The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, by Leo Damrosch, Yale University Press, 488 pp, £20, ISBN 978-0300217902
The Club is a love story; or, in classically inflected terms of which its protagonists might have approved, a prosopographia of homosocial desire. Lawrence Stone noted in his 1971 essay “Prosopography” that the genre of group biography is founded on the preservation of ephemera and the meticulous recording of everyday life’s seemingly inconsequential details. James Boswell performed these labours on behalf of Samuel Johnson and his many circles of social and professional acquaintance, the most celebrated of which gives this book its title. Boswell can therefore be placed in the company of those “diligent antiquaries, clergymen and scholars” who, Stone writes, began from the eighteenth century onwards to amass such biographical data “in quite astonishing quantities”. “In terms of psychological motivation,” he added, “these obsessive collectors belong to the same category of anal-erotic males as the collectors of butterflies, postages stamps or cigarette cards.”
As well as material objects, the erotics of biography extend to human subjects. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick popularised the concept of homosociality in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1992), a brilliant book which set out what might appear, when its insight is acquired as hindsight, to have been one of literary history’s central, even obvious, facts. Ranging through the male literary canon from Shakespeare to Dickens and beyond, Sedgwick pointed out that while such works tend to be read or misread as leading to an endpoint of heterosexual union, what shapes them is the circulation of libidinal energy through contact, competition and camaraderie between males which is not, in the end, categorically different from love.
Even more than for their imaginative content, literary works have historically depended on such energies, channelled through networks of collaboration and support, for their production. These weren’t necessarily or exclusively male. As detailed in Norma Clarke’s Dr Johnson’s Women (2005) the central figure of the club, Samuel Johnson, enjoyed female collaboration and friendship throughout his career, appearing as a character in Charlotte Lennox’s novel The Female Quixote (1752) and spending much time among a parallel group centred on Hester Thrale. Nonetheless the all-male circle which gives The Club its name has a symbolism which exceeds its relatively modest historic purpose. Part artistic coterie, part gentleman’s club, it stands on the one hand for easy conviviality and mutual support; on the other it emblematises the continuing, and not always benign, power of exclusive but informal networks to shape culture and politics.
The club was conceived over the winter of 1763 by the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Samuel Johnson was at that point seven years into an eighteen-month contract to produce an edition of Shakespeare, and the club was designed to help him avoid a relapse into the depression which had cost him five years of his youth. The idea that you would stir a “lifelong procrastinator” into productivity by taking him away from his work and into the upstairs room of a pub is an interesting one, but it worked. The club first met in 1764; The Plays of William Shakespeare came out the following year.
There were nine founding members, a number chosen to be large enough to ensure conviviality even when not quorate, but perhaps also in masculine appropriation of the nine, conventionally female, muses. Two of them, Topham Beauclerk and Bennet Langton, sound less like actual historical figures than fictional law firms; of a third, Anthony Chamier, little is known other than that he was a stockbroker. Unusually for a physician, Christopher Nugent had the best handwriting of the original nine. In an index of the club’s relatively progressive outlook he was also a Catholic, dining on an omelette when the club met on Fridays; his son-in-law Edmund Burke upped the Irish contingent along with Oliver Goldsmith, who also raised the club’s quota of qualified doctors to one and a bit. When he quarrelled with Burke, John Hawkins, magistrate and musicologist, became the first member to leave; he claimed it was because of the late hours but Johnson bemoaned “a tendency to savageness” which made him fundamentally “unclubbable”.
Numerous intellects of the time proved more so and went on to join or to fraternise on the margins. They included Richard Brinsley Sheridan, several of his and Burke’s fellow Westminster MPs, the actor David Garrick, historian Edward Gibbon and economist Adam Smith. Interestingly, given the author’s background in literary studies, he tends when looking beyond the central pair of Boswell and Johnson to emphasise the clubbers’ contribution to economics, politics and philosophy. One reason for this is to emphasise that in a time before disciplinary specialism, “literature” meant everything written. A second is to suggest that the age-shaping invoked in this book’s subtitle refers not just to the time that these people lived in but also to ours. Depending on perspective, the club represents a cradle of Enlightenment values or an early playground of neoliberal capitalist modernity.
