A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions/Johnson's Letters and Dr Birkbeck Hill's Notes
was spoken, not of our Johnsonian Dr B. Hill, but of another Dr Hill, who lived in Johnson days, and who was really as copious and verbose as the modern. He also might have been "a considerable man, had he been content to tell the world no more than he knew."
JOHNSON'S LETTERS AND DR BIRKBECK HILL'S NOTES.
Dr B. Hill has also issued two large volumes of Johnson's letters, which, according to the advertisement, "include all the letters known to be in existence, with the exception"—and here the editor is very precise—"of a few of which it has not been possible to obtain transcripts, and of those printed in my own edition of the 'Life,'" to which exact references are given. But on surveying "my collection" what do we find? First, reference only to over three hundred of the letters furnished by Boswell; second, a large number of scraps of letters, and epitomes of letters, often no more than a line in length, extracted by auctioneers for their catalogues, and which are counted as letters; thirdly, Mrs Piozzi's two volumes of letters, already "collected" by her; and fourthly, various printed, scattered letters, with a number that have never been in print. The "few of which it has not been possible to obtain transcripts" no doubt refer to the Perkins and Taylor letters. While, however, he claims to have furnished an almost complete collection of all the letters "then in existence," strange to say, he begins at once to have qualms, and to our astonishment we read: "It will be shown, I fear, that letters which are in print have been left unnoticed, and that others which I enter as new have been already noticed." There are, it seems, garners still unswept, and Dr B. Hill has uneasy suspicions, if not a certainty, that there are stores of Johnsonian letters which were refused to him, or which he knows not of, and which it is now too late to secure.
So the book should properly be described as "A Collection of Johnson's Letters, published and unpublished, with the Dates and Places of some Letters, Extracts and Epitomes of others, taken from Auctioneers' Catalogues"; or it might be called "Letters, with Lists of Letters, Extracts and Abstracts of Letters, etc."
It is a fantastic notion, truly, that of counting as "letters"—numbering each gravely—the scraps from auctioneers' catalogues, the meagre extract or abstract furnished by Puttick or Sotheby, to pique the bidder's appetite. He tells of the weary, toilsome hours he spent in the Bodleian Library, plodding through these records to light on some such scrap as this: "1043 (the number of the letter in the series). In Messrs Sotheby & Co.'s catalogue, Aug. 21, 1872, Lot 113, is a letter of Johnson's to Mrs Strahan, postponing an invitation: 'I had forgotten that I myself had invited a friend to dine with me.'" In a sort of flutter of excitement at this new department of "research by catalogue," the editor feels it his duty to give severe rebuke or warning to the authorities concerned. "This labour had been greatly lightened had those catalogues which contain descriptions of autographs been bound up separately. As it was, I found them scattered among long lists, not only of books, but also of musical instruments, bins of wine, and cigars." How dreadful this! He hopes, however, that the practice will be suppressed in the near future, and he directs his admonition to. other institutions as well as to the Bodleian: "If librarians would keep these catalogues apart, the students of literature and history would have at their command a great amount of curious material." So see to it, messieurs, the Librarians!
Johnson, he assures us, "was a great letter writer." "Johnson wrote unwillingly." Now, this would not occur to any one who considers the spontaneous style and vast number of the letters: Johnson was always writing letters. We might suspect that the editor had mistaken the sense of his authority. And so it proves. Johnson merely says that he found himself very "unwilling to take up a pen only to tell my friend that I am well." He admitted that he wrote, not "with difficulty"—but rather "with more difficulty than those persons who write nothing but letters." It was "not without a considerable effort of resolution that he sat down to write." The editor has completely mistaken the meaning.
But commend us to the following grotesque notion. Johnson's letters in the "Life," he says, are spoiled by their position. They lose all value and attraction owing to the superior charm of the "talk." "We hurry through them (or even skip over them) to arrive at the passages where the larger type and the inverted commas give signs that we shall have good talk." This is simple nonsense—the editor must pardon the word. Who experiences this feeling? We always read Johnson's letters with pleasure. They belong to the narrative; they are often answers to Boswell's letters. If the editor really does wish to "skip" them, that is his own personal affair; but he should not include every one in his "we."
Few writers of our time, indeed, can furnish such genuine entertainment as Dr B. Hill, Common editors, poor souls! in their dull, practical way present their, work in business-like fashion; they are thinking of their author and of his matter. But Dr B. Hill seems possessed with a perfect furia he leaps and bounds; he expends himself in the wildest, most delusive theories; he raves against dead writers, as though they were now in the flesh; as a matter of course, he assails his own idol even.
We shall begin with a rare bonne bouche. The editor gives a letter of Johnson's "Tetty," which he styles "the gem of my collection." Every one knows of Johnson's curious infatuation about this woman, who seemed to him a perfect goddess. But no one will be prepared for the extraordinary company into which the editor introduces the poor lady by way of justification against Lord Macaulay's. attack. "Nevertheless, at the time of her marriage, she was just the same age as "—who will it be supposed?—"Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland, when our great historian describes her as no longer young, but still retaining traces of that superb and voluptuous loveliness which" etc. Poor Tetty and a Hampton Court beauty! were there ever such a strange concatenation? But listen to this. "For all we know, it was Mrs Johnson's superb and voluptuous loveliness which overcame the heart of the lamented Mr Porter" (who lamented him) "and it was the traces of it which overcame the young Samuel." For all we know, indeed! Garrick and Boswell, for all we do know, and others, have described her as a coarse, repulsive^ ludicrous person. Suddenly the editor is seized with grotesque furia, turns on the historian, and overwhelms him with scorn, and scoffs: "She was only a decent married woman. Had she been a royal harlot, Macaulay, instead of mocking her bloom, might have laid on the colours with an art and a skill scarcely surpassed by Sir Peter Lely." This is incoherence, and it is difficult to deal with it seriously. The reader needs not to be assured that Macaulay had no penchant for "royal harlots," nor was he their retained advocate; nor did he prefer them to "only decent married women."
Another truly rich "morsel" is connected with the death of Johnson. How is the scene to be made impressive, or, as Boswell has it, "aweful"? Why, by introducing a stage coach! This literally is the fact. "William Hutton, who," we are told, "left London on the night of December 12th," describes how he "went silently on over a hundred and twenty miles of snow." On which the editor adds impressively: "As the coach went silently on through the wintry world, Johnson's spirit passed away." This is all solemn enough. Still, the editor ought to be accurate in his solemnity. Hutton left in his mysterious coach on the Sunday night, the 12th, and the good Johnson did not yield up his honest soul until seven o'clock on the Monday night, by which time Hutton was actually safe at home! So the whole point of the thing, such as it is, vanishes.
But we are not yet done with Hutton and his coaching.
Johnson was once returning to London through Birmingham and Oxford, when it strikes the editor as a strange coincidence that "W. Hutton took the same road not three weeks later" There is something comic in the mania. Dr B. Hill has for connecting Johnson and Hutton, and always in this matter of a coach. Without any apropos whatever, he proceeds to tell us all about Hutton's journey; how thirty-six horses were used: calculating "there must have been nine changes of horses in the 120 miles." We next learn how the guard sat inside with Hutton, and told him how he had defended the coach against highwaymen—sometimes had killed them, etc. We wonder what had all this to do with Johnson. But the editor thus ingeniously connects these particulars with him: "If Johnson went by the same coach^ all this talk must have been poured into the ears of Black Francis as he sat outside"!
But "must it," after all? To be secure of even this, we must assume, first, that it was the same coach; second, the same guard j third, that the guard did tell his stories over again; and fourth, and above all, that he was sitting beside "Black Francis."
Still that does not exhaust these curious Hutton coach incidents. Johnson could not get a place in a Birmingham coach. What will be said when we find "that nine years later W. Hutton, returning from London, found all the places taken" etc. And still more strange, "he left in the evening of a December day."
There is nothing, however, in the volumes more truly comic than the following. Johnson made this simple statement:
"I propose to come home to-morrow."
There are no bounds to the ingenuity of the editor; the gravest questions are here involved. How did Johnson travel? How might he have travelled? Above all, had he luggage? If he had, how did he send it? Was it heavy or light? What did he pay?
The editor gravely discusses all these matters: "He might have returned either by the Oxford coach, which left at 8 a.m.—fare 15s.;" and, mark this: "There were no outside passengers." Here we touch firm ground, for, of course, John son must have travelled inside—that is, if he did travel by this vehicle. Or did he take" "'The Machine,' which left the Bear Inn every Monday, Wednesday, etc., at 6 a.m."? "The Machine" or Oxford coach? Who can tell? The editor adds resignedly: " What time these coaches neared London we are not told." Johnson would prefer knowing what time they reached London.
