Studies of a Biographer/Johnsoniana
Dr. Birkbeck Hill has completed his labours upon Johnson's life by publishing this collection of Johnsonian Miscellanies. He thanks only too warmly the person who had the good fortune to suggest this scheme. The suggestion, it must be said, needed very little originality. When Croker published his edition of Boswell's life, he saw that it would be desirable to gather the anecdotes from other sources. With curious infelicity, he at first thrust them into Boswell's text; but in later issues they appeared in a separate volume. For that performance Croker, in spite of the criticisms of Macaulay and Carlyle, deserves the thanks of all true Boswellians. Dr. Birkbeck Hill has now given his own collection, which necessarily coincides in great part with Croker's. He has, moreover, added to it a full apparatus of notes, indexes, and references to the original sources. He is, like every conscientious workman, incompletely satisfied with his own performance: he utters a kind of groan when he reflects upon the improvements which he might make even now if the book had not been definitively printed off. Undoubtedly every piece of human composition has its faults; and a critic has excellent reasons for not contradicting a confession of shortcoming: it would be to admit that he may perhaps be blinder than the author. I will, therefore, not commit myself to the very unprofessional declaration that I have detected no shortcomings: but I will venture to say that the contributors to Johnson's biography would be bound to admit, if they could still take an interest in the subject, that their performances have been treasured up and annotated with a care and intelligence unsurpassed in any similar performance. To have Dr. Birkbeck Hill's ten volumes on one's shelves is not only to have one of those delightful collections into which one can dip at any moment with a certainty of bringing up some quaint and fascinating anecdote, but also to have it so well arranged that one can be sure of regaining any half-remembered passage. In regard to his last instalment, I will only venture to express one doubt. Dr. Birkbeck Hill had thought, he tells us, of giving extracts from Mme. d'Arblay's Diary. Reflection soon convinced him that the diary was 'too excellent a piece of work to be hacked in pieces'; he accordingly exhorts readers to go to the lady's book for themselves, especially if they wish to see Johnson's 'fun and comical humour and love of nonsense, of which,' as she says, 'he had about him more than almost anybody she ever saw.' Now Jowett, a most appreciative Johnsonian, told Dr. Birkbeck Hill that if Boswell had misrepresented Johnson upon any point it was precisely upon this: Boswell had, perhaps, made Johnson too much of the sage and philosopher, and too little of the 'rollicking King of Society.' If Boswell be really guilty of this omission, it is surely rather unfortunate not to have passages from the writer who has best supplied the deficiency. Mme. d'Arblay's Diary is undoubtedly a very charming book; but, after all, a diary by its nature lends itself to being read in fragments. Perhaps a closer examination might justify Dr. Birkbeck Hill's conclusion; but one would be inclined to say on the first impression that room might have been found for Mme. d'Arblay by excising some heavier and less relevant matter. Perhaps Johnson's 'Prayers and Meditations,' not here quite in their place, might have made way for samples of his fun.
The problem indeed which the book principally suggests concerns this question of the completeness of the Boswellian Johnson. To some of us—I suspect, indeed, to a good many—Boswell represents the original source not only of knowledge about Johnson, but of our knowledge of English literature in general. He was our introducer to the great anonymous club formed by English men of letters from the days when Shakespeare met Ben Jonson to the days when Carlyle discoursed to Froude. We became members of the craft in spirit under Boswell's guidance, whether we have or have not become actually identified with it in the flesh. It therefore becomes next to impossible to abstract from Boswell: all our later knowledge has been more or less ingrafted upon him, however far we may have travelled from the source: Boswell gave the nucleus: and more or less consciously we have used his world as a standard inevitably taken into account in all later judgments. To suppose Boswell non-existent is for such readers to suppose a kind of organic change in our whole estimate of literary characteristics. When reading, especially about some of the other famous talkers, Coleridge's monologues or Sydney Smith's explosions of fun, I find myself thinking how they would have sounded at the Mitre or the Turk's Head. Thanks to Boswell, I take the Johnsonian article to be a fixed datum like the official yard at the Tower; and to be asked to put that out of my head is to be invited to deprive myself of my only measuring-rod. It is exceedingly difficult, at any rate, to put oneself outside of Boswell and to construct a portrait of Johnson simply out of such other materials as are here put together. I have read Hawkins and Mrs. Piozzi and the rest, but always with the help of the preconceived notions. Where they could be fitted into Boswell, I have accepted them as corroborations; but when they differed, I have probably rejected the uncongenial elements, with a perhaps careless assumption that they must be inaccurate. And yet, it seems only justice to these respectable persons to consider whether we ought not to reopen the point. If Mme. d'Arblay saw something of Johnson which was not revealed to Boswell, may we not discover similar supplementary hints in the other attempts at portraiture?
