Thursday 30 June 2022

Johnsonian Jottings

 Returning once again from Lichfield, I brought with me, not for the first time, a volume of the Johnson Society's transactions. These are available at a fiver a pop from the bookshop attached to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, and are just the right length to beguile the 90-minute train journey back to London. This time I picked up the 1996 Transactions, and found it full of good reading and fascinating titbits (for anyone with Johnsonian inclinations). Beginning with an excellent essay on Boswell's Life of Johnson by Professor Ian Campbell, the slim volume also includes a very perceptive account of Johnson's uneasy relationship with Boswell's wife, the story of how the famous statue of Johnson in Lichfield marketplace came to be erected, an essay on 'that clever dog Burney' (Charles Burney, the great historian of music, father of Fanny and friend of Johnson), and a short piece on Johnson's famous letter to his unsatisfactory patron Lord Chesterfield ('Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with concern on a man struggling in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed until I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it...'). 
  Boswell's wife, Margaret née Montgomerie, remarked, apropos her husband's devotion to the ursine Johnson, 'I have seen many a bear led by a man: but I never before saw a man led by a bear.' Johnson had real affection for Mrs B, but it was not reciprocated: the Doctor was too powerful a rival for her husband's time and attention. Johnson's irregular hours and messy, uncouth habits made him a far from ideal house guest, but he could certainly write a gracious apology: 'Make my compliments to Mrs Boswell' [he writes to Boswell] ' and tell her that I do not love her the less for wishing me away. I gave her trouble enough and shall be glad, in recompense, to give her any pleasure.' On another occasion, Boswell returned to his wife in a sorry state, following a long debauch, just as a letter from Johnson to Mrs Boswell arrived: 'You will now have Mr Boswell home; it is as well that you have him: he has led a wild life ... Pray take care of him and tame him. The only thing in which I have the honour to agree with you is, in loving him.'
  A couple more snippets. In Johnson's dictionary, under the definition of 'lich' ('A dead carcase'), 'Lichfield, the field of the dead, a city in Staffordshire, so named from martyred christians. Salve magna parens [Hail, great parent].' And here's a quotation from Dr Johnson by Mrs Thrale (1984, edited by Richard Ingrams): 'When [David] Garrick told Mrs Thrale that Johnson felt there was no other town like Lichfield, she replied, "There is no town which ever produced two such men." "Oh," replied Garrick, "I am only the gizzard, madam, trussed under the turkey's wing."' 

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