Speaking Volumes: The Life of Samuel Johnson

February 10, 1995

Robert Giddings on James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson .

Although born a Victorian, my father was a child of the 18th century. He was a Bathonian, and loved the city where he worked as a cabinet maker. He was a living encyclopaedia of classic English furniture design and interior decor and lived and breathed Georgian England, reading Fielding, Smollett and Goldsmith constantly. It was from him that I first heard about Dr Johnson. From various anecdotes I assumed he was a friend or a customer. He seemed a strange mixture of the ungainly, the kindly, the magisterial and amusing. A daunting but lovable character, with stern judgement but a generous heart. A man of fine taste but greedy appetite.

This remarkable scholar was born the son of a bookseller in Staffordshire. He was really educated in his father's bookshop and amazed his schoolfellows by reciting Macrobius in the original Latin at 11. Lack of money deprived him of completing his education at Oxford, but he survived grinding poverty and eventually found literary fame in London. He spent his time in public houses or toiling in scholarly editions of the English poets and Shakespeare or working on his Dictionary. Johnson was also a very great poet - an immortal Englishman, a mythical figure, a kind of John Bull with a provincial accent and a classical education.

It was not until I came across my father's two volumes of The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Comprehending An Account of His Studies And Numerous Works, In Chronological Order: A Series of His Epistolary Correspondence And Conversations With Many Eminent Persons And Various Original Pieces of His Composition etc. etc. by James Boswell that I realised the Dr Johnson I knew so much about died in 1784 and was the subject of an immortal biography. Then I read this masterpiece and realised that here was the great original of all those echoes I had detected in Macaulay, Micawber, Churchill.

The more I read it, the more I have come to realise Boswell's monumental genius. Not only did he invent the literary biography as we know it, but he created the indestructible figure of Dr Johnson we now take for granted from the raw materials at his disposal. Further, he invented the Boswell-Johnson partnership now part of the furniture of English literature.

The breadth and richness of the portrait is impressive. Johnson appears to step out of the pages. It is hard to credit he was already in his mid-fifties when Boswell first met him.

Boswell's method of work is very interesting. Johnson's famous remark to Garrick, apologising for not coming backstage - "I'll come no more behind your scenes, David; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities" - was reported to him by David Hume (and recorded in Boswell's journal) in another, funnier, form: "I will never come back. For the white bubbies and the silk stockings of your Actresses excite my genitals". It makes me wonder whether other, equally famous (and funny) remarks were first uttered in a different form. One celebrated example is the comment about the play that lacked enough life to keep it from going stale. Johnson's later revision was: "It lacked sufficient vitality to preserve it from putrefaction". Immediate opinionising, followed by elaborate rephrasing, seems to be a characteristic of Johnsonian discourse, and an essential aspect of its comicality.

It is in dialogue that Boswell's creation lives and breathes. He exposes a range of character. His conversation is wide-ranging, opinionated, eccentric, capricious, erudite, satiric, waspish, warm, amiable, sagacious.

This is the outstanding quality that makes The Life of Samuel Johnson an acknowledged masterpiece. It is a portrait, more than a life. And it is one of the major contributions to the theory and practice of the literary creation of character. It was the genius of Boswell to out the character tradition at the service of biography. Like a novelist, Boswell gives us a selection of relevant, observable details: "Mr Johnson is a man of most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the King's evil. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect and render him very excellent company. He has great humour and is a worthy man. But his dogmatic roughness of manners is disagreeable . . . " Thus, I have known Johnson for many years. I had heard about him, but after Boswell introduced him to me, we became lasting friends.

Robert Giddings is reader in communication and culture, Bournemouth University.

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