I approached the late David Nokes’s scholarly book with some trepidation, having heard that it had been criticised for its apparent dismissal of James Boswell.
I approached the late David Nokes’s scholarly book with some trepidation, having heard that it had been criticised for its apparent dismissal of James Boswell. As I had gained all my previous knowledge of the great Sam from Boswell’s magnificent biography I did not expect to enjoy this new exploration. But I did, very much indeed. Nowhere does he accuse Boswell of falsely creating the character of Johnson; indeed he acknowledges that he portrayed an irritable but very human subject.
Nokes’s book, densely academic, provides a sensitive insight into Johnson’s character, and a valuable analysis of his sometimes difficult prose and verse; difficult, that is, because he was steeped in and influenced by the outpourings of such giants as Horace, Ovid, Milton, Euripides, Dryden and Pope.
Johnson was born in 1709 in Lichfield, three years after Michael, his book- seller father, married the somewhat snobbish Sarah Ford of King’s Norton. A sickly baby, he was farmed out to a wet nurse and returned infected with tuberculosis, almost blind in one eye and disfigured with scrofular sores. His brain, however, was unmarked, and in spectacular working order from his earliest years; indeed, as a child, he often sought refuge up a tree to avoid his parents endeavouring to show their neighbours what a brilliant son they’d produced. Educated at Lichfield Grammar School, he showed a passion for translating Aesop and was intoxicated by Latin.
Moved into a higher school, he became both popular and indolent. The same thing happened when, at the age of 20, he was enrolled at Pembroke College, Oxford, where in spite of his tics, his shambling gait, his damaged skin and explosive outbursts, he was admired by all, even loved. But he didn’t study very hard, owing to the fact that he was several steps ahead of his tutors, and left after one year, due to his father’s money running out.
Johnson was a schoolfellow of David Garrick, and together they trudged to London to make their fortunes. Johnson’s first attempt to acquire a name for himself in a translation of the Venetian scholar Paolo Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent, but just as it was finished someone wrote to the newspapers saying there was another translation up for publication. This was a blow, and sales were poor. Nor did his epic poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, bring him much money, nor his novel Rasselas, now considered his best fictional work, which he confessed to having written in one week in order to pay for his mother’s funeral.
He did have some success with The Life of Savage, an electric biography of his friend Richard Savage, an acquitted murderer with whom at night he rambled the dark street and squares of London. Of this book he boasted he had written 48 pages at one sitting. Nokes bravely points out that much of Johnson’s work was far too hastily put together; his translation of jean-Pierre de Crousaz’s Commentary on Pope’s philosophoical poem, An Essay on Man, contained careless errors, mangled French and too few footnotes. He also reveals that much of the material was cribbed from Charles Forman, who died before completing his own translation of the same subject. Meanwhile, Garrick soared to fame as an actor, and it was he who produced Johnson’s only work for the stage, a forgotten drama called Irene.
At last, dismayed at his lack of recognition and his inadequate income from contributions to the Idler, the Rambler and the Gentleman’s Magazine, Johnson decided he would compile a dictionary. He declared that all change was evil, and that he intended to fix the English language for ever. The substantial sum of money he received on signature of the project was a great incentive — ‘no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money’ — and he said it would take him but three years to finish. He was mistaken. By the end of the third year he was still languishing between Cabbage (a plant) and Carious (rotten).
He was by now married to the widow Elizabeth Porter-Tetty and it had been a happy union. She genuinely loved him, appreciated his work and put up with his eccentricities, but she was 20 years his senior and as the years passed, life and age got the boot in and she came to rely on drink and opium. According to Garrick, Johnson, when asked what he believed to be the greatest pleasures in life, replied ‘Fucking and Drinking’, which is why Tetty eventually thought up excuses to keep him from her bed.
The Dictionary took him another four years to complete, and by that time Tetty was dead. Johnson passed his own judgment on the work — ‘Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true’.
Nokes writes about Johnson’s involvement with the Thrales of Streatham, and of his hurt when Hester Thrale announced she was to marry the singer, Piozzi:
If the last act [marriage] is yet to do, I who have loved you, esteemed you, revered you, and served you, entreat that before your fate is irrevocably sealed, I may once more see you.
He didn’t; he died on 13 December, 1784, leaving most of his money to Francis Barber, the black slave he had taken in as a boy.
Johnson wrote that biography was exceedingly worthy of cultivation, and that it was the biographical part of literature that he most loved. Nokes’s last line expresses the hope that his own work will not be a disappointment. He needn’t have worried. This is an astonishing literary achievement.