Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/95

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A CRITICAL EXAMINATION

Turning back for a moment to the "Letters," we find Dr B. Hill making a "discovery" or two, on which he claims credit. There is the cancel of a passage in Johnson's "Journey," one which is so creditable to him. He had originally set down a "censure of the clergy of an English Cathedral," accusing them of longing to melt "the lead on the roof, and that it was only just they should swallow what they melted." Our editor found Cough's copy in the Bodleian in which the suppressed passage was written, which he was thus enabled to supply. Alas for the doctor's "discoveries." I have a little book called a "Bibliographical Tour," or some such title, in which the passage is printed, which no doubt Gough copied. The Cathedral was certainly Lichfield, where the roof was actually stripped thirteen years after Johnson wrote. The editor, who is fond of relating the processes of his mind before he arrives at a conclusion, at one time strangely fancied it might have been St Paul's, as though the Dean and Canons would have been permitted to strip off and sell the lead. This notion, however, he dismissed, not because of its ludicrousness, but because he was assured by a certain "Rev W. Sparrow Simpson," "that it was very improbable that the Dean and Chapter entertained such an idea," a Bunsby-like verdict, which quite satisfied our editor. First he thought the Dean was Newton, then he was Addenbroke, and so on.

Once writing from Lichfield, in June 21, 1775, a gossiping letter to amuse Mrs Thrale, Johnson said: "They give me good words, and cherries and strawberries. Mrs Cobb is come to Mrs Porter's this afternoon, Miss A—— comes little near me, and everybody talks of you." In these simple sentences the editor discovers "There is an omission here, as is shown by the structure of the sentence." I am certain no one else could discover this from "the structure of the sentence," which is artistic enough of its kind. But what was this omission? A special compliment paid to Mrs Thrale, for she refers to it in her reply. All wrong. We turn to her reply of June 24, and there read: "'Tis very flattering to me when people make my talents the subject of their praises, in order to obtain your favour." Here she refers to Johnson's compliment "every one talks of you." The truth is, the editor is always in a hurry, and, not pausing to consider, was misled by the preceding sentence.

Every one knows Johnson's pleasant "hit" at the attorneys: "He did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney." Mrs Piozzi repeats the same speech, which moves the editor to this indignant burst: "When we see how this sarcasm has been spoilt by Mrs Piozzi, we may quote," etc.: that is, Fitzherbert's remark that few persons are capable of "carrying a bon mot? Here is the lady's version: "I would be loathe to speak ill of any person who I do not know deserves it, but I am afraid he is an attorney." The only difference is "would be loathe," instead of "did not care," and "I am afraid" instead of "I believe."

Mrs Thrale, on her mother's death, spoke of the touching "spectacle of beauty subdued by disease." "It must have been," says the editor, "a good deal subdued by age, for she was sixty-six." He will not have such things as handsome old or elderly ladies. Yet some of us have seen good-looking old ladies. We may wonder where Dr B. Hill has been living.

One of the most extraordinary questions in the relation of Boswell and Johnson, which was so intimate and lasted so long, the editor has not investigated, or scarcely touched. "Why was not Boswell at Johnson's death-bed?" And, "Why was he not mentioned in Johnson's will?" Both questions are, of course, connected.