It is noticeable that the kind of young woman that a clever public man most likes talking to is intelligent but totally unchallenging. This is pleasant for both. She gets to pick up useful knowledge, while he can hold forth, happy that she doesn’t have the inclination or firepower to disagree, argue or interrupt.
Dr Johnson was a bit like that. He wanted women to be equal ‘but not too equal’. Hannah More, a successful playwright young enough to be his daughter, had too much natural self-belief for him, and he did not admire her dress sense. He was wary and in awe of the confident poet Elizabeth Carter, who knew more Latin and Greek than he did. But he really did enjoy the company of women, and understood their difficulties whether married or single, in either case exposed to the ‘conspiracy’ of the world against them, and to ‘sickness, misery and death’. He proposed in a Rambler essay to turn himself into a ‘neutral being’, somewhere between the sexes.
His mother, who bore him when she was 40, was his first teacher, feeding him with books and stories. Everything suggests he loved her, but he never went back to Lichfield to see her, even when she was dying. His only other domestic relationship was with his wife Tetty, old enough to be his second mother. He was a gangling, stick-thin, jobless, unqualified 25-year-old and she a widow of 46, with three children. They grew apart gradually, and he neglected Tetty as he neglected his mother, but he was shattered when she died.
Contemporaries gossiped and speculated about this marriage. Tetty was not literary. She was blonde with a big bosom; she liked a drink; she was ‘experienced’. According to Kate Chisholm, ‘she was the only woman to have known Johnson intimately as a wife’. He wrote much and shrewdly about marriage, and it was from Tetty that he learned its delights and disappointments. But does Chisholm mean that he never slept with anyone else? She is fastidious and, in a book built upon conjecture, does not speculate about Johnson’s sexuality, sliding respectfully past a suggestive something — to do with locks and keys — in his 20-year friendship with Hester Thrale.
Mrs Thrale provided him with a home from home, and thousands of good dinners. The Thrales loved and revered him enough to tolerate his later-life afflictions and peculiarities — his cumbrous form, his filthy table-manners and poor personal hygiene, his compulsive tics and twitches, his asthma and black depressions, his repetitive obsessional behaviours before entering a house or a roomful of people. Though he liked to set a young lady’s foot upon his knee, and even her whole person if she was small and light enough, his attitude to female literary aspirants was paternal and, professionally, he was actively helpful and encouraging.
The book is illuminating about the way in which deregulation of printing in the mid-18th century, and the subsequent outpouring of books and periodicals, created a sellers’ market for talented young women who left their small towns and villages and went up to London. The ones who knew Johnson all seem to have been amazingly accomplished in ancient and modern languages, and there was a hunger for translations as well as for plays, poetry and novels.
Charlotte Lennox was a special favourite of Johnson’s, and the most modern-sounding — a young actress turned novelist, translator and editor, she was versatile, raffish and unsettled. Another favourite he met when she was very young was the best-selling novelist Fanny Burney, whose biography Chisholm has written. Mary Wollstonecraft met Johnson only once, but that once was definitively influential.
A sadder protégée was Frances Reynolds, sister of the vastly rich and successful Sir Joshua. She, like him, was a portrait painter, and a good one, though a bad writer — Johnson urged her to edit her outpourings, to no avail. He commissioned portraits from her, and sat for her himself. Frances was a difficult person; and her grand brother was horrible to her. It’s to Johnson’s credit that he remained on good terms with both of them. His affectionate verses to Frances about drinking her tea remind one of Swift’s more erotic letters to Vanessa about drinking coffee.
And then there was the strangely-named Hill Boothby, whom Johnson at one point may have considered making his second wife. He called her ‘my dearest’ in letters. Hill lived in Ashbourne, so their relationship was mainly epistolary. She read the Old Testament in Hebrew, and was exceedingly pious. Johnson never got to first base, or maybe changed his mind.
Chisholm’s sometimes repetitious and very personal meditations on all these relationships are tender-hearted, and as a result I never felt as fond of Dr Johnson as I did after finishing her book.