Image: The title page of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Google Books scan of the Bodleian Library copy.
BOSWELL (In his room in his lodgings.) Well, this is home. It’s not palatial but it’s enough for me. And I did get back here without distractions, and I did write it all down. Everything Johnson says, I write down. At first it wasn’t easy to remember, but now I think I have the hang of it. I concentrate on the conversation, and I even repeat some of the best bits to myself. Then as soon as I can, I take myself back in my mind to the room where the conversation took place, and I act it out all over again, and I find I can get most of it down on paper. I am pretty good at it now, though I say it myself! I can get his words and even tone more or less right.
He mentioned Uttoxeter Market and then he stopped. I don’t know what happened in Uttoxeter but sooner or later I will. Then you will all know. Really now, what would you do without me!
I have talked to Sir Joshua Reynolds and to Oliver Goldsmith and gradually I am accumulating more information about his early days in London. You see, I didn’t know him then, and I have to rely on other people. But I’m nearly up to date. (He writes.) ‘London, May 1768.’ From now on it should be plain sailing.
So, what will he do now? His name is made. He is Dictionary Johnson, Rambler Johnson and Shakespeare Johnson too. Yes, he has done an edition of Shakespeare, well, the edition of Shakespeare. Single-handed again. Published three years ago, it was. He went through every play. That meant he had to go through ‘King Lear’. He told me that when he was a child and read the death of Cordelia, he was so sad that he could not read ‘King Lear’ again, until he had to go through it for his edition of Shakespeare. Poor Cordelia!
‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all?’
Thank the Lord, he has the pension. Did I tell you about that? I rather think I did, at the beginning, but it’s worth another mention. You see, after producing “The Dictionary” and a lot else and after writing so much and so well, Johnson was still as poor as ever. Once he was even arrested for debt. Imagine that! The great philosopher of “The Rambler” in prison! Then, someone in the government, prompted by some of Johnson’s friends, (No, I didn’t know him then. It was nothing to do with me.) Well, this government minister, to his eternal credit, proposed that Johnson should receive an annual pension of £300 for services to literature. There was a small problem, though.
Listen to this. It’s Johnson’s definition of ‘pension’ in the dictionary. You see at that time a lot of pensions were given to people just so they would support the government of the day, and this is what Johnson is getting at. Listen! This is his definition of ‘pension’ in his dictionary (He reads.) ‘Pension. An allowance made to anyone without an equivalent.’ (To the audience) Without working for it, that means. (He continues to read.) ‘In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.’ Strong stuff, eh?
Well, the moment Johnson heard that he might be offered this money, he rushed round to Reynolds for advice, and Reynolds told him to accept it, of course, and that it was given to him for what he had done already and not for any services in the future. Reynolds has just been telling me about it. Anyway, with the pension Johnson no longer had to worry about money. He had a little to spend for the first time in his life. Not before time either. It came too late for his wife, though. It came too late for Tetty.
Oh, another thing. Then you can go if you want to. In the winter of 1764, a few months after meeting me, Johnson founded The Club. It doesn’t have a proper name! It doesn’t need one. It is just The Club. It is a select group, select, oh yes very select. And it is an unusual club too because the qualification for membership is brains not money. That’s a welcome change, isn’t it! Money can usually get you anywhere, but it won’t get you into The Club. Besides Johnson there is Reynolds, Goldsmith, you already know them, and Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and philosopher. Beauclerk and Bennet Langton are also members. I’ll tell you more about them later on. The Club is a Who’s Who of the people who matter in London. Not the celebrities, who just come and go, but the people who will be remembered for something worthwhile. Celebrities are of no importance really. The members of The Club meet for a weekly discussion over a meal and a drink. They go to the Turk’s Head Tavern. It’s in Gerrard Street in Soho.
It is the club in London. And it is my dream to be elected a member. Think of that! Me! If Johnson wishes it, I may be lucky, but I am not sure if all the other members would agree. But there we are. Then I could record what Johnson says there. That would be my contribution. Johnson is the centrepiece, and the others all revolve around him like the planets around the sun. (He goes back to his table and picks up his pen.) Now, to write out the rest of my notes from Reynolds and Goldsmith. You’ll have to excuse me. It’s been good to have a chat, but it’s just that if I don’t do this now, I may forget the details. You can read it all later anyway.