Friday 1 September 2017


Dr Samuel Johnson, outside St Clement Danes, looking along Fleet Street.

Samuel Johnson was born in 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire. He was the son of Michael and Sarah Johnson. His father was a bookseller. Michael Johnson didn’t make much money and became bankrupt at one time. So Samuel Johnson came from a poor background. He also suffered various illnesses . He contracted scrofula as a baby which lead to him having poor hearing and eyesight and left him scarred. In 1717 until 1725 he attended Lichfield Grammar School. He went on to Pembroke College Oxford but was only able to stay for thirteen months. He left in 1729 because his father could not afford to keep him at Oxford. His father died in 1731 . In 1732 Samuel Johnson became an assistant teacher at Market Bosworth School.In 1735 he married a widow , Elizabeth Porter. Johnson called her Tetty. She was twenty years older than he was.  She had three children from her first marriage and had inherited a small fortune. When Johnson met her he was poor and had no prospects. She told her daughter that she thought Johnson the most sensible man she had ever met. Using money that she had been left by her late husband she aided Johnson in setting up his own school, Edial Hall, at Edial near Lichfield. The school failed within months. Perhaps Samuel Johnson’s physical disabilities and his Tourettes deterred parents and pupils. When Johnson's school, failed, Tetty, lost a  large part of her fortune.  The school had only three pupils, including David Garrick, who became the greatest actor of his generation. Johnson continued writing a play, he had begun in 1726, called Irene, a tragic play. In 1749, when living in London,  David Garrick performed in it and Johnson eventually made some money from the production. It was never performed again.

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David Garrick, actor, playwright and theater manager, who influenced the theater throughout the 18th century.

 On the 2nd March 1737, Samuel Johnson and David Garrick left Lichfield for London. They first stayed with Richard Norris, a friend of Garrick’s in Greenwich. In October 1737, Johnson brought Tetty to London. Johnson financed their lives by writing  articles for The Gentleman’s Magazine published by Edward Cave. Between 1737 and 1739 Johnson befriended Richard Savage a poet. Johnson felt guilty about the poor situation he had brought Tetty  to live in. He stopped living with her for a while and stayed in night cellars and taverns with Richard Savage. Sometimes they roamed the streets at night. Savage died in1743 , ill health and alcoholism ruined his constitution. In 1744 Johnson wrote an innovative biography about his friend, called, “Life of Mr Richard Savage,” which was a success. In 1746. Johnson had resumed living with Tetty when he was approached by a group of publishers to create a dictionary of the English Language setting out also a detailed grammar of English. The dictionary disrupted the lives of Tetty and Johnson. He employed assistants to do the work of physically writing what he dictated. There was incessant noise and clutter everywhere. 

17 Gough Square, where Samuel Johnson created his famous dictionary.

  In 1748 Johnson found a suitable house at 17 Gough Square, just north of Fleet Street in the City. He was able to convert the top floor into a long room which was ideal for working on the dictionary and keeping the other floors of the house for living purposes. He paid a rent of £30 a year.He stayed there until 1759 and after the dictionary was published in 1755. Johnson was still poor, while writing the dictionary, and had to finance himself through writing for his own publication The Rambler and for , The Idler and The Adventurer. His wife, Elizabeth died in 1752, before the dictionary was published.There were those who said he didn’t love his wife but his outpouring of grief in letters to friends and the prayer he wrote  at her death reveals a different view.  In 1755, in recognition of his work, writing the Dictionary, he was given an MA by Oxford University. In 1759 He published a novel Rasselas, a philosophical novel , a meditation and exploration in story form. It was an exploration about what a good, fruitful,life should be. In 1762, Johnson was granted a pension for life from George III for his work. This provided some , security. Samuel Johnson could now travel, and spend time talking During his time in London, Johnson lived in seventeen known addresses. After Gough Square he also lived in three Inns of court, number 1 Temple Court being one of his addresses and subsequently rented houses in Johnson's Court and Bolt Court.

The coffee shop, next to Covent Garden, where James Boswell met Samuel Johnson for the first time.

In 1765 he published an edition of Shakespeare which he had researched carefully to bring it back to its original sources. He also met Henry and Hester Thrale and went to live with them at their estate in Streatham. Mrs Thrale,  through the links with the art and literary world Dr Johnson provided, became an important hostess bringing together many talented people.  In 1765, Dublin University awarded him a doctorate.  He was close friends not only with the Thrales and David Garrick, his past pupil, but with Sir Joshua Reynolds, Francis Burney and her composer father, Charles Burney, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and Thomas Lawrence. 

