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.

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