PS : Judging from what Ms Bainbridge writes, the appropriate modern diagnosis for Mr Johnson's mood disorder would be bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder. He is already well known to have suffered from Tourette's syndrome, with tics and coprolalia....
Samuel Johnson's Dictionary was published 250 years ago this month. Beryl Bainbridge describes how a failed teacher and celebrated 'hack' worked for nine years in a London garret to redefine the English language - and his reputation
Saturday April 2, 2005
In 1746, some months after his 36th birthday, Samuel Johnson, that great literary figure of the 18th century, affectionately referred to as the Good Doctor, began work on his monumental Dictionary of the English Language . It took him nine years. April 15 marks the 250th anniversary of its publication.
Johnson was already an established man of letters, famous for his epitaphs, his parliamentary debates, his translations of the Odes of his favourite poet, Horace, numerous essays written for the Gentleman's Magazine and for his epic poem, "The Vanity of Human Wishes". His contemporaries were the giants of the age, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, yet it is his name that resounds the loudest in the 21st century.
In any week in the broadsheets, in parliamentary debates, in discussion programmes on both radio and television, the remark "as Dr Johnson once said" frequently occurs, followed by a pithy and erudite quotation. The curious fact is that but for a young and often inebriated Scottish lawyer called James Boswell, the name of Samuel Johnson, Dictionary or not, would have been forgotten long ago; few people have read a word of the poems or essays. Boswell's biography of the "Good Doctor", whom he met in 1763, is a work of genius, so real, so modern in its immediacy, that its subject remains untouchable to this day.
Johnson was born the son of a bookseller in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18 1709. He was a sickly child whose wet nurse infected him with tuberculosis. Blind in one eye, scarred on the lower part of his face, and a lifelong martyr to both emphysema and depression - the latter affliction he termed the Black Dog - he was also prodigiously clever, and in 1728, owing to a small legacy left to his mother, he went up to Oxford. While there, he wrote a poem called "The Young Author", a less ambitious version of his "Vanity of Human Wishes" written 20 years later. This earlier version shows his preparation for the coming of broken hopes and ambitions, and signals his determination never again to be fooled by a belief in the future, to remain aware of the maxim quoted by Horace, "To be forewarned is to be forearmed".
Whether Johnson left Oxford because he could no longer pay the fees or on account of a particularly severe attack of melancholia is not clear; "The Young Author" shows that he was already confronting what he had become and recalling what he might have been. That he knew so early the dilemma of life is a mark of his understanding.
After Oxford, Johnson became an unsuccessful schoolteacher; one of his pupils was a Lichfield contemporary, the actor David Garrick, with whom he later went to London. Garrick soon realised his ambitions and became the leading light of the Drury Lane Theatre; Johnson remained for many years what he himself dismissively referred to as a "hack".
In 1735, Johnson married the widow Elizabeth Porter, whom he called Tetty. He was 25 and she was 46. He was an awkward, unprepossessing young man of a sensual disposition and no previous experience of women. She, by the standards of the time, was past her best, had borne three children and was genuinely fond of him. He too, judging by his out pourings of grief after her death, loved her, but he was not the ideal husband, being stormy by nature and ill-equipped to understand her needs. On their wedding day, riding to Derby to be married, she told her bridegroom he was riding too fast. When he slowed down she overtook him and complained he was too slow. Out of patience he galloped from sight, at which she shed tears. Touchingly conscious of the difference in their ages, she often played the coquette, an affectation his friends ridiculed. Gradually she took to drink and opium and was left at home while her husband strode around Soho Square all night engaged in conversation with the notorious poet Richard Savage.
In 1746, after signing the contract to start work on the Dictionary, Johnson rented a house off Fleet Street, No 17 Gough Square, now a museum visited by thousands of tourists. The ground floor consisted of a dining room and a sitting room connected by folding doors. Above was a bedroom and a second sitting room intended for the use of Tetty, though she for much of the time was now living in Hampstead; two further bedrooms occupied the third floor. The large garret was used as a workshop for Johnson and his six assistants, five Scots and one Englishman, who, being close to destitution when hired, were possibly chosen out of compassion rather than reason. Here labour on the mighty dictionary began, Johnson working at an "old crazy deal table" while perched on a three-legged chair propped against the wall to stop it from toppling over.
For more than half a century the English intellectual world had been mortified by the lack of a major English dictionary. The great national dictionaries had been produced by Italy and France, the former in 1612 and the latter completed in 1700. It seemed impossible that anyone in England could tackle the magnitude of such a task. A schoolmaster called Nathan Bailey had made a good attempt in 1721, but it dealt primarily with the origin of words. Some definitions were on the casual side, for example, "Horse - beast well-known". Johnson supplies five definitions, including "Joined to another substantive it signifies something large and coarse, as in horse-face".