But there is a further important point, viz. that "'The Machine' was not licensed by the Vice-Chancellor." Then more details about "The Machine": It carried six inside passengers. And the serious point of luggage. "Each inside passenger was allowed six pounds of luggage; beyond that weight a penny a pound was charged." Bradshaw is not "in it" with all this. Still the point is left unsettled: Had Johnson luggage? and how much? In default of evidence, the editor does the next best thing—he speculates. "Had Johnson sent heavy luggage"—and how likely that was!—"he might have sent it by the university old stage waggon, which left"—and so on. And thus, bewildered by "The Machine," the "Oxford coach," the "heavy waggon," etc., we are left no wiser. I repeat, it seems incredible that any one could bring himself to write such things.
Johnson wrote from Oxford: "To-morrow, if I can, I shall go forward." The editor speculates on—no, announces positively!--the meaning of this "if I can." Johnson, he says, meant that it depended on the chance of his getting a place in any of the passing coaches. Yet only in the line before is written: " But I have not been very well. I hope I am not ill by sympathy with you." This was surely what he meant by "if I can."
But let us come to one of our editor's nimblest gambados, and which surpasses all the rest. Johnson wrote from Ashbourne to Mrs Thrale of a letter which he had received from "Miss ——" complaining of the "frigidity with which he had answered her." She neither hoped nor desired "to excite greater warmth." His salutation to her, "madam," was like a glass of cold water." I dare neither write with frigidity nor With fire?." There was formerly in France a cour de l'amour, but I fancy no one was ever summoned before it after threescore"; yet he would certainly be non-suited in it. " I am not very sorry that she is far off. There can be no great danger in writing to her." This badinage refers to some spinster who was "making up" to the Doctor. It seems almost incredible, but the editor arrives at this amazing, bewildering solution: "Miss Porter, I think, is meant." That is, Lucy Porter, his step-daughter! She was bringing 'him into the "Court of Love." "No great danger of his being caught in writing" to his step-daughter, to whom he was always writing. These things take one's breath away. Only three days before he had written of this very step-daughter: "Lucy is a philosopher, and considers me to be one of the external and accidental things that," etc.
Having laid down his theory, he proceeds to support it. "See post," he says, "where Johnson expressed his surprise that she detained him at Lichfield"—we must suppose to prosecute her plans for bringing him into the "Court of Love." Here he completely misreads the passage. On the contrary, Johnson was delighted at being pressed to stay by his Lucy. "I was pleased to find that I could please. Lucy is a very peremptory maiden." In the other "see post" there is the same kind of mistake: "Miss Porter will be satisfied with a very little of my company," the editor fancying here that this was a tart speech; but Johnson meant that his step daughter would let him off after a short stay. What can be over Dr B. Hill when he writes such things?
Johnson wrote to say he had "met Mrs Langton and Juliet" at Ashbourne. Nothing could be clearer—persons, place, and incident. But the editor sees a mystery and a whole train of difficulties. "If these ladies were Bennet Langton's mother and sister, they were not on the direct road to London from the family seat in Lincolnshire." I meet my friend Smith who lives near Exeter, at Rugby: "No," our editor will say, "it could not have been Smith, because he was not on the direct road to London from his family seat." The Duke and Duchess of Argyle had been also met at the same place; so they, being out of the proper road "from the family seat," forfeit their identity! Presently we are treated to a singular speculation. As they were not Johnson's Langtons an unusual name - Dr B. Hill suddenly discovers that "a passage in the next letter seems to show that some actress and her daughter, or companion, is described"! The surprises our doctor has in store for us grow and grow, and are perfectly startling. He thus proves his new point. Johnson wrote: "Mrs —— grows old, and has lost much of the undulations, etc. … She can act upon the stage now only for her own benefit. But Juliet is very cheerful, only lamenting the inconstancy of men." Now "Mrs ——," with the repetition of the name " Juliet," show that it refers to the same ladies. There was no actress called Langton, and Johnson was speaking with pleasant figure of "Mrs ——'s decay when he said "she could appear only for her own benefit," while the "but " that follows, with a description of Juliet, shows that the reference to the benefit is metaphorical. Apart from this, Dr B. Hill should have noted that Johnson speaks of them as ladies of his own station. He says, "they sent for me," and "I went to them," and then he sent for Boswell to introduce him, as he had never met them. They were also known to the Thrales. In short, there can be no question they were Bennet Langton's relatives.
The editor at times indulges in a familiarity that seems rather undignified. Johnson mentioned Sir J. Mawbey, one of the House of Commons bores, on which the editor quotes the familiar lines on the Speaker:
"'There Cornwall sits, and oh, unhappy fate!
Must sit for ever, though in long debate;
Painful pre-eminence! he hears, 'tis true,
Fox, North, and Burke, but hears Sir Joseph, too.'
"I thought, when I saw my friend, Mr Leonard H. Courtney, sitting as chairman of committee, that to him, as member for a division of Corn wall, these lines might happily apply! " Observe, all arises out of the mere mention of Sir J. Mawbey's name. The verses might pass; but "my friend Courtney" sits for Liskeard, and therefore Cornwall is appropriate! And is it of moment to anybody what thoughts occurred to Dr B. Hill when he surveyed "my friend sitting as chairman"? Is this notion—is this friendship—is even Mr Courtney himself—of the slightest value in connection with the purpose in hand, which is the editing of Johnson's letters?
Here is a good specimen of the confusion into which Dr B. Hill's discoveries lead him. Johnson wrote to Mrs Thrale: "Invite Mr Levett to dinner" (on which, by the way, the editor remarks: "I should not have expected that Levett was admitted to Mrs Thrale's table," but really Johnson must have known better than Dr B. Hill). He then added: "Make enquiry what family he has, and how they proceed." Dr B. Hill refers us "for the enquiry about him," to Mrs Thrale's answer to it and there we find her writing: "My husband bids me tell you that he has ex amined the register; that Levett is only seventytwo." It will be seen that it is an odd answer, or no answer at all, to an enquiry " what family he has," to say " he is only seventy-two." But the editor is all astray. Johnson wished to know what "family" Levett has; that is, what persons of his own (Johnson's) household were there. This is shown by what follows, "and how they proceed," i.e. were they quarrelling, etc., as usual. Further, Johnson's letter of enquiry was dated April 18, and was from Ashbourne, and Mrs Thrale's is dated on the same day.
Thrale, wrote Johnson, to distract his grief for his son's death, said that "he would go to the house. I hope he has found something that laid hold of his attention." "The House of Commons, I conjecture" says our editor. Amazing! He, of course, meant the house at Southwark; the house of business, where he would find something to lay hold of his attention. But on his conjecture the editor conjectures afresh. "On April 1, if he had attended, he heard a debate on Mr Hartley's motion on the expenses of the American War;" and so, off we now go on a new tack. The amount of these expenses of the war Lord North could not divine. Nor could he have fancied—conjecture again—that the National Debt would have been raised from, etc., to, etc.; neither would Gibbon have ever, etc. That is, if Thrale had been there. For the increase of the National Debt, see 'Penny Cyclopaedia.'" And we get all this from Thrale's saying "he would go to the house." We do not know whether he ever went at all; but we get Lord North, Hartley, Gibbon, National Debt, "Penny Cyclopaedia."
Dr B. Hill has a fashion of imputing degrading motives to his two heroes, when he wants to support one of his imaginary "discoveries." Sastres, "the Italian master," who was with Johnson at his death, is mentioned by Boswell, in illustration of the contrasted classes of per sons with whom Johnson associated. One day he was with Colonel Fox, of the Guards, or the unhappy Levett; with Lady Crewe or Mrs Gardiner, the worthy tallow-chandler; with the Chancellor or "Sastres, the Italian master." Here Dr B. Hill morbidly sees a deliberate intention to degrade Sastres! And why? "Perhaps to punish him." And for what? "For nbt letting him (Boswell) publish Johnson's letters." All these assumptions are unfounded. Johnson himself in his will describes Sastres as "the Italian master"; any appreciator of Boswell's methods will feel that he introduces the name as an effective contrast; there is no proof that letters were asked for or were refused—in fact, they had been published by Mrs Piozzi—and we and more letters, was infuriated because he did not obtain these five! The whole is perfect "moonshine," and, in truth, Dr B. Hill seems to decree a particular state of facts to suit his purpose, just as the Convention "decreed victory." So with Ryland, another correspondent of Johnson's. " Perhaps Boswell passed him over in silence in return for his keeping from him the letters he received from Johnson." As usual, there is no evidence that he refused Boswell any letters; he may have had none to refuse; as it is, only two are known. As to "passing him over in silence," what will be said when we find that Boswell, after mentioning him respectfully as one of his (Johnson's) friends, tells, us that he was really unable to trace anything about him and other friends of Johnson at the time! But no. The editor will have it that Boswell was full of spite; was not Hawkesworth, Ryland's brother-in-law, a person disliked by Boswell? So, naturally, he must dislike Ryland. All which is amazing.