The house on The Royal Mile, near Edinburgh Castle, where Dr Johnson and James Boswell stayed.

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell toured the Highlands of Scotland and the Hebrides together. Johnson inspired those around him and many biographies were written about him. The most famous biography is that of his friend James Boswell , who wrote, “The Life of Samuel Johnson.” They met for the first time in a coffee house next to Covent Garden Market. A blue plaque marks the very spot.
Towards the end of his life Samuel Johnson became ill, not only suffering gout but he also suffered a stroke which weakened him. He died on the 13th December 1784.

A sketch showing James Boswell.

Jane Austen was born on the 16th December 1775 so she was nine years old when Dr Johnson died. However throughout her letters and novels she refers to Dr Johnson and his writings. On 8th February 1807, writing to her sister Cassandra from Southampton she states, “ But like my dear Dr Johnson I believe I have dealt more in notions than facts.”
On Wednesday 3rd November 1813 writing from Godmershm Park to Cassandra once again she is discussing the decision of William, a servant of Henry’s, at 10 Henrietta Street, to leave London. “ He has more Cowper than of Johnson in him, fonder of Tame Hares & Blank verse than the full tide of human existence at Charing Cross.”
She felt empathy and affection for Dr Johnson it seems.
It can be said that Dr Johnson pervades Jane Austens novels and that she could not have written the novels she did without  Dr Johnson's philosophy of life which obviously influenced  her lifes views.

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Rassalas by Samuel Johnson.

In chapter 39 of Mansfield Park, Fanny has returned to her family home in Portsmouth and is feeling overwhelmed by the chaos.
“In a review of the two houses, as they appeared before her before the end of the week, Fanny was tempted to apply to them Dr Johnson’s celebrated judgement as to matrimony and celibacy, and say, that though Mansfield Park might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures.”
This is a reference to a sentence in Dr Johnson’s book, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.
Included in Fanny’s reading material while at Mansfield Park , Edmund notices Lord Macartney, Crabbes’ Tales and Dr Johnsons periodical, the Idler.

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Collected editions of The Idler.

Jane Austen was open to new ideas. Her novels show she had a clear understanding of human nature. Her many references to Dr Johnson make it clear she knew his ideas and writing well. She must have read his articles in the Rambler, Idler and Adventurer and she obviously used his philosophical ideas from Rasselas. In Johnsons novel, Rassalas, Imlac and Pekunah observe human nature and take different things from their observations and experiences. They are open minded about what they see. They discuss their thoughts and discoveries.
Mr Knightly , in Emma embodies many of Dr Johnsons’ ideas about what makes a good person in his patience and understanding and in his efforts to undo error. He is an observer of human nature and life just as Rasselas was. Darcy's maturing love for Elizabeth Bennett is similar to the exploration of human realtionships and development Rassalas experinecd. Many of Austens characters are exceptionally wealthy, not least Mr Darcy, but many are from different parts of society and have varying degrees of wealth or the lack of it. Jane Austen intermingles different types of characters  and their interrelating create the tensions in her novels. 
“Esteem and influence every man desires, but they are equally pleasing, and equally valuable, by whatever means they are obtained; and whoever has found the art of securing them without the help of money, ought, in reality, to be accounted rich, since he has all that riches can purchase to a wise man.”
The Rambler (no 202)
This piece by Samuel Johnson could almost be a discussion about Fitzwilliam Darcy.

 Dr Johnson has something to say about families too. In Rassalas he  writes,
 “ Thus parents and children, for the greatest part, live on to love less and less: and….. where shall we look for tenderness and consolation?” 
In Janes novels there are tensions between different age groups within families. Mr Woodhouse, Emmas father, is such a nervous demanding parent. Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice,  doesn’t seem to want to take much interest in his daughters and appears to suffer his wife. Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion  is a domineering, selfish and demanding parent.
Claire Tomlin, in her biography of Jane Austen, relates how In January 1789, James Austen produced the first edition of The Loiterer based on Dr Johnson's magazines The Rambler and the Idler. Henry Austen contributed an essay to the Loiterer but most essays were written by James. It is suggested than one article, “Sophia Sentiment,” in the 28th March 1789 issue, was written by a 14 year old Jane Austen.

James Austen's, The Loiterer.