While it doesn’t spell out such dualities, doubling is a structural feature of The Club. The chapter on Adam Smith, for example, offsets discussion of the “invisible hand” theory of markets as self-correcting with systems with a more recent argument that such notions are articles of faith by comparison with the reality, the “antagonistic, impersonal and self-regarding social relations that capitalism imposes”. Dualism is a visual strategy as well as moral one. The illustrations, which are sumptuous and wonderfully copious for a book of this price, tend to come in pairs so that Canaletto’s clean, sunlit, airy riverscape of the Thames at Richmond presents an elegant near-Venetian city which is unrecognisable as the same town depicted in Thomas Rowlandson’s image of a public execution at Charing Cross.
Of these parallel universes, Johnson is consigned to the latter, the “teeming, noisy, contradictory and often violent world of eighteenth-century London”. What’s missing from this dichotomy is the third space of the club, which represents neither neoclassical splendour nor Hogarthian squalor but rather a space of comfort, intimacy, and abundant food and drink. Omelettes apart, detailed records of what the clubbers ate and drank don’t survive. Ready abundance of animal protein was, however, a matter of national pride, seen in such works as Hogarth’s The Roast Beef of Old England, so it can be assumed that the fare on offer in London taverns such as the Turk’s Head, where the club met, was hearty and plentiful. Over at Hester Thrales’, guests could expect “two courses of twenty-one dishes each”. When it came to alcohol Johnson was capable of abstinence but not moderation. His perennial foil Boswell was capable of neither, recording that he had over the course of a single evening drunk “all the liquors”: “small beer, ale, porter, cider, madeira, sherry, old hock, port, claret”.
Despite his central billing in this book’s title, Boswell was regarded as a “lightweight” by the other clubbers, who did not admit him to membership until he had pestered them for seven years, and only then for his devotion to Johnson rather than any qualities of his own. Qualified but uninterested in law, Boswell was a dilettante in search of a project, which he found in Johnson. The first meeting between the two is wittily framed so that it follows from an anticlimactic relationship between Boswell and the actor Anne Lewis, where the two lovers seem to have spent most of their time quarrelling over which of them had given gonorrhoea to the other. Little did Boswell know that “the most important encounter of his life” was just around the corner.
Though chaste, love with Johnson could still be painful. Boswell had taken elocution lessons from Thomas Sheridan, and when the fated couple were introduced, Boswell didn’t sound obviously Scottish to Johnson. When his nationality was revealed, Johnson took pleasure in teasing him about it, “pretending”, throughout their twenty-one-year relationship, “that he hated Scotland and the Scots”. Whatever masochistic pleasure Boswell took from this must have been diluted by the fact that Johnson dispensed similar treatment freely to all the younger men who surrounded him. He habitually addressed Oliver Goldsmith as “Goldy” for the specific reason that Goldsmith hated it and had asked him not to. In the company of Thomas Percy, Johnson took a notion to compose a request for a cup of tea in extempore parody of the vernacular ballads which Percy collected and published. So much did this amuse Johnson that he kept at it until Percy begged him to stop. As well as a tease, Johnson could be a bore, in the habit, when he had delivered himself of a choice remark, of looking around the room to make sure his audience were sufficiently grateful for what they had just received. He once woke up sweating from a dream where someone had got the better of him in an argument, only to sink back contentedly when it dawned on him that the contest had been between two versions of himself.
In such moments Johnson can come across as a prototype of his UK-prime minister namesake – a wilful caricature of bumptious English masculinity, portly, wiggy, handy with a dictionary but too long indulged in the notion that ostentatiously belittling foreigners, especially Celtic ones, marks the height of witty sophistication. Nor was such contempt always genial in its delivery. When riled by an Irish clergyman Johnson announced that he “would have done as Oliver Cromwell did, […] burned your cities and roasted you in the flames of the”’. The figure behind such utterances is perhaps a product of literary celebrity and its mediation by Boswell and others, dating from a period when, relieved from money worries by a government pension, Johnson’s “full creative force was”, as John Montague observed, mostly “reserved for conversational effect”.