The occult reason for these charges is that the editor is himself very angry when any one re fuses him the use of letters. It would seem that he could not obtain from the great brewery firm the Perkins letters—though, indeed, business houses, it is known, dislike furnishing their papers. He is scornfully indignant.: "When the secret letters and papers of kings have been given to the world, it might have been thought that the private correspondence of a great scholar with a superintendent of a brewery," etc. It may be said there is no rule or law in these matters. People may have often good reasons for not allowing their papers to be used, even by a Dr B. Hill; and the publishing of the royal papers he speaks of are not so common as he thinks. In his anger at this disappointment he falls on the heralds, or (possibly) on the late obliging Sir B. Burke, Ulster: "I hoped to ascertain from 'The Landed Gentry' which of the descendants of the author of (Barclay's) 'Apology' purchased the great brewery, but apparently it was thought too trifling a matter in the history of the family to require any record." Purchasing a business is not of the importance that Dr B. Hill thinks. "The Landed Gentry" and such works give only historic details. It was, moreover, the city branch of the family that bought the brewery: they are named incidentally; but the head of the house who had the landed property is the subject of the "Landed Gentry." But to fancy poor Johnson encrusted with all this rambling comment, and, such as it is, inaccurate! It is enough to make him turn in his grave!
Indeed, there is something almost morbid in the fashion in which our editor broods over these ravished Perkins letters. They are magnified into tremendous importance. There was, he conceives, some "aweful" mystery about the "secret transactions" that passed when the brewery was sold. "Perhaps a second hundred years must pass away before it shall be ascertained what part Johnson took in founding the new firm." As Johnson took no part in "founding the new firm," but merely sold the business to them, this is likely to be unfruitful. "Still," wails the editor, "these would have thrown light on a side of Johnson's character that is little known." "Something, however, can even now be discovered." Providentially, as it seems, one of these "Perkins letters "got separated from the rest, and reveals part of the mystery. We now turn to it with interest, for it is always desirable to have "light thrown" on obscure questions, but are rather taken aback at finding that it is doubtful after all if it be a Perkins at all! It is only the editor's guess. And, further, it merely touches on the "iron resolution "of these executors; "Barclay's interest requires your convenience," etc. Here is not much "light." But in another place we have Dr B. Hill making this really portentous announcement, which does not throw much light on "the side of Johnson's character: " "A passage in one of Johnson's letters to Mrs Thrale throws further light on the secret transactions, by which, in the year of grace 1751, Mr Perkins the man was changed into Mr Perkins the master" Now we shall touch firm ground. So with much curiosity we turned to the "secret transactions." Here they are: "Mr ———— came to talk about the partnership, and was very copious." (!) Such is the whole revelation.
But it seems there are other churls who possess autograph letters which they will not allow Dr B. Hill to inspect or use. Think of "the petty selfishness which makes a man hug some famous autograph letter as a man hugs his gold, rejoicing in it the more as he keeps it entirely to himself"! This is surely unreasonable. A gentleman may have paid a large price for his letter, may wish to make use of it himself, and may therefore prefer not to entrust it to Dr B. Hill.
In another work he lashes such culprits through the world. "A man who burns an autograph shows such an insensibility of nature, such a want of imagination, that it is likely in a more cruel age he would have burnt heretics." Dickens, who had some "sensibility of nature," and whose "imagination" no one could deny, once made a vast holocaust of almost every letter he possessed, and for excellent reasons. Other eminent men have done the same thing.
We all know that the Boswell family have never felt any pride in their famous James, and seemed to wince at the recollection of his antics. Since writing—I should say noting—"The Life," Dr B. Hill determined to give these people one more chance and approach an incorrigible old lady, Mrs Vassall, Boswell's grand-niece, who, with Caledonian bluntness, treated our doctor much as the old Lord Auchinleck treated his son. "I once tried," says our editor, "to penetrate into Auchinleck" a mysterious phrase, which only means that he wanted access to the library, "where I had hoped to find many curious memorials." But the owner was inexorable. As the doctor tells us, sternly and solemnly, "Permission was refused." "My attempt," he adds, "had excited suspicion,"—not unnaturally; for the old lady had heard of a forthcoming edition, and that "he had some papers from Ayrshire," and "in a lady's letter begged him to be so good as to inform her from whom he had received them, and oblige yours, etc." The insinuation was so obvious that the editor proceeded to make an example of the poor woman, who by this time was in her grave, holding up her methods of writing, spelling, and what not. It seems she spelt Johnson "Johnston," which is, or used to be, the correct Scotch fashion, and, what was worse, she actually directed her letter to
"G. Berbick Hill, Esq."
Not to know that the great—the one Edition—had been out actually two years was bad enough; but to call him, the editor "Berbick" was too bad. He angrily stigmatised it as " contemptuous ignorance," nay, "it came to her from her father." And the woman's spelling—why, had she not written of an "Addition of Boswell"?
All which makes one think that Dr B. Hill's behaviour was not exactly chivalrous. Every touch he furnishes, I confess, only raises one's opinion of this worthy Scotch lady, who was merely exhibiting an interesting native pride of family and a natural sensitiveness.
Dr B. Hill, who is a very "nice" man, is often much shocked by Mrs Thrale's "indelicacy." When Thrale was ill Johnson was assiduous in sending excellent medical advice, of which he had a good store, and among others counselled "frequent evacuation." Allusions of this kind were customary in those days; we have since invented more delicate forms. What a woman to publish these and such-like passages! Still, "it is strange" and scarcely consistent to find the editor in one of his notes carefully in forming us that Johnson, when he "took physic," meant thereby that he had "taken a purge." Fie, Dr B. Hill!
There is an extraordinary supplement labelled "Appendix B" at the end of vol. i., and which has a reference to page 14. There is, it says, among the "Hume Papers" a letter on the experiences of living at Oxford, and written by one of the Macdonald family. We are given all the dates of the writer's career, his matriculation, call to the Bar, etc. The letter is of great length, filling over two closely-printed pages. We wonder what its bearing is or what it has to do with Johnson's letters, who was at college in 1731, this being dated nigh thirty years later. We turn back, as we are invited to do, to page 14. Still no sign of relevancy—not an allusion to Oxford, or to Hume, or to Macdonald. What it means it is impossible to guess. The editor adds: "Hume had also consulted Sir Gilbert Elliot." On what? "His answers were not satisfactory." Why? Most bewildering!
Johnson wrote to Mr Thrale: "I repeat my challenge to alternate diet," which the editor strangely supposes to mean fasting on alternate days. It surely signifies alternating one kind of food with another. Dr B. Hill adds positively: " The challenge had not been given in any preceding letter." But, as, of course, he is wrong, both in his facts and in his theory, I turn, only three or four letters back, to that of April 6, and lo! we read: "Does Mr Thrale regulate himself as to regimen? Nothing can keep him so safe as the method so often mentioned. If health and reason can be preserved by changing three or four meals a week; if such a change," etc. There is the challenge to an "alternate diet" which our too confident editor declares does not exist; for changing three or four meals a week is not fasting on alternate days.
But here is a fresh marvel! Not satisfied with his speculations and comments, our editor must devise an imaginary text of his own—and speculate on that. Here are two specimens—Johnson, the editor finds, wrote: "Of flowers, if Chloris herself were here, I would present her only with the bloom of health" This mystifies Dr B. Hill, as well it may. He opines that if Chloris had the bloom of health, she would want nothing else. He is inclined "to conjecture" that Johnson had written "heath." Turning to the text, we find to our amazement that it is actually printed "heath"!
Johnson, in his lively vein, wrote to Mrs Thrale something about "the ladies of her rout." The editor declares that he cannot find in the great Dictionary any definition of the sense in which Johnson uses the word here. This is most extraordinary. For there Johnson explains it as "clamorous multitude," "a rabble"; that is, a noisy crowd. Could anything be clearer? Johnson was speaking of Mrs Thrale's train of gossiping, noisy females.
On two or three occasions Johnson wrote that he was getting, or had not yet got, "curiosities for Queenie's cabinet." These were little matters bought for the child when he was on his travels. The editor ponders over this; then speculates sadly: "What has become of the curiosities which Johnson collected for Mrs Thrale's little girl?" What, indeed?—and at this time of day!—considering it is one hundred and twenty years ago.
Johnson once addressed a letter to a "Mr Tomkeson." The editor is much gravelled. "The name Tomkeson," he assures us, is not in Boswell? is not found in the parish lists? Nothing of the kind. " It is not in the indexes of the Gentleman's Magazine." That settles it. "There is no sich a person which his name is Tomkeson," as Mrs Gamp would say. As we know, a word not to be "found in Johnson's Dictionary" or in "the Gentleman's Magazine" fatally compromises it. "Perhaps the copyist has been at fault." Why not Johnson himself, who so often spelt phonetically? Tomkeson, Tompkinson, or Tomkinson are the same name, and the editor will find them in abundance in his Gentleman's Magazine.
