Samuel Johnson c. 1772, by Joshua Reynolds. Public Domain, via Wikimedia
Book Review: The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life. By Henry Hitchings. Macmillan, June 2018
There have been many biographies of Dr Johnson. Indeed, immediately after his death it was reported that eleven writers were assiduously at work on them. The most famous, Boswell’s Life, has justly become the standard for its breadth, its sympathy and its detail – though as Hitchings rightly points out, Boswell did not spend quite as much time in the company of his mentor and friend as he would like his readers to believe.
Wanting to give his own account an original angle, the author has hit upon the modern fashion for seeking gurus everywhere – even among unlikely long dead writers. As an artificial device such an approach fails, as it is bound to do. Whoever modelled his own life on that of a writer – unless slightly unhinged? That said, Hitchings does not spend much time on Johnson as “guide” (and one can be sure the great Doctor himself would have had a trenchant comment to make on the matter) but on reminding the reader, through his own familiarity with Johnson’s literary output as well as the details of his life, why he lives so vigorously and is such a magnanimous presence, in the minds of modern readers who have happily alighted on him. Once discovered, as Hitchings found out on reading Boswell aged 19 at university, he can never be forgotten.
He includes an account of Johnson’s own life, in all its heroic and occasionally tragi-comic dimensions, weaving the biographical story in and out of the prodigious literary achievement. Essentially, he does what a good biographer should do: communicate his own passion for his chosen subject to those who might not yet have had the pleasure of encountering Johnson themselves.
Even if we do not take Johnson for a guide, we cannot fail to warm to his moral stature, his fortitude in adversity, his greatness of heart, alongside his formidable reputation for exceptional intellectual ability. Hitchings records so many moving anecdotes alongside his more well-known remarks, such as that in the last year of his life, when he was aged 74 and suffering from several painful, chronic physical ailments, Johnson “carried a prostitute lying in the street back to his lodgings where he nursed her back to health.” I cannot think of any great writer, with the exception of Dostoyevsky, of whom such a story could be told.
Again, Johnson’s friendship with the poet Richard Savage, whose life he wrote, tells us, in Hitchings’ commentary, that “the story of a failure and an outcast…a marginal figure can be interesting [and] worth treating with compassion and psychological acuity”. And Johnson’s famous friends, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Dr Charles Burney or Edmund Burke, were bemused by his 36-year loyalty and friendship with Robert Levet, “an unlicensed and unmannerly doctor who would briefly leave Sam to take up with a prostitute who operated out of a nearby coal shed.”
Hitchings does not want to seem over-familiar by referring to Johnson throughout as “Sam” rather than by his surname, yet it does strike a discordant note. Johnson commands our respect as well as our affection, not so much because he was a man to stand on his dignity but because he is worthy of awe as well as love. Hitchings’ chapter headings, taken from the 18th century mode, such as chapter 20, “Containing much to exercise the reader’s thoughts upon the questions of Fear and Sanity”, are amusing rather than strained.
He alludes to his subject’s dread of insanity, which was easily as significant a feature of Johnson’s personality as his public impression of common sense, robust sanity and mental equilibrium. I have read elsewhere that this fear was the reason for the “padlock” found among Mrs Thrale’s effects when she died, rather than the farfetched possibility of sadomasochistic tendencies, briefly touched on by Hitchings it is much more likely that Johnson wanted his closest woman friend to restrain him under lock and key if he should ever go mad.
From his early days Johnson’s life was characterised by four dominant features: his physical ungainliness, even ugliness; his material poverty (only relieved when he was finally allowed a state pension); his genius (a word which he once defined as shown by a man’s having “large and general powers”); and his deeply-held Christian faith, coloured by an abiding sense of sinfulness which is evidenced in his heartfelt prayers and sermons. (On my wall I have a framed copy of Johnson’s last prayer, dated 5th December 1784, which is a deeply affecting appeal to the mercy of God “in the days of weakness and at the hour of death”: this is not an aspect of his hero’s character that detains Hitchings for very long.)
Indeed, I wonder how much Hitchings, who has written an otherwise affectionate and sympathetic portrait of his mentor, understands the extent to which these four features made Johnson feel himself at some level to be an outcast from society and which led him, even after he became famous in the clubs and coffee-houses of London, to take pity on others who lived beyond the pale of polite society and offer them refuge and hospitality in his homes in Gough Square and Bolt Court? They included the blind poet, Anna Williams, Robert Levet, the disreputable physician, and Francis Barber, a former West Indian slave boy. But there were a procession of other odd tenants, hapless hangers-on and social misfits to whom Johnson showed solicitude and practical generosity.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.