Philip Hensher

Not tired of this life

Philip Hensher on Peter Martin's biography of Samuel Johnson

Philip Hensher on Peter Martin’s biography of Samuel Johnson

Thanks to Boswell’s inexhaustibly interesting biography, Samuel Johnson is deeply familiar to us, even in his most extreme eccentricities. It’s easy to forget how bizarre and alarming he must have seemed to most of his contemporaries. His involuntary movements were such that modern scholars have often wondered whether he might not have had Tourette’s syndrome. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ sister Frances records a distressing afternoon in Twickenham when he broke into ‘antics both with his feet and hands, with the latter as if he was holding the reins of a horse like a jockey on full speed’. In that more robust age, ‘men, women and children gathered round him, laughing’.

Even to the 18th century, he seemed remarkably dirty — almost everyone who met him commented on it. His way with food and drink was barely decent. A hostess once asked him whether he really wanted a 17th cup of tea; he coldly replied ‘Madam, you are rude’. Boswell has left a record of Johnson’s behaviour, piling in the food until he broke out in a sweat, the great conversationalist quite unwilling to say anything until he was grossly sated. There was something almost medieval about Johnson’s appetites, his medical grossness and his all-consuming fear of hellfire. He is at his most endearingly human when at his pettiest and least dignified. To take a small example, his open envy of his one-time pupil, the great actor David Garrick, emerges in the most alarming ways: once, when Garrick upbraided him for talking too loudly in the wings at King Lear, pretentiously saying that ‘you destroy all my feelings’. Still, it was nothing more than childish resentment which made Johnson reply, ‘Prithee, do not talk of feelings.

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