It is tempting to say; could Jane Austen have written the novels she wrote without the influence of Dr Johnson? Nobody exists in a vacuum and Jane Austen loved ideas and was a great annalist of human nature just like her, “Dear Dr Johnson.”

Recently I have visited Johnson’s house at 17 Gough Square where his dictionary was written. It is a lovely brick town house of the 18th century, set within a small square, that now includes some modern office buildings. Number 17 is the only remaining 18th century house kept intact within the square because of its association with Dr Johnson. It is now the museum to Dr Johnson.The ornate front entrance is reached by four stone steps supported by iron railings to either side. This is the entrance Dr Johnson, his wife Tetty,  friends and employees once entered. Nowadays visitors enter from the left side of the house into a room that was the dining room. The kitchen was situated in the basement below this room. Cupboards in the wall paneling were used to keep tea and coffee, expensive items at that time. Marilyn and I had to pay a small fee to enter the house. We have membership of The National Trust and there is an arrangement with the museum to enable members to get a discount. A cheerful and welcoming lady at the desk, a volunteer at the house, gave us an overview of Dr Johnson and his life whilst he lived in the house. She was very knowledgeable.

The front door to 17 Gough Square. "No entry! No entry!"

One particular story that amused her and when she told us, amused us too, was regarding the front door. Samuel Johnson was always short of money and often got into debt. Something that happened to his father too. It was his father’s debt that prevented Johnson continuing at Oxford University. One night, apparently, debt collectors arrived at 17 Gough Square to confront Samuel Johnson. Johnson, with his servants, barricaded the door with his bed shouting at the debt collectors, “No entry! No entry!” Standing behind the front door  in the entrance hall you can easily imagine the scene. To the right of the door was a small spy hole that Johnson could look through to see who was standing outside. The rooms on this ground floor are painted a dark brown and make the downstairs rooms look drab and dark. There was a purpose for this. The streets were muddy and covered with horse droppings. People entering the downstairs unintentionally brought some of this ordure into the house with them.  Light colours would soon look dirty. Dark colours disguised the dirt.

The parlour with its dark painted walls. The wig cupboard is to the right.

The room  on the opposite side of the entrance hall was  the parlour or  reception room. People arriving to visit Dr Johnson were ushered in here first. There is a powder closet to the right of the fireplace. It looks like a large cupboard with double doors. It was used to store wigs. Samuel Johnson used to sit inside the cupboard with his wig on and a servant would then cover his wig with a grey white powder to create the required grey affect that was all the fashion. It occurred to me, if things went wrong, some loud spluttering and choking might emanate from this cupboard during the wig dusting process. Also this room contains portraits of Dr Johnson, painted by his friend Joshua Reynolds and portraits of other acquaintances of Johnson.

Francis Barber, Dr Johnson's man servant and his heir.

One portrait shows Francis Barber, a freed Jamaican slave, who became Johnsons manservant soon after Tetty,  died. He was born into slavery. Barber was aged about seven when his owner, Colonel Richard Bathhurst, who may have been his father, brought him to England in 1750 and placed him in a Yorkshire school. Five years later, on his deathbed, Bathurst bequeathed Barber £12 and his freedom. It was Bathurst’s son who introduced Francis, now 12 years old, to Dr Johnson, whose wife had died two weeks earlier. Barber spent his next 30 years in Gough Square, Bolt Court, and Johnson’s Court,  places nearby that Johnson lived in too. In 1773 he was joined by his wife, a white woman called Elizabeth Ball who gave birth to four children, two of whom were apparently white themselves, and in 1784, when Johnson died, Barber inherited the bulk of his estate. Part of the inheritance was  an income of £700 per annum. Friends of Dr Johnson, wrote that Johnson didn,t need to employ Barber,  he never seemed to do much. Johnson  relates that Barber, presumably before he married Elizabeth Ball, was something of a lothario. However Dr Johnson had a great fondness for him and friendship and companionship was a valuable thing to him. He expressed the highest opinion of Barber.

Hester Thrale and daughter.

Opinions vary as to Barber’s character. Mrs Thrale and John Hawkins wrote nastily about his being an undeserving servant and a jealous husband, but James Boswell,  had only nice things to say about ‘good Mr Francis’.
Other portraits in the parlour, include those of James Boswell and Joshua Reynolds.There is a grandfather clock in one corner, a circular table with chairs and a glass cabinet with a tea set that once belonged to Hester Thrale.
Johnson's grandfather clock.

