Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1720
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 misleading description, certain hasty reviewers have commented on the novel as if it were narrated by Queeney. The novel does convey her attitudes, but there is a third-person narrator, and Queeney herself can be assessed in her taciturn letters to an inquiring biographer, letters which reveal Queeney as a reluctant witness to history, a witness who prefers the privacy of her own memories and opinions and who fends off the nagging questions of those who would make the lives of poets and other famous figures a public affair.
The novel follows the basic trajectory of Johnson’s friendship with Mrs. Thrale: She seeks him out, finds him to be an entertaining but also a rude and demanding guest, and to his consternation she eventually breaks off communication with him. Following the Sir Walter Scott school of the historical novel, Bainbridge provides brief but telling episodes involving Johnson’s famous friends, including the actor David Garrick, the poet Oliver Goldsmith, the novelist Fanny Burney, and the painter Joshua Reynolds. Queeney remains in the background—always observant and recalcitrant, refusing to share her mother’s enthusiasms, and angry that her mother does not show more empathy for her. Queeney’s hostile letters to Laetitia Hawkins, the biographer who hounds her, suggest why Bainbridge could not have made Queeney the novel’s narrator: “Believe me, my dear Miss Hawkins, I have no wish to incur your displeasure, but it cannot be repeated too often that circumstances surrounding my early life were such that certain events cannot be recalled without grave disturbance of spirits.” Queeney doles out a few facts in each letter while reminding the biographer that she is an intruder. What Queeney does not want to remember is how her mother catered to Johnson while neglecting her. These letters also suggest how difficult it is for biographers to resurrect the corpse, so to speak, for the narrator of the novel presents haunting scenes of the morose Johnson fighting his melancholia and trying to please the lady who is his patroness and who gradually becomes the center of his affection. Eventually Johnson becomes so needy and so tormented by his own failings that Mrs. Thrale retreats, realizing that she can neither please nor placate him, even though he apologizes for his erratic behavior and is devastated by her withdrawal of affection and attention.
The narrator provides striking vignettes of how Johnson appeared to Queeney and her little brother Harry, who “was in fear of Mr. Johnson because of the noises he made when deep in thought. Mamma had assured him that such whistles and groans were common to men of intellect, but he had nightmares in which Mr. Johnson, hooting like an owl, pursued him down a dark tunnel.” Later, on one of his trips with Mrs. Thrale, Johnson will, in a waking moment, call to birds, hooting like an owl, and enjoy himself immensely.
Boswell’s Johnson, the man of great opinions given bluffly, makes his appearance in According to Queeney when David Garrick asks him whether it is true that Boswell is writing down Johnson’s conversation in a journal, and whether Johnson finds it “intrusive.” An untroubled Johnson replies that the journal “will not be accurate, for man’s compulsion is to replicate himself. Think of painting—one has only to examine a portrait to see in the sitter a resemblance to the artist.” The persistent Garrick wonders, “What if others read it . . . after you are gone? What will you think then?” A spluttering Johnson rejoins: “Why, Sir, I will think nothing, for if the gone’ you refer to is the grave I dare say I shall have nothing to think with.” This is the Johnson who realized biography’s limitations, but who also argued in his Rambler essay on biography the futility of trying to control the reports of others about oneself. In his own time and afterwards, Boswell was criticized for revealing too much about his subject, but Johnson himself—by allowing Boswell to take him down, so to speak—understood that biography is never the whole story, and that every biography is also an autobiography. Thus Bainbridge simultaneously acknowledges and puts Boswell in his place.
There are many remarkable scenes in this novel that explore the humanity of Johnson and his circle. For example, Bainbridge in a few pages recreates Johnson’s marriage to a woman twenty years older than he, and her perspective on his fumbling attempts to love her. This moral man, this compiler of dictionaries, and expounder on politics and literature “had not the words or the understanding to define the small business of love.”
Finally, however, this novel has another point to make: The past—however selective the memory of it must be, however inaccurate biographies may seem—nevertheless persists in the human consciousness and is inescapable. It has to be confronted. Queeney would desperately like to annihilate a past that brought her much unhappiness, yet both biography and personal memory are inescapable. Queeney confesses to her correspondent Fanny Burney:
The attention given to the numerous emendations to Mr. Boswell’s Life, and the spate of reminiscences and contradictions trailing in its wake, constantly resurrects memories I would wish lost in the mists of time. For one so cold of temperament, an affliction my mother laments I inherit from my dead father, it is surprising how my emotions sea-saw. I understood as a child that age brings forgetfulness, and am constantly inconvenienced to find that the multiplication of years renders the past more real than the present.
Bainbridge’s novel is itself immersed in the heat of history, and in the cadences of the eighteenth century prose reproduced so expertly in Queeney’s letters. History scorches the human consciousness of even those of cooler temperament, such as Queeney, who tries to deny Johnson’s greatness and her mother’s attraction to it. The irony of Queeney’s letters is that the more she tries to debunk history, the more she is forced to supply her own emendations and contribute to the contradictions inherent in any account which tries to recover the past.
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.