Saturday, 17 March 2012

Dr Johnson: The Definitive Englishman

Twilight at Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square
Portrait of Johnson by Joshua Reynolds
I’ve recently started volunteering at Dr Johnson’s House, doing some education and interpretation work, which I’m really enjoying. It not only feels like a home, it also comes complete with a family of staff comprised largely of eccentric retired volunteers who always bring along A. a cardigan (it can be a tad chilly inside) B. a whole lot of good stories, and C. baked goods. As such, it’s hard not to be positively biased towards the place!

Executive Summary
If you’ve ever wondered about the man behind the most influential dictionary in the history of the English language, and the subject of the first modern biography (James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791), you’ll find the answers in a captivating four-storey Georgian townhouse just off Fleet Street. A short-sighted tea addict who went from relatively obscure Fleet Street journalist to renowned literary celebrity; a man who could coordinate the myriad meanings of over 42 000 individual words but still couldn’t balance his books (he continually took in waifs and strays even as the bailiffs arrived imploring him to pay outstanding bills for milk), Johnson (1709-1784) was a man wrought by complexities and contradictions. He’s also the second most-quoted Englishman after Shakespeare, given his ability to let rip a pithy phrase or witty rejoinder at a moment’s notice (always assiduously recorded by Boswell). After all, it was he who famously said ‘He who is tired of London, is tired of life’ – that ubiquitous sentence so beloved of city tourism marketers and makers of bespoke teatowels – which is reason enough to find out more about the man himself.

Go there…
The cosy parlour, with portrait of Francis Barber and self-portrait of Joshua Reynolds
…If you’re looking for a retreat from the hustle and bustle of The City. The peaceful interior invites you to sit in the chairs, on the window ledges and at the tables; to make yourself at home with Dr Johnson. It’s also worth spending some time flicking through the facsimile copies of the original 1755 dictionary and memorising some of the choicer definitions for ‘spontaneous’ use in dinner party conversation.

Must-Know Info
Opening hours: Monday – Saturday: 11am – 5pm, Closest Tube: Chancery Lane
Admission price: £4.50 adults, £3.50 concessions
Pull up a chair in the library
Built in 1700, Johnson’s house - restored to the era in which he lived there (1748-1759) - is one of very few of its time remaining in London. While undoubtedly the building’s most famous tenant, he was followed by many others: at one point, the house became a hotel, followed by a printing works, and eventually fell into disrepair. Luckily, in 1911, and despite advice to stay well clear of the venture, liberal MP Cecil Harmsworth bought and restored the building, discovering that most of its original features (panelling, open staircase, wooden floorboards etc) remained unchanged. In restoring the house, Harmsworth was keen to encourage an atmosphere that was homely and inviting – you can pull up a chair and relax in the study or peer out on Gough square from the comfort of a windowseat – with period furniture and carefully-selected Johnsonalia, yet free of the cluttering ‘bric-a-brac’ typical of historic houses and traditional museums. Opened to the public in 1914, during the Second World War Dr Johnson’s House was used as a social club for the Auxiliary Fire Service. It sustained minor bomb damage but lived to tell the tale…

Portrait prints of Johnson's circle line the withdrawing room
Curation & Interpretation
Harmsworth’s guiding spirit remains in evidence curatorially. The house is pared down but cosy, giving a sense of Johnson’s rather modest means while still delivering evocative portals to his personal and professional life: a porcelain tea set owned by his dear friend Mrs Thrale; a portrait after Joshua Reynolds (one of Johnson’s closest friends), presumed to be of Johnson’s Jamaican-born manservant (and later heir) Francis Barber, who cheered the lexicographer immensely after the death of his wife, and who went on to become one of the first black schoolmasters in England; a great wooden chest that once belonged to famous actor (and prior pupil of Johnson’s) David Garrick, who staged Johnson’s neoclassical tragedy Irene at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1749. 

