Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/45

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33
A CRITICAL EXAMINATION

search among the second-hand booksellers would to a certainty have procured it. As it turned out, there was a copy in Mr Forster's library at South Kensington, which leads to compliments, well deserved no doubt, to the obliging gentle man who had charge of it. But these thanks and explanations about finding or not finding old books are a waste of words and space, and have nothing to do with the editing of Boswell, who himself dismissed the topic as "a sneering observation," which was quite enough.

In a copy of the "Life," which belonged to Wilkes, and which I have had in my hands, is a curious marginal note on the passage where Johnson is described as withdrawing from "behind the scenes," and as giving a very broadly expressed reason for his withdrawal. This little anecdote was told to Boswell by Hume, who had it from Garrick. In Wilkes's note a much coarser phrase is given, which the discoverer could not bring himself to print. The editor eagerly defends Johnson. Had he not declared "that obscenity was always repressed in his presence"? Garrick, no doubt, "was restrained by some principle some delicacy of feeling." (Poor Garrick!) "It is possible that he reported the very words to Hume, and that Hume did not change them. It is idle to dream that they can now be conjecturally amended" Now, on this I will remark that the editor here confounds—as he does in other places—"obscenity" with coarseness. The speech, even as recorded by Boswell, is surely coarse enough, and I hesitate even to copy it here. What is there so improbable in its having been still coarser? And I think that any one nicely critical will see that Boswell has attempted to soften the phrase by some sort of periphrasis which is not Johnsonian. Again, Wilkes wrote his pencilled note, not for publication, but for his own private use, and to correct a mistake; and it is exactly the sort of story that would have attraction for him, and which he would recollect.

Speaking of the old woman in the Hebrides, Boswell tells us that Johnson would insist on seeing her bed-chamber, "like Archer in 'The Beaux's Stratagem.'" Now this is a very gay and happy illustration, when we think of the old crone and her hovel. The editor says gravely, "Boswell refers, I think, to a passage in act iv. sc. 1: 'I can't at this distance distinguish the figures of the embroidery.'" He may well say, "I think," for no one else could see any connection between the passages. Boswell had said nothing about "the embroidery." He "refers," of course, to what comes before: "I suppose 'tis your ladyship's bed-chamber." The editor then, en passant, offers the odd hypothesis that Goldsmith had plagiarised the passage! "This is copied in 'She Stoops to Conquer'—'So, then, you must show me your embroidery.'" Astonishing! Marlow asks simply, "Do you work, child?" then asks to see her embroidery. Not a word about the chamber. And so Boswell having spoken of an old woman and her hut, we find ourselves straying off to "embroidery" and Goldsmith.

Dr B. Hill tells us that "in twenty years the number of children received into the Foundling Hospital amounted to about 15,000, of which over 8000 had died." He adds, "a great many of them died, no doubt, after they had left the Hospital." Why "no doubt"? It is clear the return refers, in both instances, to the time of residence. Returns of such a character have no meaning or value outside the institution with which they are concerned. It is a truism to assume that many die after leaving a school or an institution.

Johnson wrote the rather imaginative parliamentary reports for the Gentleman's Magazine