Johnson finishes a letter with "To sleep, or not to sleep." Our careful editor, to make all clear, adds this explanation: "He is parodying 'Hamlet,' act iii., scene i, line 56, 'To be, or not to be.'" On this one hardly knows what to say.
Johnson alluded to a "parterre" Every one surely knows what it means. We are told that "Johnson defines 'parterre' as a level of ground that faces the front of a house, and is generally finished with greens and flowers." The word "greens" then catching his eye, he must caution us. "Greens," he says gravely, "Johnson does not define in its modern sense, of a vegetable food," etc.
Dr B. Hill, who as we see is himself perpetually falling into mistakes, has, of course, an almost reverential tolerance for the most obvious misprints. Having to quote from Nichol's "Illustration," a passage in which it is said that "Shakespeare (sic) adopted all turns, etc," he is too scrupulous to make the change of a letter. And in one of his letters to Mrs Thrale, we find Johnson describing a visit to Ham, not the London suburb, but a well-known county seat in Derbyshire. We find that he took Boswell with him to Ham, … they went to Ham, etc. This, of course, was Mrs Piozzi's misreading for Islam, belonging to the Port family. The editor actually maintains the misprint, and the reader finds himself, in the text, taken to Ham, and to Ham again!
When one of her friends was sick, Johnson wrote to Mrs Thrale that "Physicians, be their powers less or more, are the only refuge we have." On which our ever-literal editor conceives that Johnson has now lost his faith. "Johnson's piety here seems to slumber." He was, of course, only thinking of the comparative value of various earthly aids. As if the pious Johnson would, to restore Thrale to health, announce that there was no use in prayers.
Johnson described the arrival of Fathers Wilks and Brewer, English Benedictines from Paris, and the attentions he paid them. Says the editor: "Had they officiated as priests in England, if they were foreigners, the act was a felony; if natives, high treason." Dr B. Hill the practice of the Catholic Faith was interdicted in England! Did not Mrs Thrale write to Johnson of the burning of chapels at Bath and Bristol, to say nothing of the London chapels, in which, of course, rites were celebrated?
When the editor comes to speak of the attempt that was made to obtain an increase of Johnson's pension, and which failed, in a sort of paroxysm of indignation he turns to an old Debrett's "Royal Kalendar for 1795," and there discovers that there were "twelve Lords of the Bedchamber," each receiving ^1200 a year, and fourteen grooms of the Chamber, etc." No one can divine what is to come of this. The pensioned Johnson ought to have had one of these posts! "As Burns was made a gauger, so Johnson might have been made a Lord, or at least a groom, of the Bedchamber." The notion of the poor old dying Johnson going about at court as "Lord Johnson"—or, better still, as "a groom of the Bedchamber"—is exquisitely funny. And as Burns was to be gratified with the humble office of a gauger, so Johnson was to be raised to the Peerage!
Johnson wrote that he had the honour of "saluting Flora Macdonald." The editor must explain. "By saluting, Johnson, I believe meant kissing." I believe! Has he read old novels and old plays, or heard of "a chaste salute"? Nay, he even goes to look for it in the great Dictionary, where he assures us that Johnson actually gives it "as one of the meanings of the word."
In the month of November Johnson wrote to Mrs Thrale this simple observation, "You have at last begun to bathe." The subject of bathing, or the "cold bath" has always for the editor a fascination; and in other cases he has expended many laborious notes and quotations on the origin, etc., of bathing. Here he assures us gravely "that the month of November is late in the year for bathing." Johnson was not thinking whether it was late or early, neither was Mrs Thrale; nor did it matter. She had bathed; that was certain. One may even traverse the editor's statement, and say that November is not late for bathing; it depends on the mildness of the season. But we are not yet done with this bathing matter. The editor is determined to aprofondir the whole. Johnson spoke of the "unaccountable terror a child has for some things"; particularly of "putting into the water a child who is well." I really don't know how to approach these things with due gravity, but here we have our commentator earnestly assuring us that by "putting into the water" was meant "putting into the sea—for they were at Brighton."
Among numerous other startling things, we are told that Johnson did not know how to spell, that in our day spelling is a "mean" thing; that too much is thought of it. "It will bring comfort, methinks, to those who are ignorant to know that Johnson was as ignorant." I say nothing of these persons; but as to Johnson, he is altogether astray. Johnson spelt correctly, according to the standard of his day, but there were many words whose spelling was not fixed. "Gaiety" was sometimes "gayety." "Boswell" Johnson always spelt with one l, "harass" with two r's, and k was often added to "public" and such words. Who would think of calling such variations bad spelling?
Johnson, as we have seen, spelt "Boswell" with one l, and "Scott" with one t. This was almost a habit with him. On this spelling of "Scott" Dr B. Hill is perfectly astounding: "He was perhaps paying to the future Lord Stowell a delicate compliment." An odd fashion of complimenting, this, by docking one letter! But it was in this way: Lord Eldon, it seems, once sat next a gentleman who told him that he spelt his name "Scot," as being more distinguished. And therefore Johnson, perhaps, "intended a delicate compliment." And observe, Lord Eldon records it as an oddity, not as a compliment. Johnson, of course, "intended" nothing at all—spelling the word by a sort of instinct. It may be, however, that Dr B. Hill intends something facetious.
Johnson wrote proposing to go to Birmingham and Oxford. "And there (at Oxford) we will have a row, and a dinner, and a dish of tea." This seems plain. "But," says the editor, "I do not understand what this means." What does a row signify? Flying to the great Dictionary, he finds "row" explained as—what think you?—"A file, a rank, a number of things ranged in line." Johnson does not recognise the sense of "an excursion in a rowing boat." But he has the verb "to row," to take excursions in a rowing boat; and there are many illustrations given. Yet "I do not understand what this means." Neither "is it likely that in his weak health he would go on the river so late." Very probable; but Johnson was merely talking and planning, and possibly did not go on the river.
Johnson wrote to Garrick, in reference to their deceased friend, Dr Hawkesworth, that he had no letters of the latter. The editor tells us that there is a letter to Garrick from one Wray, who says he will leave to Goldsmith's friends the task of honouring his memory. From these two scraps the editor gravely concludes: "It is possible that Garrick planned memoirs of Goldsmith and Hawkesworth"! The idea of Garrick as a memoir-writer is rather novel. Further on, he tells us that the edition of Hawkesworth's life and writings was being actually prepared by Ryland. Garrick had merely asked Johnson for letters. As to the Goldsmith theory, the editor demolishes it for us himself, for he says timorously: "Perhaps Wray refers only to Goldsmith's monument in Westminster Abbey"! So he does.
There is a "Caled" Harding mentioned: "A misprint, I conjecture, for Caleb." But why not apply to his faithful and oft-consulted Gentleman's Magazine? There I found it, "Caleb Harding, Mansfield, Notts, Physician"—and without any conjecturing.
But here is a strange surmise. When Mrs Thrale was christening one of her daughters, Johnson wrote: "You must let us have a Bessy another time." "No doubt Johnson had asked that one of Thralls daughters should bear the name of his wife"! As if he would speak in this jocular way of his loved "Tetty," or thrust her name on a family who knew nothing of her! He surely meant that it was a good old English name, or a family name.
In some trifling points Dr B. Hill's blindness is perfectly confounding. Johnson wrote to Mrs Thrale from the country of the high price of malt, that little profit was made: "But there is often a rise upon stock. Some in the town have made £50 by the rise upon stock," i.e. the funds. But hearken to our editor: "Johnson refers, I suppose, to the rise in the value of the stock of malt"(!) With due caution he adds: "He may be speaking of the funds." "May"! And then, to demolish his own theory, he quotes the prices of the year, showing a rise of ten pounds in the funds!
Once Johnson, returning to town, took boat at Gravesend, and landed at Billingsgate, whence he had to walk some distance before he found a coach. The editor is much dissatisfied at this arrangement. He finds out that a bell was rung at Gravesend at high tide by night and day. "Surely the bell was rung at low tide," Dr B. Hill says piteously, "so that the boat might be carried up by the flow." We cannot tell anything about this bell. The rule applied to, we are assured, "tilt boats" also—that is, boats with sails as well as to wherries—and the bell rang at Billingsgate also, where the high tide would suit the voyage to Gravesend. In any case, the ringing of the bell or the tide had nothing to do with Johnson. Then, John son, in his honest way, says, when he landed, he had to carry his budget to Cornhill before he got a coach. But the editor, not quite satisfied with this, could have told him what to do: "From Billingsgate the most convenient way for Johnson would have been to take a sculling-boat to Temple Stairs." Still, he can make allowance for Johnson's behaviour on this occasion. He knew what was in' his mind. "Doubtless the state of the tide made it dangerous to pass under London Bridge." There is no evidence of this. The truth was, Billingsgate was the end of the journey. Johnson, "I conjecture," had had enough of the water, and a coach would cost him but little more. Well, he carried his "budget" part of the way. Budget? thinks our editor, what is this? "Johnson defines it as a bag easily carried." And then, to prevent mistakes of careless people who might fancy Johnson was helping the Exchequer in some way by "carrying his Budget," we are assured "that the sense in which it is commonly used, of the yearly financial statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is not given in the Dictionary."
