Wednesday 28 March 2018

Johnson's 'Lives of the Poets' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

On the 20th of March, the Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to get a dose of the good doctor himself.

Clutching copies of the ‘Selected Lives’ the conversation wheeled through topics as diverse as the mechanics of eighteenth century copyright, the footballer Gazza and the contents of Thomas Gray’s small clothes - and all of it relevant.

It seemed quite clear that poetry simply doesn’t hold the same place in modern discourse as it did in the eighteenth century. In the coffee houses, people used to read it aloud to each other, to debate poems and rate poets. Poetry was used to mark state occasions, to thank friends and to flirt. The appointment of the Laureate became a subject of much discussion and speculation. From a relatively young age, boys were made to translate Latin poetry, then Grecian into English. A poem could even scandalise and publicise, it could go viral. 

So it makes sense the London publishers, who had finally been challenged, beaten and forced to accept the idea that perpetual copyright was not a thing, wanted to hold onto their poems. In a move to oust cheaper, Scottish editions of poetry, a massive consortium of booksellers decided to  pool their resources and to get studious, authoritative lives of all the poets from Mr Preface himself, Samuel Johnson. 

He promptly took the commission and, enjoying himself so much, created some of the first(ish) literary biographies. His discussion on Metaphysical poets, or the structure of ‘Paradise Lost’ or the merits of Dryden vs Pope are still some of the starting places from which modern critics must go. What’s more, they can still surprise.

A member noted how pleasant it was to be with Johnson, how his flow of verbiage has a comforting streak - and there were many incidences of Johnson delivering zingers against his subjects. Milton is wonderfully put down by a line describing him, ‘trying to be funny’, Gray writes like a man ‘with a kind of strutting dignity, like a man walking on tiptoe’. Dyden’s words seem to ‘drop by chance’ whereas Swift ‘talks big when he says nothing’. 

Johnson’s criticism holds up too. His discussion on ‘Paradise Lost’ was so insightful and well explained that members regretted that their A-level teachers hadn’t given them a copy of Johnson’s analysis back in the day. Johnson was so engaging about the poem that two of the members were sent straight to ‘Paradise Lost’ (one person completed it. I sadly, did not).

However, the star of the night, the Life we kept looping back to was Johnson’s life of Richard Savage. I did a review of it on here six years ago, it being the first piece of Johnson I ever read, and I loved it so much it spurred me on to read much, much more. 

Written much earlier than the other lives, this is written by young, skeletal Johnson. The thirty year old who was told he would be better off as a market porter. The man forced to become a writer because there was nothing else he was trained to do. This was written by Johnson the political thinker, the rebel; a man who, despite being poorer than everyone around himself, knew himself to be cleverer -just like Savage.

Savage was a poet who befriended the young Johnson when they both wrote copy for Cave’s’ Gentleman’s Magazine’. Savage claimed to be the illegitimate child of Earl Rivers and the then Lady Macclesfield, who rejects and persecutes him. Johnson uses this to base the whole reading of Savage’s life, telling it as one full of brushes with greatness, almost success but ultimately success frustrated at the last moment. 

He seems a strange kind of person for Johnson to write about, even stranger that they were friends. Savage was a dissolute, sponging man filled with pride, who was better at writing about virtue than living it but there was something about Savage’s ability to carry on cheerfully and regardless that seems to hugely impress the neurotic Johnson.

The intimate nature of it, the small personal details and the way he builds an astonishingly clear picture of an utterly irritating yet charming man make it soar over the others. Johnson may have opinions on Milton and Swift and Pope (and my goodness, he does) but it doesn’t have the immediacy of the Savage piece. I’ve had people like Savage kip on my sofa, people with talents who are entertaining but who also feel they deserve to be supported by everyone else because of those talents. Not only do I feel I know Savage, but I share as mixed a relationship with him as Johnson did, all because of that lovely writing.

Overall, this may be my least favourite Johnson performance. I find the subject of poets and their lives too narrow and although Johnson can (and does) create some wonderful quotes and moments from the subject, it doesn’t let him really stretch his legs and go romping.

Next Dr Johnson Reading Circle we will be reading Richard Holmes’ ‘Age of Wonder’ but followers of the Grub Street Lodger will get a sneaky peek at Holmes and a little more of Savage when I look at his 1993 book, ‘Dr Johnson & Mr Savage’.

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Video Review: Love & Friendship

A cheeky little video about a cheeky little film, 'Love & Friendship' AKA 'Lady Susan' with a borrowed name. There's a very funny bit about peas. Enjoy.

Wednesday 14 March 2018

Review: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Lady Susan, an unpublished novella, one of the most minor of Jane Austen’s works and is still full of nuance, wit and character. I wish I could write something like it now, let alone at nineteen.

It uses the epistolary form in that way eighteenth century novels managed, but nineteenth and twentieth didn’t - it uses the different characters of the letter writers to shine different facets on the same event. Not partaking of the breathless, over-writing of Clarissa, the letters flow regularly but not insanely.

They deal with Lady Susan, the ‘most accomplished coquette in all England’ and her machinations and manoeuvrings following the death of her (obviously ineffectual) husband. In her scheming, her lying, her charm and the peculiar coldness to her child, she reminded me a great deal of Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharpe, but written as if the author actually liked her.

