Thursday 26 September 2013

Talk on Friendship at Samuel Johnson's House

Today I took myself off to a lecture at Dr Johnson's House to listen to Emrys Jones talk about conceptions of friendship in the early eighteenth century. Oddly enough Dr Jones didn't have a welsh accent. Before we listened to him, we were given the chance to look around the house. There have been a few changes recently under the new curator and deputy, including a very fetching adult sized eighteenth century coat which I defintely likes the look of - it was warm, looked good and had pockets large enough to carry a small library.

Dr Jones started his talk with Johnson's Ode on Friendship, so I will do the same

Friendship; An Ode by Samuel Johnson

Friendship! peculiar boon of Heaven,
The noble mind’s delight and pride,
To men and angels only given,
To all the lower world denied.
While love, unknown among the bless’d,
Parent of thousand wild desires,
The savage and the human breast
Torments alike with raging fires.
With bright, but oft destructive gleam,
Alike o’er all his lightnings fly,
Thy lambent glories only beam
Around the favourites of the sky.
Thy gentle flows of guiltless joys
On fools and villains ne’er descend;
In vain for thee the tyrant sighs,
And hugs a flatterer for a friend.
Directness of the brave and just,
Oh guide us through life’s darksome way!
And let the tortures of mistrust
On selfish bosoms only prey.
Nor shall thine ardours cease to glow,
When souls to peaceful climes remove.
What raised our virtue here below
Shall aid our happiness above.

He pulled out the points that an idea friendship is an elevated thing, beyond beast and hypocrite where a perfect disinterested friendship can be had by two moral people and their friendship elevates them further. He quoted other writers on the subject, including (I was surprised to note) Adam Smith from his Theory of Moral Sentiments. (I was tempted to read more of Smith, he being the only famous eighteenth century Adam I can think of).

There were then four key dilemas put in front of this ideal form of friendship.

1) Difference of Opinion - Can friends disagree on important points? As usual, I am rather inclined to agree with Goldsmith, who felt very deep disagreements would impede a proper friendship. I don't think I could be friends with someone who thinks greater freedom of firearms is good for the safety of the populace for example. Johnson retorted that maybe Goldsmith couldn't be friends with someone he disagreed with but he could, this is backed up with the large number of Whiggish friends but maybe discounted by 'I am prepared to love anyone but an American'. 

2) Competition - This is where Dr Jones went into an earlier period of the eighteenth century. He talked about Addison and Steele and the competition between them, especially given that Addison was regarded far more highly than Steele, though later Johnson marker Steele higher. (I actually prefer Addison, I find him more smiling.) He also talked about the Scriblerans treatment of Gay as more playfellow then serious literary partner. (Though I remember reading something about Pope being the butt of the jokes). There was discussion about whether a friendship actually needs competition and how a part of the moral elevation of friendship may be the competition to be better friends.

3)Whether a friendship is a true friendship or just patronage - This part mainly involved quotes about Pope and Bolinbroke and about the weirdness of false friends. This linked very well with the line about hugging flatterers in the Johnson ode.

4) Public/Private friendship - this was the crux of the talk. He talked about how nowadays we worry about a private friendship causing bad and immoral decisions in public (like Cameron and Coulton) but the worry in the eighteenth century was more how the public display of friendship would rob the notion of its intimacy and truth. Again, Pope was brought up a lot, especially in how he shaped his image as a good friend, a friend of virtue and a friend of virtue's friends. 

This world in which friendship is publically celebrated by poems, by dedications and by biography caused strain on the notion of friendship. Where friendship should have been seen as a profit in itself, the public lionising of friendship makes it a comodity. He concluded by saying that no eighteenth century writer became famous for his friendships without publicising it. An issue that I think is still alive today.

One last thing that interested me was how he linked this shaking in the notion of friendship with the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. I have to admit I didn't follow the reasoning behind this and would like to have bought his book to thrash it out in more detail. Unfortunately, the slim volume was fifty pounds and I don't have any friends who would stump me the cash.

The next lecture I am going to see will be about Grub Street. That's in a month's time or so.