There was another Johnson, scarred and half-blind from childhood scrofula, a critic of slavery and of British adventurism in the Falkland Islands, forced by poverty to leave his university studies after a year and plunged into breakdown as a result, a sympathetic friend to Burke and Goldsmith, inspirer of women writers from Mary Wollstonecraft to Charlotte Brontë. Another group particularly receptive to his influence, as Anthony Lee’s recent collection Samuel Johnson Among the Modernists (2019) has demonstrated, was the generation of Eliot, Woolf and Joyce. “They can put me wherever they want,” Samuel Beckett commented, “but it’s Johnson, always Johnson, who’s with me. And if I follow any tradition, it’s his.”
Rather than the bombast of the public persona, Beckett was tracing through Johnson’s works a vein of philosophical enervation which found succinct expression in a series of weekly essays, The Idler. “Uneasiness without molestation, and complaint without a grievance” is how Johnson defined such idleness; it is a state which, as Catherine Parke notes in her 1991 book on Johnson, “goes beyond common laziness to describe ethical paralysis, moral torpor and physical inertia not as sins but as a tragicomic inevitability”.
A similar condition permeates Rasselas, in which the main characters mostly sit around and talk about getting round to doing something. As presented in unsympathetic outline by Hester Mulso, Johnson’s novel appears not so much prototypically as parodically Beckettian. Its likely effect, she wrote shortly after its publication in 1759, would be to “extinguish hope […] and dispose men to lie down in sloth and despondency”, its only moral consisting in the maxim “that human life is a scene of unmixed wretchedness, and that all states and conditions of it are equally miserable”. In fairness to Johnson, he did remark that it is possible for a person to achieve happiness “when he is drunk”. Beckett spent a year working a play about Johnson, named after his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes. The play was never finished and in it, as Frederik Smith remarks in his book Beckett’s Eighteenth Century, “like Godot, Johnson never appears”.
Unlike Beckett, Boswell finished his opus; when it came out The Life of Samuel Johnson made him financially secure for the rest of his life and married his posthumous reputation forever to that of his subject. In the twentieth century, the publication of Boswell’s private papers and letters (some of them recovered from a French vendor of waste paper) caused a stir because they revealed what the biography had omitted, notably the relentless, salacious, and frequently obnoxious torrent of Boswell’s sexual opportunism. Eroticism of a gentler kind can be found in the unfolding relationship of the two men. Once after they had each drunk two bottles of port Johnson took his companion “cordially by the hand and said ‘My dear Boswell! I do love you very much”’. During their tour of the Hebrides, in a moment of bedroom role play which is hard not to read as an allegorical reversal of Boswell’s initial effort to hide his Scottishness, he was moved to raptures. “To see Mr. Samuel Johnson lying in Prince Charles’s bed,” he wrote, “in the Isle of Skye, in the house of Miss Flora McDonald, struck me with such a group of ideas as it is not easy for words to describe”. As this passage suggests, the thrill of the moment was enhanced by the knowledge that even as it happened the moment was being framed and recorded for posterity.
The Club shows that for all the brilliance of Johnson’s circle, the original odd couple of himself and Boswell remains the big attraction. It is perhaps inevitable that behind such big personalities, others can be obscured. Although a founding member of the club, Oliver Goldsmith does not receive a chapter in his own right, perhaps because his own story remains so compelling, tragicomic and odd that it would require a whole book to contain it. Norma Clarke’s Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street (2016) provides this space, using Goldsmith’s career as a central point from which to map the branching paths of migration and labour which shaped the production of literature in eighteenth century London.
The city was a commercial and imperial centre through which writing passed as a commodity to be bought and sold like any other. Prefaces, depending on their length, commanded between one and three guineas; translations, thanks to Goldsmith’s fluency in French, could be produced quickly and for a healthy fee; compendious works on an extraordinary range of subjects could be written to order and were carried in hearts and holds to the ends of empire. The founders of the New South Wales penal colony could recite The Deserted Village from memory, but they also used Goldsmith’s History of the Earth, and Animated Nature to identify as emus the large flightless birds that could outrun the colony’s greyhounds.