Johnson's life confirms one remark which is painfully impressed upon most readers of biography. A really first-rate biography ought, one may plausibly argue, to be the rarest of books. A man can write a poem by himself; but a biography requires not only a capable artist and a good subject, but the rare combination of circumstances which brings them together under the proper conditions. The most interesting part of most men's lives—and Johnson was no exception—is the early struggle in which their faculties were developing and the victory being won. A man, too, as Johnson said to Mrs. Piozzi, 'commonly grows wickeder as he grows older'; he would always, he declared, take the side of the young in a dispute, 'for you have at least a chance of virtue till age has withered its very root.' So far as my personal experience has gone, I think that Johnson was too nearly right. At any rate, the period of aspirations and illusions is the most interesting. Yet if a man lives to a full age, the companions of his youth are mostly dead; and the survivors, if by some fortunate chance there be any who are capable of articulate story-telling, look back too sadly and too bitterly on the old days to restore the old impressions to life. Happy, in this respect at least, are those who die young. Die before you are forty and you may have friends capable of describing you at your best and freshest. But, as generally happens, Johnson's early friends had passed away long before his death. Except from incidental suggestions in his life of Savage and a few stray anecdotes, we have no vivid impressions of the period in which he was struggling for employment on The Gentleman's Magazine or slaving at the Dictionary and still cheered by the presence of his wife. Johnson himself once suggested the names of one or two friends who could tell his future biographers about his early life. They were such as that worthy 'squarson' (in Sydney Smith's phrase), Dr. Taylor, in whom even Boswell could only once detect something like a sparkle of wit, and that of most doubtful quality. The professional biographer knows too well by sad experience what is the kind of information to be extracted from such sources: probably a couple of utterly pointless anecdotes, which he is forced to insert because he has asked for them, and which introduce some hopeless jumble of dates and facts. Johnson would not have been more than actually unfortunate if his sole official biographer had been such a one as Sir John Hawkins, of whom it is recorded by his venerated friend that he was 'an honest man at bottom'; though, 'to be sure, he is penurious, and he is mean, and it must be owned he has a degree of brutality and a tendency to savageness that cannot easily be defended.' His rivals, who agreed in little else, agree in their judgment of Hawkins. We may explain away Boswell's antipathy: 'Hawkins,' he writes to his friend Temple, 'is, no doubt, very malevolent. Observe how he talks of me "as quite unknown"!' Boswell, according to Miss Hawkins, wished to be described as 'The Boswell,' whereas he had only appeared as 'a native of Scotland,' Hawkins's meanness and malignity, however, are asserted on less suspicious evidence. He was turned out of the club for rudeness to Burke. Jeremy Bentham calls him a 'good-for-nothing fellow,' who was always wondering—which Bentham oddly seems to regard as an inconsistency—at the depravity of other people. The amiable Bishop Percy called him a 'most detestable fellow': and the suave Reynolds told Malone that he was not only 'mean and grovelling' but 'absolutely dishonest.' He tried to cheat Johnson's black servant, Barber, out of a watch which his master had given to him when dying; and thereby came in for some stinging ridicule from Person. Hawkins, indeed, was grievously scandalised by Johnson's liberal bequest of an annuity to Barber; and the more so, one guesses, because it seems to have been only through Hawkins's importunity that Johnson was induced to make a will at the last moment. A man who succeeded in combining the censures of Johnson, Burke, Reynolds, Bentham, and Porson, to say nothing of Boswell, Malone, and Murphy, must certainly have had his weaknesses. Yet Johnson had a kindness for him; and one rather guesses that, after all, he was nothing worse than an unusually dull, censorious, and self-righteous specimen of the British middle-class of his time. His most characteristic saying is that Fielding was the 'inventor of a cant phrase, goodness of heart, which means little more than the virtue of a horse or a dog.' A good man is one who can see the wickedness of Tom Jones and fully appreciate the virtues of Blifil. Now, if Johnson had died at the age of fifty-four or fifty-five, Hawkins, had he condescended to undertake the task, would have had no rivals in writing a biography, and we should have been duly grateful to him. For even in his very dingy and distorting mirror we should have caught sight of a grotesque, but impressive figure, an uncouth Dominie Sampson, who, without Boswell, would indeed be puzzling but would still show touches of the familiar qualities. Hawkins was dimly aware, for example, though he cannot give proofs, that Johnson could be humorous, and tells one anecdote of the 'high jinks' which, by Boswell's era, had become impossible. When Mrs. Lennox published one of her immortal novels in 1751, Johnson induced Hawkins—with a shudder—to 'spend a whole night in festivity.' A party of twenty sat up at the Devil's Tavern: where there was a 'magnificent hot apple-pye' stuck with bay leaves—'because, forsooth, Mrs. Lennox had written verses'—nay, 'Johnson encircled her brows' with laurel, and performed ceremonies of his own invention, and kept it up till morning. At the dawn of day, his face 'still shone with meridian splendour'—reminding us of a famous performance of Socrates, though Johnson supported his spirits by lemonade instead of wine, and the conversation was more proper than that at the Platonic Symposium, if hardly so brilliant. Poor Hawkins, however, slunk off about eight with a 'sensation of shame' at the resemblance which the night's entertainment bore to a 'debauch.' He had the strength of mind to overcome these misgivings, and even to give this little narrative, and defy any doubts which it might suggest as to his own dignity. There was nothing, he is anxious to make us understand, which would have shocked even that reverent admirer of the 'dixonary,' Miss Pinkerton of Chiswick Mall. For the most part, it must be admitted, Hawkins has such readers before his eyes, and Johnson is with him the great moralist and author of the Rambler, whom M. Taine found—no wonder—to be unreadable. From Hawkins taken alone, we might have dimly divined aspects of the Boswellian Johnson; but, on the whole, the lexicographer would have been little more than a fine specimen of the old denizens of Grub Street. His discourse, says Hawkins, was of the 'didactic kind, replete with original sentiments expressed in the strongest and most correct terms.' Yet even Hawkins cannot quite damp the genuine fire in a few specimens which he has preserved.
