Wednesday 27 March 2024

Paper War! One: The Hilliad by Christopher Smart


One of the features of Grub Street that I found hardest to understand were the paper wars. These were linguistic free-for-alls where writers from a range of publications threw insults at each other over an initially small initiating spark. I have to say, as time has passed (and I’ve had regular internet access) these paper wars make sense now. They are essentially the same thing as a twitter spat or youtube drama. Two creators start arguing over something small and everyone else piles on.

One of the biggest of these was the drama between Henry Fielding and John Hill - an argument that pulled in a whole host of Grub Street’s finest. The origins are disputed and shrouded in mystery but it seemed that Fielding and Hill agreed to have a fake dispute to generate some excitement and sell more copies. Fielding then initiated this fake fight with an article in The Covent Garden Journal against hack writers. However, Hill wrote a genuine attack on Fielding’s novel Amelia and revealed that it was supposed to be a fake argument - thus the ‘war’ started in earnest.

Christopher Smart was already siding with Fielding and against Hill in his own mouthpiece, The Midwife, under his pen-name of Mary Midnight. Hill responded by attacking Smart’s non-pseudonymous collection, Poems on Several Occasions so Smart went back on the attack, with one of the longest and most personal attacks of the ‘war’, The Hilliad (a name which is probably the best mock-epic ‘iad’ title ever, better than The Dunciad anyway).

Smart puts himself front and centre, not attributing the work to any of the vast stable of alternative names but his own. He also lists his degrees and calls himself a fellow of Pembroke Hall - which he technically wasn’t anymore after marrying Anna-Maria Carnan. It’s also pretty hypocritical as Smart takes the piss of Hill for using his full titles - Hill being a fairly successful botanist (and also possibly wrote a very popular cookery book). 

The Hilliad starts with two ‘letters’, one from Christopher Smart to a friend and one from the friend back. They set up the standard sort of plausible deniability common in a piece of Grub Street attack. Smart claims that he was led to write the piece for a genuine worry that “the republic of letters seems to be lamentably on the decline in the metropolis” because of people like Hill but he doesn’t expect to publish the work. He only wants to provide entertainment for his friend then he’ll have “gained his end because he believes he “shall never carry it further” and publish. Indeed, he finds he has “some involuntary sensations of compassion” for Hill, because he is so pathetic. 

The second letter is from an anonymous Cambridge ‘friend’ who insists that although Smart is too good a writer who “should be better employed then in the dissection of an insect” it’s hismoral duty to stick it to Hill in verse. That Hill is the thin edge of the wedge, and there needs to be “a speedy stop to the inundation of nonsense and immorality with which he has overwhelmed the nation.” It also defends Fielding’s original idea of a fake paper war was and innocent act “to be carried out in amicable pleasantry to contribute to the entertainment of the town” and that Hill has taken it too far.

There are then a number of quotes from Hill’s work, as The Inspector and The Impertinent, some praising Smart’s writing and some attacking it. It’s supposed to be like Pope’s use of reviews in The Dunciad and to show that Hill is all over the place and inconsistent in his opinions. However, it backfires a little, making Hill’s review of Smart’s poetry to be thoughtful and evenly balanced, praising the good and denigrating the bad - it really doesn’t feel that the review deserves this full broadside.

It starts strong, a quick invocation to Momus, the God of comedy and then declaring Hill to be “Pimp! Poet! Puffer ‘pothecary! Play’r!” a fun little bit of alliteration, accusing him, not of being a procurer of women, but a generally bad man. I particularly like the bit of comic mangling to fit ‘apothecary’ into the mix. Claiming that his “baseless fame by vanity is buoy’d/ like the huge earth self centred in the void.” - His ego is literally the size of the planet. 

