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A modern biography of Samuel Johnson that will serve as the definitive work on the legendary British man of letters
In this groundbreaking portrait of Samuel Johnson, David Nokes positions the great thinker in his rightful place as an active force in the Enlightenment, not a mere recorder or performer, and demonstrates how his interaction with life impacted his work. This is the story of how Johnson struggled to define the English language, why he embarked upon such foolhardiness, and where he found the courage to do so. Moving beyond James Boswell’s seminal narrative about the life of the preeminent eighteenth-century novelist, literary critic, biographer, editor, essayist, and lexicographer, this biography addresses his life and action through the hitherto unexplored perspectives of such major players as Johnson’s wife, Tetty; Hester Thrale, in whose household he resided for seventeen years while working on his annotated Shakespeare; and Frances Barber, the black manservant who in many ways was like a son to Johnson. An in-depth interrogation of the primary sources, particularly the letters, offer surprising insight into Johnson’s formative experiences. At last, here’s a reading of the great man that will reveal the rightful glory of an enduring work and an incomparable scholar.
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David Nokes is the author of a biography of Jane Austen published in 1997. A professor of English literature at King’s College, London, Nokes also teaches creative writing at the university. He has previously written a novel and a television drama and adapted classics for the screen. His reviews appear often in The Times Literary Supplement.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PART ONEThe Midlander1LichfieldLichfield, the field of the dead, a city in Staffordshire, so named from martyred Christians. Salve magna parens.September 7, 1709, I was born at Lichfield.Johnson, AnnalsLichfield has changed little in appearance in the past fifty years, though possibly it is more pleasant to explore on foot than formerly. James Clifford, in his biography of Johnson, described 'thundering trucks and streams of motor-cars' making the market-place a scene of noise and danger, but now that the city centre has been pedestrianised the walk from Bird Street, along Bore Street and down to Tamworth Street is an agreeable saunter.1 St Mary's Church, opposite the Birthplace, where young Samuel should have been christened (he was not expected to live and it was done hurriedly, in his mother's bedroom), is no longer a complete church; three-quarters of it has been transformed into the Lichfield Heritage Centre offering local history, tea and coffee. On the corner of Sadler and Breadmarket Streets is the Birthplace Museum, opposite the squat statue of the Doctor presented to the city by its citizens in August 1838. 'Every man has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place', proclaims its plinth, though often lost in the market throng of greengrocers, jewellery and pastry stalls.Lichfield is a city of commemoration. Along Dam Street, leading to Minster Pool and the cathedral, is Dame Oliver's School with, above it, a neat metal plaque to commemorate the spot where Lord Brooke, leader of the besieging parliamentary forces, was killed by a bullet fired by a local royalist sharpshooter high up in the cathedral. In Breadmarket Street, just past the Johnson Birthplace a plaquecommemorates Elias Ashmole, antiquarian and founder of the Ashmolean Museum, born there in 1617; outside the George Hotel in Bird Street another commemorates the residence of the playwright George Farquhar; further down the street yet another points out Garrick's house, and along Cathedral Close is where Joseph Addison lived when his father was the Dean. High up on the wall outside old St Mary's Church a small tablet commemorates three martyrs 'burnt at the stake in this market place' in the 1550s. Another signifies that George Fox, founder of the Quakers, stood 'without shoes' in the market in the winter of 1651, after his release from prison in Derby, 'and denounced the City of Lichfield'.2Michael Johnson lived virtually his whole life in Lichfield, rising to become, in the year of Samuel's birth, its sheriff. It was a notable achievement for a man whose start had not been easy. In later years Samuel refused to be drawn on the subject of his forebears, informing Boswell he 'could scarcely tell' who his grandfather had been. Quite possibly he felt a sense of shame acknowledging William Johnson, born in Cubley, Derbyshire, about whose status there is a certain ambiguity; some documents describe him as a 'gentleman', others merely as a 'yeoman'. He first appears in Lichfield records in 1664, living in Tamworth Street with his wife Catherine and four children of whom Michael was the eldest.3 The family found life in Lichfield unrewarding and were forced to scuttle round from place to place with little money until eventually William died in 1671, whereupon Catherine threw herself on local charity and was granted 'a waistcoat' to keep her warm. Apart from the physical benefit this gift conferred, it also indicated she was a perfectly respectable person for the Smith Charity to support. It was another charitable donation, this time from the Conduit Lands Trust, which provided Michael with an apprenticeship to a stationer in London, something he never forgot.4 Once the eight-year term of his indenture was completed he returned to Lichfield and took up residence in Sadler Street in a substantial property with room both for his mother and a handsome bookshop. Soon he was not only selling books but publishing them; the