"Of this parcel," wrote Johnson of some MS. submitted to him, "I have rejected no poetry." Is it not plain, and Johnsonian, too? But the editor must oddly amend, and puts "ejected": "Of this parcel I have ejected no poetry." To see Johnson ejecting poetry from parcels must have been a rare sight.
But here is a very elaborate blunder. John son wrote jocosely of a day "that you never saw before, as Doodle says," etc. Now, who was Doodle? The editor makes diligent research, and finds out that Doodle was a character in one of Ravenscroft's plays, called "The London Cuckolds," and in which Doodle figured as an alderman. This is very precise. We have then some interesting details as to this play—how it was always performed at a particular season, and how, later, Garrick, in the interests of decency and morals, had abolished the performance, and substituted "George Barnwell" for the old piece. This was all so particular that, though having my own view on the matter, I was staggered, and took down the play to look out the words which Johnson had quoted, and "Alderman Doodle" was presumed to have uttered. To my surprise they were not there. Most people know that they belong to a much better known play—"Tom Thumb"—where are the two burlesque lords, "Noodle and Doodle," who open the piece with a song, in which are the words quoted by Johnson. It is clear that the editor could not have taken the trouble to look for the lines.
Next for a strange "jumble." Johnson spoke of some friends, whose names are suppressed by Mrs Thrale, and represented by the initials C, B, and D. These admittedly refer to Fanny Burney, Cumberland, and Dr Delap. Presently we find Johnson alluding to a friend as one * * * who had lost £20,000 in a speculation, adding, "Neither D nor B has given occasion to his loss." This loser is later spoken of as C. The editor at once leaps to the conclusion that C must be Cumberland, especially as D and B—that is, Fanny Burney and her friend Delap—"fit in," as he calls it. Let us see how they "fit in." Johnson tells us: "Of B (Fanny), I suppose the fact is true that he is gone; but, for his loss, who can tell who has been the winner?" His loss, mark! So our editor asks us to believe that the struggling Cumberland had lost £20,000; that "Fanny" had been "plunging," and had fled the country! All which is ludicrous.
It might be, indeed, that there is hardly a single "discovery," "conjecture," or "theory," of the editor's that does not break down in some way. Thus, we have a letter of Johnson's to Lowe, the painter, which the editor arbitrarily dates May I5th, 1778. Johnson writes to him that he had mentioned his case to Reynolds and Garrick, but that both were "cold." Garrick, however, seemed to relent: "I think you have reason to expect something from him. But he must be tenderly handled. I have just, however, received what will please and gratify you. I have sent it just as it came." This, the editor fancies, refers to a letter from Garrick, in which Lowe gratefully acknowledges a gift of ten pounds from the actor, sent on May I5th, 1778. "It was very likely that sum which Johnson sent on just as it came." It will be seen in a moment, as the editor ought to have seen, that this will not hold, for had not Johnson told Lowe plainly that Garrick was "cold"; that he must be handled tenderly; that nothing at the moment was to be got from him? "However," he adds, "I send you something that will please you," etc. Not surely from Garrick, for Johnson would have said, "but he has just sent me ten pounds for you"—but some encouraging letter or promise from some one else. This is the meaning of this "However"—that is, "though we have failed with Garrick for the present, I send you something else that will console you."
"Save one's hay," getting one's hay "saved," are familiar phrases enough even to non-farmers. Johnson had written that if the weather continued fine, "it will certainly save hay. But that would not make up for the scanty harvest." Nothing could be clearer or more commonplace; but, to our utter bewilderment, we are gravely assured that the fine weather would save the hay, "by making the grass grow, so that there would be food for the cattle." A fresh crop was miraculously to come up under a spell of fine weather, and thus the farmer would be saved using his hay! What are we to think?
Describing a wager between Macbean and one Hamilton, as to the date when the Dictionary would be completed, the editor strangely announces that this Hamilton "had some share in the printing of the Dictionary," though he con cedes that "a great deal of it was done by Strahan." Anything more unwarranted or far-fetched could not be conceived. Every Johnsonian knows that Strahan was the printer of the Dictionary, and a printer of importance, who had no need of any extra aid. Such a thing was unheard of. And on the title we read: "Printed by W. Strahan." The book took some years going through the press, and each sheet was worked off as it was ready, and the type distributed, so there was no strain on the establishment. And after all, the editor is not sure that this Hamilton was Hamilton the printer. "Hamilton was likely Archibald Hamilton, the printer."
A touch will cause the editor's most ingenious speculations to topple over in the most curious way. Thus, when on the eve of his quarrel with Mr Thrale, Johnson complained that "Susy had not written, and Miss Thrale had sent him only one letter," the editor detects here an early symptom of coldness. Miss Thrale, mark! "He does not call her Queeney." Still he called the other girl "Susy," and turning over a few pages we find him calling her "Queeney," or "Queenie," just as usual!
Here is one of the editor's odd speculations—too unsound, of course. Johnson, when at Oxford, went with his host, Dr Edwards, to see his living, which was only five miles off. "No doubt," the editor says gravely, "they returned the same day." We neither doubt nor assent; we cannot tell; nor does it matter. In default of all knowledge of details of the visit, the editor sets his imagination to work, and taking down his Lewis's "Topographical Dictionary," finds out that "the old Manor House, which had belonged to Speaker Lenthal, was still standing." Something could be got out of this. We are asked to picture Johnson going over the rooms. "No doubt"—yes, but there is doubt—"he was gravely told a story about Cromwell's visit, and how he concealed himself, and was let down in a chair," etc. Gravely told! The editor almost fancies that he was by.
Johnson wrote that, as he lived among the various orders of mankind, he was familiar with "the exploits, sometimes of the philosophers, sometimes of the pickpockets." This is plain enough; but the editor illustrates it by this mysterious, oracular utterance, "The two orders sometimes met" This has no bearing on Johnson's remark. Of course, all classes of society may, and do "meet"—in the streets, at public places, etc. But it turns out that the editor intends to be jocose, for it seems that when a balloon was going up some noblemen and gentlemen lost their watches and purses, and in this way "the two orders sometimes met." But even this is inaccurate. For here the two orders did not meet; Johnson was speaking of the "philosophers and pickpockets"; these were "noblemen and gentlemen."
Whenever weather of any kind is mentioned—be it fine or bad, "rain or shine"—our editor is certain to start off on a course of minute meteorological investigations, tracing out not only what was the weather of the moment, but what was it before, and what was it after. It is hard to deal with these things in sober seriousness; so genuine, indeed, is Dr B. Hill in his enthusiasm that he is quite unconscious of the absurdity. Thus, at the end of August, 1777, Johnson wrote this casual remark from the country: "The weather was à merveille" Then Dr B. Hill starts off on his eccentric enquiries, and discovers that " the earlier part of the summer had been very wet," which did not matter, as Johnson was dealing with the latter portion. Our old friend Walpole is then introduced to confirm this general "wetness," though it has to be admitted that by the end of September, more than a month after Johnson wrote, "all was lustre and brilliancy." This is likely enough; for we may conclude, cheerfully, that at one time it may have been fine and at another wet. Still he is troubled by the thought that Johnson had stated that about the middle of September "we have at last fine weather—in Derbyshire"; but we are reassured by the news that "the weather in Staffordshire had been extraordinarily fine nearly three weeks earlier." This is an odd mania, and we really do not know what to make of it. It suggests a comic character in "Money," who is always remarking that it is "seasonable weather"!
Writing to India, Johnson said piously, and picturesquely, too: "Prayers can pass the line and tropics." The editor cannot resist having his "little joke" here: "Prayers would, apparently, take the longer course round the Cape of Good Hope." This alone would show little feeling by Dr B. Hill for the duty he has undertaken.
Walpole described Dr Birch as "running about in quest of anything new or old." On which the editor: "He ran about in more senses than one, for he walked round London." How could he run about if he "walked"? The truth was, Dr Birch made an interesting peregrination round London, and this was not "running about in more senses than one," or in any sense. Walpole's meaning was figurative. Dr Birch was an ardent antiquary, who, like Boswell, hunted for information everywhere; but he did not actually "run" as he enquired.