All yours

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Looking at some old books.

In the 30s and 40s, Harvard Unversity Press seemed to bring out a series of books about the eighteenth century and so far I haven't read a dud one. Two already discussed were The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith, The Grub Street Journal, The Unspeakable Curll, and Passionate Intelligence (the title of which has provided me with a really useful way of looking at my own actions as well as reading Johnson's work). Here I shall talk a little about another two, Tom Brown of Facetious Memory and The Clubs of Augustin London.

The Tom Brown book is the closest to a dud so far in the series. The author begins by describing Tom Brown as 'small beer' and then proceeds from there. The whole book has the inescapable quality of a slightly disappointed headteacher who expected so much better for their pupil but will have to grudgingly make do with what they have.

Despite this, it is the fullest available life of Tom Brown, a man who was from a middle class family outside of London but who joined the literary scrum and played the game extremely well. While the writer mourns Tom Brown's lack of a masterpiece, he does show how well a writer needed to hustle in the very early days of print culture and the skill needed to stay afloat. Although I can't say I felt sad to leave Tom behind at the end of the biogaphy, I did feel a certain pride for him.

Clubs of Augustin London is one of those painfully precise works that have you wondering whether it really is that important if such and such club included such and such members and was really started in April and not in May but then you realise that it does matter. There is something to say about clear and meticulous scholarship and the pickyness of the book becomes one of it's key merits. I also wrote down more little jottings about this book then any in a long time. Normally I jot down interesting phrases or little facts I may want to incoporate into something but in this book, I was mainly noting down the names of clubs that interested me and I wanted to find more about.

I was fascinated with the idea of toasting, especially in the more political clubs like the Kit Kat, where poems about beautiful women were engraved onto their glasses with diamond points to be the toast of the club for a year. Poems and toasts seem to be the main trade in most of these clubs but the book also extended it's gaze beyond the political clubs to club dedicated to irreligion, to whiskers and to idleness. I particularly liked the clubs which celebrated the lazy.

I really enjoyed the discriptions of the different meeting places and coffee houses, their clienteles and the way they ran socially. I was able to include these ideas into my book and they enliven a few of the scenes and even give some social embaressment and jepordy to poor Sidney, who doesn't understand the rules.

As well as a discussion of these clubs, the book also talked about clubs in fiction and the use of a club to enliven a static debate. The Athenum Club were a fictional club that consisted of a series of experts who answered notes and queries for the readers. This club was originally used to give authority to the three or four people who actually ran the magazine. Later, people like Addison used fictional families and finally the fictional club of Mr Spectator to give texture and movement to their writings.

The last club talked about was a very small one, where the members wrote under one name, Martinus Scriblerus. This description of the short time that Pope, Arbuthnott, Gay, Swift and Parnell spent together was wonderfully evocative of the friendship they shared and how it permeated their writings. I'm going to a lecture about the eighteenth century ideas on friendship, in particular the Scribleran and Turk's Head clubs tomorrow and I will say how that went another time.

Till then.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Samuel Johnson Biographies

Last week, it would have been Samuel Johnson's 304th birthday and to celebrate, I'm going to run through a few biographies of the man, there are hundreds of them so I am only going to deal with the ones I have read.

Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson - Hester Thrale-Piozzi

     This deals with Samuel as a tortured soul but also includes many of my favourite anecdotes. The book is particularly interesting to read as a comparison piece to Boswell's as she has a different point of view to some of the familiar stories but also tells about great chunks of Johnson's domestic life with the Thrale's that Boswell was not privy to. The irritating element of this book is that it seems to be largely about the self-aggrandisement of Hester Thrale-Piozzi and from the faux-humble preface on, I found her tone to be extraordinarily irritating. I found 'Dr Johnson by Mrs Thrale' edited by Richard Ingrams a far more enjoyable read. These took the anecdotes of Johnson as they were originally written in her diary 'Thraliana' and without the sheen of the polished work, the anecdotes are more lively and interesting.

Life of Samuel Johnson - James Boswell.

