Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431
Most contemporary readers know about Dr. Samuel Johnson through two works: Johnson’s own A Dictionary of the English Language: To Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar (1755) or James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D (1791). Johnson enjoyed fame and notoriety during his own lifetime and continues to be remembered as one of the most important writers of the eighteenth century. In According to Queeney, Bainbridge imaginatively re-creates Johnson’s later years, when he was closely connected to Hester Thrale, the wife of a wealthy brewer.
Bainbridge structures the novel through two narrative voices. The first is a third-person authorial voice that details specific events in the lives of the characters. At the close of each section, a second narrative voice enters, that of Queeney, Hester Thrale’s eldest child. These sections are in the form of letters written long after the described events. Queeney’s interpretation of events is often at odds with the section the reader has just completed. As a result, it is difficult to construe “the truth” of the event. By so constructing her novel, Bainbridge both gives and takes away: Just as the reader settles into the story, the subsequent epistle undermines the narrative itself. Bainbridge thus calls into question the whole notion of historical truth. Rather, she seems to suggest, there are only interpretations.
The Samuel Johnson who emerges from According to Queeney is one beset with emotional difficulties. He clearly suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as mind-robbing depression. At the same time, he shows sympathy and love to young Queeney, something seriously lacking in her life.
Hester Thrale, a woman who bears some ten children, only to lose most of them, is also an enigma. Viewed through Queeney’s eyes, she is a bitter, vicious woman, devoid of any maternal instinct. Readers, however, may find in her a fear of intimacy brought about by her loss of so many of her babies. Her problems with Queeney may stem not from loving her too little but from loving her too much.
The major parts of the novel trace the travels of Johnson and the Thrales across England and throughout Europe. By the end, Johnson has been abandoned by Hester, who has married a young Italian voice teacher after the death of her husband. Johnson dies without seeing her again.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 288 (October, 2001): 125.
The Christian Science Monitor, July 19, 2001, p. 19.
The New Leader 84 (July/August, 2002): 26.
The New York Times, August 8, 2001, p. E10.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (August 12, 2001): 9.
The New Yorker 77 (July 30, 2001): 81.
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