Many of the unsolved questions of Samuel Johnson’s biography are sexual. Walter Jackson Bate said that the Life of Johnson is so popular because Johnson lived such a representative life. This is certainly true of Johnson and sex. He was happily and then, quickly, unhappily married, morosely widowed, was sexually frustrated as a bachelor, was often morally troubled about sex, had a deep crush on a close friend for many years, had a repentant and ultimately restrained but persistent fondling relationship with a woman who lived in his house but wasn’t his wife, and recorded his frequent masturbation in his diary. There’s also some chance he was masochistic.
Perhaps the most speculated-upon mystery is what he meant by writing a letter in French to Hester Thrale in which his use of words like ‘slave’ and ‘mistress’ have a distinct sub-text. Just like we will never know where Samuel Johnson was in 1745, we will also never get a satisfactory answer about this letter — in which he asked Hester to “keep me in that form of slavery which you know so well how to make blissful.”
Johnson met the Thrales at a dinner party in 1765 and ended up half living with them in Streatham. He wrote much of Lives of the Poets there. Henry Thrale was a rich brewer and an unfaithful husband. Despite his philandering, Hester gave birth eight times in slightly more than eight years, and was left with four children. Johnson was joining a fractured household, where an older husband was neglecting a young, intelligent, lonely wife.
It would be speculative to draw the inevitable conclusions about the letters, although gossip was widespread at the time. Newspapers ran mocking stories that Henry Thrale’s son looked like Johnson. Friends of the trio assumed Hester would write Johnson’s biography, and that Hester and Johnson would marry when Henry died. Add to this that the letter in question was written in French, that Johnson recorded masturbation in his diary the day after he met Hester, and that among her possessions when she died, Hester Thrale left a padlock belonging to Samuel Johnson, and you have the grounding for a thoroughgoing “Samuel Johnson was a Masochist” thesis. This review of a clutch of Johnson and Thrale biographies by Adam Gopnik is an excellent appraisal of the whole situation.
The padlock, before we go any further, was most likely not sexual. Outwardly, Johnson was merely asking her to lock him in his room: “spare me the need to constrain myself, by taking away the power to leave the room when you want me to stay.” Johnson was most likely obsessive compulsive, severely depressive, and literally afraid of going mad. Sometimes he wanted to be restrained until his mood passed.
We shouldn’t read too much into the padlock, then, with our inevitably Freudian assumptions. But in Hester’s reply, she asks him not to be cross that she doesn’t use her rod firmly enough. And Adam Gopnik quotes this apposite section of Hester Thrales’ memoirs, which keeps curiosity alert.
…she later wrote, in her “Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson,” “Says Johnson a Woman has such power between the Ages of twenty five and forty five, that She may tye a Man to a post and whip him if She will,” and appended to this an unequivocal footnote: “This he knew of him self was literally and strictly true.”
We might remember Johnson’s quip that “If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman” and reflect that we take this for the joke that it is because it has no especially scandalous implication. Hester Thrale’s footnote is suggestive, but it isn’t enough. Alas, there are no more answers to be had.
From here, we must give up the biographical trail and go straight to fiction. Cue According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge, written twenty years ago and as fresh as anything else you can find on this topic. Samuel Johnson would almost certainly have disapproved of this book. He didn’t like fictionalised biographies. Quite right too. But fiction fills the gaps of history. In this strange and wonderful little novel, Beryl Bainbridge compiled a detailed series of facts and arranged them into a mosaic that shimmers like the truth even though it goes beyond it.
So much of what is said and reported in this book is true. And so much of it implies, endorses, and invents. It is an account of the sexual tension between Johnson and Thrale, the way it affected their relationship, and how the facts we have can be assembled to create credible stories. Perhaps the most we can know is they had the sort of textbook friendship in which sex is assumed to have been inevitable in other circumstances.
Respectability formed a crust around the facts of Johnson’s life, so that on questions of sex we often see him as if through thick distorting glass. Boswell concealed things that present him in a much more human, desperate, inappropriate light. He struggled with the balance of a large sexual appetite and a strong Christian belief. His friendship with the Thrales, especially Hester, is presented by Bainbridge as a dynamic of frustrated, mutual sexual attraction that, in all likelihood, had a debilitating effect on the people around them. The novel has a mordant air of erotic pressure.
Bainbridge realises that Johnson lived the life of the mind. We cannot know what happened, but we do know that whatever the facts, a great deal of the truth will have been conducted in Johnson and Thrale’s inner lives. From the perspective of understanding Johnson’s, his character, his psyche, it matters whether anything happened — but it is not the whole truth. He was a man of dreams and demons.
When we are young we busy ourselves in forming schemes for succeeding time, and miss the gratifications that are before us; when we are old we amuse the languor of age with the recollection of youthful pleasures or performances; so that our life, of which no part is filled with the business of the present time, resembles our dreams after dinner, when the events of the morning are mingled with the designs of the evening.
Were the letters just sexual badinage — a sort of coy expression of something they never enacted? Our inability to get at the truth, or for any biographer to get at the whole truth, is shown through Bainbridge’s device of putting a letter from Hester’s daughter, Queeney, at the end of each chapter showing her recalling — consciously or not — the details of events differently to how they have been narrated. Hester and Queeney’s relationship is tense, terse, and sometimes terrifying. Bainbridge also speculates about how Queeney’s lifelong dislike of her mother affects the presentation of the facts later on.
This is an exceptionally concise, dramatic book that immerses you right in the world of Samuel Johnson and his circle. Few writers have made Johnson and Thrale real like this. Because Bainbridge is so close to her sources, there’s an immensely tempting credibility to her speculations. It would be useless to keep reeling off details of Johnson’s life as so many of Bainbridge’s reviewers did. The book is worth reading for the economy of language, the vivid details, and the way it re-tells the story of Johnson and the Thrales to enact one of the great man’s great dictums:
To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity; the next is, to strive, and deserve to conquer: but he whose life has passed without a contest, and who can boast neither success nor merit, can survey himself only as a useless filler of existence; and if he is content with his own character, must owe his satisfaction to insensibility.
Or, as Adam Gopnik put it, “We love Johnson for his humanity, and what makes us human is the contest between our desires and our doctrines.” Bainbridge brings that dynamic wonderfully to life. And by working as a novelist, not a biographer, she preserves her dignity in a field of competitive speculations and presumptions — remembering Johnson again, perhaps: “Every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the work of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic”. Bainbridge does what few biographers manage: she presents the action and preserves the mystery.
Not recommended for people who think it is aesthetically important for fiction to have a happy ending. I look forward to re-reading it.
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