Page images
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

the • Pilgrim's Progress ?'” After Homer's “ Iliad,” Mr. Johnson confessed that the work of Cervantes was the greatest in the world, speaking of it I mean as a book of entertainment; and when we consider that every other author's admirers are confined to his countrymen, and perhaps to the literary classes among them, while “Don Quixote ” is a sort of common property, an universal classic, equally tasted by the court and the cottage, equally applauded in France and England as in Spain, quoted by every servant, the amusement of every age from infancy to decrepitude; the first book you see on every shelf, in every shop, where books are sold, through all the states of Italy; who can refuse his consent to an avowal of the superiority of Cervantes to all other inodern writers ? Shakespeare himself has, till lately, been worshipped only at home, though his plays are now the favourite amusements of Vienna ; and when I was at Padua some months ago, “Romeo and Juliet” was acted there under the name of Tragedia Veronese; while engravers and translators live by the Hero of La Mancha in every nation, and the sides of miserable inns all over England and France, and I have heard Germany too, are adorned with the exploits of Don Quixote. May his celebrity procure my pardon for a digression in praise of a writer who, through four volumes of the most exquisite pleasantry and genuine humour, has never been seduced to overstep the limits of propriety, has never called in the wretched auxiliaries of obscenity or profaneness; who trusts to nature and sentiment alone, and never misses of that applause which Voltaire and Sterne labour to produce, while honest merriment bestows her unfading crown upon Cervantes.

Dr. Johnson was a great reader of French literature, and delighted exceedingly in Boileau's works. Moliere I think he had hardly sufficient taste of; and he used to condemn me for preferring La Bruyere to the Duc de Rochefoucault, “who (he said) was the only gentleman writer who wrote like a professed author.” The asperity of his harsh sentences, each of them a sentence of condemnation, used to disgust me however; though it must be owned that, among the necessaries of human life, a rasp is reckoned one as well as a razor.

Mr. Johnson did not like any one who said they were happy, or who said any one else was so. “It is all cant (he would cry), the dog knows he is miserable all the time.” A friend whom he loved exceedingly, told him on some occasion notwithstanding,



that his wife's sister was really happy, and called upon the lady to confirm his assertion, which she did somewhat roundly as we say, and with an accent and manner capable of offending Mr. Johnson, if her position had not been sufficient, without anything more, to put him in very ill humour. “ If your sister-in-law is really the contented being she professes herself Sir (said he), her life gives the lie to every research of humanity ; for she is happy without health, without beauty, without money, and without understanding." This story he told me himself; and when I expressed something of the horror I felt, “ The same stupidity (said he) which prompted her to extol felicity she never felt, hindered her from feeling what shocks you on repetition. I tell you, the woman is ugly, and sickly, and foolish, and poor ; and would it not make a man hang himself to hear such a creature say, it was happy ?

“ The life of a sailor was also a continued scene of danger and exertion (he said); and the manner in which time was spent shipboard would make all who saw a cabin envy a gaol.” The roughness of the language used on board a man of war, where he passed a week on a visit to Capt. Knight, disgusted him terribly. He asked an officer what some place was called, and received for answer, that it was where the loplolly man kept his loplolly : a reply he considered, not unjustly, as disrespectful, gross, and ignorant; for though in the course of these Memoirs I have been led to mention Dr. Johnson's tenderness towards poor people, I do not wish to mislead my readers, and make them think he had any delight in mean manners or coarse expressions. Even dress itself, when it resembled that of the vulgar, offended him exceedingly; and when he had condemned me many times for not adorning my children with more show than I thought useful or elegant, I presented a little girl to him who came o'visiting one evening covered with shining ornaments, to see if he would approve of the appearance she made.

When they were gone home,“ Well, Sir, said I, how did you like little miss ? I hope she was fine enough.” “It was the finery of a beggar (said he), and you know it was; she looked like a native of Cow Lane dressed up to be carried to Bartholomew fair."

His reprimand to another lady for crossing her little child's handkerchief before, and by that operation dragging down its head oddly and unintentionally, was on the same principle. “It is the beggar's fear of cold (said he) that prevails over such


[ocr errors]

parents, and so they pull the poor thing's head down, and give it the look of a baby that plays about Westminster Bridge, while the mother sits shivering in a niche.

I commended a young lady for her beauty and pretty behaviour one day however, to whom I thought no objections could have been made. “I saw her (says Dr. Johnson) take a pair of scissars in her left hand though ; and for all her father is now become a nobleman, and as you say excessively rich, I should, were I a youth of quality ten years hence, hesitate between a girl so neglected, and a negro."

It was indeed astonishing how he could remark such minutenesses with a sight so miserably imperfect; but no accidental position of a ribband escaped him, so nice was his observation, and so rigorous his demands of propriety. When I went with him to Litchfield and came down stairs to breakfast at the inn, my dress did not please him, and he made me alter it entirely before he would stir a step with us about the town, saying most satirical things concerning the appearance I made in a ridinghabit; and adding, “ 'Tis very strange that such eyes as yours cannot discern propriety of dress : if I had a sight only half as good, I think I should see to the centre.”

