A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions/Johnson's Stay at Oxford

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Here is a very interesting, much-debated question: How long was Johnson at the University? The popular notion, always accepted after the account given by his friends and con temporaries, is that he really completed his term, but left without taking a degree. Mr Croker, however, on inspecting the books, was the first to broach a theory that he had been only fourteen months at Oxford. After an interval of nearly sixty years, Dr B. Hill is found to adopt the theory; so does the Rev. Mr Napier, so does Mr Birrell, and so does the editor of the Globe edition. All these editors seems to think that there can be no dispute about the point. But on the other side, who have we? Boswell himself, the friend and biographer; Hawkins, friend, biographer, and executor; Murphy, another friend and biographer; contemporary accounts and memoirs; I may add myself and my edition, because I was the first since Mr Croker to investigate the matter afresh at the fountainhead. Finally, Mr Leslie Stephen, a sound Johnsonian, inclines to the three years' theory.

Boswell announces in the most positive way that Johnson "left the college in autumn, 1731, without a degree, having been a member of it little more than three years." Now, that painstaking writer has told us "that I have sometimes been obliged to run half over London in order to fix a date correctly; which, when I had accomplished, I well knew would obtain me no praise, though a failure would have been to my discredit." Here is a date, year, and month, and a period given, for which he had no need to "run half over London" to ascertain, for he had simply to consult his great friend, or his great friend's tutor, Dr Adams. And he actually tells us that on several occasions he obtained from Johnson all the particulars of his early life and education. Further, once at Oxford, Boswell extracted from Dr Adams everything about Johnson's residence at Oxford. Would not his first question have been: "And how many years, sir, did he remain there?" It is quite impossible to put aside the force of this argument.

Again, we should consider the number of de tails and events that have come down to us of Johnson's college life, his acquaintances, poverty, studies, and change of tutors, etc., all of which suggest a regular University course, quite in compatible with a stay of a few months. All through his life he looked on himself and spoke of himself as a "University man," who belonged to the place, which he certainly would not have done had he been there only fourteen months. Would he have been con stantly returning and stopping there, and call ing up old memories of places and friends? Any reader would have an uneasy feeling that Johnson, after so short a residence, and being obliged to quit the place under the stigma of not being able to pay his way, was making but a pretence of being an Oxonian. He would be really little more than a "freshman." Nay, those fourteen months would have been but too painful an episode for Johnson himself to recall, and he would certainly have shunned all allusion to his Alma Mater. Further, would the University have given him two degrees on so slender a connection?

Next for Hawkins, the much maligned. He was an old friend of Johnson's; he attended him on his death-bed, he prepared his will, acted as his executor, wrote his life, and edited his works. He, therefore, ought to have known something about Johnson. Not only does he know some thing, but he furnishes minute and particular details about his Oxford life. He tells that as it would have been impossible for the humble bookseller to support his son at Oxford, it was arranged that he should go as a sort of assistant in his studies to a Mr Andrew Corbet, the son of a Shropshire gentleman, and one of his schoolfellows. He was to be with him " in the character of a companion," and his college charges were to be defrayed by him. Boswell heard this story also, but he says it was too delicate a matter to question his friend upon. Dr Taylor, however, told him that Johnson "never received any assistance whatever" from the Corbets. This, however, would seem to be owing to the abrupt termination of the arrangement, for after nearly two years' stay, or it may be fourteen months, young Corbet quitted the college. Hawkins adds that all he could obtain was that the father of the young man should continue to pay for his commons. Then the knight makes this distinct and positive statement: "The time of his continuance at Oxford is divisible into two periods, the former whereof commenced on the 3ist day of October, 1728, and determined in December, 1729, when, as appears by a note in his 'Diary' in these words: '1629, Dec. S. J. Oxonio rediit,' he left this place, the reason whereof was a failure of pecuniary supplies from his father; but meeting with another source, the bounty, it is supposed, of some one or more of the members of the cathedral, he returned and made up the whole of his residence about three years." Hawkins, who was not so delicate as Boswell, had evidently talked the subject over with Johnson, for the latter explained to him that his father had become a bankrupt about this time. The cathedral friend was likely enough to have been the Dean, for long after Johnson "cancelled" some passages in his "Journey," which had been printed off, for fear of giving him pain, saying that he had once done him an important service. I have thought, too, that Johnson's care of Mrs Desmoulins might have been owing to some assistance of this kind received from her father, Dr Swinfen. So everything, it will be seen, points in this direction.

