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.

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