In his book on Goldsmith and the geographies of empire, Enlightenment in Ruins (2013), Michael Griffin points out that one of Goldsmith’s central metaphors reflects his medical training: people and goods circulate like blood in a body. Friends and contemporaries of Goldsmith were drawn to what they might have seen as the peripheries, where they produced work which celebrated the taking of individual bodies to extremes in the name of profit or pleasure. At eighteen, John Cleland enlisted as a soldier in the service of the East India Company and shipped out to Bombay. There, according to an account picked up by Boswell and discussed in Hal Gladfelder’s recent book Fanny Hill in Bombay, he was challenged to write an explicit work without obscene language. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure was the result. Meanwhile, in the West Indies, James Grainger produced The Sugar Cane, which Clarke describes as “an attempt to make refined poetry out of the plantation experience” produced by “an apologist for slavery”. Johnson noted the poet’s apparent ambivalence over plantation labour in his review; when Grainger performed his poem in London for an assembly of club members including Bennet Langton and Sir Joshua Reynolds, gales of laughter burst forth.
However much Grainger and Cleland whitewashed and idealised them, they did at least document slavery and prostitution as historical and economic facts. More often they were appropriated as insulting metaphors for the condition of the male professional writer. The whore and the slave became interchangeable abstractions called up to enforce the prejudice that to write for money was a shocking and irredeemable display of vulgarity. “If a writer did not look like an independently wealthy man he would be judged a lowly slave,” Clarke notes, while “to avoid being considered a prostitute scribbler it was necessary to acquire money without appearing to do so, to display it and spend it without finding oneself in need.”
Goldsmith, recently characterised to me by a colleague as “always running away from something”, was usually fleeing debt, but this was accrued through the pressure to maintain appearances as much by his own extravagant tastes. Both of his plays develop the farcical premise of being taken for someone other than you are and present the absurd labour that must be expended when a choice is made to service rather than challenge the misapprehension.
In The Good-Natured Man, bailiffs descend on a debtor just as he is expecting company so he persuades them to pose as, and mingle with, his polite guests. The scene had to be omitted after the play’s opening night: the audience objected vocally to the sympathetic portrayal of such “low” characters (and also, presumably, to the idea that politeness could be performed in ways that might reveal class difference to be a fiction). In She Stoops to Conquer, two entitled young men are encouraged to believe that an old-style country house is an inn so that they treat their genteel host, Mr Hardcastle, as badly as they would any pub landlord. In The Irish Enlightenment, Michael Brown interprets the play as dramatising tensions between transactional, commercial modernity and traditional modes of sociability and hospitality. Clarke’s assessment is blunter: the young men’s behaviour to their host “reproduces the colonial relationship” between England and Ireland.
Generational conflict and change in time become, in such interpretations, a metaphor for territorial expansion and expropriation across space. The most powerful elaboration of this theme is The Deserted Village. Back on the map thanks to Center Parcs and Love Island, the poem’s originating locale of Ballymahon retains an uncanny ability to embody social change accelerated by capitalism and mediated by popular culture. As Griffin notes in Enlightenment in Ruins, de Valera’s 1943 St Patrick’s Day vision of “a rural self-sufficient republic” owes much to Goldsmith’s fictional village of Auburn. Like the landscape it abstracts from, Goldsmith’s poem has become a kind of surface upon which to register nostalgia or protest, “smoothed”, in Clarke’s words, “by geniality”.
Eavan Boland’s 2011 poem in response to The Deserted Village calls Goldsmith out on this sugaring of pain, highlighting the way any semblance of anger or political resistance melts away in his “sweet Augustan double talk”. On first reading the poem, I mistakenly associated the phrase “double talk” with politicians and assumed that it meant accomplished, polished, lying. In fact it refers to music hall patter: nonsense syllables performed for comic effect with the fluency of natural speech, at once enabling and concealing the suggestion of outlandish or outrageous content. It is an apt, if slightly cutting, way to present the effortless contribution of an Irish migrant to what is now called English literature.
James Ward teaches English at Ulster University. His book Memory and Enlightenment is published by Palgrave: https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783319967097