Wednesday 17 April 2024

'Cute' and Somerset House & 'The Cult of Beauty' at the Wellcome

 To try and lay aside my disastrous easter, I decided to check out a couple of exhibitions that I thought would go together nicely, Cute at Somerset House and The Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome Collection.

I’m not immune to cute, I’ve been to aww at the odd thing here and there, but I do find a lot of the things marketed as cute, those bulbous heads and big, sparkling eyes (and non-existent noses) to be mildly horrific. I’m also not the biggest fan of cats, so an exhibition funded by Hello Kitty’s Sanrio company may not have been exactly my thing.

There was an entire room full of Hello Kittys, with plushie upon plushie nailed to the walls and people taking selfies all over. Very much not my thing, but I did learn that Kitty herself is called Kitty White, and that she canonically lives in London. There was also a Hello Kitty disco, which was like stepping into a glitterball, with tunes chosen by Scritti-Politti’s David Gamson, I liked his picks.

I also liked an earlier room which mentioned twee-pop in the arena of cute and played songs by Orange Juice and Altered Images. Earlier parts of the exhibition also charted the rise of the cat as cute banner-holder. There were cat images known as the Brighton Cats’ from the 1870s, in which a man called Harry Pointer put the frisky felines in cute positions and took their photos. There were also some examples of Louis Wain’s cats - which I don’t think really count as cute but I have a fondness for as my local tube station is opposite a large mural of one, so they remind me of home.

Other items I enjoyed seeing were a collection of Daniel Johnston cassettes, I got the albums but never seen them in their original cassette form. There was a Pussy Riot balaclava, and a whole range of other assorted cute stuff. Despite a few unique pieces (I liked the big furry dragon monster thing) much of what was on show came from something designed by committee and mass-produced to be cute. I think that is where my ambivalence to cuteness comes from, it’s a very easy aesthetic to copy and mass-copy.

There were arguments about cuteness being able to sugar-coat a more subversive pill, that was where items like the balaclava came in. There was also an element of cuteness being a very welcoming, comforting thing - that it touches elements of childhood, of acceptance and is an allowed expression of the vulnerable. I could see these sides and their appeal but more than anything else, cute seemed more a consumerist trap then anything else. A conclusion re-enforced by the large, bustling gift shop.

A certain brand of politician must hate (or want to make hate-noises at) the Wellcome Collection because their exhibitions are frequently loudly and proudly woke. The Cult of Beauty is no different and uses its items to tell a story of beauty that has no set truths, varies across place and time and has been subject to colonial and commercial influences.

It starts with a Naomi Woolf quote, which I think is brave and the first item that caught my attention was a bust of Nefertiti. She gave herself this name and it meant ‘the beautiful one has come’. I like that confidence, and if the bust is a reliable indicator, she was not lying. There was another bust later, modelled in Queen Elizabeth I but with half of it as a mouldering skull with maggots in - the point of the bust was to train lookers out of vanity.

In that same area was a print of a windmill designed to grind ugly wives beautiful (rather like the windmill to grind old people young in Kit Smart’s The Midwife) and a picture of a woman who drank gold to keep herself young and probably died of it. That’s next to a modern beauty product with gold as its special ingredient. I also learned about St Rose of Lima, who used to rub peppercorns on her face to make her ugly, as she believed her beauty was a distraction from Christ’s. 

There were some fun collections of various historical beauty aids. There was a full kit for the eighteenth century woman wanting to youthen herself up with cheek plumpers, breast plumpers, mouse fur eyebrows and a pot of mouches to hide smallpox scars. There was a moustache nightcap, which I remember General Melchett having in a scene in Blackadder, and a mug with a moustache-guard for the heavily moustachioed gentleman. 

Things got more serious as we got to the modern day. There was a section about the colonial impact of beauty, with adverts for older and more modern skin whiteners, and a catalogue of beauty by race. There was a bit about cosmetic surgery that I moved through pretty quickly and a life sized Barbie, showing how ridiculous the doll would look as a real person.

Finally there were some of those artworks that get commissioned for exhibitions that I never really get. One of them was a mirror with the words, “I’ve mistaken social pressure for self expression.” Not being one of the beautiful people, and being the general kind of person I am, I’ve never really seen my body as much of a canvas for self expression. There are certain materials, colours and cuts I veer towards, I must have some sense of my personal style as I don’t walk about in a mishmash of whatever is around but generally my body is the thing that lugs me from one exhibition to another. 

