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December 13, 2017

Dr. Johnson in Love

On this day in 1934, Beryl Bainbridge was born in Liverpool. Her latest novel -- of some two-dozen, with about half that many major prizes and nominations -- is According to Queeney, a look at Samuel Johnson's last years and deeper, darker feelings. Johnson was a longtime widower, and he became increasingly and unclearly attached to Queeney's mother, Hester Thrale, when she too was widowed. She was Johnson's patron, landlady, solace for his ever-threatening melancholy and, just maybe, his lover. Bainbridge's Queeney does not see all, or tell it reliably, but she gets beyond the usual view:
    The reality of Johnson in appearance and behaviour, the scarred skin of his cheeks and neck, his large lips forever champing, his shabby clothing and too small wig with its charred top-piece, his tics and mutterings, his propensity to behave as though no one else was present, was at variance with the elegant demeanour imagined to be proper to a man of genius.
We do not know if the real Johnson was able to overcome all this in Mrs. Thrale's direction. We do have his letter to her at the very end, when he discovered that she had run off with Gabriel Piozzi, the Italian music master hired to give lessons to Queeney:
    Madam
          If I interpret your letter right, you are ignominiously married, if it is yet undone, let us once talk together. If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness; if you have forfeited your fame, and your country, may your folly do no further mischief.
          If the last act is yet to do, I, who have loved you, esteemed you, reverenced you and served you, I, who long thought you the first of human kind, entreat that before your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see you. . . .
In the eyes of many, 'Johnson in Love' was a joke right from the start. He was married at 25 to a woman 20 years his senior and, according to Boswell, his students enjoyed ridiculing "his tumultuous and awkward fondness for Mrs Johnson." The actor David Garrick was one of those students, and later one of Johnson's closest friends, but as biographer John Wain describes it, he "made a party piece of the Johnsons' marital relations" and entertained London with it for decades -- "Tetty lying in bed urging her husband not to keep her waiting, and Johnson stumbling about the bed hastily undressing and exclaiming, 'I'm coming, Tetsie, I'm coming, my Tetsie'" or perhaps Johnson "sitting by the bedside absorbed in creative labour on Irene, deaf to Tetty's reproaches and importunities, finally rising and short-sightedly stuffing the bedsheet into his breeches in mistake for his shirt."

Also born on this day, in 1694, was Voltaire. He would give his name to his Age as Johnson did, and get the Voltaire in Love treatment from Nancy Mitford.

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