In his memorable poem “At the Grave of Henry James,” W. H. Auden apostrophized the novelist to make a useful point:
Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling: make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.
Since there are, indeed, many writers “whose works are in better taste than their lives,” when we happen upon those about whom this is not the case, we naturally welcome biographies that confirm why they elude Auden’s otherwise just reproof. And since no one fits that bill better than Samuel Johnson, all readers interested in the exemplary virtues of the great lexicographer, poet, editor, and critic will delight in The Fortunes of Francis Barber.
Director of the Dr. Johnson’s House Trust, Bundock has produced a finely researched, admirably written, and altogether fascinating life, which shows how the boy who grew up in slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation deeply enriched Johnson’s moral and spiritual life. In addition to being a brilliant account of a relationship that might have begun as one of master and servant, but ended as one of father and son, Bundock describes the full horror of the Jamaican sugar plantations, where slaves worked from dawn to dusk six days a week under the broiling Caribbean sun, and where planters presided over a system of manifold iniquity.
Francis was given as a gift to Johnson in 1752 by his friend Richard Bathurst, the son of a ruined planter who styled himself Colonel Richard Bathurst. The titles planters gave themselves caused great mirth in England, one wit noting how “they are all Colonels, Majors, Captains, Lieutenants, and Ensigns.” When Frank arrived at Johnson’s house in Gough Square, he was 10 years old and Johnson 42. For the beleaguered lexicographer, the very presence of the young boy must have been a welcome distraction from the slow progress he was making on his Dictionary. He was also mourning the death of his wife. Then again, he was happy that Francis had been freed.
Fettered in a melancholy he could never entirely escape, he empathized with Frank. No one can read Johnson’s works without seeing how abhorrent slavery was to him. His opposition to the American colonists was rooted in his detestation of their slave owning, impelling him to ask, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” And as for his friend Bathurst, he was happy that giving Francis away freed him of the sin that had ruined his father. As he told James Boswell, “My dear friend Dr. Bathurst declared that he was glad that his father had left his affairs in total ruin, because having no estate, he was not under the temptation of keeping slaves.”
Drawing on the voluminous papers of the planter Thomas Thistlewood, Bundock shows the extent to which plantations doubled as brothels. “Thistlewood’s diary,” he writes, “reveals that in 37 years in Jamaica, he had sex 3,852 times with 138 women . . . There was simply no question of resistance, as the women knew the consequences only too well.” Those who refused were whipped. Whether Francis Barber was sired by the elder Bathurst is a lively question. No proof has surfaced.
John Hawkins, Johnson’s first biographer, notes the merriment that Frank’s arrival inspired in Johnson’s friends, especially since “the uses for which Barber was intended to serve . . . were not very apparent.” After all, “Diogenes himself never wanted a servant less than Johnson seemed to do.” Hawkins cited Johnson’s “great bushy wig,” which was “really as impenetrable by a comb as a thick-set hedge,” and the dust on his outer garments, which was never “known to have been disturbed by a brush.” Fortunately, Frank’s duties did not include seeing to it that his master was smartly turned out. Instead, he was responsible for running errands, carrying messages, greeting Johnson’s guests at the door, waiting at table, and joining Johnson on his occasional rambles outside London.