W. J. Bate has produced a superb biography of Samuel Johnson. His sympathy admits the reader to Johnson’s uneasiest emotions without harm to the hero’s dignity. Even when he discusses sexual intimacies—Johnson’s pathetic relation to a wife who refused to sleep with him, Johnson’s soliciting of caresses from his wife’s nurse-companion—Bate refuses to serve as voyeur or wisecracker, and keeps the narrative sympathetically respectful.
At points the attitude becomes defensive; and one wishes that Bate would place the blame in so many words. An example is the letter that Johnson wrote to the widowed Mrs. Thrale when she planned to marry Gabriel Piozzi, an Italian musician: “If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness” (and so forth). It is true that Johnson’s loneliness at this time, his terrible illnesses, and the near approach of death weakened his self-control. But it is also true (as Bate reminds us) that Johnson had quietly tolerated Henry Thrale’s vices and indecent behavior to his wife; nor had Johnson tried to console her for Thrale’s misconduct. Johnson’s own marriage, fifty years earlier, had seemed grotesque and had produced the same division in the bride’s family that Piozzi’s attachment produced in Mrs. Thrale’s. Instead of recognizing the parallel or appreciating the wretched woman’s needs, Johnson suppressed such insights, giving way to language that his more considerate letter, following close afterward, could not redeem.
Yet Bate’s idea of Johnson’s character is subtly coherent. The old and common view of a hearty assertor of hand-me-down morals hardly suited the distasteful facts of Johnson’s private or domestic life. If a man was half-blind, hard of hearing, given to twitches, tics, and compulsive gestures, if he dressed himself like a charity patient and offended listeners by his ruthlessness in conversation, how could one ever accept his moral guidance? It is a token of Johnson’s genius and wisdom that he triumphed over such defects.
Bate, unlike Boswell, does not present Johnson as implanted with the essential nobility that marked his mature character. Instead, he is at pains to trace the evolution of the personality. By meticulous accounts of Johnson’s melancholy he reveals the many forms which the same dark impulses could take as the disappointments of maturity replaced the self-doubt of youth. One realizes that Johnson at thirty was far from the heroic stature of the Rambler, that his emotional and intellectual nature altered under the pressure of terrible strains. Best of all, one realizes that his moral teachings relied not on innate confidence but on continually fresh approaches to frightening challenges. When Johnson gives us counsel, he tells us what is true for common, vulnerable, almost defeated humanity.
So also Bate establishes the links between Johnson’s personality and his literary achievement. From childhood Johnson knew that he possessed the rarest gifts of mind along with crippling faults of personality. He expected great accomplishments of himself, and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.