Both exhibitions ended with this queasy feeling that something that is natural, a fondness for the vulnerable and slightly infantile, a desire to look good in our own eyes and others, have been mercilessly hijacked by the money making forces and that any true autonomy is pretty small. I’m not sure what to do with that information, but hair and beauty adverts seem more aggressive since.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Dis-easter: Or, What I did on my holidays.


I thought it may be pleasant this Easter to visit my family and then head off to Lichfield, as my last visit had been nearly ten years ago. The plan was to visit Johnson’s Birthplace Museum, see some of the other sites of Johnson’s childhood and to visit the grave of Sarah, Michael and Nathaniel Johnson - partly out of interest and partly because it would help with the preparation of my novel about Samuel and Nathaniel.

My difficulties started early. My coach to go see my sister usually takes about three and a half hours. However, we had got near Luton airport and the coach pulled into the hard shoulder, then the driver got out. We sat for a little while, wondering what was happening and then a policeman came in, said the driver was ill and we needed to wait for a new one. We were loaded on two other passing coaches and taken to Luton airport. While Luton airport isn’t the most salubrious place to spend two and half hours, it was a beautiful day and the sky was lovely. 

The part with my family was very nice, then I boarded a train to Lichfield via Birmingham. Everything was fine until Birmingham, but then I had to get a rail-replacement bus to Lichfield City.  While this took twice as long, it was actually pretty great. The bus weaved in and around all the small towns and cities between the two and I saw a number of places that played a part in the Johnson’s early life. I also overheard a man on a phone asking if Deidre had received her Gretchen-chicker-shitter yet… I have no idea what one of those is, but the phrase has lingered with me.

I jumped off the bus and immediately came across St John’s Hospital, the chapel of which, Sarah, Michael and Nathaniel went to church when the roof of St Mary’s was being fixed. The chapel is newer than the one they knew, but it was still worth going to see. I wandered about, seeing Bore Street, where Michael had grown up, having moved to Lichfield as a young boy from a place called Cubely. Using the map from Young Samuel Johnson, I also discovered that his friend, Edmund Hector’s house is either now an Oxfam Bookshop or a Greggs - I hope it’s the Greggs, it’s the romantic in me.

I walked into the Birthplace Museum, to find that is is shut till the middle of April and only the bookshop was open. A little put out, as that was the main purpose of my visit, I made the best of things, having a nice chat with the volunteer there and comparing volunteering stories from the two Johnson houses. I then went across to St Mary’s church. The church itself is, again, not the one Samuel would have known, he’d have known it even less now, it’s become a public library. This is the point where my memory mixed up and I should have checked my notes. I assumed that the Johnson family were buried in their local church of St Mary’s, but actually they were buried in the slightly further away church of St Michael’s. Not remembering this yet, I searched the ex-church in vain.

Still trying to make the best of things, I headed to the Cathedral, had a lovely revisit of Darwin’s house, and then decided to look for the signposted item I simply couldn’t find on my previous visit, Micheal’s Parchment Factory. I couldn’t quite understand how it was still standing, as Samuel described it in a pretty ramshackle state when he was there… but there was a signpost. I wandered around the pool, saw ‘Johnson’s Willow’, St Chad’s church and well but not even a plaque to say where the parchment factory had been. This is where I had some luck. The woman I asked about it happens to live in a house named after the factory and on the original site. She took me down a little un-named alley, which she said is one of the oldest routes in Lichfield, and showed me the place. Score a little success.

Lichfield not being much of a twenty-four-hour city, I had a few drinks in the Angel before tucking myself in at my hotel - The George, the same coaching inn I’d stayed in on my first stay. On waking, I packed my little green rucksack, putting an un-drunk can of beer at the bottom and went my merry way. I carried on, ticking off streets and areas I wanted to visit and having a coffee in a place with quite the most hideous picture of Samuel Johnson I’ve ever seen. One halloween, three years ago, the staff put a bat on him as a bowtie and it’s been that way ever since.

I went an put my body back together by enjoying a fry up at ‘The Cosy Nook’, a very nice and affordable cafe in a seventeenth century building on Dam Street, the street where Sam learnt his ABCs. I then thought I’d knit the soul and visit Lichfield Cathedral. 

