Open main menu

Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/61

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
49
A CRITICAL EXAMINATION

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,