He then tells of the poor apothecary, seduced by a disgusting Sybil covered in a “diversity of dirt”, another fun bit of alliteration. I also loved the description of her, “twain was her teeth and single was her eye.” She seduces Hill into the scribbling trade where he is worshipped by the goddess Dulness, of Dunciad fame, but also of Wrongness and Cloaca - the Roman goddess of sewers, last seen by me in Gay’s Trivia. She anoints him with a chamber pot (and its contents) and he promises, “to you I’ll consecrate my future lays/ and on the smoothest paper print my soft essays.” It’s the word ‘soft’ that got my laughs.

Hill is transformed into The Inspector, from “a paltry player, that in no parts succeeds” to “a hackney writer, whom no mortal reads.” He is elevated to “the universal butt of all mankind”, a man as successful as Handel, Cervantes and Hogarth, “who is the Garrick of his art” becoming the “Archdunce” who’ll “rein over every dunce supreme”.

Legend has it that Smart wrote the poem at the same time Arthur Murphy wrote the notes as Martinus Macularus. For me, the notes don’t add that much. In The Dunciad, the really spiteful blows were made in the notes, but these just spread (or correct) a few bits of gossip. Apparently, Hill was going around telling people he introduced Smart to Newbery, but this includes a note from Newbery that states it was the other way around. He says that Hill was such a man about town he wrote love letters to Kitty, Kate, Catherine and Katy not knowing they were all the same person. (I wonder if there’s also a bit of a joke here about Smart being known as Kit or Kitty to his friends). We get a picture of Hill “with a jaunty air, waddling along”, suggesting that he was a little rotund. 

The most cutting note is left at the end. It’s a pretend correction to a mistake, that the bits of the review labelled as positive should actually be classed as negative and vice versa as Hill has so little taste that his “abuse is an obligation, and his praise is downright Billingsgate.”

  • and with that the first book of The Hilliad is done, whether there was every going to be another one, it’s unknown. But the first did what it needed, it mocked Hill and gave Smart a boost.

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.

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).

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Review: Young Samuel Johnson by J.L Clifford

 There are so many Samuel Johnson biographies, I have at least a dozen on my shelves. From Hawkins, to Piozzi, to Boswell, not counting the miscellaneous collections, Johnson must have been one of the most written about people of his age and there’s been three-hundred-odd years to build on that.

Yet, most of these people wrote about Johnson as an old man. From portraits to anecdotes, a great deal of our Johnson information comes from the last twenty years of his life. J.L. Clifford’s Young Samuel Johnson decided to address this and combine all that was known at the time and has been dug up since about his earlier years. It came out in 1955, so there’s probably been some more found since this book come out, but it does a wonderful job in collecting all the odds and ends and putting them into something coherent.

One funny element, is that the definition of ‘young’ Sam Johnson is still anytime in his life before forty. He was something of a late bloomer. 

Whilst I read this for the pleasure of straightening out his earlier life, I also read it for research. I’m in the very early planning stages of written a novel about Johnson’s life before he set off to London at the age of twenty-seven, particularly through the lens of his younger brother Nathaniel. My research has taken me through all the relevant bits of the big biographies, through Johnson’s own Annals, a recount of his early life, and through other works of Johnson where he talks about families and family dynamics. This book is going to be my lifeline. It’s so detailed, yet so clear and while Clifford occasionally supposes things, he always makes it clear when he does. There’s none of the extra/unfounded characterisation found in Nokes’s biography, for example. (He really does Nathaniel down in that book, painting him as a stupid, reckless spendthrift without much evidence.)

Of course, the focus of the album is Samuel Johnson himself, who he was and how he became the person he did. There are a lot of familiar beats, his difficult birth and illness ridden childhood, his years of academic success (and academic arrogance), his short time at university, his difficulty in finding a path of life afterwards. We hear the old classic stories, the disputed one about his duck poem, his getting spooked when reading Hamlet in the kitchen, his refusal to man the stall in Uttoxeter (leading to his later penance). All of this is clearly and enjoyably told.