 Austen clearly has a fondness for Lady Susan. Aside from getting all the juiciest lines (which she utterly does), her end isn’t a complete fall and the other characters are equally in awe of her skills as they are scared of her. It is Lady Susan who gets to practice the arts of ‘captivating deceit’ and I think it’s impossible to dislike a character who says; ‘There is an exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike acknowledge one’s superiority’. The key here being superiority, she is better than everyone else.

Her main rival is Mrs Vernon, her sister-in-law, who can do little but passively report on the doings in her own house to her mother. The main battleground is her brother, Reginald. He is the one predisposed to dislike Susan, but she quickly wraps him around her finger, feeds him plausible lies and makes him dote on her. She makes it clear to her friend, Mrs Johnson that she is mainly playing his feelings for something to do, her real inclination being for the (currently married) Mainwaring. 

Her other rival could well be her daughter. Fredericka is sixteen, has been in and out of school and, it seems, purposefully raised to not be particularly good at anything. Lady Susan tells her friend that Fredericka ‘will not remain long enough at school to understand anything thoroughly.’ The main problem for Lady Susan is that having a daughter entering marriageable age makes her look much less marriageable, so she does everything she can to bring her daughter down. Mrs Vernon, the sister-in-law is greatly taken by Fredericka, which is all fine to Lady Susan, as they are as insipid as each other.

One of Lady Susan’s other problems is Sir James, a foolish ‘rattle’ who mixes ‘more frequent laughter with his discourse than the subject requires’. He has attached himself to Susan and it is her wish to transfer this rich but idiotic lover on her weak, pathetic daughter. 

A mix up with London houses, a convenient attack of gout and a mix up of letters means that Reginald finds out the truth of Susan, and she ends up marrying Sir James herself. While she is the cleverest person in the book, and lumbered with the stupidest, she hasn’t exactly landed on her feet - but we are left feeling that Lady Susan will probably find a way to exploit that stupidity to the best of her advantage. That said, in marrying Sir James, it does make it harder for her to live a free and flirting life - meaning that in this book, marriage is not the happy ending. A nice quirk.

This is a very quick read, and the subject of a very enjoyable film from 2009 called Love and Friendship, which is discussed in a video on my youtube channel. I highly recommend both.

Wednesday 7 March 2018

Review: The Turk by Tom Standage

When I was younger, we couldn’t afford to go away on holidays and instead went on day trips to which we could walk, get the bus or (most excitingly) the train. When we got to the station, the choice was between going right, to the beach or left, to London. My love of museums, exhibitions and probably history was created by these trips. 

One of those trips included a visit to Covent Garden where there was a shop that sold and displayed automata. I was old enough to not find them creepy and instead, was enraptured by the strange, not-quite-human movements and the complex mechanisms that made them work. Although automata have not been one of my chief interests, I have always had a fondness for these complex gadgets.

I can’t remember when I first heard of the truly grandstanding automata of the eighteenth century, but I rushed down to the ‘robots’ exhibition at the Science Museum to see the graceful, mechanical swan. At some point, I also bought Tom Standage’s ‘The Turk: The True Story of the Chess-Playing Machine That Fooled the World’. 

This is a little book, slightly short with lots of space and a slightly larger font. That is not a detriment to the book - there are enough books around that continue long after their point has been made. This book comes in, tells a fascinating story with some intriguing implications and then goes away.

I was a little unlucky that I knew the end of the story before I knew much about the beginning, it’s the ‘Sweeney Todd’ or ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ effect. Good thing this story starts so interestingly. 

The Turk was essentially created for a bet. A Hungarian civil servant called Wolfgang von Kempelen agreed to create something far more astounding than the slightly underwhelming magician who had just performed in Maria Theresa’s court. Six months later, he returned with a chess playing machine that appeared to run on clockwork. He then spent the rest of his life trying to encourage people to move on from that achievement.

He may have created a speaking machine, steam-engines, bridges and fountains but it’s hard to live down a machine that can beat people at chess. When Joseph II (aka Jeffery Jones in ‘Amadeus’) succeeded Maria Theresa, he sent Kempelen on a two year tour of Europe to show off the Turk.

It bamboozled, intrigued and provoked people everywhere it went. Most people agreed that the Turk couldn’t be a genuinely intelligent machine, that it must have some human intervention somewhere. Could it be magnets? If it was, how could the Turk still work with a magnet placed on it? It couldn’t be strings because the Turk could be moved about and set up quickly. Nor could the Turk have someone in it because the insides were opened up and shown empty before the game began. It also managed to inspire machines like the power loom and Babbage’s difference engines.

Despite being pulled out for special occasions, the Turk was placed back in its crates, especially after Kempelen died - before coming spectacularly back to life. The Turk had been sold to Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, who was a creator of musical automata which could do things like genuinely play the trumpet. Mälzel was a skilled showman, and an inveterate spendthrift who had to keep moving when his debts caught up with him. The Turk was his most reliable money-spinner, which mostly kept him in funds until his death and was passed to another owner. Unfortunately it was burnt when the museum displaying it burnt down.

The Turk played famous names and famous games but the most famous thing about it was a question, 'how did it work?' Readers of the book will have this question answered.

It's nice to have a story like this told with authority and brevity. It’s certainly worth a few hours to find out everything you might want to know about the Turk but will not tell you one thing more.