Wednesday 19 June 2024

Review: Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers


My original plan was to read the first five chapters of Jeffrey Meyers’s Samuel Johnson: The Struggle as part of my project of reading the earlier part of Samuel Johnson’s life in as many biographies as possible as research for a novel. Realising that out of all the biographies, this is the only one I hadn’t read, I thought I might as well read the whole thing.

This biography came out on Johnson’s Tercentenary in 2009. Unlike Peter Martin’s rather tepid take and David Nokes’s seeming irritation with the great man, Meyers is keen to enforce that his is not your grandad’s Samuel Johnson. This Johnson says ‘fuck’, this Johnson has sex (very rarely), this Johnson thinks about sex (all the time). The subtitle of the book is, The Struggle, and where Johnson has to struggle, against his health, poverty, ugliness or sex-drive, Meyers has something to say. When there isn’t, he doesn’t. 

The introduction to the book quotes Johnson declaring the best things in life to be “fucking and drinking” and follows with a rather perfunctory account of his childhood which mainly concerns itself with his wet dreams. There’s quite a bit in the earlier part of the book about Johnson’s physicality, particularly his strength and violence. Much is said about him beating the bookseller Thomas Osbourne (a man who most writers seemed to have wanted to hit). It’s particularly highlighted how Johnson said that he’d “beaten many a fellow”. Of course, Meyers takes Johnson’s interests in athletics, as well as his outbursts of violence, not as a reaction to his initially weak childhood but as “crucial outlets for his sexual feelings”.

Of course, the relationship with Tetty is framed in a purely sexual light. As he sees it, she was a willing sexual guide at first, flattered by the heavy-handed attentions of the much younger man. As she grew older, however, her sex-drive diminished and she banned Johnson from her bedroom. There were rumours in Johnson’s lifetime that he’d partook of prostitutes during this time, particularly in the company of Richard Savage - Meyers makes great stock of these rumours. However, he certainly didn’t seem to continue that behaviour with other rakish friends like Topham Beauclerk and James Boswell.

Meyers, of course, makes a lot out of the confessions that Tetty’s nurse (and Samuel’s godfather’s daughter) Mrs Desmoulin made to Boswell. She said that Johnson used to invite her into bed, stroke her, become aroused but never follow through. Meyers describes Boswell getting aroused at this description of Johnson becoming aroused - and it’s hard not to feel that Meyers is becoming aroused too. 

The last sexual element of the book is the relationship with Johnson and Hester Thrale. While Meyers doesn’t think they actually had sex, he paints Johnson as a furious and self-loathing masturbator. Drawing from a few elements, some remarks in a letter from Samuel to Hester, the chain and padlock that Hester kept - he decides that Samuel Johnson used to get Hester Thrale to kneel him down, chain him up and whip him in a sadomasochistic ritual that he’d later get off on. Once he’s put these loose elements together, they then become established fact for the rest of the book.

If there is something that Meyers likes more than speculating about Samuel Johnson’s sex life, it’s finding any excuse to find a quote to demonstrate just how ugly and disgusting Samuel Johnson was. It starts early with him being called repulsive and a ‘physical freak’. He’s compared to Frankenstein’s monster twice, uses any occasion to savage him for bad table manners, and finds any and every excuse to make sure the reader knows that he was a hideous, smelly, disgusting monster who has a figure “made to disgrace or ridicule the structure of the human body” (a quote from Chesterfield.

However, when this book comes to any of his achievements (surely the final outcome of his struggles) the book is really weak. The chapter on his time in Grub Street is described in my notes as ‘childish’, he doesn’t seem to have realised he met Goldsmith after he was already famous for the dictionary and Rambler. The discussions of Johnson’s own works are really feeble. Meyers seems fixated on the idea that Johnson wrote only wrote miserable stuff. To call his prayers and meditations “one of the saddest books of the century” is pretty fair in describing the emotions, but seems to ignore the fact that they were never meant to be published. He describes Johnson’s essays as if they are solely miserable when many of them are pretty funny and he spends a chapter slagging off how limited his Lives of the Poets are, before describing them as his best work.

The weirdest reading is his one of Rasselas. Meyers doesn’t go into much detail about the majority of the book but spends four pages on Johnson’s description of The Happy Valley, where Prince Rasselas is trapped. The Happy Valley is, of course, a vagina, with a forest for pubes and dripping wet with rivulets from a mountain. To be honest, I began to think it was Meyers who had a problem with persistent sexual thoughts, not Samuel Johnson.

To be fair, Samuel Johnson: A Struggle does fill a hole that other Johnson biographies fail to fill. He was not a saint but a man and he no doubt had the same urges as other men. However, Johnson did not seem to form his personality around these urges and it seems disingenuous to form a biography around them.

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