Speaking Volumes: The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia

April 5, 1996

Diana Donald on Samuel Johnson's The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia .

I cannot remember what made me opt to study the 18th century as my "special period" of art history at the Courtauld Institute. It could have been pure perversity. In those days, the late 1950s, Poussin was de rigueur, but the 18th century, pre-Paulson and pre-Barrell, lacked enthusiasts and was little taught at the Courtauld. The instruction of Michael Kitson and Michael Levey (drafted in) proved inspirational, however. After the aridities of dating and attribution that had marked our obligatory passage through the Renaissance, art history now began to seem infinitely suggestive, encompassing not only recognisably human sensibilities but also literature and ideas. I still recall the happiness of that awakening.

"My" 18th century never had much to do with the aristocratic splendours of the period. What drew me was the sense of people struggling against bigotry and delusion, rejecting heroics but gaining, at least fitfully and partially, a measure of tolerance; a century when the pursuit of pleasure mingled with the sadness born of disillusionment. The book that embodied that 18th century for me was Dr Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (1759): undogmatic, uncensorious, ironic and triste, it conveys the pathos of those who "pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope". Rasselas may have been the favourite reading of the saintly Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, but for me it has more in common with The Great Gatsby than with sermons. A visit to the catacombs impresses Rasselas and his friends with the vanity of mundane enjoyments in comparison with the "choice of eternity" but their course of life thereafter is no more purposive than before. Even altruistic projects are doomed to failure, and the book concludes with an inconclusive return to the stupefying earthly paradise of Abyssinia, whence they had set out with high hopes of arduous self-fulfilment.

Johnson may be gently mocking the poet Imlac's quest for "general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same", yet Rasselas does indeed demonstrate the universal characteristics of humanity. The inhabitants of the Orient turn out to be remarkably like 18th-century Londoners. Forced gaiety at the lavish assemblies of polite Cairo cannot disguise each man's dread of "the moment when solitude should deliver him to the tyranny of reflection": precisely the observation Boswell records Johnson making about the promenaders at Ranelagh. The self-deceptions of Johnson's characters are those of 18th-century metropolitan society: his taciturn and resentful shepherds or his hermit hankering for the bright lights evoke the ennui of country life in a style worthy of Stella Gibbons, but the princess Nekayah still clings to "waking dreams" of "playing the shepherdess" I "till I have in my chamber heard the wind whistle, and the sheep bleat", even seeing off the occasional wolf with her crook.

The satirical target here may be specifically female but, rereading Rasselas now, I am struck by the inclusiveness of Johnson's sympathy with human aspirations. Investigating the "feminine" sphere of domestic life in her quest for happiness, Nekayah evinces not only great common sense but also a "masculine" gift for generalisation. Rasselas takes the classic male chauvinist line, accusing her of illogicality, but then grumbles about her excessive "subtilties of argument". Indeed by the end of the book Nekayah has become a dab hand at metaphysics, more than holding her own with the men. Her companion, Pekuah, initially disgraces herself by a weakly female superstitious panic at the thought of entering the great pyramid, but matures to become the "lamp" of reason who rescues the mad astronomer from his delusions. Pekuah's reflections on the frustration of ladies confined in purdah "whose business was only needlework" can certainly be taken as a comment on 18th-century England. Marriage only stands a chance when founded on the "friendship" and "society" of intellectual equals. The culminating ambitions of Nekayah and Pekuah to become something like principals of Oxbridge women's colleges might indeed be impossible to fulfil, but they are more modest and sensible than Rasselas's dreams of dominion. This delicious book offers fresh insights and surprises on every reading.

Diana Donald is head of department, history of art and design, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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