Boswell’s Dr Johnson is a weighty figure delivering perfectly-balanced opinions and put-downs, a huge intellect who had enormous respect in his own time. We know now that he suffered from terrible bouts of depression and that he was eccentric almost to the point of madness. Beryl Bainbridge’s is a loving and empathetic portrait of the living man, warts and all. Surly and gentle, timid and assertive, sad and skittish, ridiculed and admired, forbidding and vulnerable, learned and naïve – that’s the Samuel Johnson of this kaleidoscopic novel with multiple angles on a complicated and tortured life.
Queeney is the daughter of Hester Thrale, with whom Johnson was in love, and who gave him something like a home with her family for 17 years. Hester nursed him through fits of depression, putting up with his demands for her attention, his slovenliness and his eccentricities, but in the end she broke his heart:
Suffering…did not seem so painful when imposed by the arbitrary will of strangers; it was the wounds inflicted by those closest to one that drew blood. (295)
A novel like this can do what a biography can’t, give us eye-witnesses on the spot, without hindsight or contamination by reputation. There are plenty of on-the-spot witnesses here, Queeney being one of them. As a child she had a complicated relationship with Johnson, fond but wary, and jealous of her mother’s closeness to him. As an adult responding to the letters of a would-be biographer we can see her managing her memories so that she makes Johnson a smaller and less remarkable character. It’s a form of cutting him down to size, really.
What I was left with in the end was the maelstrom of Johnson’s life bursting through the false order of biography. We’re left with his books and his reputation, but of his intensely-felt personal life just this:
The expenses for the funeral amounted to forty-four pounds, six shilling and seven pence, excluding the sum of thirteen shillings and fourpence paid separately to the bellringers.
Mrs Desmoulins sat alone in Bolt Court, roasting chestnuts in the fire.