My compliances however were of little worth; what really surprised me was the victory he gained over a lady little accustomed to contradiction, who had dressed herself for church at Streatham one Sunday morning, in a manner he did not approve, and to whom he said such sharp and pungent things concerning her hat, her gown, &c. that she hastened to change them, and returning quite another figure received his applause, and thanked him for his reproofs, much to the amazement of her husband, who could scarcely believe his own ears.

Another lady, whose accomplishments he never denied, came to our house one day covered with diamonds, feathers, &c. and he did not seem inclined to chat with her, as usual. I asked him why? when the company was gone. “Why, her head looked so like that of a woman who shews puppets (said he), and her voice so confirmed the fancy, that I could not bear her to-day; when she wears a large cap, I can talk to her.”

When the ladies wore lace trimmings to their clothes, he expressed his contempt for the reigning fashion in these terms: A Brussels trimming is like bread sauce (said he), it takes away the glow of colour from the gown, and gives you nothing instead of it; but sauce was invented to heighten the flavour of our food, and trimming is an ornament to the manteau, or it is nothing. Learn (said he) that there is propriety or impropriety in every thing how slight soever, and get at the general principles of dress and of behaviour ; if you then transgress them, you will at least know that they are not observed.”

All these exactnesses in a man who was nothing less than exact himself, made him extremely impracticable as an inmate, though most instructive as a companion, and useful as a friend. Mr. Thrale too could sometimes over-rule his rigidity, by saying coldly, “There, there, now we have had enough for one lecture, Dr. Johnson ; we will not be upon education any more till after dinner, if you please”—or some such speech : but when there was nobody to restrain his dislikes, it was extremely difficult to find any body with whom he could converse, without living always on the verge of a quarrel, or of something too like a quarrel to be pleasing I came into the room, for example, one evening, where he and a gentleman, whose abilities we all respect exceedingly, were sitting; a lady who walked in two minutes before me had blown 'em both into a flame, by whispering something to Mr. S- -d, which he endeavoured to explain away, so as not to affront the Doctor, whose suspicions were all alive. “ And have a care, Sir (said he), just as I came in ; the Old Lion will not bear to be tickled.” The other was pale with rage, the Lady wept at the confusion she had caused, and I could only say with Lady Macbeth,

“ Soh! you've displac'd the mirth, broke the good meeting

With most admir'd disorder.” Such accidents however occurred too often, and I was forced to take advantage of my lost lawsuit, and plead inability of purse to remain longer in London or its vicinage. I had been crossed in my intentions of going abroad, and found it convenient, for every reason of health, peace, and pecuniary circumstances, to retire to Bath, where I knew Mr. Johnson would not follow me, and where I could for that reason command some little portion of time for my own use; a thing impossible while I remained at Streatham or at London, as my hours, carriage, and servants had long been at his command, who would not rise in the morning till twelve o'clock perhaps, and oblige me to make breakfast for him till the bell rung for dinner, though much displeased if the toilet

power for


was neglected, and though much of the time we passed together was spent in blaming or deriding, very justly, my neglect of economy, and waste of that money which might make many families happy. The original reason of our connection, his particularly disordered health and spirits, had been long at an end, and he had no other ailments than old age and general infirmity, which every professor of medicine was ardently zealous and generally attentive to palliate, and to contribute all in their the prolongation of a life so valuable. Veneration for his virtue, reverence for his talents, delight in his conversation, and habitual endurance of a yoke my husband first put upon me, and of which he contentedly bore his share for sixteen or seventeen years, made me go on so long with Mr. Johnson ; but the perpetual confinement I will own to have been terrifying in the first years of our friendship, and irksome in the last ; nor could I pretend to support it without help, when my coadjutor was no more. To the assistance we gave him, the shelter our house afforded to his uneasy fancies, and to the pains we took to sooth or repress them, the world perhaps is indebted for the three political pamphlets, the new edition and correction of his “ Dictionary," and for the Poets Lives, which he would scarce have lived, I think, and kept his faculties entire, to have written, had not incessant care been exerted at the time of his first coming to be our constant guest in the country; and several times after that, when he found himself particularly oppressed with diseases incident to the most vivid and fervent imaginations. I shall for ever consider it as the greatest honour which could be conferred on any one, to have been the confidential friend of Dr. Johnson's health; and to have in some measure, with Mr. Thrale's assistance, saved from distress at least, if not from worse, a mind great beyond the comprehension of common mortals, and good beyond all hope of imitation from perishable beings.

Many of our friends were earnest that he should write the lives of our famous prose authors; but he never made any answer that I can recollect to the proposal, excepting when Sir Richard Musgrave once was singularly warm about it, getting up and intreating him to set about the work immediately; he coldly replied, “ Sit down, Sir !"

When Mr. Thrale built the new library at Streatham, and

1 This paragraph is quoted by Boswell. Life, vol. iv. (June 30, 1784).

« PreviousContinue »