The editor has an odd phobia as to apply ing the term "girl" to any one over twenty, He will not have it. Johnson wrote affectionately to his "Tetty": "Now, my dear girl." The editor objects that "she was past forty or fifty." On another occasion Johnson called Hannah More "a saucy girl." Again the editor interposes: "She was between thirty and forty." Surely he must have heard of "an old girl." But this is sheer trifling. As we saw, he will not have "boy" either.
And again: Did you stay all night at Sir J. Reynolds's," wrote Johnson to Mrs Thrale, "and keep Miss up again?" Anyone would understand this. But the editor supplies this comment: Miss, who was kept up again, was Miss Thrale." And if we are to be so minute, why alter the sense? Miss was not kept up; Johnson merely enquired if she had been.
Once on the tour Johnson described how there were no seats for the ladies in the boat, or, as he put it, "accommodations." This the editor explains in a rather amusing way. "Johnson commonly says accommodations where we should say 'conveniences.'" Where has Dr B. Hill been living all this time? Should we, or do we, say this? On a boating party at Oxford, for instance, would one of the young oarsmen announce that there were no "conveniences for the ladies." For this word "accommodation," the editor seems to have an odd fancy. In another place, we find him lingering fondly over it, and quoting "who do not obstruct accommodation," etc., which he explains as "provision of consideration," with much more.
He sometimes makes wild conjectures—apparently for the reason that he thinks the thing ought to be so. Thus we are told: " It is probable that Mrs Cobb and Mrs Adey, with their brother, were joint owners of Edial Hall when Johnson took it for an academy." There is not the faintest ground for this assertion. Dr B. Hill must know that it is no more "probable" that it belonged to these people than that it belonged to the Garricks or to Walmesley, or to any one else in Lichfield.
Surely every one knows that the "gear" of a horse means a part of his harness. But the editor gravely assures us that "in Johnson's Dictionary gears signifies 'the traces by which horses or oxen draw,' " etc.
When Johnson speaks of consulting the "Edinburgh Dispensatory," the editor tells us that "in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1747 is advertised the 'Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia,' edited by W. Lewis," assuming that this was the work Johnson consulted. Nothing of the kind. It was, as Johnson knew, and accurately stated, the "Edinburgh Dispensatory," a well-known medical work published in 1733, and of which there are several editions.
It is often almost incomprehensible how Dr B. Hill can so mistake the meaning of his text. Johnson wrote "of the petticoat government he had never heard," and of some Shakespeare discovery, that "no one had seen the wonders." To explain the first of these recondite allusions, the editor refers us to other passages: "I am miserable under petticoat government," and, "See how I live when I am not under petticoat government." But is it not plain that he was alluding to some story about a friend supposed to be suffering from female tyranny? The editor adds a more amazing hypothesis: " It is possible that some political pamphlet had been brought out under that title in imitation of one by Dunton in 1702." As if people could recall a pamphlet nearly eighty years old.
And what was the Dramatic Discovery? According to our editor, these "wonders," of which Johnson knew nothing, this dramatic curiosity of which he was only "told," was neither more nor less than a new book written by Johnson himself!—a supplement to his Shakespeare in two volumes—his own book: a discovery of which the author was once told by Miss Lawrence. But it would be foolish to go further with the matter. Johnson was clearly speaking of some portrait, or play, or fabrication that had just come to light.
Johnson wrote to his dying mother that he did not think her "unfit to face death," which leads the editor into this rhapsody: "How Johnson's truthfulness stands forth here! Not flattering at that dread hour … it is all that he dared say even to his mother." Considering that the poor old lady was ninety years old, any thing in the way of "flattering" her, i.e. holding out delusive hopes of living, was not likely to occur to her son or to herself. But, as it was, Johnson, in the tenderest way, did encourage her to live: "Endeavour to do all you can for yourself. Eat as much as you can," etc. Even the grand "truthfulness" which stood forth at "that dread hour" did not amount to saying, "You cannot live," but that he thought she was well prepared if she should die. What Dr B, Hill means, after so extolling Johnson for his blunt truthfulness, by saying "it is all he dared to say even to his mother," I cannot divine. The editor then announces, en passant, "Travelling was then very slow." In proof of which we are told of a certain nobleman who, travelling in his coach and six, took two whole days to go ninety miles. Who was this nobleman? He is not found in the "Peerage"; he and his coach and six exist only in "Tom Jones"! And good going it was, considering; for, having six horses, it was probably a heavy Berline. But Johnson could have taken the ordinary night coach.
Here is another strange misconception. John son wrote to Mrs Thrale: "To-day I went to look into my places in the Borough." Johnson, as we know, often associated himself with the brewery, speaking of it as "ours"—"we shall brew," etc. Looking into "my places" surely meant something of this kind. The editor tells us it was "his room," or, rather, the "receptacles in it in the Thrales' house in the Borough." But "places" is never used in this sense, as cabinets or drawers, etc. We never heard that Johnson lived with the Thrales at the Borough, or that he had a room there, or kept his things there, though he had a room at Streatham. The common-sense meaning surely is that he went round to look at "my places in the Borough"—the brewhouse, etc., to see and report how things were going on. Further, once writing from Oxford he tells how he showed some one "the places." He adds, as if to explain, "I called on Mr Perkins in the counting-house," another of his "places."
Johnson wrote to one Hollyer, who, according to Mr Croker, was his cousin. The editor doubts this. "The tone of his letter is not that of one who is writing to his first cousin." Now, here Johnson speaks of his relation Thomas Johnson, whom he calls "our cousin," that is, cousin to both Hollyer and Johnson; and he describes him as a "man almost equally related to both of us." Could anything be clearer?
Dr Burney, it seems, went to Oxford to study in the libraries, on which important point our editor, like his hero Jamie, "gangs clean daft." First, he notes the strange circumstance that it was the only week in the year in which the library was shut up. This "shutting up" becomes a very serious matter, though it does not affect Johnson or Boswell in any way. At this time "the inspection was held once a year"; but we must note that "a custom had apparently arisen of closing the library a week beforehand for the sake of getting ready," etc. Even this information is rather speculative, for we are told that the custom had only apparently arisen. Still, we must get on as well as we can. It is much to know that this custom of "closing for cleaning" was actually sanctioned by the statutes of 1813. With such praiseworthy thoroughness does our editor trace all about this " closing for cleaning" that he discovers that it is now closed during the first week of October. And then, what fee did Dr Burney pay? Here, again, the editor gets no further than an "apparently." "Apparently the fees were the same at the time of Dr Burney's visit." And next, who was librarian at the time of Dr Burney's visit? Why, the Rev. J. Price. Then we ramble off to Dr Beddoes, the reader in chemistry, who was accused of having lent a copy of Cook's "Voyages." And all this hotchpot about Dr Burney having gone to the Bodleian!
Johnson wrote to Taylor these simple words: "I am moved; I fancy I shall move again." The editor is much struck with the word "moved," and begs our attention to this strange peculiarity: "Johnson, writing the word at the end of one line and at the beginning of the next, divides it 'mo-ved.'" C'est immense!
If there is any one whom Dr B. Hill strives to lessen, or even to degrade, it is, perhaps, Johnson himself. He is constantly trying to show that he is inconsistent, unfeeling, etc. In this connection it is astonishing to find him charging Johnson with sanctioning bribery and corruption at elections! When Thrale lost his seat Johnson tried to find another for him.
"As seats," he wrote, "are to be had without natural interest" he fancied persons might be found "who transact such affairs." This is twisted into corruptly purchasing a seat! And Johnson, moreover, was falsifying his principles, for he had written elsewhere: "The statutes against bribery were intended to prevent up starts with money from getting into Parliament." I should be ashamed to defend Johnson against such accusations. The meaning of his words was that there were seats open to persons "without natural interest"; that is, who were unconnected with the place. These were patronage boroughs, and boroughs which might be glad to have a wealthy citizen like Thrale. He, moreover, was not an "upstart" with money to whom the statutes would apply. He had been in Parliament, and was well known. The whole is absurd.
On the death of Mrs Thrale's son Johnson wrote a letter of condolence. "Poor Ralph is gone." She had done her best to save him. The boy had not suffered much. "Think on those who are left to you." He then passes on to other topics. Surely this seems feeling enough, and sympathetic too. But not enough for our editor. It is "a strange letter." He attacks his hero for being so heartless. "The childless Johnson was ignorant of the feelings of a parent." But I refer the editor to Johnson's truly affectionate and condoling letters on the deaths of the other children (March 25 and 30, 1776), and let him say if Johnson was ignorant of the feelings of a parent.
Johnson also wrote to her to say that he had declined a ball and supper. His editor "has him" here, and wishes to prove him insincere. "He had, however, attended the Lichfield Theatre on the day on which the news arrived of the boy's death." This criticism, again, shows how little the editor understands human nature and the course of human actions. To go to a local theatre in a country town, and where his relations to the Thrales, and the death itself, were almost unknown, was a different thing from going to a ball and supper in London, where it would seem unbecoming. This is too elementary for discussion.