title page of one boasts of 'shops at Litchfield and Uttoxiter, in Staffordshire; and Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in Leicestershire', while he also maintained stallsat Abbots Bromley, Birmingham and Burton.5 A file of letters between him and a trusted client, Sir William Boothby of Ashbourne, reveals the baronet complaining of his 'hurry at Uttoxiter', grumbling that 'the paper booke was not goode paper will not beare ink well'. In December 1684 Sir William, who was very free with objections, lamented that 'Xinophon is misplaced in the binding (a great fault you must be careful to prevent)'; but he was considerably less forthcoming when it came to settling his account. In October 1684 he sent Michael £10 by the bearer 'wh: is all I can spare at present'; in February he wrote: 'I cannot yet help you to money', and in December complained again of Michael's charges; although he lacked time to examine the books, he thought 'many of them to deare'.6In 1691 Michael published The Happy Sinner; or the Penitent Malefactor, a collection of last prayers by the army surgeon Richard Cromwell, executed on 3 July in Lichfield for murder. Cromwell left behind him only his 'seven sovereign remedies for the ills of the flesh', the ingredients of which might be had from apothecaries 'except the Queen of Hungarie's Water', which, Michael noted, he retailed himself. The following year, when his mother died, Michael was a churchwarden of St Mary's, had purchased a 'sitting' in the church, was employing apprentices of his own and, by 1697, was even wealthy enough to advance £80 to the Corporation of Lichfield.7Sir William Boothby's criticisms still rankled in Michael's mind. At one point the baronet had complained that 'most of yr books ... are so ill Bund that I cannot open them to reade without much difficulty'. This was, he said, 'a great fault'. By the middle of the decade this was a fault Michael planned to correct by setting up as a manufacturer of parchment, vellum and leather and publishing his own books. So assiduous was he in his new enterprise that he obtained a summons against Jonathan Drayton, a tanner and potential rival. Michael travelled throughout the Midlands selling and repairing books, becoming a success and building up his trade, apparently reconciled to allowing the more personal side of life to take care of itself. But in June 1706, almost fifty and anxious for the future of his flourishing business, he negotiated a lengthy marriage contract between himself and Sarah Ford of King's Norton. Within the week they weremarried.8 He drew up a further contract assigning his several mortgages into one deed and spent a great deal both of time and money planning a grand new house for them to live in, on the corner of Sadler and Breadmarket Streets, on four floors with at least fifteen rooms, overlooking the market. So grand was his new edifice that it encroached on all the neighbouring properties, for which he had to pay an annual indemnity of 2s 6d for forty years.9 But it was worth it; Michael Johnson had finally arrived and it was in this house that, on 7 September 1709, his son Samuel was born.Sarah, forty and bearing her first child, had 'a very difficult and dangerous labour', but it was a difficulty in which young Samuel, when he heard of it, took pride. 'I was born almost dead', he announced, 'and could not cry for some time.' Sarah Johnson was attended by the notable man-midwife George Hector, by whose efforts Johnson was safely delivered and celebrated in the words, 'Here is a brave boy.' The next day, Rogation Sunday, his father, who had risen that year to be sheriff of Lichfield, was due to ride the circuit of the city, a ceremony which was then performed with considerable solemnity. Asked by his wife 'whom he would invite', Michael replied 'All the town now.'10 Michael Johnson's feasting of his Riding was almost the last to be maintained with 'uncommon magnificence' and splendour; nothing in his later life would match the eminence of that day.Samuel was put 'by my father's persuasion' to be suckled by 'one Marklew, commonly called Bellison' in George Lane; it was a further tiny mark of the sheriff's status that his wife should not feed the infant herself. Sarah Johnson came to visit every day though, conscious of her husband's dignity, 'used to go different ways, that her assiduity might not expose her to ridicule'. She would leave little things behind her, a fan or gloves, to have an excuse to return unexpectedly but 'never discovered any token of neglect'. It was Samuel who showed signs, not of neglect, but of tubercular infection from this status-seeking wet-nursing. The Annals, Johnson's partial memoir of his early years, speak of an 'inflammation' discovered after 'a few weeks' on his buttocks 'which was at first, I think, taken for a burn; but soon appeared to be a natural disorder'. From this point on diseases multiplied and Samuel narrates the evidence of 'scrofuloussores' afflicting every part of his body.11 It was soon discovered that his eyes were affected and 'an issue was cut in my left arm, of which I took no great notice, as I think my mother has told me, having my little hand in a custard'. His mother immediately felt guilty and 'thought my diseases derived from her family' but Dr Swinfen, Johnson's godfather, told her the sores proceeded from 'the bad humours of the nurse'. The result was the same. '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.'There is a defiant swagger about the way Johnson, writing in about 1770, parades his early physical misfortunes proudly, not underplaying but rather exaggerating and exploiting them, taking his disadvantages and learning to use them to his advantage. In telling of his infant life he patronised his parents and, without consciously belittling them, took away the dignity they had so much striven to create. 