Among the earlier friends we must reckon one incomparably superior person. Reynolds knew Johnson from about 1754, and gives his impressions in two imaginary conversations. These, which were first published by Croker, are of very great interest. One would like to know, indeed, whether they were written in complete independence of Boswell; for the coincidence is close and curious. They are meant to illustrate Reynolds's own remark, that Johnson considered Garrick to be his property, and would allow no one either to praise or to blame him without contradiction. No doubt Reynolds and Boswell had heard Johnson's comments often enough to account for a common element; and, in any case, the similarity implies a valuable corroboration of Boswell's perspicuity. Reynolds, we may be sure, had a good eye for character, and looked at Johnson from the position of an equal, not a hero-worshipper. Yet the general result is the same, though the sharpness of the impression is naturally much greater in Boswell's verbal report. So, speaking of Garrick's being unspoilt by the attentions of great men, Johnson is made to say by Reynolds, that 'it is to the credit of Garrick that he never laid claim to this distinction. It was as voluntarily allowed as if it had been his birthright. In this I confess I looked on David with some degree of envy, not so much for the respect he received as for the manner of its being acquired. What fell into his lap unsought, I have been forced to claim,' and so on. In Boswell, Johnson remarks that Garrick had had applause 'dashed in his face, sounded in his ears, and went home every night with the plaudits of a thousand in his cranium. Then, Mr. Garrick did not find but made his way to the tables, the lives, and almost the bedchambers, of the great. If all this had happened to me, I should have had a couple of fellows with long poles walking before me, to knock down everybody that stood in the way.' Obviously the substance is the same; but Johnson's words, in passing through the medium of Reynolds's bland and decorous interpretation, have lost all the vivid concrete imagery that fixes them in our memory. Johnson's only recorded blush was on the occasion of having said something rude to Reynolds; and we can easily believe that the Reynolds atmosphere would soften and occasionally emasculate the pithy utterances of his friend. Reynolds's painted portraits of 'Blinking Sam' show a power of interpreting the outward appearance which no doubt indicates a keen perception of the character beneath. But on reading his portrait in words, we feel that in some cases a photographic likeness is incomparably more effective than a judiciously toned and harmonised study by an ambitious artist. An interesting appendage to this paper gives the recollections of Sir Joshua's poor trembling sister Frances. When Boswell tried to get some of Johnson's letters from her, her 'too nice delicacy' prevented her compliance. She was ambitious enough to write some little poems, which Johnson assured her were 'very pretty,' and had much moved him. Considering that in the ten first lines she makes 'come' rhyme to 'prolong,' 'steep' to 'meet,' and 'averse' to 'redress,' one is not surprised that, though Johnson advised her not to burn them, he did not persuade her to publish them. The Recollections though prepared for publication, also stayed in her desk. They show quaintly the impression made by Johnson on the nerves of the shrinking poetess. She was pleased at their first interview by hearing him tell how, when he went home at two in the morning, he would put pennies into the hands of children sleeping in the streets, that they might buy a breakfast when they awoke. She gives various anecdotes of kindness which he had showed—as in giving her advice in such a delicate matter as her difficulties with her famous brother. But she had a struggle. He was, she says, 'in affections mild,' but could not be called 'in manners gentle.' His celebrity, she thinks, was 'sublimated, as one may say, with terror and with love.' He was very rarely or never 'intentionally asperous' (Miss Reynolds has some delightful phrases), unless in defence of religion or morality: but he 'inverted the common forms of civilised society.' Miss Reynolds looks upon him as a monstrous combination—a sage, if not a saint, confined by a strange freak of nature in the outside of a Caliban. Nobody, accordingly, has given more singular accounts of his amazing appearance: especially his performance of what she calls his 'straddles.' She tells how he would suddenly contort his feet into a geometrical diagram, while his hands were raised as high as possible above his head, or apparently meant to imitate a jockey at full speed; how, when he passed through a door, he would whirl poor blind Miss Williams about as he whirled and twisted in his gesticulation, or else leave her groping outside while he made a spring across the threshold, apparently attempting (in modern phrase) to establish a record for jumping. When Miss Reynolds took a walk with him in Twickenham meadows, he collected a crowd by these 'extraordinary antics/ and afterwards seesawed so violently while reading Grotius's De Veritate that people came up to ask what was the matter. Dr. Campbell also declares that Johnson looked like an idiot, without a rag of sense, and was 'for ever dancing the devil's jig,' or making a drivelling effort to 'whistle in his absent paroxysms.' No other biographer speaks so strongly of these amazing performances; and probably they had got upon Miss Reynolds's nerves. She amiably wishes to explain his apparently 'asperous' conduct; and certainly a man who was half deaf, so blind, as she declared, that he could not recognise a friend's face half a yard off, and, moreover, liable to become at any moment a mere bundle of automatic contortions, might be expected to tread on other people's toes, literally and metaphorically, without bad intentions. The 'two primæval causes,' as Miss Reynolds has it, his 'intellectual excellence' and his 'corporeal defects,' made him apparently harsh. The corporeal defects 'tended to darken his perceptions of what may be called propriety and impropriety in general conversation,' and the intellectual force made him hit hard. Miss Reynolds, no doubt, is speaking to the point; but it is plain, too, that she would be horror-struck rather than amused whenever Johnson descended from his pedestal of the Rambler. He is still with her a heap of contradictory qualities.