But now for the argument from the "Battels," or, I suppose, Buttery Books, which are the entries of commons supplied to the students there. These reports I may take credit for being the first to publish, the late Professor Chandler having had them copied for me. From the time of Johnson's entrance in October, 1728, to December, 1729, the entries in these books are continued regularly week by week, and small charges are placed opposite his name. After that date there sets in a state of great capriciousness and irregularity, to be explained by the capricious irregularity of Johnson's own situation. True, in December, 1729, Johnson makes that entry of his return home from Oxford, to which appeal is made as showing that his career was closed, and that it agrees exactly with the cessation of the charges for meals. But this is almost at once demolished by our finding that on January 30, 1730, there is a charge of $d.; so that, though we are told that he had left Oxford for good, and closed his course, we find him back again! Now this 5d. is rather significant. We are assured that "Battels" is evidence of residence, and that every one who resides must have the meals of which the "Battel Books" are records. But here we have Johnson at the college, yet having only 5d. worth of food or drink. His meals or meal must, therefore, have been charged to some one else. Further, his name now figures regularly in the books, week after week, though there are no charges. Then comes another surprise. On March the 13th we find him paying for a week's meals, 4s. 7d., and on March 27th, 5d.; so this represents a fortnight's stay at least. I believe the explanation is that he was absent at Lichfield for the first two months of the year trying to make some arrangement, and that on his return he paid for a week's commons or so. At all events, here he is shown to be still at Oxford, three months after he is supposed to have finally left. This accounts for some eighteen months. His name is now entered regularly week after week, still without charges, down to November 27, 1730, when it is removed altogether for nearly two months, to reappear once on January 29, 1731, but without charges. This removal might show that he had gone away finally, and had lost hope of returning. But the name again reappears on March 12, 1731, and is continued steadily, without charges, down to October i, when it finally vanished, the three years claimed being all but completed. What explanation can be given of these fitful disappearances and replacings, except that the unhappy youth was now remaining struggling desperately to retain his footing, now hurrying away to obtain aid, now succeeding or failing; that he was at the college, but that his meals were charged to some one else? No other rational reason can be given of Johnson's name being withdrawn from the books altogether, and then restored, save that the few charges set down were of his own payment, and that the blanks meant that the charge was defrayed in some other way. Had he gone away altogether, his name would have been summarily removed. This absence of charges for meals when he was in residence points to surely some eleemosynary system of assistance, to some charging to another person's account. Mr Elwin thinks that the college supplied him gratis, and held over the charges till better times. Dr B. Hill thinks this impossible—that the charges for meals must be the only evidence of residence; but this, as I have shown, is disposed of by those entries where only 5d. is charged, from which it is evident he was in residence, and yet is not charged with his meals. Dr B. Hill thinks, too, that when the name is given week after week, it was merely kept on the books in the hope of his return; but on this theory how is it to be explained that the name is given in the very first entry after he had arrived at the University, and this without any charges opposite to it? I think, therefore, that this argument from the "Battels," fails.

There is an entry in the books that Johnson's "caution money," £7, was forfeited to satisfy a claim of the college for monies owing to the college for that amount. As Mr Macleane, the recent historian of Pembroke College, points out, it is improbable that the debt and caution money could exactly balance each other, so that Johnson may have owed much more. Now, this seems to support the argument, and proves, at the least, that the college was giving him credit for his "Battels"; and that principle once established, it is not difficult to go further.

Dr Adams, as we know, was Johnson's tutor. On his entrance, one Mr Jordan was his tutor, but about the middle of 1730 this gentleman left the college, and Dr Adams succeeded him. He was given a living early that year, and it seems almost certain that Dr Adams would have taken over his pupils after the long vaca tion of 1730.

Giving Boswell information about Johnson's college life, Dr Adams said to him that he was his nominal tutor, which Boswell, in a contradictory passage, interprets to mean that he would have been his tutor had Johnson re turned to the college. This, however, it is clear, was not Adams' meaning, for he added, "I was his nominal tutor, but he was above my mark;" and Johnson, when the remark was repeated to him, accepted this meaning, saying it was a noble and generous speech.

It has been said, however, that this demolishes the argument for Johnson's longer stay, for, if he remained till 1731, Adams would have been more than his nominal tutor. He would have been his tutor for two years. The answer to which is that Boswell made a mistake as to the year of Adams' taking over Jordan's pupils, which, as Dr B. Hill shows, was at the end of 1730 and not in 1731. This, it seems to me, completely disposes of the argument as to the "would have been his tutor had Johnson returned"; for even on the supposition that Johnson only remained fourteen months, Adams would have been his actual and not nominal tutor for several months of that period.

