(For a PDF version of this essay, go to The Worldview Annex.)
The Letters of Samuel Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman (
Oxford, 1952)—Letters Nos. 202, 400, 411a, 421a , 575a, 657, 850, 920, 953a, 972; Boswell—Life of Johnson, ed. Chapman ( Oxford, 1953), pp. 334, 347-350, 1327; Boswell—Letters, ed. C. B. Tinker. (No. 127)
The Letters of Samuel Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman (
(Selections from Johnson’s correspondence with Hester Lynch Thrale/Hester Lynch Piozzi and with Boswell, along with certain passages in the Life dealing with HLT/HLP.)
Non-Boswellian Johnsonians delight in pointing out that the total number of days Boswell spent in Johnson’s company (240 according to Jack Lynch) is rather puny. We should accordingly not be misled, they caution us, by the preponderance of Boswell-involving passages in the Life, into thinking that Boswell was nearly as significant a figure in Johnson’s life as Johnson was in Boswell’s. We must remember, they remind us, that Johnson knew scads of other people, a fair proportion of whom he encountered either much more often, much more regularly, or over a much longer time-span than he encountered Boswell. “All well and good,” I say, “but we must also nip or quash in the bud any hopes of reconstructing some sort of alternative, equally vivid and vital extra-Boswellian Johnson from the remnants of his transactions with those scads of other people over the course of those remaining 27,250 or so days.” Those with whom he spent the most time of all—Robert Levett, Anna Williams, Lucy Porter, John Taylor et al.—were relatives, childhood friends, or housemates; people he felt bound to more by obligation than by inclination. Consequently, we should not be surprised that his surviving correspondence with them is dominated by inquiries into their health, advice on their business dealings, and the like, and that much (if by no means all) of it does not make for especially interesting reading. We are rather more within our rights to be disappointed in his letters to David Garrick, Bennet Langton, Joshua Reynolds, and Charles Burney—men of learning and genius with whom he went out of his way to associate, and who as readers might have been expected to elicit from him the same ready flow of wit they elicited from him as viva voce interlocutors. But in tone these letters are oddly hyper-formal, and in subject-matter they overlap to a dismaying extent with the letters to the obligatory correspondents: yes, the nominal referent is usually loftier—a painting or an edition of Shakespeare as against an old horse or a case of the dropsy—but the occasion for the reference still tends to be preeminently administrative in character: rather than offering his judgment on a painting or a passage of writing, he seeks advice on how to get the painting exhibited or how to round up subscribers for the edition. In short, it would seem that however much Johnson may have loved or admired certain other people more than he did Boswell, of all his friends (save one, shortly to be named) he certainly liked Boswell the most and felt the least inhibited in his company, such that for all the slenderness of the Life’s chronographic basis, the reader whose notion of “Johnson the man” is derived entirely from that text may rest assured that he has gotten roughly 90% of the picture of that Johnson that is still available to us. The remaining 10% or so is to be derived from his letters to one Hester Lynch Thrale, nee Hester Lynch Salisbury and morte Hester Lynch Piozzi. Axiomatically no Johnsonian completist would wish to be ignorant of this 10%, but it is not in the interest of completism as such that I am now drawing the reader’s attention to it. I am drawing his attention to it rather (and in any case to a tiny fraction of it), as an entity that repays reading in counterpoint to the 90% (or rather a tiny fraction of it), chiefly insofar as it affords insight into the differences that obtain between male-male and male-female friendship at their respective limits of intimacy. The sheer disproportion in volume between the two surviving correspondences alone hints at the numinousness of such differences. Johnson’s acquaintance with Boswell is almost exactly contemporaneous and coextensive with his acquaintance with Mrs. Thrale: he met him in 1763, her in 1765, and remained in touch with both of them through the year of his death, 1784. And yet even though Boswell clung like kudzu to every scrap of paper in Johnson’s hand he ever received or came across, Johnson’s surviving letters to Mrs. T. outnumber his letters to Bozzie roughly five to one. Boswell found Johnson a woefully lazy correspondent for whom not writing back was the rule rather than the exception, and who when he did honor Boswell “with returns” to his letters could not be “prevailed with to answer” (No. 127) any of the questions posed in them, but rather simply wrote about what he was in the mood to write about (e.g., the various vicissitudes involving their shared acquaintances in London) or what he thought Boswell deserved to read (e.g., the viciousness of Boswell's flaunting of his constitutional melancholia). In true Johnsonian