Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/55

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43
A CRITICAL EXAMINATION

was spoken, not of our Johnsonian Dr B. Hill, but of another Dr Hill, who lived in Johnson days, and who was really as copious and verbose as the modern. He also might have been "a considerable man, had he been content to tell the world no more than he knew."


JOHNSON'S LETTERS AND DR BIRKBECK HILL'S NOTES.

Dr B. Hill has also issued two large volumes of Johnson's letters, which, according to the advertisement, "include all the letters known to be in existence, with the exception"—and here the editor is very precise—"of a few of which it has not been possible to obtain transcripts, and of those printed in my own edition of the 'Life,'" to which exact references are given. But on surveying "my collection" what do we find? First, reference only to over three hundred of the letters furnished by Boswell; second, a large number of scraps of letters, and epitomes of letters, often no more than a line in length, extracted by auctioneers for their catalogues, and which are counted as letters; thirdly, Mrs Piozzi's two volumes of letters, already "collected" by her; and fourthly, various printed, scattered letters, with a number that have never been in print. The "few of which it has not been possible to obtain transcripts" no doubt refer to the Perkins and Taylor letters. While, however, he claims to have furnished an almost complete collection of all the letters "then in existence," strange to say, he begins at once to have qualms, and to our astonishment we read: "It will be shown, I fear, that letters which are in print have been left unnoticed, and that others which I enter as new have been already noticed." There are, it seems, garners still unswept, and Dr B. Hill has uneasy suspicions, if not a certainty, that there are stores of Johnsonian letters which were refused to him, or which he knows not of, and which it is now too late to secure.

So the book should properly be described as "A Collection of Johnson's Letters, published and unpublished, with the Dates and Places of some Letters, Extracts and Epitomes of others, taken from Auctioneers' Catalogues"; or it might be called "Letters, with Lists of Letters, Extracts and Abstracts of Letters, etc."

It is a fantastic notion, truly, that of counting as "letters"—numbering each gravely—the scraps from auctioneers' catalogues, the meagre extract or abstract furnished by Puttick or Sotheby, to pique the bidder's appetite. He tells of the weary, toilsome hours he spent in the Bodleian Library, plodding through these records to light on some such scrap as this: "1043 (the number of the letter in the series). In Messrs Sotheby & Co.'s catalogue, Aug. 21, 1872, Lot 113, is a letter of Johnson's to Mrs Strahan, postponing an invitation: 'I had forgotten that I myself had invited a friend to dine with me.'" In a sort of flutter of excitement at this new department of "research by catalogue," the editor feels it his duty to give severe rebuke or warning to the authorities concerned. "This labour had been greatly lightened had those catalogues which contain descriptions of autographs been bound up separately. As it was, I found them scattered among long lists, not only of books, but also of musical instruments, bins of wine, and cigars." How dreadful this! He