"I wish Ralph better," wrote Johnson on another occasion to Mrs Thrale of her son, and my master (Mr Thrale) and his boys well." Could any statement be put in plainer language?—Ralph was one boy, Harry the other. He wished Ralph better, and Mr Thrale and his sons happiness. Yet thus the editor: "Who he meant by his boys I do not know."
The editor again, eager to catch Johnson tripping, points out that he had spelt a Mr Kindersley's name wrongly as "Kinsderley." It is amusing to find the corrector himself falling into a blunder of the same kind in the very act of correction, for he points out that it should be "Kinsdersley." The bewildered reader is thus told that Johnson is wrong, and is asked to substitute what is also wrong. Not content with this, he tries to set Johnson right on another point, and with equal success. Johnson spoke of a book, written by this Mr Kindersley, and the editor announces that it was by Mrs Kindersley. But on reading the passage carefully and quietly, as Dr B. Hill should have done, we find Johnson saying, "Mr Kindersley and another lady'"—which clearly shows that he had written Mrs Kindersley, and that the printer or Mrs Thrale had misread him.
Johnson wrote: "At Lichfield, my native place, I hope to show a good example by frequent attendance at church." Most natural, and most plain too. He lays out his plan, and gives his reason for it, viz. "to show a good example." But the editor sees something below. Recalling how Johnson once stood in the market-place, to expiate his unfilial conduct, he gravely tells us that he here wished to do an act of "penance"! This is incredible, but so it is. It seems that over sixty years before, when Johnson was a boy, "he had played truant from church" and by going to church now, he would make atonement before his fellow-citizens! As if the act would have this effect on the Lichfield folk! As if they could remember that a little boy "had played truant from church"! and above all, as if Johnson would think his regular duty of going to church was an act of penance!
Johnson's house in Lichfield was close to Sadler Street, and he once alluded pleasantly to what he calls "the revolutions of Sadler Street." We cannot tell what these were, but the editor knows. They were certainly changes in the local force of watchmen. Cue for the orchestra! Did not these watchmen carry "Bills"? and did not the editor during "my visit to 'Lichfield" see these actual " Bills." Then we have Shakespeare's Dogberry introduced; and it was curious that Dogberry's men also had "Bills." They were also carried in "the Court of Array," which leads on to "the Statutes of Array." We are then taken—by heaven knows what concatenation!—to the city gaol, which was in a bad state; and then, as might be expected, to John Howard. But the editor cannot shake himself clear of the Watch, and so we return to them. It seems they used to be called "dozeners." That word sends us off to the Isle of Man, where it seems there are "vintiners." Each "vintiner" had a vintaine, etc. Poor Johnson!
Johnson spoke of a gentleman who had erected a commemoratory urn to him, and which he said was like burying him in his life time. Dr B. Hill says that Boswell mentions a Colonel Myddleton, of Wales, who had done this, but adds that he could not be the person Johnson spoke of, as the inscription showed that it was put up after Johnson's death. This is quite wrong. Boswell is speaking of "the abundant homage paid to Johnson during his life," and gives this Myddleton urn as an instance, with its inscription: "This spot was often dignified by the presence of, etc., whose moral writings, etc., give ardour to virtue," etc. That this was the gentleman referred to by Johnson, seems all but certain, as it is unlikely that there would be two persons who erected urns. Further, Johnson heard it through Mrs Thrale, who was a Welsh woman, and Colonel Myddleton was Welsh also, and actually writes that it was being done, and that it was like burying him alive.
Johnson wrote of his old friend Mrs Aston, "as being, I fancy, about sixty-eight. Is it likely that she will ever be better?" Here the editor, seeing into Johnson's mind, assures us that "he was thinking of himself, for sixty-eight was his own age." How unsophisticated is Dr B. Hill, and how little does he know of old people in general, and of Johnson in particular! As if the latter would fancy that Mrs Aston's case could apply to him. He was always thinking, on the contrary, that he would get better, and he would shut out the notion of their both being of the same age; or, if he did think it, he would, perhaps, lay the flattering unction to himself that he was the same age, but in vigour much younger.
Mrs Thrale mentions a visit from a "Mr R——" who, she thought, "would drive her wild." The editor opines that "he was some schemer or projector, with designs on Mrs Thrale's purse." There is nothing to show that the man was a schemer, or projector, or wanted to get at Mrs Thrale's purse. So blinded is the editor by his delusions, that he cannot see that only a few lines above Johnson tells all about him. Mr R—— simply wanted a place! He had skill in keeping accounts, and he wished to have Perkins' office. Johnson thought it was better to keep Perkins. And out of this the editor engenders the theory that he wanted to rob or swindle Mrs Thrale!
The editor notes how in his money difficulties Johnson "never turned to Garrick." He adds in a bewildering way: "Reynolds, moreover, was in great prosperity, for he had in 1758 150 letters." What is the connection, particularly in that "moreover"? So with the odd proof of great prosperity—"for he had 150 letters." Equally mysterious is how it all proves that Johnson "never turned to Garrick in his distresses."
Johnson, speaking of a chapel in which were some gravestones, said: "Without some of the ancient families … still continued their sepulture." Who could fail to understand this? Some people buried in the chapel, but the more ancient families preferred the churchyard. But no: "What Johnson means by 'without' in this passage at first sight is not clear."
He himself will strive to make clearer the clearest statements. Thus Johnson wrote: "Boswell wishes to draw me to Lichfield, and, as I love to travel with him, I have a mind to be drawn." But this must be obscure to readers, the editor thinks, so it is explained to us: "Boswell, who was returning to Scotland, no doubt, wished Johnson to accompany him as far as Lichfield." No doubt he did. Again, when Johnson says, as plainly as he can, that some one "had offered Perkins money, but that it was not wanted," the editor obligingly tells us that the person in question "had offered, no doubt, to advance money to Perkins, if any were needed." These are wonderful "no doubts."
Where "Mr C." is mentioned, the editor, speculating whether it be Mr Crutchley or Mr Cator that is intended, always contrives to mistake. Johnson states that a "Mr C." had offered Perkins money, but that it was not wanted. The editor assures us that Cator, who was one of the executors, "had offered, no doubt, to advance money to Perkins, but it was not wanted." Why repeat this bit of information which we had already? But it was surely not Cator, as the editor ought to know, for he presently quotes Miss Burney, who says that Mr Crutchley offered to lend Perkins £1000.
As the editor takes Cator for Crutchley where Crutchley was meant, so he takes Crutchley for Cator where Cator was intended.
Johnson had said: "If he goes to ——, he will be overpowered with words as good as his own." This talker, the editor announces, was Mr Crutchley, who was one of the trustees. But Johnson had just complained of another of the trustees, Mr Cator, who, he said, "speaks with great exuberance." This was surely the person Johnson referred to. He sees this Cator every where. Thus, when some successful and retired tradesman complained that he had no power of talk—"I go to conversations, but I have no conversation " this was, of course, Cator, according to the editor. But, as we have just seen, Cator "speaks with great exuberance." He was a great talker; as Miss Burney says, "gives his opinion upon everything." The truth was, Cator was a man of weight, culture, an M.P., a person of large fortune, a squire, and, certainly not "a retired tradesman."
As to Dr Collier's epitaph, Johnson writes: "You may set S—— S—— at defiance." "The S—— S——," thus the editor objects, "she (Mrs Piozzi) says means 'Streatfield,' forgetful of the final 's,'" a trivial point at most. But the lady was perfectly right. "S—— S——" were the initials of the "nick-name" of the well-known "Sophy Streatfield," for whom Dr Collier has such an attachment, and who figures in Miss Burney's Diary. It was two names, not one.
Dr B. Hill affects a sort of sagacity in "discovering" that a certain letter, without any ad dress, was written to Lord Shelburne; but the letter itself reveals the name as plainly as if it were written on it. Johnson distinguishes between mother and wife—"with Lady Shelburne I once had the honour,"etc.; "to your lady I am a stranger," etc. Plain as a pikestaff.