      This is a big hunk of book. I read the everyman unexpurgated version and it is probably the only book I would ever recommend in it's abridged form. There are difficulties with the spread of the information, the first third take place in the 50 years before Boswell met him and the rest of the almighty doorstop took place after. Boswell included almost everything he could get his hands on, even letters from Johnson to his printers, discussing the size and type that his works were to be printed it. Boswell also uses the life of Johnson as a window to discuss his own brilliance and at times to seemingly impose his own views on Johnson.
    That being said, it's size and comprehensive accumulation of anecdote, letter and review with huge dollops of remembered conversation and a little psycho-analysis thrown in as well, make this an extraordinarily moving read. My benchmark of a biography is if I missed the subject after the biography has ended and I certainly did with this. Johnson Biographies seem to have the power of bringing a tear to my eye anyway but I was certainly choked up at the end of Boswell's book. Although it pushes the comfortable, confident side of Johnson in his latter years, owning the floors of London Clubs with authority, there is still something of the heroic struggle which Johnson fought his fears and demons. The following extract about this fight that was always going through Johnson's mind is one of the reasons I love him and one of my favourite quotes in literature.

 "His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Colisaeum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him."

Samuel Johnson - Walter Jackson Bale

   A big jump in time from Boswell to Bale, but I haven't read any of the Victorian treatments of Johnson, mainly because the Victorians irritate and bore the hell out of me. 
  This book is wonderful, utterly my favourite Johnson Biography and I have read it a few times now. It takes risks in adopting a more psycho-analytic approach to Johnson and makes efforts to explore how Johnson thought and felt. Of course this is an impossible task and I am sure the book is wrong in many ways but the effort and sheer emotional connection between Bale and his subject make this biography absolutely thrilling and moving. I may have had a tear in my eye with Boswell but I had a sob in my throat with Bale. My favourite chapter is the one that deals with Johnson's humour and he used it throughout his life and how it informs much that has been said about him. It is one of the most readable accounts of humour I have ever read and also one of the finest accounts of humour in one personality. Were someone to ask of one biography of Johnson to read, I'd recommend this one straight away.

Samuel Johnson - John Wain

   This book stands out because it was written by a poet. Bale may have had a real feel for the man (accurate or not) but it is Wain who delights in the language. This was the most recent biography I have read and so still have some of my notes about it. 
   I was struck most about his thoughts about two women in Johnson's life; his mother and his wife Tetty. In no other book is Tetty so sympathetically drawn and described, she usually has a place as some ghastly hag in a house in the country somewhere or in bed drunk but Wain draws her as a human, describes how Johnson may have loved her and she him and finally looks at his deep mourning for her in relation to the guilt he must have felt in letting her down. The second woman who gets more mention in this book is Johnson's mother, who he draws as a nagging, disappointed woman, who's difficulty to please haunted Johnson his whole life. I have to admit I was left wondering more about Wain's relationship to his mother than Johnson's.
   Wain also flings a good phrase; he describes Rasselas as a dragonfly, 'a purposeful and powerful body moving on wings of gauze'. I was also struck by his description of Johnson as a 'heroic caryatid' for his lexicographical efforts.

Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Book that Defined the World - Henry Hitchings.

    A short book that looks at Johnson through the lens of his dictionary. Each chapter takes a word and uses it to run through Johnson's life and personality. It is very good at exploring the difficulties and processes Johnson went through to make his dictionary but manages, in a very slim volume to give a clear view of the contradictions that make him so endlessly fascinating. This is the book to recommend to the newbies.

Samuel Johnson - Peter Martin

One of the newest biographies of Johnson, released to mark his 300th birthday was a thorough running through of Johnson's life and recap of the new Johnsonian myth, which includes his depressions as well as his bon mots. I found this an oddly dispassionate book, a nice careful telling of the story but I didn't feel any real connection between biographer and subject. I'd give it a miss.

Saturday 14 September 2013

TH White Interview.

I love 'Once and Future King' and 'Mistress Masham's Repose' and I adore this interview.

I like his way of saying that the difference between a writer in a garrett and one who sells well is luck, the sort of luck that 'wins pools'. 

Tips on how to write well; 'being well and being sane'.