Saturday 18 September 2021

'Here is a brave boy'

 Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield on this day in 1709 (in the New Style, which he adopted himself in 1753). He entered the world by way of his father's bookshop on the corner of Breadmarket Street, the building that is now the Samuel Johnson Museum – and bookshop. 'My mother had a very difficult and dangerous labour,' Johnson wrote in a posthumously published memoir. 'I was born almost dead, and could not cry for some time. When [the man-midwife] had me in his arms, he said, "Here is a brave boy."' Johnson's father was that year Sheriff of Lichfield, and due to ride the Circuit of the County, a ceremonial occasion of great pomp. To celebrate his son's birth, 'he feasted the citizens with uncommon magnificence'.
  Soon after this, the baby Samuel was, 'by my father's persuasion', put out to a wet-nurse 'to be nursed in George Lane, where I used to call when I was a bigger boy, and eat fruit in the garden, which was full of trees'. Clearly his mother was not happy that Sam had been put out to nurse: 
'My mother visited me every day, and used to go different ways, that her assiduity might not expose her to ridicule; and often left her fan or glove behind her, that she might have a pretence to come back unexpected; but she never discovered any token of neglect. Dr Swinfen* told me, that the scrofulous sores which afflicted me proceeded from the bad humours of the nurse, whose son had the same distemper, and was likewise short-sighted, but in a less degree. My mother thought my diseases derived from her family.
  In ten weeks I was taken home, a poor, diseased infant, almost blind.
  I remember my aunt Nath. Ford told me when I was about ... years old, that she would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.'
  And yet this 'poor creature', 'this poor, diseased infant, almost blind' grew up to become one of our greatest writers, a ground-breaking lexicographer, a brilliant conversationalist and, taken all in all, one of the finest Englishmen who ever lived. 
  My second youngest grandson, the incomparable William, now attends a 'preschool' on George Lane, the street where Johnson was put out to nurse. 

* A young doctor lodging with the Johnsons at the time of Samuel's birth. He was Sam's godfather, and diagnosed his scrofula – 'the King's Evil', for which Johnson was touched by Queen Anne in 1712, one of the last to be so treated.

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