Dedicated to St Chad, the cathedral is a beautiful space, filled with characterful carved heads. I visited the ‘Chad’s Head Chapel’, a small chapel built into the upper walls of the cathedral, filled with painted angels, where pilgrims used to file up and pay their respects to St Chad’s sparkly, jewel encrusted skull. I also enjoyed the Chapter House, containing a range of fascinating books and a painting from the 1240s. It was sitting there, listening to a small service being played over the tannoy that I smelt something strange. The Chapter House smelt of beer… no, I smelt of beer. The can at the bottom of my bag had burst and the beer was leaking into my clothes, my coat and my bag. 

I had to shuffle back to the front of the church where the volunteer was. Luckily, I’d already been talking to her (and a fine example of a Lichfield Jacobite she’d been) so she helped me unpack my bag, flash my now beer soaked underwear to Lichfield Cathedral and sort myself out. By now, I was done with this disastrous trip, so decided to go back to London earlier than planned.

The city centre train station being closed, I had to walk to the one further towards the edge of town. As I walked along, I saw a church, St Michael’s, and it clicked - so I went inside, saw where the other members of the Johnson family were buried and paid my respects, even if I stank of stale beer. This was a great result for the purpose of my trip but it did mess my timings up and I got onto the platform just as the train I wanted left without me, leaving me sitting for an hour in the cold and drizzle for the next train. The next train I caught should have taken me home, but the next guard hadn’t come to work, so the train had to stop at Rugby, leaving me waiting on that station for another hour, before finally catching the train home. Then, my coat got caught at the ticket barrier and I was stuck till the next person could free me.

So, my spring-soaked, intellectual wander around the childhood neighbourhoods of Samuel Johnson turned into a beer-soaked, drifting around a fairly average small English town - with a few more pictures of Samuel Johnson on the wall. However, as Samuel himself said, "The pain of miscarriage is naturally proportionate to the desire of excellence.”

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Paper War! Two: The Smartiad by Samuel Derrick

 John Dennis Jr, one of Pope’s original dunces, said that he hoped to see “a Smartiad published” because he was sure “this little author” had picked his pocket because “he who would pun would pick a pocket.” Other writers felt similarly and one did indeed to create a Smartiad, that man was…Samuel Derrick.

Derrick was my first introduction to Grub Street. He is one of the key figures in Hallie Rubenhold’s Covent Garden Ladies, one of the first books about the eighteenth century I read. He was an Irish author, who seems to have been better at networking than writing. When Boswell first tried to get a meeting with Samuel Johnson, it was through Derrick that he most expected success. Johnson was fond of Derrick, and used to cause arguments when he “eagerly maintained that Derrick had merit as a writer.” Derrick later used his social connections to take over from Beau Nash as the Master of Ceremonies at Bath. Interestingly, one of Derrick’s works was a translation of Cyrano de Bergerac’s A Voyage from the Moon. He may also have been the writer behind Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies - a sort of ‘what prostitute’ guide and the subject of Rubenhold’s book.

I suppose it was the release of The Smartiad that prompted Johnson’s critical response that “there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.” It’s an interesting response. He was known to be fond of Derrick, and he also had a friendship with Christopher Smart, later visiting him in Mr Potter’s private insane asylum and being thanked in Jubilate Agno. I think the key to Johnson’s comment is his choice of insects, both of them blood-suckers. (Incidentally he was asked about the relative merits of Derrick and Smart, meaning Derrick is the crawling louse and Smart the leaping flea). 

Johnson didn’t have much time for paper wars and the like. When Charles Churchill ragged him, he ignored it. When Samuel Foote was reported to be preparing an impression of him, he bought a stout cane and let Foote know he had it. When people asked him if he’d written a piece for Goldsmith in a paper war about kinds of comedy, he said that Goldsmith was clever enough to have been able to write it and stupid enough to publish it. He clearly thought that people taking little bites out of each other via periodicals was stupid, and if two men he was fond of were prepared to do it, they were just biting insects.

What of The Smartiad itself? Is it any good and what does it tell us about Smart?

The copy I read was an online digitised version from the British Library. The original owner of the copy took the liberty of filling in some lines and trying to fix the poem and “fill up the four lame lines.” I do love the fact that some reader tried to make it scan better. It’s certainly less smooth than The Hilliad, sometimes a little herky-jerky for eighteenth century verse. It also doesn’t seem to have any actual jokes in it.