Good food, good conversation: the Literary Club
Each room features a roomcard with an overview of the use and appearance of the room, as well as detailed information on particular objects and images, while the recent addition of a superb audioguide provides another means of engaging with the space. A few discreet museum cases – the contents of which change periodically – highlight specific topics such as the arduous nine year process of compiling the Dictionary, but otherwise there are few overt interpretative interventions into the space. Most effective is the brooding cluster of portrait prints of Johnson’s various friends – artists, playwrights, professors, preachers and more – in the withdrawing room. The graphic gallery not only signals the extent of his intellectual and social circle (despite his curious tics and bad table manner, his trenchant conversation made him much in demand as a dinner party guest), it also has the effect of making you feel like you’ve just stumbled into one of his famous literary club meetings.

Why Dr Johnson’s Dictionary is Awesome
Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 was not the first English dictionary – dozens had already appeared in the previous 150 years. However, often their words were extremely rarified and not of much common use, or, like many in Nathan Bailey’s commercially-successful An Universal Etymological Dictionary (1722) they were undermined by definitions that were too general (‘Strawberry: a well-known fruit’; ‘Black: A colour’) or circular (‘Wash: to cleanse by washing’) to be of any help.  Johnson’s revolutionary idea was to capture the multitude of different ways in which individual words could be used, both literally and figuratively, by describing them in use. So he began his enterprise by reading hundreds of literary, legal, religious and medical texts by the writers he believed to be of the highest merit – Shakespeare, for example – and highlighting the best and most diverse uses of words he came across. It was up to his amanuenses to effectively ‘copy ‘n paste’ these examples alphabetically under various words in a manuscript that began to take on rather monstrous proportions (and was no doubt filled with margin notes, asterisks and haphazardly inserted pages), as Johnson encountered words like ‘put’, which not only defy specific rather than generalised explanation but also, apparently, encompass ‘66 primary meanings and 14 secondary notations’. The use of illustrative quotations and idiomatic language, as well as several levels of definition, has prevailed in dictionary production ever since, and led to the popular spin-off beloved of speechwriters everywhere: the dictionary of quotations (Thomas Jefferson used Johnson’s original dictionary in precisely this way).  

From Fry to Fue: How did Johnson handle 'naughty' words?
As the definitive English dictionary in Britain, North America and the colonies for the next one hundred and fifty years, Johnson’s dictionary had a profound influence on writers, philosophers, scientists, politicians and others from William Wordsworth to Mary Wallstonecraft, John Stuart Mill to Charles Darwin. As the fourth edition was at hand during the writing of the US constitution, Johnson’s dictionary is still consulted when lawyers debate the original meanings and intentions of specific terms, such as ‘declare’ and ‘war’ (I’m not even kidding: this came up as an issue in 2001 with the ‘War on Terror’, and again with Libya last year). As much as its reach extends beyond its original writing in both time and geography, the Dictionary is also a sociocultural artefact: it reflects an eighteenth century passion for organisation, categorisation and the conspicuous display of expanding, systematised knowledge (staged in the British Museum, public lecture halls, and institutions such as the Royal Society and Royal Academy). Finally, it contains the fingerprint of Johnson himself: his literary tastes, his hobbyhorses of moral disdain (‘Stockjobber: a low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares’), his self-deprecating humour (‘Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge…’).

Anecdotal Aside
Statue of Hodge, Gough Square
On the opposite side of Gough Square from Dr Johnson’s House is a statue of a cat sitting on a dictionary, with a clutch of oysters at his paw. Johnson’s beloved cat Hodge – for whom he personally went out to buy said oysters (much to the chagrin of Boswell, who was unimpressed by this sentimentality) – is as much an object of pilgrimage as Johnson himself, and visitors sometimes come to the house entirely to ask for more information about the cat.

Parting Shots
There appears to be an innate human tendency, when confronted with a dictionary and five free minutes, to look up taboo words. In case you’re wondering, Johnson excludes the crudest of four-letter words, but includes ‘arse’ (‘a vulgar phrase’), bum, fart, turd, and piss. Johnson, praised by some ladies for excluding the most ‘naughty’ four-letter words, allegedly replied, ‘What, my dears! Then you have been looking!’

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