Wednesday 22 May 2024

Review: Johnsonian Gleanings X: Johnson’s Early Life: The Final Narrative by Aleyn Lyell Reade

 Johnsonian Gleanings X: Johnson’s Early Life: The Final Narrative is a bit of a victory lap for Aleyn Lyell Reade. In this volume, he retells Johnson’s early life with all the details he’d discovered in the previous nine. 

in the preface he talks about how his journey started in 1903, when he started researching his own family tree and found all sorts of Johnson connections. In 1906 he self-published the account of his family with an addenda about Johnson’s family connections - an addenda that rather overwhelmed the original account and, as he said, “the tail wagged the dog.” From then on he dove into Johnson’s family history, finding connections, new stories and fixing old suppositions and mistakes. In 1915 his researches were interuppted, not just because of the shortage of paper but also because he served for three years “disguised as a private soldier”. The 1920s were a productive time for the Gleanings but stopped again for world war. This volume came out in 1946.

Reade intends Volume X to be a summary of all the work so far into a book more readable to the general public, who are less likely to have the stamina to trawl through the works prior. He hopes that it will be useful to future biographers - as it undoubtedly was.

He also presents the book free of footnotes, and largely trimmed of the raw material and evidence he used to arrive at the story he does. He hopes the book is not pedantic, though he is aware that he is prone to that “humourless fault.” He assures that every decision he has made in telling Johnson’s early life is carefully weighed up, analysed and based on the firm evidence presented in other volumes of the Gleanings. He describes that work as the scaffolding that this one is based on but that “the sweat and tears that went to the erection of that scaffolding have been wiped away.” 

He semi-apologises that chunks of the story have a genealogical basis, but that is the way he came into the subject and how he researched it. He also apologises for the title of ‘gleanings’, feeling that it doesn’t cover the “scope and serious intention of the work.” He then thanks many people, one of them being a Mr Laithwaite, I presume the same one who wrote The History of the Conduit Lands Trust.

As someone who has read three previous volumes of Gleanings and James L Cliffords rewrite of this work, The Young Sam Johnson, I wasn’t expecting to come across much I hadn’t already read. I mainly read this because I was interested to see how this project ended (the next volumes are an index) but also because I’ve been finding it useful to refresh myself with the early events of Johnson’s life, in preparation in writing a novel about it. I still found myself writing twelve pages of notes. 

I found out a little more about Michael Johnson, the streets he lived in as he grew up and the fact he moved so often suggested his early poverty. I was also informed of an interesting link between one of his publications, The Happy Sinner, and ‘The Queen of Hungary’s Water”, an over-the-counter medication that he sold in his shop. In the book, the ‘happy sinner’ of the title, a convicted murderer bequeathed the recipe of the water to the country. Incidentally, The Queen of Hungary’s Water is a distillation of rosemary and alcohol and still available at eye-watering prices.

Reade also clears up the issue of the apprenticeship of Michael’s brother, Andrew. First as a cobbler and later as a bookseller, being in the unenviable position of having served two apprenticeships. He gives a useful list of all of Michael’s civic positions, clears up a lot of the confusion about his parchment business and lists the books he published by himself. These books are determined by Reade to be “hardly on the gay side”, reaffirming his serious nature.

For someone planning a novel about the young Samuel Johnson (or more particularly, his brother) there were some very useful titbits. He and his brother slept in separate bedrooms that both contained fireplaces which were very likely rarely lit. The family occupied pew 34 in St Mary’s Church. Johnson was fond of a ham and cheese cob, loved a strawberry and snacked on dry oats. There’s a comprehensive chapter of all of Samuel’s probable classmates, the records of the school having been lost. Annoyingly, he doesn’t speculate whether his brother, Nathaniel was one of them.

Now unleashed to offer his opinions, Reade has many interesting ideas about the Johnson family. He supposes that Samuel and Michael were quite alike, that they bore a considerable resemblance to each other both physically and mentally. He wishes he could go back in time and reassure Michael that Samuel would not only do well but become a huge success. He’s harder on Sarah Johnson, declaring, “great men are usually supposed to owe their character to their mother, but we look in vain for signs of mental or moral distinction from Mrs Johnson.” He also describes her as a nagger. Yet, she was extremely popular, a “conspicuously amiable woman who won the complete affection of her children and her neighbours held her in high esteem,” being described later by a Lichfield resident as “blessed with good understanding.” As bad as Samuel remembered his parents’ relationship, Reade reckons that, “to the world they probably appeared, and some would even say they were, an ordinarily happy couple.”

He is also one of very few writers to say nice things about Tetty. That she was a woman of shrewd judgement and a satirical sense of humour. What’s more, he described Samuel’s friends at the time reckoning that he was punching above his weight. She was also from a pretty privileged background and one of her ancestors was the brilliantly named Sir Marmaduke Darrell.

The book finishes with an interesting conclusion. For many people, Samuel Johnson is a Londoner but Reade re-enforces his provincial background. Johnson was enmeshed in connections, both friendly and familiar spread all around the Midlands. He came from a Midlands town, married a Midlands wife and his closest connection in London were from the Midlands. It wasn’t until his late 30s that he fully let go any ambition to be a teacher in the Midlands and became a London writer. It’s an important part of who he was and a part often forgotten. 

I’m so glad for these books, and this volume is definitely the most accessible of them. I think it’s probably required reading for any serious Johnson-dorks, but I’d understand why the more casual Johnsonian may give it a miss. 

No comments:

Post a Comment