Rather than painting a picture of Smart - and there was a lot to work with, Smart was short, dumpy, dressed in women’s clothing, given up a respectable career in academia for shift work and was a known drunkard… Derrick uses none of this. Nor does Derrick really create a mock epic like Smart had, with deities of grime and muck worshipping him. Instead, Derrick tries to give some advice in verse.

Derrick regrets that Smart lifted his pen unfairly against a decent writer and that he was unduly harsh to Hill. “Poet Beware! - - - Who blasts the Just Man’s Fame/ Is base, - - - the Mark of universal Blame.” He argues that Smart had no reason to lambast Hill, that the review that Hill gave “Styled thee Man of Parts, of Wit and Sense”, that it was a fair review and not provocative of such retaliation. This is a point I actually agree with Derrick on, Hill’s review actually seemed pretty reasonable. 

He then advices Smart to get out the writing game because, “Mean are all poets, and as poor as mean/ Take thou the Pestle then, - - - and lay down the pen” (which doesn’t really rhyme.. but hey). He suggests Smart should try and make a name for himself in botany and become a member of the Royal Scientific Society as Hill has done.

He then says that Smart’s attack was too severe, that it was cruel and unwarranted, that Smart had only written it to bring himself up and that such motivation will never succeed. Finally, he describes how such scrapping and fighting may serve Smart for a while, he be forgotten compared to true heroes, only to die like everyone else and be forgotten.

Smart never responded to The Smartiad, nor did he write a second part of The Hilliad. This isn’t because he was so shamed by Derrick’s poem, but because he was ill. Shortly after this illness, he wrote a prologue for Fielding’s translation of Molière, The Mock Doctor where he renounced writing under pseudonyms anymore. This was a big deal, as silly pseudonyms were one of Smart’s trademark devices. He also then stopped writing his Midwife papers and drifted away from his Mother Midnight review shows, though they carried on without him. The next few years were hard for Smart, largely translation (most notably his prose Horace) and other typical hackwork and piecework. Perhaps Derrick’s words of warning did hit their target.

Personally, I feel that Smart would have today been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. His bursts of creativity and productivity cycling into his mysterious illnesses. If so, The Hilliad was written whilst on the rush of a manic phase, which would have been followed by a depressive phase when he was reported ill and then a stable phase where he put those resolutions he’d made in the depressive phase into action. Certainly the soul searching described in his Hymn to the Supreme Being. 

However, who is the greater poet between Smart and Derrick… Smart, no question.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Paper War! One: The Hilliad by Christopher Smart


One of the features of Grub Street that I found hardest to understand were the paper wars. These were linguistic free-for-alls where writers from a range of publications threw insults at each other over an initially small initiating spark. I have to say, as time has passed (and I’ve had regular internet access) these paper wars make sense now. They are essentially the same thing as a twitter spat or youtube drama. Two creators start arguing over something small and everyone else piles on.

One of the biggest of these was the drama between Henry Fielding and John Hill - an argument that pulled in a whole host of Grub Street’s finest. The origins are disputed and shrouded in mystery but it seemed that Fielding and Hill agreed to have a fake dispute to generate some excitement and sell more copies. Fielding then initiated this fake fight with an article in The Covent Garden Journal against hack writers. However, Hill wrote a genuine attack on Fielding’s novel Amelia and revealed that it was supposed to be a fake argument - thus the ‘war’ started in earnest.

Christopher Smart was already siding with Fielding and against Hill in his own mouthpiece, The Midwife, under his pen-name of Mary Midnight. Hill responded by attacking Smart’s non-pseudonymous collection, Poems on Several Occasions so Smart went back on the attack, with one of the longest and most personal attacks of the ‘war’, The Hilliad (a name which is probably the best mock-epic ‘iad’ title ever, better than The Dunciad anyway).

Smart puts himself front and centre, not attributing the work to any of the vast stable of alternative names but his own. He also lists his degrees and calls himself a fellow of Pembroke Hall - which he technically wasn’t anymore after marrying Anna-Maria Carnan. It’s also pretty hypocritical as Smart takes the piss of Hill for using his full titles - Hill being a fairly successful botanist (and also possibly wrote a very popular cookery book). 

The Hilliad starts with two ‘letters’, one from Christopher Smart to a friend and one from the friend back. They set up the standard sort of plausible deniability common in a piece of Grub Street attack. Smart claims that he was led to write the piece for a genuine worry that “the republic of letters seems to be lamentably on the decline in the metropolis” because of people like Hill but he doesn’t expect to publish the work. He only wants to provide entertainment for his friend then he’ll have “gained his end because he believes he “shall never carry it further” and publish. Indeed, he finds he has “some involuntary sensations of compassion” for Hill, because he is so pathetic. 

