Last Tuesday was the first of a series of reading groups taking place Dr Johnson’s House in London and led by Dr Jane Darcy, who has written a lot about biography in the late 18th and 19th centuries - of course, I had to check it out.
The first book under discussion was Beryl Bainbridge’s ‘According to Queeney’.
A few years ago on this blog, I looked at representations of Samuel Johnson in fiction (this being before I discovered the ‘Samuel Johnson, Detector’ series). In that post, I had this to say about the book.
‘What Beryl Bainbridge does is take all the original material and use a roving omniscient narrator to give new angles to the scene, usually close ups instead of the original text’s habitual use of a long shot. This is done with such skill and grace that the reader forgets the fictional element of what they are reading and it feels as if they are sitting in the room alongside Johnson, Hester and the rest. Although this is done very well, I wonder what the point of it is. Most of what she is doing in the books can be performed by a good reader reading the original accounts. I suppose I find the original cutlets nice enough without the need for extra sauce.’
I have to admit, I didn’t much enjoy the book on my re-read. Johnson was presented as old, tired and annoying. If there was any affection for him in the book, it seemed to me to be the kind of affection you may have for a dog which may have been loveable once but now was an inert, panting, lump.
I found all the characters to be rather unlikeable - but I was intrigued by how that unlikeability seemed to stem from hurt, upset and misunderstanding. It was not until the end of the book, with an image of Mrs Desmoulins sitting at home, pining for the dead Johnson and roasting chestnuts, that I felt rather touched - and wondered whether there was more to the book that I had missed. I was hoping the group would point me in the direction of those things.
When I left the group - I did have a greater appreciation for the book. Johnson’s life was often a struggle between reason and emotion, whereas Boswell focusses on the ‘sword of reason’ battling the forces of unreason in a gladiatorial arena, Bainbridge focusses on the emotion, the domestic and the fleeting.
It was pointed out how many scenes happen in stairways, doorways and other liminal spaces, neither wholly private or personal. These were the little, unseen moments that had huge impacts. This was the Johnson pining for a home, Hester Thrale searching for love and Queeney, longing for the love of her parents. This is the small rubs of life, the accumulation of bruises and hurts that can shape an existence. I can’t say it’s a view that makes me feel very good, but it’s certainly Johnsonian.
Also, where Boswell focusses on the lofty, Bainbridge goes for the squalid. There are enemas and vomits, worms and pills and the constant shadow of pregnancy and infant mortality. It was also pointed out how many animals litter the book. Johnson takes a great interest in dogs, cats and even the nobility of a rat trying to eke out a life for itself.
I had underestimated the importance of the body, and Samuel Johnson’s body in particular. His whole life was shaped by the effort of negotiating his twitching, dribbling, aching body through the world and that this shaped his character as much as his intellect.
I also had a great time. It was wonderful to be able to talk Johnson without people rolling their eyes and mouthing ‘here he goes again’. A few of us also went to the Cheshire Cheese afterwards and had some lovely Sam Smith beer and a good chat - so I went home a very happy bunny and look forward to the next one.