Part 4. Tetty

Image: Portrait of Elizabeth Johnson by Maria Verelst. Hyde Collection, Houghton Library, *2003JM-8. 

BOSWELL No, don’t run off with the wrong idea.  Johnson loved Tetty.  That’s a fact.  We think of the difference in their ages, and because of that we discount the whole marriage.  We forget how much he loved her.  When they married, she was in her mid-forties, and he was 25. She was in her late fifties when Johnson was busy with the Dictionary.  He couldn’t devote much time to her, and she was getting older.  Things were not easy for them. Things change for every couple, from the honeymoon onwards!  It’s a question of changing with them.  Nothing stays the same, I’m afraid.  Nothing ever stays the same!

(Johnson is standing near his table in the middle of the stage.  He picks up the bills from the table, one by one.)

JOHNSON “Four shillings for laudanum.” (He shakes his head.)  “Laudanum…” That’s opium, Tetty, “…for Elizabeth Johnson”.

(He picks up another bill.)

“Two shillings and three pence for gin for Elizabeth Johnson.”

(And another)

“Three shillings and nine pence for three (he pauses) novels.”

(He picks up the novels, one after the other, and reads he titles.)

“Innocence Preserved in St James’s Palace”

“High Life and Low Life in (he pauses) Tottenham Court Road. One shilling and nine pence.”

“Second Love at Harvest Time or Make Hay while the Sun Shines by Abigail Shoemaker.” 

Oh, Tetty!

(Tetty enters, dishevelled from her bed, a paper in her hand.  She looks her age now.)

JOHNSON Tetty, Tetty!  Is all this necessary?

TETTY       None of this would be necessary if life were more amenable.  Would I read novels if I had you at home to talk to?  At least I have my novels with me.  You are always upstairs, on the top floor, shut away with your dictionary, wading through the English language.

JOHNSON And the gin?

TETTY       I wouldn’t need gin if you were here.  Anyway, “To gild the bitter pill of life, anything is excusable!”  You said that, Sir, I believe.  Do you remember what I left to marry you?  A position and a house and my own furniture!  (She touches his table). Look at this table!  Ugh!  My furniture was of the best.

(She paces up and down.  Johnson throws himself into a chair.)

Better to be someone in Birmingham than no one in London!  I had family.  I had my own curtains and my two armchairs, one on each side of the fireplace.  I made those curtains.  My mother and I made them.  I had my own sewing box, inlaid with different coloured wood it was, and the shapes were all diamonds, red and green and brown, and we had to sell it in the summer in “our period of distress”.  Our “period of distress”, Sir, is never-ending.  Our “period of distress” is a very long period indeed!

(She sits and cries a little and then shakes her fist at him, still holding the paper.)

JOHNSON I never promised you money, Tetty.

TETTY       You could promise nothing!  You have done nothing!  We have nothing!  Where did my money go?  It disappeared in your school.  Edial Hall, it was called!  “A school for young gentlemen.”  A disaster for young gentlemen!  Three pupils, wasn’t it?  No, we once reached the grand total of seven.  But only three stayed.  There’s success for you!  You knew too much to be able to teach.  You couldn’t come down to their level.  You have to put yourself in their shoes, Sam.  That’s what matters in teaching, never mind all the methods.  Just put yourself in their shoes!  But you didn’t, did you!  Three pupils!  And one of them, that young clown David Garrick, used to mimic you behind your back.  He was good too.  Sometimes I thought it was you holding forth in a room and when I went in, there he was, sitting in your chair giving a lesson of Latin grammar, with the other two boys laughing their heads off.  And look at him now.  He is a rich man, Sam.  He owns Drury Lane Theatre! 

JOHNSON He has earned it!  He had given the public what the public wants, and that’s all that matters.  It’s the number one rule in the theatre.  Give the public what the public wants.  The public wants to be made to laugh. No, I’ll hear nothing against David.

(As Tetty walks past him, Johnson takes the paper from her hand.)

Another bill?  No, it’s “The Rambler”.  Number 23.  Have you read this?

TETTY       I am reading it.


TETTY       (Smiling)   I knew you could write well, Sam, but I never thought you could write as well as this.  The richest merchant in Birmingham could not have written this!

JOHNSON It’s as well I can do something that the richest merchant in Birmingham cannot do!  (Smiling)  You remember, Tetty, how we rode to our wedding?  You remember how you lagged behind?

TETTY       I was only playing.

JOHNSON You were testing me!  And I rode on and left you, and then you came up all in tears.  Eh, Tetty, do you remember that? 

TTETY       And do you remember what my family said about you?  How they all said I’d gone out of my mind when I decided to marry you?

JOHNSON And you said, “For aught I can see, Mr Johnson is the most sensible man I have ever known!”

TETTY       You will finish the dictionary, Sam.  The Dictionary will make you.  Don’t waste any more time down here!  Go upstairs to the Dictionary!  It will make your name.  Once you are known, you’ll be alright.  Everything will be alright.

JOHNSON (Kissing her) Finish this (He gives her back her copy of “The Rambler”.) and don’t bother with these! (He throws the novels into the wastepaper basket.)

TETTY       Oh!  (But then she looks at her copy of ‘The Rambler’, smiles and leaves.)

JOHNSON Poor Tetty.  First, they laughed at us because I was too young, and now they laugh at us because you have grown old.  But we’ll manage!  Let no man interfere with another man’s marriage.  It’s like separating two dogs in a fight.  You only get your own hand bitten off. The two dogs need each other!

TETTY     (Off stage) Sam!  Stop dawdling!  The Dictionary, Sam.  It will make your name.  Go up to the Dictionary!

JOHNSON (As he goes) Ugh! “S”.  We have got to “S”. And there are hundreds of words with ‘S’. Still, after ‘S’, there are only seven letters to go! 

TETTY       (Off stage) Samuel!

JOHNSON (Shouting to her) I’m on my way!  (To himself) Thank goodness for X and Y and Z.  Just a few words each! They are a lexicographer’s dream!  But S is a nightmare.  There are an awful lot of Ss.  I have been three weeks on the Ss already!  How I long to get to Z.  Z for zebra. An animal with stripes which is found mainly … Ah well!  (He leaves.)

(Tetty returns stealthily and on tiptoe walks to the wastepaper basket.  She retrieves the three novels, smiles, and runs out of the room.)

Almost immediately Johnson creeps back quietly.  He checks the wastepaper basket, sees it empty, smiles and shrugs his shoulders.  Then he goes up to the room where the Dictionary is waiting.)

JOHNSON   Now to the dictionary. To the letter ‘S’. Senseless, silly, soporific, stupid and, of course, Samuel!