At least that was the idea

Thomas Keymer

  • The Club: Johnson, Boswell and the Friends who Shaped an Age by Leo Damrosch
    Yale, 488 pp, £20.00, April, ISBN 978 0 300 21790 2

The Turk’s Head isn’t the kind of name you’d choose for a pub these days, though there’s still one in Wapping, and another in Twickenham. The famous Turk’s Head was in Gerrard Street in Soho, a precinct first laid out under Charles II, popular with authors and artists from the start (Dryden moved to Gerrard Street in 1687 while still poet laureate), and by the mid-18th century thronged with coffee houses and taverns. A blue plaque commemorates Dryden, but on the wrong house. At No. 9, a more accurately sited plaque marks where, in 1764, Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson founded the Literary Club, or simply the Club, which met weekly to dine in an upstairs room at the Turk’s Head until the landlord died and the dinners moved elsewhere. The building now houses New Loon Moon, one of London’s best-known Chinese supermarkets.

Reynolds was portraitist to the rich and famous, as well as being famous in his own right, known not least for his love of bling, including a coach with gilded wheels. Prolific and wealthy (in 1758, his 150 sitters netted him £6000, perhaps a million in modern terms), Reynolds was well on his way to the presidency of the Royal Academy and a knighthood. ‘The world does set a value on titles,’ he purred, ‘and I go with the great stream of life.’ Another member was David Garrick, who grew up alongside Johnson in provincial Lichfield, and shot to prominence in his twenties for the revolutionary naturalism of his acting style, notably his startling performance as Richard III. Garrick was elected to the Club in 1773; the playwrights Oliver Goldsmith and George Colman were already members and Richard Brinsley Sheridan would be admitted a few years later.

The Club wasn’t just full of luvvies; it began with quite serious purposes and ambitions. With his rancorous first biographer, John Hawkins (Johnson coined the term ‘unclubbable’ for Hawkins, who after a few years, was ostracised from the Turk’s Head), Johnson had already founded the Ivy Lane Club, which ran for several years but broke up around 1756. The new club was a rather touching effort by Reynolds to replicate, for the depressive Johnson, the pleasurable, consoling sociability of Ivy Lane, which Johnson probably had in mind when remarking to Hawkins ‘that a tavern chair was the throne of human felicity’. Tavern chairs kept at bay the demons that plagued him when alone, and they satisfied his love of competitive, often crushingly competitive, conversation – his love of talking for victory, often without much caring what position he took. They allowed him, he told Hawkins, ‘an oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude’, while the wine (though he usually stuck to lemonade) prompted ‘free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love: I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinion and sentiments I find delight.’

Conversation was a much prized art in Johnson’s day, and was thought capable of containing controversy and channelling conflict – at least that was the idea – in productive, harmonious ways. For the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1709, conversation was the guarantor of civility and hence of liberty itself, in which, like tumbled rocks, ‘we polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision.’ Johnson considered Shaftesbury a reckless freethinker, but we may see in the Club, beyond its immediate therapeutic role for Johnson, an ambitious development of Shaftesbury’s ideal within an intellectual elite. The founding nine members included men (there were no women) who were there primarily as friends of Johnson, though even the obscure Bennet Langton, too gentlemanly ever to publish a book, was a brilliant classical scholar. Others had more future potential than existing achievement, notably Edmund Burke, whose groundbreaking Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful had already appeared but whose career as a political orator and thinker was yet to take off. Other heavyweights joined a few years later: Edward Gibbon was made a member in 1774 and Adam Smith in 1775. The importance of other members, such as James Boswell and the pioneering linguistician William Jones, was recognised only posthumously. Alongside Johnson himself (and before one even gets to Garrick or Reynolds), their involvement supports Leo Damrosch’s claim that the Club brought together ‘arguably the greatest British critic, biographer, political philosopher, historian and economist of all time’. Considered as a group, ‘it would be hard to exaggerate the influence the Club’s members had on the culture of their age and on later generations.’

Perhaps it was a conscious intention. As well as prizing entertaining talk, the Club was constructed as a kind of expert panel, each member pre-eminent in a different discipline or field. Hester Thrale was sceptical when Johnson characterised the early membership in these terms. ‘Reynolds for painting, Goldsmith for poetry, Percy for antiquities’ may have been fair enough; ‘Nugent for physic, Chamier for trade, politics and all money concerns’ was more of a stretch. With the accession of formidable new members, however, Johnson and Boswell could play more plausibly on the idea (brought up when they visited St Andrews) of the Club as powerful enough to revive a decayed university. The musicologist Charles Burney attained a long-held ambition by joining shortly before Johnson’s death in 1784, and recalled it as Johnson’s wish ‘that our Club should be composed of the heads of every liberal and literary profession, that we might not talk nonsense on any subject that might be started, but have somebody to refer to in our doubts and discussions, by whose Science we might be enlightened’. The whole would be more than the sum of the parts, the Turk’s Head’s private upstairs room a crucible of collaborative thinking far stronger than any solitary effort of individual genius.

