent and Barber is a more likely candidate for the rather melancholy, dignified (and perhaps slightly tipsy?) waiter shown by Doyle. It is not a documentary likeness – there are no certain portraits of Barber – but it catches a truth about him: peripheral but indispensable, silent among the talkers, moving just beyond the arc of light that falls from the candelabra onto the faces at the table.

The story of Francis Barber is indeed a mixture of light and shadow, in parts vicariously illuminated by his proximity to Johnson but elsewhere obscure both in tone and circumstance. Johnson mentions him often, in scattered diary entries and letters and in conversational comments recorded by others, but the best introduction to him, predictably enough, is in Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791), where one finds a footnote giving a brief account of his career, and many casual and often affectionate references to him in the course of his duties in Johnson’s London household. Sometimes he plays a small, ushering role in the narrative, like a butler in a country-house murder mystery, his announcement of a visitor, or an invitation, or a package just arrived from the post office, opening the way for another Johnsonian episode or anecdote. He was also a source of useful information for Boswell – particularly about the years before Boswell himself knew Johnson – and sometimes is acknowledged as such: ‘From Mr Francis Barber I have had the following authentick and artless account …’ These words introduce a long paragraph about Johnson’s acquaintances in the early 1750s, which is indeed ‘authentick’, being essentially a transcript of Barber’s own words in an interview with Boswell in 1786: the interview notes survive, three sides of cramped Boswellian scrawl which testify to the reportorial diligence of the biographer and to the retentive memory of his interviewee more than thirty years after the event.

In these ways Barber features both in the text and in the making of Boswell’s Life. He has a bit-part, perhaps (one of many in this marvellously populous biography), but his frequent reappearances, brief and often unremarkable, give him a sort of cumulative presence. He’s the one who is simply there, the attendant always within earshot, the trusty factotum. He is there in the morning, when Boswell pays an early visit to Bolt Court and Johnson barks ‘briskly’ from his bed: ‘Frank, go and get coffee and let us breakfast in splendour.’ And he is there late at night, when Boswell is too tired and tanked-up and talked-out to go back to his lodgings, and is settled into the spare room ‘by honest Francis with a most civil assiduity’.

Other members of Johnson’s circle left notices and glimpses of him. Almost without exception he is spoken of with affection, or anyway approval. The chief exception is Sir John Hawkins, the author of the first proper biography of Johnson (published in 1787, four years before Boswell’s), and also the man for whom Johnson invented the word ‘unclubbable’ (a nice way of saying he was a crusty old snob who seldom had a good word for anyone other than himself). Hawkins gave his opinion in a private letter that ‘Francis Barber is an exceedingly worthless fellow,’ and insinuated as much in various comments in his biography, referring to Francis’s ‘craft and selfishness’ and his ‘inattention to the interests of his Master’. His sneering treatment of Barber was widely condemned, not least by Boswell, who instanced it as an example of the ‘dark uncharitable cast’ of his competitor’s book. Boswell was always grateful for a leg-up to the moral high ground, so here is another little service ‘honest Francis’ has done him.

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