The strange confusion into which his wild guesses lead the editor is well shown by the following: "Mr —— was not calamity," wrote Johnson in June 1783, "it was his sister. I am afraid the term is now strictly applicable, for she seems to have fallen some way into obscurity, I am afraid, by a palsy," etc. To explain which, the editor refers us, " see post? to a letter of about a fortnight later, in which Johnson wrote: "Your Bath news shows me new calamities. I am told Mrs L—— is left with a numerous family, very slenderly supplied." This, according to Dr B. Hill, was the "calamity" referred to before. But Johnson says "new calamities," i.e. one in addition to the other which was an old one. This Mrs L—— was Mrs Lewis, the wife of the Dean of Ossory. Her "calamity" was being left in poverty; in the first case, the calamity was a palsy. They were distinct per sons. But, beguiled by his theory, the editor goes on to entangle himself still more. Johnson later had recurred to the first case; he was glad she was not left in poverty; her disease was sufficient misery. Again the editor notes, "probably Mrs L—— (the Dean's wife) mentioned ante." Johnson, a year later, speaks of this palsied lady as not being well. Only at this stage the editor thought of looking up the date of the Dean's death, which he found took place before June 8; that is, before the allusion to the first calamity. So the whole fabric tumbles down. In this awkward position he tries to rescue himself by having recourse to his usual device—the letters were wrongly placed! And he tries to supply a new and proper date by a fresh theory equally unfounded. Johnson on June 5 spoke of Mrs Thrale's pity for "a thief that had made the gallows idle." He was sorry for his suicide, but "I suppose he would have gone to the gallows,' etc. This surely refers to some common malefactor. But no; he means an eminent contractor, one Powell, who had made free with the public monies and committed suicide. But we need not consider the matter further, for the editor himself tells us that his solution "was possible, though not probable," and finally adds, "it does not seem likely that he would have been tried on the capital charge."
Johnson wrote that their daily fare at Ashbourne was "Toujours strawberries and cream." The editor assures us that Johnson was quoting or adapting the French proverb, "Toujours perdrix" That proverb is always quoted to illustrate some monotonous repetitions of the same person, story, song, or fare; but Johnson was merely stating the literal fact that there was "always strawberries and cream." More amazing is the further illustration of this trivial point by a quotation from Swift on a poet, who, he says, may ring changes in rhymes and words, but the reader generally finds it all pork." Johnson has strawberries and cream every day, and so resembles a poet whose rhymes suggest pork, etc. What does it mean?
Johnson disapproved of the Royal Marriage Act because "he would not have the people think that its validity depended on the will of a man." This passage, we are told, "puzzled Mr Croker and Mr Lockhart"; why, it would be hard to say, for nothing could be more intelligible. He consulted his Gentleman's Magazine, the following extract from which "throws light on Johnson's meaning." The Bill would help the King to change the order of succession, for, by putting his veto on the proposed marriage of his eldest son, he could thus "bring in the younger son." All which is sheer delusion, and a mare's nest, and poor Johnson is made to talk utter nonsense. He was, of course, not thinking of such things, but of the religious question. Marriage was the function of the Church, and indissoluble, and not to depend on the will of a man. When Johnson said "no man can run away from himself," he was thinking, we are told, of the familiar quotation, "cœlum non animum" etc. Every scholar will supply the true line, which is even more hackneyed, "Patrice quis exul se quoque fugit."
When Johnson writes to Mrs Thrale of the polling at Oxford, the editor supplies us with a long analysis of the voters, and finally tells us that "only fourteen had two Christian names; not quite one in thirty-five" Is childish too strong a word for this sort of "information"?
There is a delightful "characteristical" note on "Mussels and Whilks." Johnson on one occasion writes that " I saw mussels and whilks." Most people would know what these words meant. But we must go far deeper. "Johnson only gives this word (whilk) incidentally in his Dictionary." Wise Johnson! The next best thing is to look out the word welk, under "to welk." Our editor tells us "Whilk is used for a small shell-fish." Further, whelk Johnson defines as (1), an inequality, a protuberance; (2), a pustule, and so on.
The editor has, as he fancies, discovered two blunders of the late Mr John Forster's, in his popular "Life of Goldsmith." Knowing how this admirable critic and correct writer was distinguished for accuracy and knowledge of his subject, I was certain—before examination even—that these charges would prove unfounded. And so it turned out. There was one Cooke, a friend of Goldsmith's, whom Mr Forster de scribed as a young Irish law student, living near Goldsmith in the Temple. Now, as Gold smith, the editor tells us, did not reside in the Temple till 1763, and as Cooke was old enough to have published his "Hesiod" in 1728, and to have found a place in the "Dunciad," poor foolish Mr Forster must have been quite astray in his facts. But the editor has confounded an English Thomas Cooke, who lived near the beginning of the century, with a William Cooke of Cork, who was alive in 1820—a personage that Dr B. Hill ought to have heard of. This is a serious blunder. He then deals with Mr Forster's other mistake, of confusing "Moore the Fabulist," better known as the writer of "The Gamester," with Dr Moore, the author of "Zeluco." Well, we turn to the text of "The Life," and find, to our astonishment, that Mr Forster was speaking of Edward Moore (who was the "fabulist"), and not of Dr John Moore of "Zeluco" fame. So there could be no possible foundation for this rather wanton charge; but I at last discovered that in the Index Moore was described as the author of "Zeluco." Mr Forster, as I learned from him self, did not prepare his own indexes, and I recollect his telling me he was not satisfied with the index to "The Life." The author is fairly only accountable for his text. Of course, had he, like Dr B. Hill, prepared his own monumental index, a volume strong, he would be chargeable.
When the Hebridean Tourists were proceeding from Montrose to Laurencekirk, they crossed a certain bridge. They little dreamed what a mysterious incident was occurring close by. The editor's note is so astonishing that I must give it in full. He begins: "James Mill was born on April the 6th, 1773, at Northwater Bridge, Parish of Logic, Pert, Forfar. The bridge was on the great central line of communication from the North of Scotland. The hamlet is right and left of the road. Bain's 'Life of Mill,' p. i. Boswell and Johnson, on the road to Laurencekirk, must have passed by close to the cottage in which he was lying, a baby not five months old." Observe, not even John Stuart Mill, but the more obscure James. Nor is there even a certainty that he was "lying there a baby." And what had it all to do with Johnson or Boswell, who in their lives must have passed numbers of places where more or less obscure people were "lying as babies?"
Surveying the ruins at St Andrews, Johnson pronounced that it was "a sorrowful scene," and very naturally, for these were devastated churches. The editor tells us: "One sorrowful scene Johnson was perhaps too late in the year to see." And what was this?—a death?—illness? Why, nothing but some broken windows in one of the colleges!
There is a critical instinct that comes of familiarity with turns of thought and character, and which almost infallibly guides us to the meaning. "Davies," Johnson wrote, "has had great success as an author, generated by the corruption of a bookseller," a pleasant sarcasm, which is surely intelligible. He means that the success of the authorship was owing to the knowledge of the "tricks of the trade," or that the authorship was of the inferior sort that might be expected from a crafty bookseller. The editor can see nothing of this. Johnson intended to point at Davies having been a bankrupt! There was "the corruption of the bookseller." With this interpretation Johnson's saying becomes unmeaning, for there is no corruption in bankruptcy as regards authorship. Moreover, Davies's bankruptcy had occurred some years before.
Johnson wrote to his friend Taylor that a Dr Wilson "can have no money," etc. Here is a specimen of the fashion in which Dr B. Hill will mistake the plain meaning of a passage. "Taylor," he says, "might have had some dispute" with Wilson. But the passage is clear—Wilson had a dispute, not with Taylor, but with a "Mr B." Johnson writes that the case is clear on Mr B.'s side, and Taylor intervening had merely drawn up some paper to help his friend, which Johnson praised. The editor tells us also, in reference to Taylor's quarrel with his wife: "Boswell seems to have known nothing of this matter." What! Boswell, who went on visits to Taylor with Johnson, who talked over his affairs with Johnson, and who was inquisitive enough—would he not have asked about Taylor's wife? As Taylor was alive, and helped him in his work, he was naturally silent on this delicate point.
When comforting Mrs Thrale on the loss of her husband, Johnson wrote: "Whom I have lost let me not now remember." Who could mistake the meaning? "You have lost your husband, but see all I have lost losses I dare not think of." That is to say, his own wife, his mother, etc. Then he added that others had suffered also" Lucy Porter has just lost her brother." But no; he was thinking of Thrale, whom he wished not even to " now remember," though he was at the moment remembering him, and dwelling on his merits.
Some of the editor's facetious comments are not very intelligible. Mrs Thrale wrote of her husband that "he had not much heart, and his fair daughters none at all." This, the editor good-naturedly says, "she recorded, or pre tended to record, in her journal." The eldest of his five daughters, he adds, was sixteen, and the youngest only two years old. Every one knows that there are affectionate children, even at these ages, as well as heartless ones, or there are indications of these qualities. We have then this mysterious utterance concerning the youngest: "She died two years later—not five years old—and without a heart"! I cannot guess what this means.
Dr B. Hill is a rather indifferent hand at translation. Witness his dealing with the familiar "omne ignotum pro magnifico," which means that "everything unknown is taken to be splendid." But the editor has it, "the unknown always passes for something peculiarly grand." Macaulay's "form boy" would surely do better than this.
Johnson once visited a toyshop. We are actually furnished in a note with his definition of a toyshop, taken from the Dictionary, "a shop where playthings and little nice manufactures are sold."