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Did it turn out that way in practice? That’s the story Damrosch wants to tell, but he meets some obstacles along the way. One is the awkward fact that we don’t have a great deal of detail about what went on in the Turk’s Head. Even the three best external sources for Johnson’s life, his rival biographers, Hawkins, Thrale and Boswell, don’t help much. Hawkins resigned in a huff from the Club when members took Burke’s side in a clash between them, and writes more about Ivy Lane than about the Turk’s Head. Thrale, as a woman, was never a member, though as Damrosch interestingly proposes, her Streatham circle constituted ‘a kind of shadow club’ where Johnson could spar at leisure with other intellectual women: Frances Burney, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More. Johnson had his own room at Streatham Place, and wrote most of Lives of the Poets there, reading manuscript sections aloud to those present much as Samuel Richardson had read draft novels to his ‘female senate’ thirty years earlier. One could argue that the Thrale household had more impact on Johnson’s work than the Turk’s Head.

That leaves us with Boswell, whose originality as a biographer comes from his sense of conversation’s importance as an activity and literary subject, and from his commitment to exhaustive documentation, not only of talk itself, but also of expression and gesture. This must have seemed ridiculous in practice, as Burney makes clear in describing Boswell sneaking up behind Johnson at Streatham: ‘His eyes goggled with eagerness, he leant his ear almost on the shoulder of the Doctor, and his mouth dropped open to catch every syllable that might be uttered.’ But Damrosch is right, in his book’s most original contention, to present Boswell as a true virtuoso of conversation: not only the amanuensis who records it, but also the ringmaster who generates and sustains it. Boswell compared his task with that of a lawyer (his own profession, fitfully practised) orchestrating the testimony of witnesses. For Damrosch, his gift ‘was to create, and then re-create in writing, an entire dramatic scene like an impresario’. He makes the conversation happen in the first place, then makes it develop in unexpected ways, before writing it all up.

The problem is that for all their undoubted intimacy (Johnson’s two closest bonds, with Boswell and Thrale, were with charming, energetic individuals thirty years younger than him), the two men spent far less time together than the Life would have us assume. There are various calculations of the number of days Boswell and Johnson spent together (Damrosch cites the highest figure, 425 days), but the most thorough count, by Hitoshi Suwabe, comes out at 400 or 404, a quarter of them on their tour of the Hebrides. It’s certainly true that as a biographer Boswell fleshes out his subject’s life with a fullness and specificity never previously achieved, not least by adopting the particularising narrative techniques of Richardson and others. But which days does he particularise – or, if we think of the tavern chair, which nights? Boswell first met Johnson on 16 May 1763. (He describes the day in excruciating detail, including his presumptions about Garrick and Johnson’s crushing rebuke: ‘“Sir,” said he, with a stern look, “I have known David Garrick longer than you have, and I know no right you have to talk to me on this subject.”’) But no one took him seriously at the time and he didn’t gain admission to the Club for a decade. After that, he was often back home in Auchinleck or working (more or less) in Edinburgh, while Johnson’s Turk’s Head appearances decreased as the Club expanded and became, he complained, ‘a mere miscellaneous collection of conspicuous men, without any determinate character’. Johnson attended nine Club meetings in 1778, but that year is an outlier, and he otherwise showed up no more than three times a year between 1775 (when a minute book was opened) and his death in 1784. James Sambrook estimates that he and Boswell probably coincided at Club meetings no more than eight times. Reading the Life again, its scenes of conversation in various modes from joshing play to bludgeoning combat most often take place in private houses like Streatham Place, or public haunts like ‘the Mitre tavern in Fleet-street, where he loved to sit up late’.