form, Johnson refused to apologize for something over which he felt no remorse and defended his epistolary negligence by generalizing, both about himself ( “You are not to think yourself forgotten, or criminally neglected, that you have had yet no letter from me. I love to see my friends, to hear from them, to talk to them, and to talk of them; but it is not without a considerable effort of resolution that I prevail upon myself to write”) and about letter writer-manqués in general (" "). What he says of letter-writing in general seems to be just, and what he says of his own disinclination to write seems to have been generally—i.e., vis-à-vis every correspondent but Mrs. Thrale—true. But with Mrs. Thrale, the tables of Johnsonian epistolary practice were both turned and amplified. When the two of them were apart, he rarely let a post-day pass without sending her at least some token of communication, and if more than two post days in succession passed without his having received a letter from her, he did not scruple to implore and berate her negligence (No. 400) much more soundly than Boswell ever implored or berated his. And altogether, the letters she elicited from him are by far the best he ever wrote, whether considered as person-to-person communications or as literary productions. They constitute not only the core and soul of his correspondence, but a substantial module of the Johnsonian corpus, equal or superior in heft and pith to Rasselas and The Life of Savage, and definitely surpassed therein only by The Rambler and the Dictionary. Here the administrative stiffness that often fatally mars his letters to everybody but Boswell, and the grumpiness that typically (if less fatally) mars his letters to Boswell himself, are totally absent. What was it about this woman that was capable of captivating Johnson as nobody else was capable of captivating him, and capturing him on paper as others could do only in conversation? By way of beginning to answer this question I cite again a certain passage from the Life that I quoted in “Johnson du côté de chez
“In our way, Johnson strongly expressed his love of driving in a post-chaise. ‘If (said he,) I had no duties and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation’” (Friday, 19 September 1777; p. 845).
The last time round I was mainly interested in the post-chaise, but that is of course only one of two desiderata for perfect, life-exhausting enjoyment mentioned here; and it is reasonable to assume that by 1777 Johnson had already acquired the other one via his friendship with Mrs. Thrale. True, numerous surviving portraits in various media prove that she was no great beauty, but then Johnson required a merely “pretty” woman, and in the eyes an elderly man even most women of below-average looks are very pretty indeed. But did she “understand” him, and did she generally “add something to the conversation”s she engaged in with him? Depending on how much metaphysical gravity is to be attributed to “understanding,” and “adding,” the answer to both these questions ranges from a qualified to a resounding “yes.” Certainly on a purely referential level she understood him better than any of his “obligatory” correspondents and many of his other “voluntary” ones: into his letters to her he routinely incorporated tags from the Latin classics (202), discussions of current political affairs, and miniature disquisitions on moral philosophy—all without evincing the slightest trace of the self-consciousness of the writer writing down to his reader; and he occasionally wrote to her in French (No. 400). And while the best part of her side of the correspondence consists of vapid chit-chat, it is still evidently the production of a woman of some intelligence and learning. Invoking a Shakespearean idiom, she adjures him on 17 April 1784 to “Eat away my dear Sir & fear no Colours,” and later in the same letter she quotes Swift in writing that “we read, and walk, and talk, of Cyrus & Scipio ‘naming the Ancient Heroes round’” (953a). True, her classical learning seems not to have been deep enough to enable her to respond to Johnson’s tag-dropping in kind, but the same can be said of most of Johnson’s other “voluntary” correspondents. In summary: judged solely in the light of Mrs. Thrale’s aesthetic and intellectual qualifications the Johnson-Thrale friendship seems merely to be a case in proof of Johnson’s apercu that as domestic companions women are relatively fungible, an apercu articulated in the two Life-originating assertions “Were it not for imagination…a man would be as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as of a Duchess,” and “[There are] fifty thousand women in the world, with any one of whom a man may be as happy, as with any one woman in particular.” This is, to be sure, a scandalous lesson to inculcate in our gynocratic age, but at least it leaves the integrity of Johnson’s Besonnenheit uncompromised. Yes: Mrs. Thrale may not have been the cleverest or most literate person, or the prettiest woman, he had ever met, but she was clever and literate and pretty enough to cause him to feel that in talking and writing to her he was spending his time exactly as he wished to spend it.
