Francis Barber and the Great Cham.Sep 28, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 03 • By EDWARD SHORT
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.
The documentary version of Dickens’s metropolis. Jun 29, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 40 • By EDWARD SHORT
During 1849-50, the author and journalist Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) set about anatomizing the lives of the London poor in a series of 82 articles for the Morning Chronicle, which would eventually lay the groundwork for the greatest study of the English poor ever written, the four-volume London Labour and the London Poor (1851-65).
Newman the educator, in theory and practice. May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By EDWARD SHORT
In the debate about what needs to be done to make university education more coherent and more effective, no figure is cited more frequently than John Henry Newman, whose classic study The Idea of a University (1873) tackles educational questions that still exercise would-be reformers.
The complicated soul of the Irish capitalFeb 23, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 23 • By EDWARD SHORT
In 1732, Jonathan Swift wrote a friend that, while he had lost all hope of favor with those in power in Dublin, he had won “the love of the Irish vulgar” and inspired “two or three dozen signposts of the Drapier in this city.” Here, he was referring to Dublin’s gratitude for the eloquent stand he had taken against a debased halfpence, a stand that constituted one of the first stirrings of Irish nationhood—albeit a distinctly Anglo-Irish nation:
The English sermon as theology and social historyDec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By EDWARD SHORT
In William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), Pitt Crawley, Becky Sharp’s first employer, “an old, stumpy, short, vulgar, and very dirty man, in old clothes and shabby old gaiters, who smokes a horrid pipe, and cooks his own horrid supper in a saucepan,” is given a characteristic by his creator that nicely rounds out his unusual character: The baronet has a taste not only
The tart, sweet, comprehending vision of Richard GreeneOct 27, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 07 • By EDWARD SHORT
This deft, revelatory collection opens with a poem about the poet’s mother, in which Richard Greene speaks of shapes of memory from which she can / never turn away. Integral to his own “shapes of memory” is familial love, and Greene, who has written a brilliant critical biography of Edith Sitwell (herself no stranger to this most consuming of themes), does full justice to the subject in a range of
Visions of life from encounters with deathSep 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 03 • By EDWARD SHORT
In this foray into what Hamlet famously styled the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns,” Judy Bachrach looks at recent accounts of those claiming to have returned from the undiscovered country in order to suggest what her readers’—and, indeed, her own—“impending itineraries” might be like.
Titles, tangled webs, titillating journalismAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By EDWARD SHORT
In his preface to this well-researched and witty retelling of the famous Ampthill Succession case, Bevis Hillier recalls how he chose his subject after researching a proposed Oxford Book of Fleet Street.
The royal antidote to Victorian austerity.Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By EDWARD SHORT
In 1871, when Albert Edward Prince of Wales (1841-1910) and his wife Alexandra lost their youngest child after a premature birth, Queen Victoria advised that they go into prolonged mourning. Bertie’s response exhibited one of the great differences between him and his notoriously woeful mother:
The Great War and modern poetry. Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By EDWARD SHORT
In 1755, in the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson declared that “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” Barely 160 years later, when England entered the First World War, the very notion of glory began to take a beating from which it has never recovered. Wilfred Owen was perhaps its most savage critic:
The revolutionary poet revealed in his letters. Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By EDWARD SHORT
England produced some superb letter-writers in the 19th century: Lord Byron, Emily Eden, John Keats, Charlotte Brontë, and Sydney Smith gave an altogether new charm and expressiveness to the epistolary art. Smith’s letter to his young friend Miss Lucie Austin in 1835 is a good example:
The American Revolution as seen from the other side.Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By EDWARD SHORT
In his groundbreaking history of the American War of Independence from the British standpoint, The War for America (1964), Piers Mackesy argued, “To understand the war, one must view it with sympathy for the Ministers in their difficulties, and not with the arrogant assumption that because they were defeated they were incompetent, and that all their actions proceeded from folly.”
The ‘last, best hope of earth’ goes global. Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By EDWARD SHORT
If one thing distinguishes all of Conrad Black’s books, from his brilliant biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon to his impassioned 2011 apologia, A Matter of Principle, it is exuberance.
From the darkness of her existence, Elizabeth Jennings comes to light.Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By EDWARD SHORT
When John Betjeman was charged with helping find a proper recipient for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977, he contacted Philip Larkin and suggested Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), who had befriended Larkin and Kingsley Amis when they were undergraduates together at Oxford.
The Sitwell with, arguably, the main claim to genius.Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By EDWARD SHORT
Does a biography bring any psychological insight to the portrayal of its subject? Does it place its subject in the context of his or her contemporaries? Does it have anything of critical substance to say about its subject? Is it well written? Is it entertaining? Is it animated by that sympathetic fellow-feeling without which biography too often is little more than prurient gossip?