The second letter is from an anonymous Cambridge ‘friend’ who insists that although Smart is too good a writer who “should be better employed then in the dissection of an insect” it’s hismoral duty to stick it to Hill in verse. That Hill is the thin edge of the wedge, and there needs to be “a speedy stop to the inundation of nonsense and immorality with which he has overwhelmed the nation.” It also defends Fielding’s original idea of a fake paper war was and innocent act “to be carried out in amicable pleasantry to contribute to the entertainment of the town” and that Hill has taken it too far.

There are then a number of quotes from Hill’s work, as The Inspector and The Impertinent, some praising Smart’s writing and some attacking it. It’s supposed to be like Pope’s use of reviews in The Dunciad and to show that Hill is all over the place and inconsistent in his opinions. However, it backfires a little, making Hill’s review of Smart’s poetry to be thoughtful and evenly balanced, praising the good and denigrating the bad - it really doesn’t feel that the review deserves this full broadside.

It starts strong, a quick invocation to Momus, the God of comedy and then declaring Hill to be “Pimp! Poet! Puffer ‘pothecary! Play’r!” a fun little bit of alliteration, accusing him, not of being a procurer of women, but a generally bad man. I particularly like the bit of comic mangling to fit ‘apothecary’ into the mix. Claiming that his “baseless fame by vanity is buoy’d/ like the huge earth self centred in the void.” - His ego is literally the size of the planet. 

He then tells of the poor apothecary, seduced by a disgusting Sybil covered in a “diversity of dirt”, another fun bit of alliteration. I also loved the description of her, “twain was her teeth and single was her eye.” She seduces Hill into the scribbling trade where he is worshipped by the goddess Dulness, of Dunciad fame, but also of Wrongness and Cloaca - the Roman goddess of sewers, last seen by me in Gay’s Trivia. She anoints him with a chamber pot (and its contents) and he promises, “to you I’ll consecrate my future lays/ and on the smoothest paper print my soft essays.” It’s the word ‘soft’ that got my laughs.

Hill is transformed into The Inspector, from “a paltry player, that in no parts succeeds” to “a hackney writer, whom no mortal reads.” He is elevated to “the universal butt of all mankind”, a man as successful as Handel, Cervantes and Hogarth, “who is the Garrick of his art” becoming the “Archdunce” who’ll “rein over every dunce supreme”.

Legend has it that Smart wrote the poem at the same time Arthur Murphy wrote the notes as Martinus Macularus. For me, the notes don’t add that much. In The Dunciad, the really spiteful blows were made in the notes, but these just spread (or correct) a few bits of gossip. Apparently, Hill was going around telling people he introduced Smart to Newbery, but this includes a note from Newbery that states it was the other way around. He says that Hill was such a man about town he wrote love letters to Kitty, Kate, Catherine and Katy not knowing they were all the same person. (I wonder if there’s also a bit of a joke here about Smart being known as Kit or Kitty to his friends). We get a picture of Hill “with a jaunty air, waddling along”, suggesting that he was a little rotund. 

The most cutting note is left at the end. It’s a pretend correction to a mistake, that the bits of the review labelled as positive should actually be classed as negative and vice versa as Hill has so little taste that his “abuse is an obligation, and his praise is downright Billingsgate.”

  • and with that the first book of The Hilliad is done, whether there was every going to be another one, it’s unknown. But the first did what it needed, it mocked Hill and gave Smart a boost.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Review: Johnsonian Gleanings Part III: The Doctor’s Boyhood by Aleyn Lyell Reade

 When the idea of writing a novel about Samuel Johnson’s early life and family struck me, I first went to the big contemporary biographies, Boswell, Piozzi and Hawkins. The I went through the miscellanies, then I read J.L Clifford’s The Young Samuel Johnson, then I started on the first few chapters of every Johnson biography I have. I also asked the curator of Dr Johnson’s House if there was anything in the library that might help me get a handle on the Johnson family.