In all, he defined more than 40,000 words, illustrating their meanings by the inclusion of 140,000 quotations drawn from writings in English from the middle of the Elizabethan period down to his own time. According to his friend, Sir John Hawkins, he used books on his own shelves to provide quotations, and borrowed others, some from Garrick, who later complained that on their return the pages were so dog-eared and scored through that he had to throw them away.
Johnson kept 80 notebooks and wrote that he began his task by devoting his first care to a diligent perusal of all such English writers as were most correct in their language, and drew a line under every sentence that he meant to quote, noting in the margin the first letter of the word beneath which it would occur. Next he delivered these books to clerks, who transcribed each sentence on a separate slip of paper and arranged the same under the word referred to. When the whole arrangement was alphabetically formed, he gave the definition of their meanings and collected their etymologies. All this from a man who considered himself indolent and was forever resolving to spend less time in bed.
Tetty died before the Dictionary was completed, leaving Johnson battling with grief and contrition. He was not alone in the house, nor in the houses he later rented in Johnson's Court and Bolt Court, for though he could be irritable with, and often downright rude to, those he considered his equals, his kindness to others less fortunate than himself was nothing short of saintly. The permanent collection of lost souls he supported consisted of the blind Mrs Williams, daughter of a Welsh surgeon; Mrs Desmoulins, widowed daughter of his Lichfield godfather, Dr Swifen; Robert Levet, who sometimes earned money from administering medicine to the poor - more often he was paid in drink - who had recently abandoned the prostitute bride he had met in a coal-hole. Lastly there was Francis Barber, a black boy whom Johnson sent away to school - to little effect - and who was later left the Good Doctor's money and watch. Sometimes too, there was Poll, a young woman he had found in the street and carried home on his shoulders.
It was a lively household, to put it at its mildest. Mrs Williams argued with Mrs Desmoulins, who detested Levet, who got on with neither of them. The presence of Barber aroused heated discussion, for Johnson refused to regard him as an underling. When the cat needed meat, he himself went out to buy it; he said Barber shouldn't be thought of as a servant. Visitors to the house were astonished by the variety of its occupants, and the regard in which Johnson held the befuddled Levet. One of Johnson's best poems was written on the death of his friend; perhaps, but for quirks of fate, he thought he and Levet were kindred spirits. Johnson had given up drink for Tetty, in spite of once remarking that no man is really happy "but when he is drunk".
It was after Tetty's death that Johnson met the Thrales of Streatham Park, a fortunate meeting that gave him security. One afternoon, visiting his house, the Thrales were appalled to find him on his knees on the stairs, clutching the breeches of a cleric and crying aloud to his maker to save him from madness. Concerned, Henry Thrale instructed his wife to take Johnson to their house in the country, a refuge which for the next 17 years he came to regard as his home. Mrs Thrale nursed him, listened to him, sat up half the night pouring him cups of tea. He returned to Bolt Court most weekends to make sure his ill-matched dependents had enough money to live on.
I visited the house in Gough Square when I began a novel about Dr Johnson, an undertaking inspired by both the writings of Boswell and my involvement with the publishing house of Gerald Duckworth. My editor was the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, my publisher her husband, Colin Haycraft, a man who could quote Dr Johnson verbatim. To say their influence dictated my writing career is an understatement. Their house in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, with its dinner parties entertaining professors from Oxford - Michael Dummett, Richard Cobb, Hugh Lloyd Jones - all downing the whisky and arguing as to the merits of Horace and Gibbon, was surely an echo of those long gone evenings in Gough Square.
Johnson died in 1784 and underwent an autopsy at William Hunter's School of Anatomy, off Shaftesbury Avenue. Though his liver, pancreas and kidneys were diseased, his heart was pronounced large and strong. Boswell's biography is important not just for its listings of what its subject achieved in literature and scholarship, but rather for its portrayal of a human being, flawed, eccentric, opinionated, dogmatic, above all lovable.
No 17 Gough Square still retains an atmosphere of the 18th century. To wander through its rooms, however free from candle grease, is to those who prefer the past to the present a reminder of how life used to be before electric light, electronics and the internet shrank the world. Here in the garret, parked on his shaky chair, Johnson, muttering, spluttering, penned an English Dictionary into life.
One floor below, poor Tetty squirmed on her pillow and fought for breath. In the ground-floor sitting room Mrs Desmoulins watched Mrs Williams stumbling into furniture. In darkness, Robert Levet weaved his way across the pebbled court and fell down the basement steps.
All that was yesterday, a word defined and illustrated in the Dictionary as follows:
"Day last past; day next before to-day.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005