Ten years ago, in his Critical Biography of Samuel Johnson , Robert DeMaria was keen to emphasise the ancient European roots of all that Johnson stood for. "Johnson was himself a Renaissance scholar," he declared. Now the wheel has come full circle and, mutatis mutandis , Johnson's ideas are judged not only "modern" but "English".
In many ways, Nicholas Hudson has produced a Johnson for our times. There is a chapter on "Constructing the middle-class woman", in which, while Johnson's reported views on women preaching ("like a dog walking on its hinder legs") are cited, they are buried beneath his many eulogies on contemporary women for being "more virtuous in every respect than in former times, because their understandings are better cultivated". Johnson congratulates himself in his essay series The Idler for living at a time "when those, on whom so much of human felicity depends, have learned to think as well as speak". In much that he said, we must allow for the editorial influence of Boswell, and, in much that he wrote, discount his own lexicographical verbosity, but we know he did not "talk down" to women.
He caused the respected blue-stocking Jemima Campbell to complain that his language would "break my teeth", but she was living at a time when the exchange of ideas between some women and some men could be dangerous. It may have put more than her teeth in jeopardy.
To promote the modernity of Johnson, Hudson even undertakes to prove that Johnson's famous Toryism was progressive. Seeking to dismiss the unthinking assumptions of these titles ("Tory" being virtually synonymous with Jacobite, and "Whig" the "negation of all principle"), he comes up with the suitably nebulous 18th-century term "broad-bottom" to characterise Johnson's beliefs. "The prejudice of the Tory is for establishment," Johnson wrote in 1781 when disuse of the name had passed. "The prejudice of the Whig is for innovation." This prejudice, for prolongation over innovation, was memorably articulated in his preface to the Dictionary of the English Language in 1755: "It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure," he wrote. "Life may be lengthened by care, though death cannot be defeated... we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language."
Ideas that came to Johnson then were to remain with him throughout his life. In 1754, just before the Dictionary appeared, he made one of his most significant appeals to innovation, shaking off the Earl of Chesterfield's hand as "patron". His lordship makes only one appearance in the Dictionary , in the revised fourth edition, under "ridiculer".We read: "The ridiculer shall make only himself ridiculous. Earl of Chesterfield ."
But in trying to emphasise the modernity of Johnson, Hudson has taken on a daunting task. The Highlands cast a romantic old-world spell over him: "This is truly the patriarchal life," he tells Boswell on their journey. "This is what we came to find."
"Wales disappointed Johnson," Hudson writes. "It was too modern." When he does at last find a kind of modernity in Johnson's writing, it is hardly of a kind to refresh 21st-century tastes. It relates to empire, specifically the American colonies, and, even here, imperial notions were not Johnson's first reaction: "The American dispute between the French and us is only the quarrel of two robbers for the spoils of a passenger," he wrote in the 1750s. It was not until the American War of Independence, 20 years later, that his mind was made up. In Taxation no Tyranny , written in 1775, we hear the truly imperial (and modern?) case against the American colonies.
British commerce with America "was profitable", he argued, and it was in "our interest to preserve it". The only way to do so was to keep the colonies "always in our power". In the Vinerian law lectures, written for Sir Robert Chambers, he went further, arguing that "conquered countries are under the dominion of the conquerors - naturally and justly". "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" he demanded.
According to Hudson, Johnson is nowhere so modern as when demanding that Britain retain its American colonies. One might argue that one of the most modern features of Johnson's life was keeping Francis Barber, his black servant, as a close friend for more than 30 years; Barber was the chief beneficiary of Johnson's will. Or it might be his toast, to Boswell, "Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies." Sadly there is no mention of Barber, or the West Indies, in this book, which settles, instead, for finding "one of the most forceful expressions of the nascent English imperial mentality" in The Vanity of Human Wishes . This is a curious book, with much to disagree with, but it is bold, well argued and, above all, modern.
David Nokes is professor of English, King's College London.
Samuel Johnson and the Making of Modern England
Author - Nicholas Hudson
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 290
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 521 83125 3