Murphy was another friend of about the same period, whose essay is very properly reproduced here. It would make a respectable article in a biographical dictionary; but does not get beyond the humble merits attainable in such works. It was not till Johnson had emerged from his struggles and was reposing under the shelter of his passion that he at last met the predestined biographer. Boswell met him on 16th May 1763, and Mrs. Piozzi (Mrs. Thrale) 11th January 1765. Of the two, Mrs. Piozzi had certainly the best opportunities, and, indeed, opportunities better than those which have come to the most famous of biographers. Lockhart had not seen so much of Scott nor Froude of Carlyle. Both Lockhart and Froude, however, had the advantage of abundant material. They could tell the earlier story in the words of their own heroes; though in both cases the literary skill which turned the materials to account was of the highest order. Johnson's later correspondence is characteristic enough, but only a few fragments survive to cast an occasional gleam of light upon the earlier period. In the main, therefore, the interest has to depend, not upon the narrative, but upon the fully developed character. We have to infer what Johnson was by our knowledge of what he became. Mrs. Piozzi, naturally, did not attempt a biography. She was with her second husband in Italy when she put together from memory the collection of anecdotes which, after Boswell, is, with all shortcomings, the nearest approach to a satisfactory portrait of Johnson. Mrs. Piozzi's book was a thorn in the flesh to Boswell, who, however, has frequently the pleasure of chuckling over some demonstrable inaccuracy. She has been made into a kind of devil's advocate in the case of Johnson's canonisation. Hayward, in his life of her, took her part in the famous quarrel. He had, of course, no difficulty in pointing out that the British prejudices roused by her second marriage were not justifiable in the court of pure reason. An Italian musician is certainly not in the nature of things inferior to an English brewer. Piozzi appears moreover to have been a real gentleman though he was a fiddler and a foreigner; and, therefore, it must be fully granted that the wrath of Johnson and other friends, including her own daughters, at Mrs. Thrale becoming Mrs. Piozzi was absurd from a philosophical point of view. How far it was excusable, when we consider the social atmosphere of the time, need not be considered. The fact remains that the anecdotes are coloured by the intention. Nobody, I think, can doubt that the real cause of alienation was Mrs. Piozzi's knowledge that the marriage, rightly or wrongly, would offend her own circle, and, above all, would shock her revered monitor. She is, therefore, inclined to dwell upon the 'asperous' side of Johnson's performances, and to argue that the yoke which had been bearable when it was shared by Thrale became altogether intolerable when she had to support it by herself. Comparison with her own journals shows that this view, which is insinuated throughout, did not really correspond to the facts. It was not Johnson's mode of devouring his 'pudden,' or his rough speeches about Mrs.Thrale's sentimentalisms, which became suddenly inexcusable, but the way in which he showed his contempt for Piozzi. Granting this, however, the book, if a book 'with a tendency,' is still an admirable supplement to Boswell; though it is now chiefly interesting as a measure of Boswell's skill. We need not inquire whether the anecdotes told by both are given most accurately by one or the other; whether he told Hannah More to consider what her flattery was worth, before she choked him with it, or more gently entreated the 'dearest lady,' after many deprecations, to consider its value before she 'bestowed it so freely'; or whether he told Mrs. Piozzi that the world would be none the worse, or that she would not herself be much concerned, if all her relations were spitted like larks and roasted for Presto's supper. Was he ridiculing her feeling or reproving her levity? We can never know for certain, but we can see clearly enough in other cases which reporter can tell a story most artistically. Some of Boswell's critics speak as though his only merit were in his accuracy. He had the courage, though his contemporaries gave it uglier names, to take out his notebook and set down the words at the instant when they dropped from Johnson's lips. He realised, though in a queer way, the immense value of a contemporary note, and was as great a reformer in biography as Gibbon in history. That undoubtedly was a merit, especially at the time when biographers in general thought it a duty even to alter such contemporary documents as they had; and to give without warning, as Mason did in the case of Gray, or even Lord Sheffield in the case of Gibbon, not the actual letter, but a compound of different letters. Even Boswell indeed, as appears from his notebook, thought himself at liberty to touch up phrases, though he may have thought that he was bringing rough notes nearer to the truth. But it is plain that this was only one condition of his success. Most proverbial good sayings, one is inclined to suspect, are partly due to the reporters, or rather to generations of reporters. They have been smoothed and polished like pebbles on a beach by continuous attrition in the mouths of men, and if we could see them in their original enunciation they would be comparatively rough and clumsy. On the other hand, the detached witticism loses, and may entirely change, its significance when taken as an isolated gem. The special skill of Boswell is in his power of giving, not the felicitous phrase by itself, but the dramatic situation in which it was struck out, and to which, even in its unpolished state, it owed its impressiveness. In that he is not only superlative but, I fancy, unique. There are countless collections of 'anas' and 'table-talks' from which we get some impression of the good things said by famous men. There are imaginary conversations which are sometimes admirable, even though we perceive, as we read them, that no real conversation was ever so continuous, or logical, or polished. Boswell seems to be alone in the art of presenting us in a few lines with a conversation which is obviously as real as it is dramatic. We listen to Johnson, but to Johnson surrounded by Garrick and Goldsmith and Burke and Wilkes, and appreciate not only the thing that was said, but what gave it point and appropriateness at the time, and under the circumstances. The fact was, of course, made possible by the nature of the Johnsonian circle. There are many admirable sayings in the table-talk of Coleridge, but a report of the whole would have obviously given us nothing but a diluted and discursive lecture. Carlyle's talk would have been in the same relation to his Reminiscences or his Latter-day Pamphlets. But Johnson's talk was superior to his writings, just because it was struck out in the heat of 'wit combats' with a circle which, even if it took the passive part of mere sounding-board, was essential to the effect. No one, however, except the inimitable Boswell clearly saw this or was able to turn the remark to account. Mrs. Piozzi gives us good things, but they are detached and discontinuous. She reports the phrases which for one reason or other had happened to stick in her memory. She is evidently eking out her recollections by bits of written Johnsonese. Johnson might perhaps have written in the Rambler, but could never have said in talk, that certain people are 'forced to linger life away in tasteless stupidity, and choose to count the moments by remembrance of pain instead of enjoyment of pleasure.' She probably gives an unintentionally false colouring to some of the sayings; and, in any case, is unable to make a harmonious blending of the various elements. She remembers every now and then that Johnson was, on her showing, to be a man of the highest virtue; and she proceeds to tell us how much he felt for the poor; or how sorry he could be when he found that he had wounded a man's feelings unintentionally, or what excellent advice and help he would give to friends who were really in want of it. Mrs. Piozzi, however, being a singularly quick and vivacious lady, with a sarcastic and occasionally cynical turn, and no very profound appreciation of character, just stitches her anecdotes together as they come, and does not trouble herself to blend them into a consistent whole.
