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Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/75

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A CRITICAL EXAMINATION

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