The book she let me read was Johnsonian Gleanings Part III: The Doctor’s Boyhood by Aleyn Lyell Reade. One of a series of 11 privately printed books, these are quite possibly the geekiest, most anoracky books on Samuel Johnson that could ever exist. Reade is principally a genealogist, and so is adept at rooting through hundreds of parish records and other unique texts and extracting information from them - the gleanings. If you want a book that traces the families of Johnson’s parents back several generations, this is the book. If you want a book that reveals who Johnson’s second cousins were and how they knew Johnson but didn’t know they were related, this is the book. If you want to know how the local mercer that Johnson’s family probably shopped at were related to Matthew Boulton, this is the book.

Reade knows how geeky this all is. At one point he tracks down the house that Sarah Ford was living in when she went to marry Michael Johnson. It’s a house in the small village of Packwood and Reade suggest it a suitable place of pilgrimage for “those of the Johnson faith”. He’s aware how thick in the weeds he is.

There were a number of surprises. Michael Johnson was presented in Boswell as coming from a nothing family, but Reade the genealogist discovers that there were family connections to some very high up people - through Michael’s sister’s marriage into an old family. Luckily, Reade is more than just a facts merchant, he also makes suppositions. With this, he supposes that Micheal may have been snubbed by these relatives and didn’t mention or contact them - it certainly seems that it would have been news to Samuel that his father had prestigious relations.

While there is a lot of pretty dry material in the book, this person was married to that person, cousin to that person, moved to this place and then that place, there are some really fun details also. For example, the place where the Johnson boys stayed when they spent a holiday with relatives in Birmingham was only three doors down from the Jervis shop. Meaning that it’s possible that eight-year-old Samuel may have met (and very likely, at least saw) his thirty-one-year-old future bride, Tetty.

There’s also the fun little fact that Samuel had at least two dancing lessons, though gave them up because of his eyesight. There’s a whole chapter that presents a whole group of people who may have been Samuel’s classmates. The school itself doesn’t have pupil records from the period, but Reade scanned biographies and who’s whos of dozens of people who claimed Lichfield Grammar School in their past and weighs up the likelihood that they were in Samuel’s class. This let me create a list of names that may come in handy.

One name wasn’t in there, Nathaniel. He was only two years Samuel’s junior, it would be reasonable to think they shared classes. While we get the date of Nathaniel’s baptism, we don’t get his godparents - where half a chapter is devoted to Samuel’s. Nathaniel is still someone marked by his absence. True, he’s not the focus of the book, but a work that goes so far into the weeds of Samuel’s life, has little to say about his brother.

Samuel’s parents, Michael and Sarah, are much better represented though. Not only are there the revelations about Michael’s family, but a lot about Sarah’s, which makes her claims of having ‘better’ family make sense. What’s more, the book delves a lot into Michael’s business, his run-in’s with the law about his leather and parchment dealing, his difficulty with the excise men and also the extent of his book buying, selling and other activities. He makes some sketches of each character and it seems that both were very popular locally. This is partly shown by the sheer amount of civic positions offered to Michael, and the fact that when someone wanted to sue Sarah later in life, he couldn’t find an attorney to take the case as she was too popular. All this added information has really helped solidify them in my mind, as two people with very positive forward faces, but lots of strife at home.

Biographies are funny things, very few of them present new information. Especially in someone as frequently a subject of biographies as Samuel Johnson, many of them are the same information repackaged in different ways. In reading the first three or four chapters of dozens of Johnson biographies, this has been especially clear. What someone like Reade did was find out a host of new information and clear up a number of inaccuracies and confusions but for a limited audience of enthusiasts. It was for people like J.L Clifford to take these and turn them into a more condensed, compelling narrative - which other biographies have cribbed on since. My desire is to take these facts and interpretations, and turn them into an even more compelling narrative and make a novel of them… and with Reade’s help, I’m getting closer.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

The Problem of Nathaniel Johnson


Did you know that Samuel Johnson had a younger brother?

I did, but the significance of that didn’t register until I was skimming Wayne Jones’s My Sam Johnson. In this book, Jones gives a clear and condensed version of Johnson’s life and, as a result, all the known elements of Nathaniel Johnson, Samuel’s younger brother, were put together. The information that struck me was that Samuel left for London, at the age of twenty-seven, in the same week that Nathaniel died at twenty-four. 

Immediately my novelist’s alarm went off. There’s something very tidy (in a shaped narrative sort of way) of one brother leaving to make his fortune the same week the other died. Especially because the brother leaving was destined to become one of the most influential writers of his age, and he was doing it super late. The Samuel Johnson that left for London was a man approaching thirty who’d thus far failed at every endeavour he’d tried. What’s more, he was going to flounder for another fifteen years before anything was going to happen. And what about the younger brother? Nathaniel had spent his whole life in the orbit of this future ‘great man’ and had seen nothing but a failure. 