This rather damaging fact the editor seems to pass by. Observe his argument was that Johnson was never under Adams at all. But "this," says the editor, "is no contradiction of the statement that Adams was only Johnson's nominal tutor. The exercises were often performed in the hall, no doubt, before the Masters and Fellows." "Why, sir, what sophistry is this?" as the sage would say. "Before the Masters and Fellows," says the editor. No doubt this was so; but Johnson says that he "performed" before them "under" Adams, that is, prepared and directed by him. It is astonishing that such a plea should be made.

Then there is Dr Taylor's part of the case. Dr Taylor, as we know, was one of Johnson's oldest friends—also his life-long friend. Johnson told Mrs Piozzi that the history of all his Oxford exploits lay between Taylor and Adams—a large phrase, by the way, that seems to speak of a long period in which these exploits were performed. Taylor told Boswell the incident of Johnson's ceasing to visit him at Christ Church College, from shame at his own poverty-stricken appearance. That they were at Oxford there can be no doubt. Yet Taylor entered in June, 1730, some months after Johnson, according to the short-stay theorists, had quitted it, which would prove convincingly—there is no getting over it—that Johnson was there after June, 1730. All Dr B. Hill can do is to say that "this seems at first sight to follow, but we must remember that Taylor might have had his name entered some months before he came, and that after his name was entered Johnson might have left." What this means it is impossible to guess; it does not alter the fact that Johnson and Taylor were there together, and the former in the habit of visiting him at Christ Church. He has at last to throw up his case, "nevertheless, the whole story is very strong evidence that Johnson was in residence in the latter half of the year 1730." Dr B. Hill, however, discovered another Dr J. Taylor, who entered about the same time as Johnson, and he contends that he was Johnson's friend.

The most perplexing element in the controversy is the case of Whitfield. Boswell calls him Johnson's "fellow collegian," and he reports Johnson as saying that he was at the same college with him and knew him before he became better than other people. Now, Whitefield only entered in 1732, when it is admitted, even by advocates of the long stay, that Johnson had left. It will be seen it is a crux for both sides. I do not profess to be able to solve the question, but these points are worthy of consideration. First, as to the meaning of "fellow collegian." "His fellow collegian," used by Boswell, may certainly imply, without much forcing of the meaning, "belonging to the same college," without any regard to the time of residence. If Johnson said "Whitfield was at my college," Boswell may have thought he meant at the same time. Later, Boswell reports the phrase about Whitfield being at the same college with him, to which he (Boswell) may have given the same meaning, of belonging to the same college. But then Johnson adds that he knew him before he became better than other people. And it was at college—say about 1733—that he became "better than other people." But this Dr B. Hill and his supporters have not noticed. How came it to pass that the clerks of the Buttery Books would continue for two years entering the name of a non-resident in this pertinacious and regular way, as though he were a member of "the mess," as it were, but never attended? Would they not have suspended their entries as time rolled on? What, it might be asked, had they to do with the list of persons on the college books? All they were concerned with were the persons who were supplied with college victuals. As it happens, they did leave off entering his name, for short periods, so we are asked to believe that these clerks would go periodically to the authorities to remove, or put on again, according to the entries of the college books, the name of a person to whom they supplied nothing in their department. It would be now "Johnson is off the books," and now "Johnson is on." "But he is never here has never been here for two years and gets nothing from us." Then, with all the personal investigations of these ledgers by Dr Chandler and Dr B. Hill, they have never discovered another case of the kind, that is, where a student remains away from the college, but has his name on the Buttery list with blanks opposite to it.

Another strong proof of the longer stay is Dr Adams' declaration that he was "his nominal tutor"—i.e. that after the three years, in 1731, he had succeeded Jordan, and would have been Johnson's tutor had the latter returned. This surely is an indication that, up to that period, Johnson was in the college. Had he left, as is contended, some two years before, Adams would not have talked of being his tutor at all, "nominal" or otherwise. Johnson's career had been long since closed; but Adams speaks clearly as though he had been at the college all the time, and thus seems to have said to Boswell that had he returned (after the vacation), and gone on with his studies, he would have found a new tutor.

I now resume the task and duty of pointing-out Dr B. Hill's mistakes.

Johnson heartily praised Murphy's plays, giving him a high place as a dramatist. "Yet" says the editor, on the watch to catch him, " he said there was too much Tig and Tirry in one piece." Thus there was one play with which he found fault. But on turning to the passage, we find Johnson was speaking, not of the play itself, but of the names of the characters, which were Tigranes, Tiridates, etc. It was a pleasant jest. "Yet he said," etc. A trivial matter of this kind shows how unsafe a guide is Dr B. Hill.

We have, indeed, the sage's opinion of Dr Hill: "He was an ingenious man," he said, "but had no veracity. He was, however, a very curious observer; and if he would have been contented to tell the world no more than he knew, he might have been a very considerable man, and needed not to have recourse to such expedients to raise his reputation." This 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."