On the the third floor of Samuel Johnson’s House in Gough Square in London, sits a large glass case and inside it is a cube of grey stone. This is a brick from the Great Wall of China and it was sent to the house because Johnson once expressed a wish to visit the wall, but being to old to go there, some of the wall came to him.
That wish was expressed in the section of Boswell’s Journal we discussed at the Dr Johnson House Bookclub this Wednesday. This was the first session of the third year and there was a mixture of old and new members fresh and ready to bat the text about a bit and see what we could get out of it.
Equality and hierarchy came up as they often do. Johnson’s view on people’s ‘place’ is such an uncertain, shifting topic, there’s always something to say about it. A firm anti-slaver but painfully certain that a king should be a king. It was probably best summed up by the member who said that Johnson seemed to highly respect individual freedom but expect that individual to act within a strict system.
We enjoyed Johnson debating with Mrs Knowles (and losing the odd point or two) and his review of Kedleston Hall as a perfect civic building if not exactly a house - more enjoyable was his tactful comment to the owner, that it sure looked expensive.
Johnson was in a playful mood in a lot of this section; whether it was limping about pretending to be Richard III (to show how easy acting is), clearing a blocked water feature of a dead cat, wishing he learned to play the fiddle and bemoaning the fact he failed to learn knitting or even planning the best cookbook ever written - he has an energy in this that Boswell doesn’t expect in him. When Johnson meets an old university friend, the friend feels old and Johnson keeps having to remind him what spring chickens they really are. He’s in one of his phases of temperance, declaring that he’ll go back to drinking when he’s old.
There’s a lot about friendship in this section. Dead friends are frequently remembered, Goldsmith is often brought up for both well and ill, and Boswell and Johnson’s friendship seems warmer then ever. Since travelling together, there seems to be a new closeness and although Johnson can still get angry, he’s always ready to apologise again and profess his love for Boswell. Bozzy has also mellowed, maybe it’s becoming a father, but he’s trying hard to get on with his own dad as he makes a relationship with his new son. The relationship between Johnson and Boswell is a full, rich and slightly strange one. Sometimes they are naughty schoolboys together, prodding dead cats, yet sometimes Johnson acts as father, sometimes they are serious adults together and discuss the deep things in life. We reflected that none of us knew of any really good books on the subject (so if anyone knows of any, drop a line).
We also reflected on how many of the conversations were like those we’ve had. Johnson reflects on old friendships, relives old japes and looks forward to new ones. They discuss death and ghosts, take the mickey out of each other, correct each other’s grammar (Johnson hated the word ‘prodigious’), bickered and generally did all the things that people comfortable in each other’s company do…. and pretty much what we were doing as well, chatting about Johnson and Boswell and company as if they were just old friends.
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