The more we read, in short, the more sensible we become of the unique merits of our old friend. He is far too familiar to justify any elaborate analysis of character, but a word or two may help to explain how his superiority to his rivals arose from his strange idiosyncrasy. The letters to Temple, first published in 1857, show the man even more distinctly than the life of Johnson; and I have sometimes wondered that so curious a book has not been more generally read. As a self-revelation it is almost equal to a fragment of Pepys. Pepys was secretive enough to keep his diary to himself, whereas Boswell seems to have been equally willing to confide all his weaknesses to a friend. That quality, whatever it may be, seems to have been omitted from his composition which makes most people feel the absolute necessity of a veil of privacy. They have feelings of which they are not ashamed, but which it would be agony to expose to the gaze of their neighbours. Boswell seems to have enjoyed laying bare everything that he felt; he would apparently have wished his confessor, if he had had one, to publish his avowals in the papers. 'Not a bent sixpence cares he,' as he says of himself in a boyish song, 'whether with him or at him you laugh.' To good-natured people there was something attractive in the confidingness which is implied in all his absurdities. Whether he introduces himself to the hero Paoli, the moralist Johnson, or to Mitchell, then the English Ambassador at the Court of Frederick, he immediately proceeds to give him full information as to the state of his soul. No other human being could have proposed that the great Chatham should 'honour him with a letter now and then,' in order to keep him 'ardent in the pursuit of virtuous fame.' He was at the time only known to Chatham as the author of the book upon Corsica, but thought it perfectly natural that the magnificent statesman should become his confidential adviser. Many distinguished people besides Johnson seem to have been flattered by his almost pathetic trust in their benevolence. His simplicity and good-nature were so unmistakable that, as Burke put it, they scarcely seemed to be virtuous. People overlooked the impudence in consideration of the genuine goodwill. David Hume and Wilkes seem to have felt the charm as much as Johnson and Burke. A man who takes you into his confidence so frankly is at least paying you a compliment. It was only such fine gentlemen as Walpole and Gibbon, who stood upon their dignity and would not take liberties even upon invitation, lest liberties should be taken with them, whom Boswell found intolerable. Gibbon in particular was an 'ugly, affected, disgusting fellow,' who 'poisoned' the club for him. Still worse, indeed, were the people who saw in Boswell's simplicity a chance of making him a butt for rough practical jokes. The sycophants who surrounded his patron, Lord Lowther, and the Bar of the Northern Circuit seem to have embittered the poor man's last years by using him in that capacity. His disposition, in fact, was not conducive to success in practical life. Boswell was far too easy-going and too apt to snatch at any indulgences which came in his way to play an effective part in a game of rough-and-tumble. The characteristic result was that Boswell became a kind of interested looker-on, like a delicate boy at a rough public school, who admires the games, though he cannot take part in them, and worships the heroes. To his own fancy he was a kind of Hamlet. He explains to Paoli, as he had already explained to Mitchell, that he had 'intensely applied himself to metaphysical research,' and got 'beyond his depth.' He had thus become for ever incapable of taking a part in active life. He was proud, as we know, of his hypochondria; and though he frankly confesses to less refined causes of most of his fits, he always cherishes the belief that they imply a philosophical temperament. He delights in supposing himself to be puzzling over the problems of fate and freewill. But he has not the courage to be a thorough sceptic or pessimist. At bottom, he feels the world to be infinitely too enjoyable to admit of a gloomy solution; and so his real solace is in day-dreaming. He is always in imagination overcoming his difficulties and rising to fame and fortune. In a very characteristic letter (in 1789), he explains all his troubles: Pitt had been 'ill-advised enough' not to patronise a 'man of my popular and pleasant talents.' His wife was dying; his property embarrassed; and he was induced to adopt Johnson's melancholy view of the vanity of human wishes. And yet he is still full of 'projects to attain wealth and eminence'; and observes that he is always 'looking back and looking forward,' and wondering 'how he will feel in situations which he anticipates in fancy.' In Corsica he sang Hearts of Oak to the natives, and fancied himself 'a recruiting sea-officer, with his chorus of Corsicans aboard the British fleet.' He rode Paoli's own horse, decked with 'crimson velvet' and 'broad gold lace,' and fancied himself for a moment to be the idol of an enthusiastic population. He is always playing at being something delightful. He makes a vow 'under a solemn yew-tree,' in the garden of his friend Temple, and becomes straightway a model of all the virtues. True, he did not keep it 'religiously,' but that was because 'a little wine hurried him on too much,' He promises Paoli, however, that he will take no wine for a year, and, having kept his promise for three weeks at the time of writing, feels that he is virtually a reformed character. The queerest result of this strange muddle between the ideal and the practical appears in his letters to Temple upon his love affairs. He writes an admirable panegyric upon marriage to his friend, and remarks that he 'looks with horror on adultery.' This, however, is part of a passage in which he explains that he has an amiable mistress who, unfortunately, has also a husband. His clerical friend hereupon seems to have blamed him for 'keeping another man's wife.' Boswell is startled at the phrase. That was literally his scheme, as he admits, but 'imagination represented it just as being fond of a pretty, lively black little lady, who, to oblige me, stayed in Edinburgh, and I very genteelly paid her expenses.' A year later Temple gives him a 'moral lecture' for some scrape into which he has fallen, and gets for answer that Boswell's 'warm imagination looks forward with great complacency on the sobriety, the healthfulness, and the worth of his future life.' His imagination retained this inestimable power up to the last, and it must be admitted, would be an admirable consoler to a feeble conscience. It told him one truth, however, in 1790: namely, that he was writing what would be, 'without exception, the most entertaining book' that his correspondent had ever read. Too characteristically he had realised his aspirations just when success became valueless. But, as a rule, he is in the odd position of one who lives in a dream world, and yet one whose dreams are always a version of realities.
