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...
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