|Dr Samuel Johnson, painted by
Sir Joshua Reynolds.
When I worked on the local paper in Lichfield I attended the Johnson Supper a couple of times, and covered the Birthday Celebrations, which involved a procession and service by his statue in the Market Square. Now I’m a volunteer in the city’s Oxfam Book Shop, which is next door but one to the Johnson Birthplace, so there was really only one possible choice when it came to reading Beryl Bainbridge for the first time – and lo and behold, as if by magic, before I even had time to start searching for a copy, what should turn up among the donations but According to Queeney.
It is, as you may have guessed from my intro, a novel about Dr Samuel Johnson, scholar, wit, novelist, essayist, poet, man of letters and compiler of the famous dictionary. He is seen mainly through the eyes of Queeney, the daughter of his friend and confidante Hester Thrale, but there are other viewpoints, from Hester, from Johnson himself, and from his friends and acquaintances. He’s a tortured figure, a genius, with a strong belief in God, and a desire to do good, but he’s torn by sexual desires, fear of the afterlife, and bouts of depression. Large, bumbling, shabby and dishevelled, he stumbles though life ‘living in his head’ as Hester says. Polite society is shocked by his tics and mutterings, his irascible temper, his forthright speech and his uncouth ways – but they all want to meet him because he’s a celebrity. What they don’t understand is that beneath the bluster is a very lonely and very vulnerable man, as needy for love and attention as a child.
The book opens with the post mortem held on Johnson’s body, then travels backwards and forwards in time revealing his relationship with the Thrale family through narratives describing events from the perspective of the various characters, and letters from the adult Queeney in which she recalls her childhoood. But everyone sees things from a different vantage point, and interpretations vary, so we never know for sure how reliable anyone’s account is, especially cool, calculating Queeney, who treats her mother with disdain and derision, but anxiously seeks affection from her. And does the troubled relationship between mother and daughter arise from the relationship between Hester and Johnson – which remains ambiguous, just as it did in real life – or is there some deeper cause for dissent?
As far as the history goes, Hester and her husband Henry, a wealthy brewer, were at the centre of a glittering social circle which included some of the most renowned writers and artists of the 18th century. The couple met Johnson in 1765: shortly afterwards he suffered one of his periodic bouts of depression, and the Thrales took him and cared for him at their luxurious house in Streatham. A friendship was forged, and they provided him with his own room, and with another in their London home. He spent much of his time with them, accompanied them to Wales and France, and corresponded with Hester when he was elsewhere. For years there was gossip about the nature of their relationship, and when Henry died there were rumours that Hester and Johnson would wed – but she scandalised everyone by marrying her children’s Italian singing teacher, causing a rift with Johnson, and with her family. Johnson died just a few months later, in 1784.
Johnson himself said: “Characters should never be given by an historian, unless he knew the people whom he describes, or copies from those who knew them.” Bainbridge was not a historian, but she followed his advice to the letter: her novel is peopled with those who knew Johnson – and many of them left letters, diaries and memoirs describing the great man and his life, which she obviously studied. Even the Thrales’ pet spaniel Belle actually existed, and many of the events in the book really did happen. I’m not sure if they visited Lichfield, as Bainbridge makes them do, but they certainly passed through the city on their way to Wales.
What Bainbridge does, and she does it superbly well, is to bring the characters to life. On the whole they are not likeable, and they move through a world which is raucous, rude and rumbustious. There are riots in the streets of London, and there is mud and dirt everywhere. Emotions seethe beneath the surface leaving turmoil in their wake. There is love, despair and jealousy as people jostle and vie for attention. Everyone, it seems wants what they cannot have, and while Johnson hopes for kind words from Hester, the disparate members of his own household are seeking approval from him.
Hester Thrale is much more capricious and less intelligent than I imagined, and over the years she tires of living in such close proximity to a very demanding genius. Long before the final split with Johnson there are rifts which are patched up. It’s hard to decide whether he loves her, or whether he craves an illusory happy family life. And is she genuinely fond of Johnson – or is she attracted by his standing in society and the friends he can bring to her home, like the actor David Garrick, playwright Oliver Goldsmith and artist Joshua Reynolds?
I read this for the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week being hosted by Anabel at http://gaskella.wordpress.com/ and wondered how representative of her work it is. It’s less dark than I expected, but she is very objective in her portrayal of the characters.