When a man is tired of Samuel Johnson, he’s tired of life.
James Boswell intended his biography of Dr Johnson, published in 1791, to be no mere chronology, but a life packed with the minutiae of ‘volatile details’. Thus he presented a deluge of correspondence, liberal literary extracts and copious Latin quotations; extensive conversations with ‘utterances from that great and illuminated mind’ (always prefaced by an emphatic ‘Sir!’), as well as the abject prayers poured from what Johnson called his ‘soul polluted by many sins’. Delivered with magnificent aplomb by David Timson, Johnson bursts from these 51 hours as an intellectual and physical colossus.
Timson’s vocal range for the variety of texts is masterly, and his accents are superb, from Johnson’s Birmingham, as rough ‘slow and deliberate’ as his shambling manner, to Boswell’s brisk and elegant Scots, and the prim, pedantic Irish of Oliver Goldsmith. Listening transported me into the Mitre Tavern, coffee house or club, as Johnson threw out conversational challenges (on the ‘mysterious disquisitions of ghosts’; or what is the proper use of riches?) to the assembled company while dining with ‘coffee and old port’. I was part of Johnson’s ‘frisking’ with Joshua Reynolds on the Thames, talking with Boswell for four whole nights, or debating ‘as long as the candles lasted’ with Henry Thrale.
The two of them met in 1763 when Boswell was 22 and Johnson 53, and their mutual devotion became absolute. ‘I hold you in my heart of hearts,’ wrote Johnson, whilst Boswell assured him that ‘a more perfect attachment has not existed in the history of mankind’. So intense was their love that Mrs Boswell scoffed that she had heard of a bear led by a man but never before of a man led by a bear.