That’s not the only problem. The increase in members allows us more points of entry, at least potentially, to Club proceedings, but it also diluted the intensity. Membership grew slowly at first, and remained capped at 12 for almost a decade, but rapid expansion after that (16 members in 1773, 21 in 1775, 30 in 1778, 35 in 1784) changed the Club’s social composition, and gave it a more conventionally elite character. Ambitious, prodigious self-made men such as Johnson, Reynolds, Burke and Goldsmith were joined by establishment figures such as Lord Ossory (made a member in 1777) and Viscount Althorp (made a member in 1778), the first peers to be elected. By the time of Johnson’s death, there were seven peers and three bishops, with men of affairs now outnumbering men of letters. Johnson wasn’t the only one to cool on the group as numbers rose, and even the good-natured Boswell complained of one new admission that ‘his being a member lessens the value of the Club.’ (An enthusiastic social climber, Boswell might have got first to the Groucho Marx line – not wanting to be in a club that would have him as a member – if he hadn’t lacked the self-knowledge.) Fines were instituted in 1775 for Londoners who failed to attend without good cause, but some, notably Sheridan and Charles James Fox, simply took the hit. Others lived far away: Smith in Scotland, Gibbon in Lausanne, Jones in Bengal. The gregarious Reynolds remained the most dedicated member (in the first decade of the minute book, his 16 dinners is the annual record for any member, with Gibbon the runner-up on 14), but clubs were two a penny for Reynolds, and he attended at least five others. In the end, this one may have been more a state of mind, or a gratifying myth, than a place where literary works were conversationally forged.

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It’s entirely possible, of course, that The Wealth of Nations would not be what it is if Smith and Gibbon hadn’t talked philosophic history at the Turk’s Head, or that The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wouldn’t be what it is if they hadn’t talked political economy. More broadly, a tavern version of the ‘amicable conflict’ Burke saw in parliamentary debate – ‘He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper’ – may have contributed to the force, reach or clarity of members’ writings. But we can’t do much more than speculate about that. Reynolds’s notoriously inconsistent Discourses on Art is the work most likely to be indebted to the discussions at the Club. Blake sneered that it was evidently ‘the work of several hands’; Reynolds had heard and remembered conversation without thinking or digesting: ‘The man … who learns or acquires all he knows from others must be full of contradictions.’

We can’t take it for granted that the conversation at the Turk’s Head was always inspiring. Burke epitomises the Club ideal – towering intellect, literary eloquence, public distinction – and was one of the great orators of his age, not least when extemporising. But he wasn’t witty, which wouldn’t have mattered so much if he hadn’t been determined to be. ‘Burke hammered his wit upon an anvil, and the iron was cold,’ Bennet Langton said: no sparks. Gibbon was pretty much the opposite: an engaging talker but too timid for parliamentary speech. At one meeting he stayed quiet at exactly the moment he should have held the floor, after Johnson (who disliked him and tried to provoke him) dismissed history as a facile genre, either a catalogue of facts or mere conjecture. Johnson didn’t much like Smith either, and in view of the Club’s ethos, to pool expertise, Smith was its killjoy since he did everything he could to avoid sharing his ideas until they were in print under his name. It’s not just that he was naturally taciturn, and diffident in the face of competitive talkers; as Boswell complained, ‘he had book-making so much in his thoughts, and was so chary of what might be turned to account in that way, that … he made it a rule when in company never to talk of what he understood.’ So much for the men who might rescue a university.

Even if there’s a risk of overstating the Club’s importance as a way of unleashing the creativity of its members, it certainly provides a good basis for a study of intersecting lives. Damrosch sketches the lives adroitly, with an eye for anecdote: the farewell performance as Lear of the much loved Garrick, when the actresses playing Goneril and Regan kept bursting into tears; Gibbon beaming when Sheridan complimented him in Parliament on his ‘luminous pages’, when Sheridan may in fact have said ‘voluminous’; Johnson extemporising parodies of Percy’s Reliques in front of their squirming collector (‘I therefore pray thee, Renny dear,/That thou wilt give to me,/With cream and sugar softened well,/Another dish of tea’). Renny was Frances Reynolds, the gifted painter and writer whose wings her elder brother Joshua clipped, but whose plangent late portrait of Johnson catches the troubled power of his intellect like no other. This was in 1783, the year Johnson, now close to giving up on the Turk’s Head, tried to revive the old Ivy Lane group in new premises, the Essex Head tavern off the Strand. The ‘shadow club’ at Streatham Place was also over: Johnson broke traumatically with Thrale in a letter that also thanks her ‘for that kindness which soothed twenty years of a life radically wretched’ (radically: at, to, or from the root or centre). No club could really fix that, though individuals could try. With Johnson on his deathbed in London, obscure, learned, faithful Langton came down from Lincolnshire. ‘Te teneam moriens deficiente manu,’ Johnson said to him, quoting Tibullus: ‘Dying, may I hold you with my weakening hand.’