Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/49

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
37
A CRITICAL EXAMINATION

that distance away." Any one can see by the map that Auchinleck is over a hundred and fifty miles from Chester. But Boswell was writing both of Chester and Carlisle Cathedrals, and Johnson thought he had referred to Chester Cathedral.

Here is an instance of singular perversion of meaning. Gibbon's hostile feeling towards Boswell was, it seems, so marked that, though he names eighteen members of the Literary Club as "a constellation of British stars," he leaves Boswell out. Now (1) these eighteen selected names were the very foremost in letters and art—Johnson, Burke, Goldsmith, etc.; (2) Boswell had then written only the "Hebrides," and in no case could he be included in "a large and luminous constellation of British stars"; and (3) in the very line before, Gibbon actually refers to Boswell's "Tour," p. 97, for a suitable description of this very Literary Club! Speaking of women's learning, Johnson said that "if a wife were of a studious or argumentative turn, it would be very troublesome." "Yet" says the editor, "he gave lessons in Latin to Miss Burney and Miss Thrale." There is no point in this odd "yet." Johnson was speaking of the perversion of such learning.

Even in the editor's acknowledgments of assistance there is a "high-falutin" tone that is out of place. When the courteous Mr Fortescue, of the British Museum, is introduced, why should we hear of "the spacious room over which he so worthily presides"? The librarian of his own college had the "kindness" to allow him, it seems, "to make a careful examination of John son's MSS."—a favour extended as of course to any literary man. It appears, however, that he never took his eyes off the editor when at his work; and this "vigilance," he is certain, will ensure that the college will never have to "mourn the loss of a single leaf." This surely was not worth mentioning.

The first edition of "Cocker," the editor tells us, "was published about 1660." Now, this is a trivial matter, and has nothing to do with Boswell or Johnson; but it may be as well stated correctly. Cocker's first work on the subject was published in 1669—that is, his "Decimal Arithmetic"; but the book Johnson gave to the maid-servant was the " Arithmetic: a Plain and Familiar Method," which was published in 1678. Brunei and Lowndes agree in this date. The editor adds: "Though he" (Johnson) "says that a book of science is inexhaustible, yet/ in the Rambler he asserts that the principles of arithmetic and geometry may be understood in a few days." Surely to understand the principles of a science in a few days is a different thing from "exhausting" that science!

The editor tells us that Boswell welcomed Paoli on his arrival in London, in September 1769. This must be all wrong, he thinks; for Wesley, being at Portsmouth on October 13, missed seeing the General, who had "just landed in the docks." I suspect the editor thinks that "landed" meant landed in England" from Corsica.

At Lord Errol's house Johnson spoke "in favour of entails," so that noble families should not "fall into indigence." "Perhaps," the editor speculates, "the poverty of their hosts led to this talk"; and he quotes Sir Walter Scott, who said that " improvidence had swallowed up the estate of Errol." Now, first, the Earl's brother was present, and "the poverty of their hosts" would not be likely to lead to so awkward a subject in his presence (for Boswell distinctly states that Mr Boyd was absent only when Johnson recited the ode "Jam satis"}; secondly, Scott was speaking of 1814, close on forty years later.