Boswell is thus always playing at being something else, a melancholy philosopher or a virtuous judge or patriot; when he heard music, as he told Johnson, he felt himself 'plunging into the thick of the battle'; and after too convivial an evening, he retired in imagination to the deserts and adopted Rousseau's ideal 'savage state.' Still, as nobody appreciated more heartily the actual and solid pleasures of life, he could never detach himself from the world, though he did become disqualified for success. He could always restore his complacency by virtuous resolutions, and the friendship of good-natured people, and roamed through Vanity Fair lingering at every booth and distracted between the charms of every variety of enjoyment. He was precisely in the humour, therefore, to become a disciple of Johnson. For Johnson was the professor of a science which at that period was most flourishing. He was devoted, as he and his friends would have said, to the study of human nature. He was a 'moralist,' not meaning, as we might now mean, that he held any particular theories about 'hedonism' or 'self-realisation,' but that he was always observing concrete human beings, their eccentricities and miseries and varieties of character, with the eagerness of a scientific student. His favourite quotation, according to Mrs. Piozzi, was Pope's saying about the 'proper study of mankind.' The phrase, however, was taking a meaning rather different from that which it had borne in the days of Pope. The typical man of Pope's circle was to be found in Courts and at Ministers' levées. He was the person to be lectured upon manners by Chesterfield and initiated into Machiavellian worldly wisdom. Johnson, as the famous letter to Chesterfield shows, expressed among other things the intrusion of a new social element; the rise of Grub Street to consideration, if not respect. He and his companions had known the world upon which Pope and his friends looked down with scorn, the world of sponging-houses and bailiffs and translators kept in Curll's garrets. The study of 'human nature,' as Johnson, and Fielding, and Hogarth, and their contemporaries understood it, had to take into account the life of London slums, and to consider a good many bald facts, coarse and repulsive enough, which their predecessors had regarded as beneath the notice of a gentleman. Dimly, too, they became aware of the passions which were leading, though they knew it not, to a great social upheaval, and beginning to be sentimental and denounce luxury and believe in the state of nature or the rights of man. Johnson was rich in such experience, and his best sayings are summaries of the reflections which it suggested. His reading and his criticism had all the same purpose. He loved biography and such history as deals with individual character. He could not bear to talk about the 'Punic War,' as he told Mrs. Piozzi—formal accounts of campaigns and conquests; but he loved the history which showed 'how our ancestors lived.' He was even modern in his approval of early attempts to give accounts of 'common manners' rather than political events. He always estimates books, from Shakespeare to Richardson, by the 'knowledge of the human heart' which he considers them to contain. He loves London as a botanist might love a fertile country, on account of the abundance of the material for his favourite study. He sent Boswell and Windham to 'explore Wapping' on account of the variety of 'modes of life' to be found there. Boswell is generally ridiculed for his willingness to visit even such people as the famous Mrs. Rudd, who was probably guilty of forgery and something very like murder. Johnson would have visited her too, he said, if they had not already got into the habit of putting things into the papers; and both would have justified themselves on the pretext that they were studying 'human nature.' When people go to Wapping now it is generally to carry out Mr. Charles Booth's admirable method of investigating great social problems. They deal with criminals by statistical tables, not by seeking the society of eminent murderers, or looking on at executions. We talk about sociology, not the study of human nature, and investigate the manners and customs of primitive savages instead of generalising our private personal experience. The speciality of Johnson's period is precisely this desire to consider the concrete human being, from Wapping to St. James's, as the subject-matter of a separate and intensely interesting science.
