When Samuel Johnson died in 1784, the race was on to publish biographies of the poet, biographer, critic, and lexicographer whose personality and prose helped to set the literary style of his age. Johnson had attained a towering reputation with his monumental Dictionary of the English Language (2 vols., 1755), his edition of Shakespeare (8 vols., 1765), and most of all his multivolume Lives of the Poets (10 vols., 1779-1781), which propounded his theory of biography: “To judge right of an author we must transport ourselves to his time, and examine what were the wants of his contemporaries, and what were his means of supplying them.” James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) presented such a vivid portrayal of the crusty “Doctor”—as he came to be known—such a meticulous account of his conversations, conflicts, and friendships, and such an entertaining extrapolation of the Johnsonian biographical method, that other biographers have found it hard to compete. Scholars of Johnson and his period have combed other biographies to provide a perspective on Boswell and sometimes a corrective to his ebullient book, but Boswell remains—in tandem with Johnson—the overlord of biography in the English language; that is, no other book or figure has challenged their supremacy.
Perhaps that is what tempted Beryl Bainbridge to write her sly, slim novel. Massive works of scholarship, or even encyclopedic novels, are unlikely to displace or even budge Boswell. In this case, quantity cannot overcome quality. Better to produce an elegant foray than a set piece battle plan. However, historical novels present a problem: how to re-examine the past—especially such a well-worked-over period. If the novelist slavishly follows the record, what is the point of writing fiction? If the novelist invents characters and incidents, why should they be taken seriously as interpretation of history? The Hungarian critic Georg Lukács thought Sir Walter Scott’s novels dealt with the dilemma brilliantly by making major historical figures minor characters and by making minor or invented historical figures major characters. Thus he could provide a narrative of the period, explaining the context in which its principal actors appeared without hazarding examination of a James Stuart, pretender to the throne of England, who is given a minimal number of words to speak in a novel such as Redgauntlet (1824). However, Scott’s invented protagonists are so bland, and so patently there just to provide a kind of neutral sensibility through which history can be filtered, that the imaginative intensity expected of a novel seems lacking. There is too much scenery, too much commentary, and not enough development within his invented characters; that is, they seem to have little inner life.
Bainbridge surmounts these difficulties admirably. Without attacking Boswell directly, she turns to the life of Hester Thrale (1741-1821), a brewer’s wife who made it her business to befriend the great man of her age, the man she knew as Mr. Johnson. Although Bainbridge is an important figure in Johnson studies, having produced Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., During the Last Twenty Years of His Life(1786) and Letters To and From the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (2 vols., 1788), her books lack the heft and comprehensiveness of Boswell’s. Bainbridge, however, shrewdly draws on a third book,Thraliana, a two-volume edition of Mrs. Thrale’s diaries edited by Katharine C. Balderstone and published in 1942. That volume includes not only valuable material about Johnson, it also conveys a lively portrayal of her ambivalent relationship with her daughter Queeney. Bainbridge evidently concluded that new light could be shed on Johnson and his period by creating a vivid novel out of Queeney’s sensibility, a novel which would allow Queeney to speak for herself and by doing so add another voice to history. The virtue of Bainbridge’s method is that it reopens the Johnson period, so to speak, provoking the urge to reread Boswell, to see Johnson and his circle from yet another challenging perspective.
Perhaps because of the novel’s title and the jacket’s somewhat...
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