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A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions/Arrangement and Laying out of the Work

< A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions


Boswell's original title-page, professed to be reproduced here, is misleading, and a misdescription: "Boswell's Life of Johnson, including Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and Johnson's Diary of a Journey into North Wales." Boswell's "Life of Johnson" does not include either of these things. His "Journal" was a separate work, and with the "Diary " he had nothing to do. A most serious blemish is the arrangement of the notes. When a work of this kind is illustrated with additions and comments by another "hand," such matter should, of course, be marked with the writer's name, so as to distinguish them from the author's. Here, strange to say, Dr B. Hill's numerous notes are unsigned, and, at first sight, appear to be the legitimate notes of the text: while we find every one of Boswell's notes marked "Boswell," as though he were some intruder or outsider. A man in his own house has no need to label his property with his name; if anything be labelled, it should be the effects of strangers. Malone, when preparing the third edition, was careful to mark every additional note by brackets and initials. Mr Croker marked all his own very voluminous notes, "Croker." But Dr B. Hill even thrusts passages of his own composition into Boswell's notes, and thus spoils their symmetry. Boswell, for instance, furnished a business-like list of Johnson's residences: "1, Bolt Court; 2, Gough Square; 3, Johnson's Court," etc. This becomes, under our editor's treatment: "17 Bolt Court, No 8 (he was here on March 15, 1776, ante II. 427). From about 1765 (ante I. 493) to Oct. 7, 1782 (post} he had, moreover, an apartment at Streatham." But Boswell was speaking of London residences. We must doubt, too, the propriety of introducing a headline over every page of the editor's composition, which affects to describe the subject-matter of each page. This was not, at all events, Boswell's idea. Another adornment which shows a lack of delicate instinct, is the supplying an elaborate modern engraved map for the "Tour." Now, Boswell gave a very clear outline map, without any shading of mountains, etc.—a plan or diagram of the "Tour," as it were, which has a quaint, antique look. This should surely have been reproduced. Again, Boswell, in all the titles of his " Tour," seemed to pride himself on a piquant little device, which he had specially engraved, his crest, a hawk, and motto, "Vraye foy" This is missing in Dr B. Hill's edition. Boswell also gave fac-similes of Johnson's writing at different periods of his life, which he placed on a single page for convenience of comparison. But Dr B. Hill supplies various huge fac-simile letters at full length, which have to be folded and refolded and unfolded, often double pages, and give a clumsiness to the volume. It is the same with the subjects of the many fine prints which are introduced, but after a capricious principle.

Then the appendices offer a strange "renovation of hope" with perpetual disappointment. A whole "section" is thus introduced as promising something highly important, with this title:

"Boswell's intention to attend on Johnson in his illness, and to publish 'Praises of him'"

Now, this seemed to hold out something novel. But we only find this extract: "I intend to be in London in March, chiefly to attend on Dr Johnson with respectful attention. I intend to publish," etc. Such is the entire section.

Another long appendix is devoted to an account of George Psalmanazar and his character. Other remarkable, curious, and eccentric personages alluded to in the text might have equal claim to this separate form of treatment. But will any one guess what was our editor's reason for selecting Psalmanazar? Not the importance of the adventurer; not the editor's own judgment, but this: "I have complied with the request of an unknown correspondent ('query, anonymous'), who was naturally interested in the history of that strange man." The mysteriousness is extraordinary. Granting that the unknown one was "naturally interested," was his "request" therefore to be attended to?

The last of the six great volumes is almost entirely devoted to indexes and abstracts. It is, indeed, a perfect "curio" in its line. Thus, we unfold what looks like a weather map, a strange mystery or diagram, with crossed lines, and figures, and colours, and columns, which is described as, "A chart of Dr Johnson's Con temporaries, drawn up by Margaret and Lucy Hill, on the model of a chart in Mr Ruskiris 'Ariadne Florentina.'" Diable! Recovering from this we pass on to: "Titles of many of the Works quoted in the Notes," filling twelve closely-printed pages. Of "many," but why not all? If they are "quoted in the notes," they are only at the particular place. Why have them over again here? Next we come upon what is called "Addenda," scraps from a number of Johnson's letters which, it seems, were sold at Sotheby's some years ago, all more or less trivial such as an account of "Young Strahan at College," having no relevancy to Boswell's "Life of Johnson," where Dr B. Hill wanders off on his own account with "My friend, Mr C. J. Faulkener, Fellow and Master of University College, has given me the following extracts "which are concerned with the election of the young George Strahan to the Bennett Scholarship! This leads on to a disquisition on the value of the Bennett Scholar ship in 1764 how much was the emolument, etc. Next we come to an index of these "Addenda"; and then to the gigantic general index, which consists of no less than 288 pages, or nearly 600 columns! It has indexes within indexes indexes to Johnson's and Boswell's lives, to Scotland, Ireland, etc. Yet another index follows, oddly denominated "Dicta Philo sophi," or a concordance of Johnson's sayings; with a third. We may contrast with this bulk Mr Croker's simple, admirable index, which fills not quite thirty pages.