More enjoyable were the elements of Johnson’s early writing career. I didn’t fully realise that he went down to London when he was 27 to scout out the land, then went back into the countryside to try and find another teaching job before settling back in London and working for Cave on The Gentleman’s Magazine. Clifford also paints a picture of the kind of jobs he was doing, not just writing articles himself but picking poetry prize winners and proofreading other people’s stuff. There’s a really great chapter about one of his earlier literary clubs, where he’d hang out in the pub drinking punch with Hawkins and Psalmanazar. The book really manages to relay the texture of that Grub Street life as well as fill in the details of how people actually lived in that manner. 

Clifford is also great at filling in more about the other people around Samuel. We’ve long had the anecdote of uncle Andrew, who held the ring at Smithfield - but this book fills in the details. Andrew was his father’s brother, and like his father was given an apprenticeship to a London bookseller by a Lichfield charity, the Conduit Trust. It must have been in these apprentice years that he practiced his boxing and wrestling because he set himself up as a bookseller in Birmingham, with his son being apprenticed to Samuel’s father.

We also get a lot about Samuel’s father, Michael. Boswell paints him as a gloomy failure, unsuccessful in business, and so he ultimately became but Michael was an impressive man nonetheless. Born to a poor farming family, he was given money by the Conduit Trust to apprentice himself to a London bookseller. He did well, set up in Lichfield and eventually built the house on Breadmarket Street, an impressive building in a central location to trade from. He set up branches in a number of local towns, with a system of logistics to ensure his customers were served in each. Although we have a number of complaints (from one customer in particular), he didn’t lose that custom. 

What’s more, the book includes a little satirical piece from one of the other towns where it says that all the clergy didn’t know what to think about things until they’d asked Michael. He was clearly listened to and respected as a man of knowledge. What’s more, he expanded, employing people to tan hides for book covers, even going into parchment and paper making - as well as the bookseller’s usual list of stationary, wallpaper, almanacs and patent medicines. As well as all this, he maintained a distinctive and classy list of books, many in Latin, that he picked up from rich people’s libraries around the country. 

As well as all this, Michael was a dedicated member of the local council, served as sheriff, bailiff and mayor - a person of real authority in Lichfield. Even when he was on his uppers, the charity gave him a larger grant than they had ever given anyone else, a sign of respect and gratitude. Micheal Johnson deserves more credit than he’s been given.

The book also paints a fuller picture of Lichfield. The traditions of the city, like the Bower Festival, and the various feast and fair days. It was a small city but had a full civic calendar, and all the added politics and intrigue of a cathedral. I’d have liked a little more of the gossip and everyday details, but there’s enough there to get started on. I particularly likes the people who were paid to impound cattle parked in the wrong place, essentially traffic wardens, and the fact that it was a game amongst the children of the town to liberate that cattle. 

I also enjoyed Clifford’s take on Tetty. So often, the view of Tetty is taken from Garrick’s cruel description and seems coloured by misogyny. While it does seem that she did sink into alcohol and opium by the end, that was after a difficult decade of being married to hack-writer, Samuel Johnson. What is brought out in the earlier accounts is how funny she could be, how she enjoyed battling wits with Samuel and how she really could have seemed beautiful and feminine and attractive to him. Though why she settled with Samuel is a more difficult matter.

As much as I admire Samuel Johnson, and as loveable as he can be, he was a difficult man. It seems that the younger Sam was less loveable and more difficult. He seems arrogant and haughty, more inclined to use his intellect and strength to bully, less touched by other people’s difficulties. As important as friendship became to him, the younger Johnson doesn’t seem to have really felt the need for friends particularly and to have treated those he had with a certain aloofness. Maybe it was his time in Grub Street that taught him the importance of friendship. 

Certainly, at this point of my thinking, Samuel himself seems like he will be the antagonist of the book. Not a ‘baddie’ in any sense, but an impediment and a blockage, whose feelings are always tiptoed around and his harsh words to be avoided. There’s still a long way until I properly finalise any of the characters or even how the novel will be told. At least with Young Samuel Johnson by my side, I’ll have a pretty full and reliable account by my side to work with.