What’s more, where had Nathaniel died? He was buried in Lichfield but had recently set off to the south coast with the aim of hitching a boat to Georgia before working in Frome. If he’d come back to Lichfield ill, wouldn’t Samuel have delayed his London trip to be with him? Some people have suggested that Nathaniel killed himself, but he was buried in holy ground and his epitaph, written by Samuel, talks of a ‘pious death’. For him to lie on an epitaph in a church seems very unlike Samuel.

Delving deeper, what is fascinating about Nathaniel is his absence. Samuel rarely talks about him and, in anecdotes where it seems plausible Nathaniel might have been there, he is not mentioned. We know their father, Michael, taught Samuel to swim, did he teach Nathaniel at the same time? It’s presumed that Nathaniel went to the same grammar school, given the boy’s nearness in age it would be presumed they were in the same class. We hear of Samuel being forced to perform for guests, we don’t know if Nathaniel was also made to do that.

Pouring through biographies, anecdotes, ‘Johnsonian Gleanings’ and all sorts of other texts, this is pretty much all we have about Nathaniel:

He was born in 1712, when Samuel was just over three years old. Their mother, Sarah, had actually been pregnant with him when she took Samuel to London to be touched by Queen Anne. At Nathaniel’s christening, she made Samuel say the words ‘little Natty’ and spell them out for guests.

When the boys were six and eight, they were sent to Birmingham to visit relatives. Samuel was offended when their father referred to them both as ‘boys’, not wanting to be thought the same as Nathaniel. When the spire of their local church fell in, Samuel’s parents and Nathaniel went to worship in the chapel of the nearby Christ’s Hospital, while Samuel stayed out in the fields to read.

Nathaniel took on duties at the bookshop, especially after the death of their father. He rode frequently to other branches and, during a discussion about how bad the roads were, said he’d never come across a bad road. Samuel took this as an example of how ‘manly’ he was, that he was tough and little things didn’t annoy him. We also know that Nathaniel had a habit of hiding apples on the top shelves of the shop, because Samuel was looking for some of these when he came across a copy of Petrarch.

Later on, after his time in Oxford and his brief spell in Birmingham, Samuel tried to gain subscriptions for a translation of Latin poetry to be handled by him and ‘N Johnson, Bookseller’. 

Nathaniel then ran a bookshop in Burton-on-Trent. Something happened there. We don’t know exactly, but it was dishonourable, maybe illegal. There is some speculation that he may have committed some fraud, which was the drive for Samuel’s support of William Dodd many years later.

Nathaniel wrote to his mother from London, complaining about her and Samuel’s lack of support, not lending him bookbinding tools or money to buy so much as a ‘quire of paper’. He complains of Samuel would ‘scarce ever use me with common civility’ and that he’d have preferred to run a bookshop in Stourbridge but Samuel’s influence over their mother had squashed that wish. He says that he’ll go and start a new life in America because “I know not nor do I much care in what way of life I shall hereafter live, but this I know that it shall be an honest one and that it can’t be more unpleasant than some part of my life past.”

Years later, Samuel tries to find out a little about his brother’s next steps. He writes to Frome in Somerset to get information, though doesn’t actually admit that it’s his brother he was talking about. In it, he describes Nathaniel as “likely enough to attract notice while he stayed, as a lively noisy man that loved company,” and suggest that people in a pub may remember him. We don’t have the reply but it seems that Nathaniel ended up there on his way to catch a boat to Georgia. Nathaniel then turns up dead in Lichfield.

Writing a prayer for his mother’s death, Samuel notes down that he’s had ‘the dream of my Brother’, and that he shall remember it. Later on, in one of the books he used for the dictionary, he marked the words ‘my brother’ next to a passage. The passage is about how Christ’s sensitivity would have made his agonies more than if they’d happened to a less sensitive man. The suggestion is that the less sensitive man is Nathaniel.

Johnson wrote Nathaniel’s epitaph, “born in 1712, whose powers of mind and body held out great promise, but his short life ended with a pious death in the year 1737,”

And that’s all there is. What kind of character can be created from these snippets? That’s the next job in preparing for my new novel. It’s a fun ride to be starting (but I’ve got some definite ideas).