Part 5. Lord Chesterfield

BOSWELL Well, Johnson did finish the Dictionary. It was printed in two huge volumes and was an enormous success.  And it did make his name.  Tetty had been right about that, but she didn’t live to see it.  She died three years before it was published.  When she died, Johnson was completely overcome.  But he carried on, as he had always carried on when things didn’t go well. In the weeks after Tetty died he needed the routine of the Dictionary more than ever.  It helped him through the day. Finally came the moment when he sent the last sheet to the printer, and the job was done.  

Yes, the appearance of the great Dictionary was quite an event.  This was on 15 April, 1755, and at that point another character enters the story. Lord Chesterfield!

(A light shines on Chesterfield’s portrait on the wall.)

Yes, that’s the noble peer!   He promised quite early on to help Johnson in his work on the dictionary.  Financially, of course, and in whatever other way an influential lord could help.  That’s how it worked in those days. A writer needed someone who would help him through to publication. This person was his patron. Johnson went to see Chesterfield at his house in London, but he was never admitted to the great man’s presence. He waited in an anteroom along with a motley collection of people who all wanted some favour or other, and after sitting there for a time without being admitted, he walked off in disgust.  That scene, of Johnson waiting outside Chesterfield’s door, would make a fine picture if someone wants to paint it one day!

Anyway, Johnson continued without any help, working in his garret, plodding through the English language, while Chesterfield was busy with his literary parties and being seen with whatever writer was the fashion of the day.  Then, finally, nine years later, when the book was on the verge of publication, Chesterfield wrote two articles in its praise.  He would have done better to have kept quiet.  These articles gave everyone the impression that he had been involved with the work all along.  Johnson was furious.  He wrote Chesterfield a letter, and this letter is one of the most famous letters ever written in English. 

Johnson was a little reluctant to give me the text, but I persisted, as I always do, and finally I persuaded him. As I always do! He didn’t have a copy, but he dictated it to me.  You see, years later he still knew it by heart.

How he must have enjoyed writing it!

(Johnson is writing at his table, centre stage.  On the back wall the large portrait of Chesterfield in ceremonial robes is still lit up.  There is also a light on Johnson.  The rest is darkness.  Johnson puts down his pen and picks up the letter which he reads to the portrait.)

JOHNSON Yes, I think this will do!

Gough Square

7th February 1755

My Lord,

I have been lately informed by the proprietor of “The World” that two papers in which my Dictionary is recommended to the public, were written by your Lordship.  To be so distinguished is an honour which, being very little accustomed to favours from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself “Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre”, that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending, but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your lordship in public, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess.  I had done all that I could; and no man is pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, my Lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour.  Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.

Is not a patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?

The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary… (To himself) Yes, Tetty, you never saw the end of the Dictionary. (He continues reading) …till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.

I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligation where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a patron, which providence has enabled me to do for myself.

Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less, for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation,

My Lord,

Your Lordship’s most humble,

Most obedient servant,

Samuel Johnson

(The portrait of Chesterfield falls from the wall to the floor with a loud crash.)

BOSWELL Yes, Lord Chesterfield was never quite the same after that!  Oh, he tried to laugh it off.  He even showed the letter to his friends, and he pointed out the best bits.  Nevertheless, he had been taken down a peg or two.

At the same time Johnson’s letter marked the beginning of the end of patronage.  Henceforth the public, the public with enough education to read books and with enough money to buy them, people like you and me, were to be the patrons of literature.  And that’s how it should be, isn’t it!