In thus far presenting so technicoloristically rosy a picture of the Johnson-HLT/HLP friendship, though, I have of course been building up to a transition to the effect of “But there was a dark side to this technicoloristically rosy picture.” So then: But there was a dark side to this technicoloristically rosy picture, a dark side evident most dishearteningly in the friendship’s acrimonious disintegration over the last three years of Johnson’s life. Virtually from its inception the friendship had been materially inalienable from a gestalt comprising HLT, her husband Henry, and the guarantee of hospitality Johnson enjoyed at the couple’s country house in Streatham. With Henry’s death in 1781 the gestalt was immediately denucleated, as it were, and very soon thereafter it was essentially destroyed when HLT sold the house along with the family brewing business, one of the wealthiest private concerns in all of Great Britain, and moved to Bath. At first, Johnson took the loss in his stride, discharging his duties as one of Henry Thrale’s executors with great zeal—at the sale of the brewery he was reported to be “bustling about with an ink-horn in his button-hole, like an excise man” (Life, 132)—but by the end of the year, he was beginning to be openly anxious about the staying-power of HLT’s presence in his life. Chapman tentatively dates “the first fear of an estrangement” to
8 December 1781, when Johnson implored her “Do not neglect me, nor relinquish me” (No. 753). On October 10 1782, he composed a prayer in which he took formal leave of the Thrale family (Life, 1191), “commending them” to God’s fatherly protection,”—i.e., implicitly, in lieu of the paltriness of the protection the Thrale girls could expect from their mother (based in turn on her treatment of him)—and in June of the following year, he saw fit to preface his account to her of a stroke he had suffered with the extraordinarily bitter disclaimer that it was “a narrative which would once have affected you with tenderness and sorrow, but which you will perhaps pass over now with the careless glance of frigid indifference” (No. 850). The definitive breach immediately followed her announcement to him of her impending marriage to one Gabriel Piozzi, an impecunious 44-year-old Italian dancing master, in July 1784 (No. 969a). Johnson wrote back to her upbraiding her for the “ignominious”ness of the union; she replied in turn that she was ending their correspondence, provoking from him a final letter (No. 972) which, though much gentler in tone than the one before it, offered not a word in direct palliation, let alone retraction, of its harangue.
Now from the above synopsis of my selection alone the reader will have gathered that the dissolution of the Johnson-Thrale friendship is one of the more miserable unhappy endings on record. The question he must ponder in reading the selection itself is whether this ending is tragic or merely pathetic in essence. If any two reasonably reasonable and decent people in identical or similar circumstances were bound to behave towards each other more or less exactly as Johnson and HLT/P did, then the ending is pathetic—meaning among other things that non-human forces alone (e.g., “fate”) can be held to blame for it. If either of them, Johnson or HLT/P, could reasonably have been expected to behave differently than he or she actually did, then it is tragic—meaning that the blame for it must be ascribed to one of the two human parties or somehow apportioned between them. So long as one confines oneself to the Johnsonian-HLTian epistolary corpus proper, one will not find it difficult to plump unreservedly for a “pathetic” interpretation. After all, as entitled as Johnson was to feel slighted by HLT’s marginalization of him after all the thousands of hours they had spent together, HLT was surely equally entitled to center her domestic and connubial life on a man closer to her own age than he. But the supplementary documents prove that HLT’s withdrawal from Johnson after Henry’s death was motivated by something much more ignoble than a regretful overruling of affection by equitable self-regard. Particularly damning is the following passage from the Life (“Mrs. Thrale’s words” are quoted from her Anecdotes of Dr. Johnson, published after Johnson’s death):
It must be admitted that Johnson derived a considerable portion of
happiness from the comforts and elegancies which he enjoyed in Mr.
Thrale's family; but Mrs. Thrale assures us he was indebted for
these to her husband alone, who certainly respected him sincerely. Her
'Veneration for his virtue, reverence for his talents delight [romans Boswell’s here and ff.] in his conversation, and habitual endurance of a yoke my husband first put upon me, and of which he contentedly bore his share for sixteen or seventeen years, made me go on so long with Mr. Johnson; but the perpetual confinement I will own to have been terrifying in the first years of our friendship, and irksome in the last; nor could I pretend to support it without help, when my coadjutor was no more.'
Alas! how different is this from the declarations which I have heard
Mrs. Thrale make in his life-time, without a single murmur against any
peculiarities, or against any one circumstance which attended their