Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/62
A CRITICAL EXAMINATION
once made a vast holocaust of almost every letter he possessed, and for excellent reasons. Other eminent men have done the same thing.
We all know that the Boswell family have never felt any pride in their famous James, and seemed to wince at the recollection of his antics. Since writing—I should say noting—"The Life," Dr B. Hill determined to give these people one more chance and approach an incorrigible old lady, Mrs Vassall, Boswell's grand-niece, who, with Caledonian bluntness, treated our doctor much as the old Lord Auchinleck treated his son. "I once tried," says our editor, "to penetrate into Auchinleck" a mysterious phrase, which only means that he wanted access to the library, "where I had hoped to find many curious memorials." But the owner was inexorable. As the doctor tells us, sternly and solemnly, "Permission was refused." "My attempt," he adds, "had excited suspicion,"—not unnaturally; for the old lady had heard of a forthcoming edition, and that "he had some papers from Ayrshire," and "in a lady's letter begged him to be so good as to inform her from whom he had received them, and oblige yours, etc." The insinuation was so obvious that the editor proceeded to make an example of the poor woman, who by this time was in her grave, holding up her methods of writing, spelling, and what not. It seems she spelt Johnson "Johnston," which is, or used to be, the correct Scotch fashion, and, what was worse, she actually directed her letter to
"G. Berbick Hill, Esq."
Not to know that the great—the one Edition—had been out actually two years was bad enough; but to call him, the editor "Berbick" was too bad. He angrily stigmatised it as " contemptuous ignorance," nay, "it came to her from her father." And the woman's spelling—why, had she not written of an "Addition of Boswell"?
All which makes one think that Dr B. Hill's behaviour was not exactly chivalrous. Every touch he furnishes, I confess, only raises one's opinion of this worthy Scotch lady, who was merely exhibiting an interesting native pride of family and a natural sensitiveness.
There is an extraordinary supplement labelled "Appendix B" at the end of vol. i., and which has a reference to page 14. There is, it says, among the "Hume Papers" a letter on the experiences of living at Oxford, and written by one of the Macdonald family. We are given all the dates of the writer's career, his matriculation, call to the Bar, etc. The letter is of great length, filling over two closely-printed pages. We wonder what its bearing is or what it has to do with Johnson's letters, who was at college in 1731, this being dated nigh thirty years later. We turn back, as we are invited to do, to page 14. Still no sign of relevancy—not an allusion to Oxford, or to Hume, or to Macdonald. What it means it is impossible to guess. The editor adds: "Hume had also consulted Sir Gilbert Elliot." On what? "His
Dr B. Hill, who is a very "nice" man, is often much shocked by Mrs Thrale's "indelicacy." When Thrale was ill Johnson was assiduous in sending excellent medical advice, of which he had a good store, and among others counselled "frequent evacuation." Allusions of this kind were customary in those days; we have since invented more delicate forms. What a woman to publish these and such-like passages! Still, "it is strange" and scarcely consistent to find the editor in one of his notes carefully in forming us that Johnson, when he "took physic," meant thereby that he had "taken a purge." Fie, Dr B. Hill!