Wednesday 13 March 2024

The Problem of Nathaniel Johnson


Did you know that Samuel Johnson had a younger brother?

I did, but the significance of that didn’t register until I was skimming Wayne Jones’s My Sam Johnson. In this book, Jones gives a clear and condensed version of Johnson’s life and, as a result, all the known elements of Nathaniel Johnson, Samuel’s younger brother, were put together. The information that struck me was that Samuel left for London, at the age of twenty-seven, in the same week that Nathaniel died at twenty-four. 

Immediately my novelist’s alarm went off. There’s something very tidy (in a shaped narrative sort of way) of one brother leaving to make his fortune the same week the other died. Especially because the brother leaving was destined to become one of the most influential writers of his age, and he was doing it super late. The Samuel Johnson that left for London was a man approaching thirty who’d thus far failed at every endeavour he’d tried. What’s more, he was going to flounder for another fifteen years before anything was going to happen. And what about the younger brother? Nathaniel had spent his whole life in the orbit of this future ‘great man’ and had seen nothing but a failure. 

What’s more, where had Nathaniel died? He was buried in Lichfield but had recently set off to the south coast with the aim of hitching a boat to Georgia before working in Frome. If he’d come back to Lichfield ill, wouldn’t Samuel have delayed his London trip to be with him? Some people have suggested that Nathaniel killed himself, but he was buried in holy ground and his epitaph, written by Samuel, talks of a ‘pious death’. For him to lie on an epitaph in a church seems very unlike Samuel.

Delving deeper, what is fascinating about Nathaniel is his absence. Samuel rarely talks about him and, in anecdotes where it seems plausible Nathaniel might have been there, he is not mentioned. We know their father, Michael, taught Samuel to swim, did he teach Nathaniel at the same time? It’s presumed that Nathaniel went to the same grammar school, given the boy’s nearness in age it would be presumed they were in the same class. We hear of Samuel being forced to perform for guests, we don’t know if Nathaniel was also made to do that.

Pouring through biographies, anecdotes, ‘Johnsonian Gleanings’ and all sorts of other texts, this is pretty much all we have about Nathaniel:

He was born in 1712, when Samuel was just over three years old. Their mother, Sarah, had actually been pregnant with him when she took Samuel to London to be touched by Queen Anne. At Nathaniel’s christening, she made Samuel say the words ‘little Natty’ and spell them out for guests.

When the boys were six and eight, they were sent to Birmingham to visit relatives. Samuel was offended when their father referred to them both as ‘boys’, not wanting to be thought the same as Nathaniel. When the spire of their local church fell in, Samuel’s parents and Nathaniel went to worship in the chapel of the nearby Christ’s Hospital, while Samuel stayed out in the fields to read.

Nathaniel took on duties at the bookshop, especially after the death of their father. He rode frequently to other branches and, during a discussion about how bad the roads were, said he’d never come across a bad road. Samuel took this as an example of how ‘manly’ he was, that he was tough and little things didn’t annoy him. We also know that Nathaniel had a habit of hiding apples on the top shelves of the shop, because Samuel was looking for some of these when he came across a copy of Petrarch.

Later on, after his time in Oxford and his brief spell in Birmingham, Samuel tried to gain subscriptions for a translation of Latin poetry to be handled by him and ‘N Johnson, Bookseller’. 

Nathaniel then ran a bookshop in Burton-on-Trent. Something happened there. We don’t know exactly, but it was dishonourable, maybe illegal. There is some speculation that he may have committed some fraud, which was the drive for Samuel’s support of William Dodd many years later.

Nathaniel wrote to his mother from London, complaining about her and Samuel’s lack of support, not lending him bookbinding tools or money to buy so much as a ‘quire of paper’. He complains of Samuel would ‘scarce ever use me with common civility’ and that he’d have preferred to run a bookshop in Stourbridge but Samuel’s influence over their mother had squashed that wish. He says that he’ll go and start a new life in America because “I know not nor do I much care in what way of life I shall hereafter live, but this I know that it shall be an honest one and that it can’t be more unpleasant than some part of my life past.”

Years later, Samuel tries to find out a little about his brother’s next steps. He writes to Frome in Somerset to get information, though doesn’t actually admit that it’s his brother he was talking about. In it, he describes Nathaniel as “likely enough to attract notice while he stayed, as a lively noisy man that loved company,” and suggest that people in a pub may remember him. We don’t have the reply but it seems that Nathaniel ended up there on his way to catch a boat to Georgia. Nathaniel then turns up dead in Lichfield.

Writing a prayer for his mother’s death, Samuel notes down that he’s had ‘the dream of my Brother’, and that he shall remember it. Later on, in one of the books he used for the dictionary, he marked the words ‘my brother’ next to a passage. The passage is about how Christ’s sensitivity would have made his agonies more than if they’d happened to a less sensitive man. The suggestion is that the less sensitive man is Nathaniel.

Johnson wrote Nathaniel’s epitaph, “born in 1712, whose powers of mind and body held out great promise, but his short life ended with a pious death in the year 1737,”

And that’s all there is. What kind of character can be created from these snippets? That’s the next job in preparing for my new novel. It’s a fun ride to be starting (but I’ve got some definite ideas).

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