Surely a writer so enthusiastic, so familiar with his subject, ought to know the exact name of the first published production of James Boswell. His index proves that he has never seen it certainly never read it. In it we find a reference in italics to "The Club at Newmarket." Turning back to the text it is there again, "The Club" etc. Now, Boswell had indeed written a piece "The Cub at Newmarket," and it will be urged that this was a mere slip, or printer's error, "Cub" and "Club" being so like. But it goes deeper than this. "The Cub" was a piece of doggerel in which Boswell foolishly applied the term "Cub" to himself, so the title exactly described his own "antics." It was no misprint. This production is never alluded to in Boswell's own work, and indeed is little known, but it is found in the letters to Temple, where it is also misprinted "Club," and that misprint it was that misled the editor.

After all this labour, the editor tells us he "will be greatly disappointed if actual errors are discovered" in his index. But we have found some of reference, paging, etc., and he himself confesses that though, under the head ings of America, Oxford, London, Ireland, etc., he sets out all that falls under such heads, somehow "the provincial towns of France, by some mistake, I did not include in the general article." The following is grotesque enough. Under "Port," we have, "it is rowing without a port, i.e. without an object;" on which the editor refers us, see "Claret."

We turn to "Bute," and find: "Bute, third Earl of, Adams, the architect, patronises, II. 325." This seems an odd sort of "Pigeon" English. Adam, by the way, and not Adams, is the architect's name. Some of the Johnsonian dicta are not Johnsonian at all, and would ap pear to have slipped into the list from the general index. Thus we have Gibber's old jest about the pistol missing fire; and under "quare," "A writ of quare adhæsit pavimento (Wags of the Northern Circuit) III. 261," which refers to the well-known hoax upon Boswell. We have also Mrs Salisbury's sayings, with the one about "No tenth transmitter of a foolish face," etc.; and finally the quotation—"Live pleasant, Burke;" with Quin's and Lord Auchinleck's speeches about kings, and " Boswell's description of himself as 'Baro,'" all which are classed as "sayings of Johnson."

I suppose, if we were to search all the known indexes, we should never find one in which the pronoun "I" is entered and referred to with chapter and verse. Our editor has actually done this feat. Here it is, with chapter and verse. In the index to the "Dicta Philosophi " we find the letter "I" set down by itself; then follows this reference: "I put my hat upon my head, II. 136, n. 4"! We rub our eyes, but there it is! And this doggerel, moreover, is one of the "Dicta Philosophi"—one of "Johnson's strong and pointed utterances" which the editor has collected for the "literary man"! Another of these "strong and pointed utterances" we find under the word "Hog"—"Yes, sir, for a hog."

The strangest of Dr B. Hill's delusions is that he "fondly thinks" that Dr Johnson "would have been proud could he have foreseen this edition." What! an edition in which he is attacked, accused of inconsistencies in every page—even of corrupt practices—and in which he is now rebuked, now patronised by Dr B. Hill! So far from feeling pride, he is more likely to have dealt with the editor as he once dealt with Osborne, the bookseller. Surely all who read these notes will be struck by the deter mined way in which the editor criticises or confutes opinions of Johnson by introducing passages from his writings which are opposed to these opinions Yet at the end he has the strange confidence to declare that he has never "thought it his duty to refute or criticise Johnson's arguments." When the sage says anything, there is sure to be a perpetually recurring "yet": Yet he did, or said, or wrote so and so, and was there fore inconsistent. Nay, Dr B. Hill fantastically bids any one who would be rash enough to think of doing such a thing "to place Johnson's portrait after Reynolds" (but which portrait after Reynolds?) "before him, and reflect that if the sage could rise up and meet him face to face he would be sure, on whatever side the right might be, if the pistol missed fire, to knock him down with the butt-end of it." In such case it would go hard with our editor.

Finally, he assures us that "When Edmund Burke witnessed the long and solemn proces sion entering the Cathedral of St Paul's, as it followed Sir Joshua Reynolds to his grave," he was certain that it would have gratified the deceased painter, for he was not indifferent to such "observances." This is the editor's method of proving, by a figure, that Johnson and Boswell would both have been delighted with this edition, and the printing of the work by the Clarendon Press. Indeed, our editor is so eager to secure approbation for his work that he insists on interpreting the feelings and sentiments of the illustrious dead. He tells us, with much complacency, that as Johnson was "so deeply attached to his own college, he would not have been displeased to learn that his editor had been in that once famous nest of 'singing birds.' " Dr B. Hill is not his editor, on this occasion at least. It seems a rhetorical flourish. Stranger still, the editor fondly thinks, "that of Boswell's pleasure I cannot doubt," i.e. a pleasure at having his work pulled to pieces, overburdened to extinction almost with notes and comments, every second statement challenged, flouted, contradicted, laughed at—his whole book re-arranged! It was enough to make him shed tears.

But then the work was done by an Oxford man, was printed in Oxford, and all that came from Oxford, or was of Oxford, would have a special charm for "Bozzy"! An amazing delusion this for Boswell was not an Oxford man at all, and only visiting it occasionally. "How much he valued any tribute from Oxford is shown by the absurd importance he gave to a sermon preached by Mr Agutter," the performance being so contemptible that it could only have been admiration for Oxford that permitted him to admit it. But what is the fact? Boswell was enumerating minutely what he calls the "accumulation of literary honours," which were heaped on his friend after his death, among which was the high compliment of a sermon in memory of Johnson, preached before the University. Could he with propriety have omitted such an honour? The mention of it, and the quotation from it, is simply historical, and had nothing to do with any personal liking for Oxford.

The argument, such as it is, completely fails, and to it the editor has given "an absurd importance."