This, not to go further, characterises Boswell's view of Johnson. Boswell, already inclined to study life after a quaint and desultory fashion enough, to put himself in contact with all manner of famous people and to play their parts in imagination, imagined, not without excuse, that he had found in Johnson an embodiment of all the wisdom to be extracted from manifold experience of life, guided by profound penetration into character. Johnson's conversation is delightful because it is full of the pithy aphorisms which concentrate the results of the experience. Johnson is the half-inspired prophet who can tell him what fruit to grow in his garden, what profession he should adopt, and how he should behave to his wife or his father. If there were such a thing as a scientific knowledge of the human heart, and if Johnson had possessed it, there would be much sense in this; and so far as strong common sense could be a substitute for science, Boswell was perhaps not so far wrong in his choice of an oracle. It helps to explain—not Boswell's skill, for that is as inexplicable as all genius—but the special distinction between Boswell and his rivals. Boswell, that is, had not only sat at the feet of the prophet, but had really imbibed his method. The others, from Hawkins up to Mrs. Piozzi, simply take the point of view of the ordinary biographer. They assume that their readers have studied The Rambler or Rasselas or the Dictionary, and want to know something about the author. They collect as many good sayings and characteristic anecdotes as they can, and argue as to the justice of the various charges of rudeness and so forth. Some of them, who, from no fault of Dr. Hill's, fill rather more pages than we could wish, think that a great man ought to be mainly the hero of a religious tract, and treat us simply to minute and painful descriptions of the poor man's last days. In any case, the real Johnson is for them the author, and their function is simply to satisfy the curiosity of his readers. Boswell being, in however quaint a fashion, a man of real genius, saw instinctively something more. Johnson was, in the first place, his oracle—the man who has extracted the truth implicitly written in the book of human life. But then, besides this, Johnson might also be considered as himself a page in the book. To understand his significance we must take not merely his utterances, but their whole setting, the 'environment' as well as the individual. Boswell has to study the Johnson circle as he was sent to study Wapping. Charing Cross is profoundly interesting because through it flows a full tide of humanities. The biography is not merely an account of Johnson, but what we should call a study of human life. Johnson himself is, of course, in the foreground—he was, so to speak, a great nugget, a gigantic mass of 'human nature.' He had that article, like Carlyle, in so much abundance as to shock and alienate a good many people who shrink from the rough ore, however full it may be of precious metal. To study him, therefore, was to study a type of surpassing interest, and nobody was really freer than Boswell from what Macaulay, erroneously, I should say, called the lues Boswelliana, the unqualified admiration even of a hero's failings. He would not, as he told Hannah More, make his lion a cat to please anybody, and perceived that the shadows were necessary to do justice to the lights. But the point in which he is even more unique is the perception that Johnson, though always in the foreground, is still to be only in the foreground of a group of living and moving human beings. The dramatic skill displayed in such descriptions as the famous scene with Wilkes enables him to do what is not even approached by his rivals. It makes us incidentally share Boswell's own feeling. He comes up from Edinburgh with such a 'gust' for London society as excited even Johnson's wonder. It is not a mere search for pleasure or amusement, but a kind of scientific zeal, that animates him. He has a genuine desire to see life at its fullest, all human passions stimulated to the utmost by the conflict of multitudes, and shown in the greatest variety by the mixture of men of all ranks and conditions, to see the keenest intellects of the day roused to activity by constant intercourse, and to have before his eyes every variety of incident, from a change of Ministry to a procession of criminals to Tyburn tree. The insatiable curiosity is only stimulated by the circumstance that he is jostled aside by men of stronger fibre and obliged to look on or to play his part by 'a warm imagination' instead of actual participation. This, I take it, is why Boswell's rivals seem to give us merely a collection of detached anecdotes, while in Boswell all the persons seem to come suddenly to life and give us a real insight into the whole social sphere instead of being mere lay figures. Mme. d'Arblay perhaps deserves the exception made in her favour, in so far as she has the real novelist's instinct, and gives us lively accounts of incidents, instead of isolated facts. But Mme. d'Arblay scarcely sees more than one aspect of Johnson—the famous old moralist who likes to make a pet of a charming young woman, and relaxes into more than usual playfulness in course of administering delightful doses of pardonable flattery. Of the others, even of Mrs. Piozzi, we can hardly say more than that they become amusing by the light of Boswell. He has revealed the actors to us with such skill that even the dry and pompous narratives enable us to supply what was wanting, as in the dullest of reports we can sometimes hear the accents of a familiar friend.
Note.—Mr. Percy Fitzgerald has recently published a 'Critical Examination' of Dr. Birkbeck Hill's Johnsonian editions. Mr. Fitzgerald refers more than once to the fact that I have been 'beguiled' into speaking of the edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson as the best known to me. Indeed, it seems that the edition has been very generally welcomed; and Mr. Fitzgerald's severe criticism comes as a rather surprising discord in a general chorus of praise. In any case, I feel it right to say a few words in defence of an opinion to which I confess that I still adhere without hesitation. My reason is simple. I have for years made constant use of the Life of Johnson, and have found Dr. Birkbeck Hill's notes exceedingly useful. Whenever I am in want of information about any of the Johnson circle, I regularly turn for help to this edition, and I very seldom open it without gaining some light upon the matter in hand. I think that I should have been ungrateful if I had not acknowledged so much; and I will briefly state why I cannot retract my acknowledgment. Mr. Fitzgerald criticises Dr. Birkbeck Hill for giving a great deal of irrelevant information, for frequently misunderstanding his author, and for frequent inaccuracy. The first count depends more or less upon what seems to me to be a matter for fair difference of opinion.
I quite admit that Dr. Birkbeck Hill has given a quantity of information in his notes which has little or no direct bearing upon Johnson himself, or upon Boswell's discharge of his biographical duties. But I also confess that I have found such notes very pleasant reading, and been grateful for them. I like an occasional excursion into matters suggested by the text and illustrative of the period. If Mr. Fitzgerald does not like them, he has after all the simple remedy of not reading them. To give an example: Mr. Fitzgerald ridicules a note (Hill's Boswell, iii. 241) in which Dr. Birkbeck Hill illustrates by several quotations the curious change in the meaning of the word 'respectable.' Chesterfield speaks, for example, of the hour of death as 'at least a very respectable one,' and Hannah More thinks a roomful of portraits of admirals a 'respectable sight.' The note is certainly superfluous, but I am grateful for the knowledge conveyed in a few lines as to a really curious instance of the shifting of meaning in a familiar word. Dr. Birkbeck Hill, again, defends Johnson against Macaulay's statement that he knew nothing of the country, and despised travelling. In the course of his remarks he gives the populations of Lichfield, Oxford, and Birmingham, where Johnson spent most of his early life, to show that they were then small country towns, and points out that a boyish perusal of Martin's account of the Hebrides had stimulated the curiosity long afterwards satisfied by the journey with Boswell. Mr. Fitzgerald ridicules these statements, which occur in a disquisition in Appendix B to the third volume. No doubt they are not strictly necessary, but to me they really illustrate some of Johnson's characteristic prejudices, and qualify one of Macaulay's slashing assaults. I was again innocent enough to be grateful for them.
