The Magazine

The Good Doctor

Samuel Johnson, writer and sage.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By EDWARD SHORT
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On Monday, May 16, 1762, Boswell met Johnson in Tom Davies's bookshop, and it is from that momentous day that he began to draft his own largely eyewitness account of Johnson's life in London, which he lived in company with some of the greatest figures of the age, including Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, and Edward Gibbon, all of whom were also members of Johnson's famous Club, where Boswell heard and recorded many of the brilliant conversations that give his biography so much of its exuberant life.

To show the extent to which Boswell honored Georgian proprieties, Meyers quotes several diary entries that Boswell suppressed from his Life. These include Johnson's conviction that "unless a woman has amorous heart she is a dull companion" and his revelation that his wife had told him "I might lie with as many women as I pleased provided I loved her alone"--an offer Johnson apparently never took her up on but which nonetheless shows that the two may not have enjoyed conjugal relations. Still, if Boswell bowdlerized the more salacious aspects of Johnson's life, he had no qualms about pumping his hero's inner circle. He particularly hounded Elizabeth Desmoulins, one of Johnson's indigent lodgers, who admitted that "she actually got into bed with Johnson while Tetty was sleeping in the next room," though Johnson "commanded his passion."

Most biographers would have been content with this but Boswell probed further, until Desmoulins confessed: "I have many times considered how I should behave, supposing [Johnson] should proceed to extremities. . . . [Though he was] so terribly disgusting . . . . such was my high respect for him, such the awe I felt of him, that I could not have had resolution to have resisted him. " Here Meyers cannot resist adding, with ludicrous prurience: "Tetty and Desmoulins, his two Elizabeths, were the closest he ever came to realizing his fantasies about having a Turkish seraglio."

Meyers is good on Johnson's condemnation of the slave trade at a time when many of the 20,000 blacks living in London were poorly paid servants. Francis Barber, Johnson's Jamaican servant, whom Meyers believes might have been the son of Johnson's good friend Richard Bathhurst, was a notable exception: Johnson made him his principal heir, after rescuing him from the navy and paying his fees for five years of schooling at Hertfordshire--to the tune of £300.

"A black man and naval veteran in his late twenties," Meyers observes, "must have been wildly out of place among rural English schoolboys."

Meyers departs from the general consensus on Johnson by arguing that he was anti-Catholic. Specifically, he cites Johnson's translation of the 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit Father Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia (1735), in one passage of which Johnson excoriated the Jesuit missionaries on the grounds that they "preach the Gospel with swords in their hands, and propagate by desolation and slaughter the true worship of the God of Peace." Meyers infers from this and from Johnson's lifelong contempt for the Catholic French that his subject regarded the Roman Church as "cruel, insolent, and oppressive."

Those who consult Boswell and Johnson will know that this was not Johnson's settled view. In the Life, Johnson is quoted as saying that "a good man of a timorous disposition in great doubt of his acceptance with God, and pretty credulous, might be glad to be of a church where there are so many helps to get to Heaven. I would be a Papist if I could. I have fear enough; but an obstinate rationality prevents me."

He was equally indulgent towards what might be thought the sins of the Roman Church. In the Harwich stagecoach one afternoon in 1763, Johnson and Boswell encountered a woman inveighing against the Spanish Inquisition. Johnson, to what Boswell describes as the "utter astonishment of all the other passengers," defended it, maintaining that "false doctrine should be checked on its first appearance; that the civil power should unite with the church in punishing those who dare to attack the established religion, and that such only were punished by the Inquisition."

Indeed, Johnson habitually spoke so well of Catholicism that the father of his good friend Bennet Langton believed he was actually Catholic. Of course, some might attribute this to Johnson's habit of advocating unpopular positions to exhibit his debating skills; but he was also a fiercely independent thinker, not to mention partial to the Stuarts; so it would have been surprising if he had not had a good word for the old faith.