'My father had much vanity', wrote Johnson, 'which his adversity hindered from being fully exerted.' In one anecdote Johnson says that his father 'never had much kindness' for Mrs Harriots, his mother's relative, and 'willingly disgusted her, by sending his horses from home on Sunday'. This behaviour, apparently criticised, is actually cherished as a symbol of masculine independence. But it was a kind of behaviour which vanished when, later, poverty enforced a cowed compliance. 'I remember, that, mentioning her legacy in the humility of distress, he called her our good Cousin Harriots.' Mrs Harriots, a childless widow, made a special point of Sunday observances; Johnson later noted the 'regularity' of her household, observing that 'he who may live as he will, seldom lives long in the observation of his own rules'.12 On her death in February 1728 she bequeathed Mrs Johnson 'a pair of her best flaxen sheets and pillow cases, as well as a large pewter dish and a dozen pewter plates' along with £40 'for her own separate use'.13A great deal of these scrappy, mutilated Annals concern troubles between his parents. 'My mother had no value for his relations,' Johnson recalled; 'those indeed whom we knew of were much lower than hers.' Not just lower, note, but much lower. The sentiment hesingled out to characterise his childhood home is contempt. 'This contempt began, I know not on which side, very early: but, as my father was little at home, it had not much effect.' Johnson too spent as much time as he could away from home; at the age of sixteen he went to Stourbridge where he found the influence of his cousin Cornelius Ford more benign than his parents' contemptuous sniping. 'They seldom conversed; for my father could not bear to talk of his affairs; and my mother, being unacquainted with books, cared not to talk of any thing else.' There, neatly combined in a witty paradox, is Johnson's vision of life at Lichfield; but the wit comes from his years away from it, and the death of both parents.Had my mother been more literate, they had been better companions. She might have sometimes introduced her unwelcome topick with more success, if she could have diversified her conversation. Of business she had no distinct conception: and therefore her discourse was composed only of complaint, fear, and suspicion. Neither of them ever tried to calculate the profits of trade, or the expenses of living.Though attempting to be even-handed in estimating why his father and mother 'had not much happiness from each other', his criticisms are most acute when reckoning up his mother's faults.My mother concluded that we were poor, because we lost by some of our trades; but the truth was, that my father, having in the early part of his life contracted debts, never had trade sufficient to enable him to pay them, and maintain his family; he got something, but not enough.14His father was a romantic, so lost in the grand gestures of building his own Market Street mansion or celebrating his city 'Riding' with a feast of uncommon magnificence that he would not reckon up the cost. Coming from a background of poverty and apprenticed by charity, he was anxious to make his mark in the city. In 1706 he acquired the Earl of Derby's library, all 2,900 volumes of it, a tremendous coup but one which, considering this was the year in which he rebuilt his house and was married, showed a tendency to overreach himself.Mrs Johnson brought with her a considerable dowry of some £430, but 'he had been unable to carry out his part of the bargain in adding £100 to a trust fund'. 'It was not till about 1768, that I thought to calculate the returns of my father's trade, and by that estimate his probable profits,' Johnson remarks. 'This, I believe, my parents never did.' Oddly, no record of his calculation has been found. He writes in his Welsh Diary of his intention 'To note down my Father's stock, expences, and profit'. But apparently he never did.15Michael was over-ambitious and may have known it, but could do nothing about it. Buying up a small twelve-shilling parcel of books, including Troutback's sermons or a speech of Haversham's on the death of Dr Fowke, he was in his element. He enjoyed haggling with tight-fisted customers who reminded him that they bought an almanac 'every year'. But his purchase of the Earl of Derby's library, together with his manufacture of parchment and leather, were enterprises that went beyond his abilities. In 1718 he was tried 'for using ye Trade of a Tanner' without having been apprenticed to it and, in drawing up his defence, he gave evidence of his pride in his achievements. He was, he said, a merchant 'tradeing to Ireland, Scotland and the furter most parts on England', dealing in commodities, 'more perticuler in Hydes and Skins', who vehemently denied having done any actual tanning himself. He turned the hides over to John Barton who had 'a tanhouse of his own where he tans the Defend's amongst other goods'. Evidence of the court verdict has been lost but it seems Michael was cleared since he continued working for the locality, and was elected junior bailiff on 25 July 1718, fortuitously just as his trial was due to begin.16When Samuel was two and a half he was taken by his mother to London, to be touched by Queen Anne for the 'King's evil' as scrofula was called. Anne was the last monarch to perform a rite which appeared, even then, rather anachronistic, but Johnson believed in it, and wore around his neck the amulet with Michael the archangel on one side, a sailing ship on the ...
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