This suggests another point. Mr. Fitzgerald ridicules Dr. Birkbeck Hill's enormous and self-made index. Undoubtedly it errs, if anything, by excess. That is a very rare fault, and a fault on the right side. I have found the index exceedingly useful on very many occasions, and been grateful for the labour bestowed, which has often saved me a great deal of trouble. The present occasion is an instance. Mr. Fitzgerald has given hardly any references to the passages which he criticises; and I have had to find them by the help of Dr. Birkbeck Hill himself. In some cases, I have been unable to verify Mr. Fitzgerald's references even with that help, and I am forced to suspend my judgment of his criticisms. Thus (p. 13) he accuses Dr. Birkbeck Hill of giving 'sixteen passages' to illustrate the meaning of 'Hockley in the Hole.' In the only passage which I can find about 'Hockley in the Hole' (vol. Hi. 134), Dr. Birkbeck Hill illustrates the meaning by quotations from the Spectator, Fielding's Jonathan Wild, and the Beggars' Opera. That is, there are only three passages cited, and, as it seems to me, not one too many. But the absence of a reference leaves a bare possibility that Dr. Birkbeck Hill has quoted other passages elsewhere. Considering, however, the completeness of the index, I believe that Mr. Fitzgerald has somehow made an odd mistake in counting.
This is the more probable because I find other singular mistakes, which show that Mr. Fitzgerald, in accusing his author of inaccuracy—doubtless the worst of faults in an editor—has himself been inaccurate with the passages before his eyes, and his attention, one supposes, fully awake. At page 4 he says that Dr. Birkbeck Hill's index proves that the editor had never seen Boswell's first production—'certainly never read it.' The 'proof is that in the index it is mentioned in italics as 'The Club' at Newmarket. In the text, he adds, it is again written 'the Club.' Now the real title was the Cub, as any one must perceive who has read the book. I turn to the index (vol. vi. p. 25), and there find Cub at Newmarket correctly entered between 'critics' and 'curiosity.' I look back to the text (vol. i. 383, n. 3), and there, it is true, the word is written 'Club.' But as Dr. Birkbeck Hill quotes a phrase from the preface, in which the Jockey Club at Newmarket is mentioned, I am charitable enough to believe that he had really seen the book, and that 'Club' in the text is probably a correction introduced by the excessive zeal of a reader misled by the reference to the Club. At page 11, Mr. Fitzgerald comments upon a note in which Dr. Birkbeck Hill explains a passage in Johnson's letter on receiving the M.A. degree at Oxford by referring to a seditious placard published during the period of excitement over the famous Oxfordshire election of 1754. The letter, says Mr. Fitzgerald, was written in February 175 5, and the placard appeared in 'July, five or six months later. So the whole speculation topples over!' It would, were it not that the placard appeared in July 1754 (not 1755), as is indeed obvious from Dr. Birkbeck Hill's reference to the Gentleman's Magazine of that year (vol. i. 282). At p. 16, Mr. Fitzgerald attacks Dr. Birkbeck Hill's dates. Dr. Birkbeck Hill (vol. i. 146) says that Johnson had his first interview with Hogarth 'sixteen years' after coming to London. 'This cannot be accurate,' says Mr. Fitzgerald. Why? The date of the interview is fixed by its happening soon after the execution of Dr. Cameron for his share in the '45. Therefore, Mr. Fitzgerald assumes, it took place in 1745-6. If he had not been aware of Cameron's well-known story, he might have found it in the note before his eyes, where the date of the execution is stated, namely, 7th June 1753. As Johnson came to London in 1737, Dr. Birkbeck Hill is again quite right. I will give one other strange proof of Mr. Fitzgerald's carelessness. In the collection of Johnson's letters, Dr. Birkbeck Hill speaks of Reynolds's prosperity in 1758. He gives, says Mr. Fitzgerald, an 'odd proof' of it, namely, that in 1758 Reynolds had '150 letters': certainly this would be an odd proof of prosperity; but in Dr. Birkbeck Hill's notes (vol. i. 76 n.) the words are '150 sitters'—a fact which most portrait-painters would regard as a pretty good proof of prosperity.
I do not say that all Mr. Fitzgerald's criticisms are of this kind. He has discovered some real mistakes. The man who should publish ten volumes, elaborately annotated, without a mistake would be a wonder, and Mr. Fitzgerald is well qualified to find them. But I confess that to my mind the number discovered is so small as to confirm my belief in Dr. Birkbeck Hill's general accuracy; and, in any case, Mr. Fitzgerald has made too many slips to allow us to accept his opinion without careful examination. On some other points, I admit that Mr. Fitzgerald has a stronger case. I could not in any short space give my reasons for disputing many even of his more plausible remarks; but he has, no doubt, pointed to a weakness in the edition. The simple truth is, I take it, that Dr. Birkbeck Hill has ridden his hobby rather too hard. He has sometimes indulged in real irrelevance; remarks have occurred to him which he has inserted too hastily, and which he might have expunged on a more careful consideration of the text; he has made some wrong identifications; and has been led by associations, not shared by most of his readers, to expatiate here and there on needless topics. All this is the weakness of an enthusiast, and of a commentator who sometimes is over eager to say something when there is nothing to be said; or to discover difficulties which do not really exist. But, to my mind, the enthusiasm has also had invaluable results; it has given us an edition in which almost everything is to be found, though mixed with some superfluities. I wish that Mr. Fitzgerald had recognised this more warmly, and that all true lovers of Johnson and Boswell, to which class he undoubtedly belongs, could take advantage of what is good in each other's labours without being too anxious to dwell upon immaterial shortcomings.