It is a truly horrible day weatherwise – wind and rain pounding against the windows in true autumnal fashion. If this keeps going until lunchtime, my first day back at work in the school library will be manically busy. I am trying not to be an over-protective parent and worry about my daughter going off to school on her bike without a coat or anything to keep her files dry.
This seems as good a time as any to revisit my last trip to London, back at the end of July. Although I went for my usual purpose of seeing a lot of Shakespeare (Richard III with Kevin Spacey at the Vic, Much Ado About Nothing in the West End and Doctor Faustus – okay, not Shakespeare, that one – at the Globe), an unexpected highlight of my trip turned out to be this lovely small museum in a quiet court off Fleet Street.
For an Eng Lit graduate, I was until recently shamefully ignorant of Samuel Johnson’s life and works. I have tended to favour the early modern period and the 19th Century over the Augustan age. However, Gough Square, a delightful house run by an independent charity, has changed that. The first thing you notice is the change in atmosphere as you leave one of London’s busy main streets and wander through narrow passages into this peaceful square – a world away, it seems, from commercial and legal London. The house itself has been well restored with a real feel for the period and a wealth of contemporary portraits. Upon entering the downstairs study, two of the most interesting items are the cupboard where you stored and powdered your wig before venturing out, and a portrait of Frank Richards, the Jamaican servant who was educated by Johnson and became a valued friend to him – he had no patience with slavery or racism and expressed strong views on both in his lifetime – along with many other subjects.
On the top floor of the house is the attic where, with a team of six helpers, Johnson undertook the Herculean labour of compiling his famous Dictionary from 1749 to 1755. In an age before word processing you cannot help but pity him when, after months of work, he had to start again from scratch because the filing system in notebooks that he had devised turned out to be quite inadequate to the task. Sadly, his wife Elizabeth Porter, who was a lot older than him, did not live to see his task completed. It made him famous overnight.
Johnson struggled throughout his life with financial problems and physical and mental difficulties. His writings frequently mention severe bouts of melancholy (which we would now call depression) when he was almost unable to drag himself out of bed, and suffered crippling insomnia that led him to seek company out compulsively to divert his mind from the fears that assailed him. An intensely religious man, he was deeply critical of himself. It also seems likely that he suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. There are many contemporary references to his ungainliness, his strange mannerisms and tics and his habit of blurting out embarrassing and peculiar remarks in company. People were frequently shocked upon first meeting him but those who persevered found him a deeply loyal, kind and stimulating friend. Many of those closest to him were women – it is impossible to know with certainty whether there was a sexual attraction, but Hester Thrale in particular was a lifeline in his later years and he lived at her family home in Southwark and Streatham from Monday to Friday for almost twenty years.
Boswell, of course, is known as his companion and biographer, though as Bozzie was a Scottish lawyer Johnson saw rather less of him than we might think. (Their Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides, undertaken when Johnson was 62, is a classic of travel literature). It is Boswell who gives us the richest picture of his domestic habits, which included Johnson sneaking out at night to buy oysters for his beloved cat Hodge, reluctant to ask the household servants in case they mocked his devotion! There is a nice little statue of Hodge at the end of the Square.
Johnson was usually only one step ahead of his creditors and in the mid-1750s he left Gough Square and moved to cheaper lodgings in Bolt Court (Beryl Bainbridge describes his strange menage of hangers-on in her novel According to Queeny). The attic was badly damaged in the Second World War, but there are interesting momentoes of its role as a much-needed social centre for the courageous London Fire Service, who had no official refuge from the terrible pressures of their work in the Blitz until it was offered to them as a canteen and arts club. This public-spirited gesture on the part of the Custodian of the property probably ensured its survival – it took more than one direct hit. I think that Johnson, with his habit of taking in the marginalised, needy and sometimes frankly odd, would have approved.
It’s impossible not to be inspired by Johnson’s monumental achievements once you know what problems he had to overcome – poverty and illness in particular. He is a triumphant example of someone whose brilliant mind, trapped in an unco-operative body, might have disqualified a person of less character and courage from living a full and productive life, yet by sheer determination he became the literary star of his day. His works are no longer widely read but his command of the English language was unsurpassed and he remains gloriously and eminantly quoteable.
All the performances of human art, at which we look with praise or wonder, are instances of the resistless force of perseverance: it is by this that the quarry becomes a pyramid, and that distant countries are united with canals. If a man was to compare the effect of a single stroke of the pick-axe, or of one impression of the spade, with the general design and last result, he would be overwhelmed by the sense of their disproportion; yet those petty operations, incessantly continued, in time surmount the greatest difficulties, and mountains are levelled, and oceans bounded, by the slender force of human beings.
It is therefore of the utmost importance that those, who have any intention of deviating from the beaten roads of life, and acquiring a reputation superior to names hourly swept away by time among the refuse of fame, should add to their reason, and their spirit, the power of persisting in their purposes; acquire the art of sapping what they cannot batter, and the habit of vanquishing obstinate resistance by obstinate attacks.
The Rambler, No.43 (17 August 1750)
- A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (independent.co.uk)