This week at the Dr Johnson bookclub, we read Rasselas. I’ve read and talked about it before but there was something special about talking with interesting and informed people about it. This was the first time the Johnson reading group had read some Johnson (as opposed to many books about him). As a special treat, the Dr Johnson house let us see (and touch, and generally fawn over) their first edition copy of Rasselas and their edition of Samuel Johnson’s first ever book - his translation of Lobo’s translation of travels in Abyssinia - which he mostly wrote laying down.
The plot is simple: Rasselas is an Abyssinian prince who lives in the Happy Valley, an oppressively satisfying place to keep royalty until they are needed. Fed up with happiness, he escapes with the help of the philosopher Imlac, his sister Pekuah and her lady-in-waiting Nekayah. The Abyssinian nobility travel to Egypt where they explore different ways to be happy and find each wanting.
Is it a great plot? Not particularly, but it does the job and I feel there is a novelistic progress to the problems the characters must face. Are the characters any good?.. well… Johnson is not one of the world’s greatest ventriloquists, in Goldsmith’s words, his little fish sound like whales. William Haley said, ‘I hardly ever hear a sentence uttered by the Princess or the Lady Pekuah, but I see the enormous Johnson in petticoats.’ (What an image, an enormous Johnson in petticoats.)
We were impressed by the female characters. They may have had a Johnsonian tone, but they really step up in terms of agency. They learn throughout the story, they use their compliance to control and at the very end, they manage to bring the mad astronomer back to his senses.
In an evening of interesting questions, the first was ‘how Abyssinian/Ethiopian is Rasselas?’ Tradition does include a happy valley. It also includes a traditional location of the Garden of Eden. Were the ideas influenced by Abyssinian thought? Could the book be claimed African?
Also, what is the use of water? The Nile has its spring in Abyssinia in the book. The characters travel to Egypt and during a Nile inundation they decided their fate. Should we commit to life’s current or shall we stagnate?
And what does it teach us about happiness?
-Happiness relies on on realistic understanding of the limitations of life.
- Happiness may well only be found in distractions from our life quests - Rasselas is happiest when he has a goal he is vaguely working towards and slightly distracted from.
- There needs to be social and familiar connection to be happy; solitude drives hermits sad, astronomers mad and princes megalomaniacal.
We were happy afterwards; we had good company, nice chat, some wine and later bites to eat. Maybe, the key to happiness is wandering around to historic houses and chat about old books. My kind of night at any rate.