On the first floor the stairs come to a wide open space that really is two rooms and a small contained landing. The walls are wooden partitions with doors constructed in them that have been opened wide on hinges and rollers . Once these partion walls are rolled back into place they create separate rooms. Able to create a large space from two rooms and an entrance foyer this area could become multi purpose. A large gathering for a celebration of some sort could be held here.

The first floor with the partition walls folded back.

 The room to the left,when the walls are in place,  was where Anna Williams (1706-1783) lived. Anna Williams and her father were befriended by Johnson and his wife Tetty in the late 1740s. She was an impoverished poet who suffered cataracts in both eyes. In 1751 Johnson arranged for Samuel Sharp, a senior surgeon at Guys Hospital, to operate on Anna William's eyes. Sharp carried out the operation free of charge. He took pity on her because of her poverty and also because she was pious and an intelligent person. Unfortunately the operation was unsuccessful. She moved to Johnson's house in Gough Square and continued to live with Johnson whenever he had lodgings large enough  to accommodate her.She took charge of the domestic running of the household. She has been described as being ill tempered but Boswell quotes Lady Knight who wrote of Anna,
 “…bad health and blindness are surely sufficient apology for her sometimes being impatient, her natural disposition was good , friendly and humane.”

A portrait of Tetty.

Also on this first floor there are many more paintings of Johnson and his friends. The room to the right on this floor is the withdrawing room. On this floor is a stained glass panel hanging in a window showing Dr Johnson with Lichfield Cathedral in the background. There is also the only known portrait of Elizabeth Johnson, his wife, Tetty.

A stained glass portrait of Dr Johnson, on the first floor, showing Lichfield Cathedral in the background.

This room is hung with many portraits of friends and acquaintances. Johnson loved people around him. This may have been due to a morbid fear of being on his own. The portraits in this room, cover actors, politicians, clergy, preachers, forgers and even murderers. Giuseppi Berretti, was a literary critic who was a tutor to Hester Thrale’s children. He had been acquitted of murder in 1769. He got the position of tutor to the Thrale children through a character reference provided by Dr Johnson. Johnson would entertain total strangers in his house. He had many people stay and live with him at Gough Square,  friends and distant relations too. These various people did not always get on well together and it was said shouting and arguing could sometimes be heard coming from number 17. After moving from Gough Square to number 1 Inner Temple, he received even more visitors daily. 

On the next floor, library shelves adorn the walls. There are many editions of Dr Johnson’s and James Boswell’s work. 

David Garrick's costume chest.

A large chest against one wall has a small brass plaque on it explaining that this wooden trunk was used by David Garrick, the actor, to store costumes in. It asks the public not to touch it.On a round table positioned in the center of this room are editions of Dr Johnson's two volume dictionary. These copies on display are modern facsimiles so visitors are permitted to leaf through them. I spent some time looking up various words. He gave the Latin and Greek root. His definition of each word provides examples of the word in context. In all, there are 114,000 quotations in the dictionary. Johnson was the first English lexicographer to use citations in this way, a method that greatly influenced the style of future dictionaries. He had scoured books stretching back to the 1500s, often quoting from those that were thought to be 'great works' such as Milton or Shakespeare. Johnson also provided  a description of English grammar. He gives detailed explanations of vowels, consonants, nouns, adjectives, verbs, syntax, prosody, tenses. He wrote succinctly and simply. He didn’t over-elaborate and his explanations of English grammar are fresh and clear and could be used by a teacher in a junior school today.  I  checked terms such as, “preterite,” and ,”potential.”   Terms such as indictive, infinitive, present, past, imperative and conjuctive mood are used generally nowadays when teaching English. We write, talk and read, unconscious of the language process we go through. It is important to know and use these terms though. They create different meanings and emphasis. We need to know the,” mechanics,” of language so we can use language to better effect.

Dr Johnson's Dictionary.

Here is a definition in the dictionary for ,”existence.” A topic that Johnson explored throughout his life.
n.s. [existentia, low Latin.] State of being; actual possession of being.
Nor is only the existency of this animal considerable, but many things delivered thereof. Brown's Vulgar Errours, b. iii.
It is impossible any being can be eternal with successive eternal physical changes, or variety of states or manner of existency, naturally and necessarily concomitant unto it. Hale.
The soul, secur'd in her existence, smiles
At the drawn dagger, and defies its point.
 Addison's Cato.
When a being is considered as possible, it is said to have an essence or nature; such were all things before the creation. When it is considered as actual, then it is said to have existence also. Watts's Logick.

Eventually, Marilyn and I made our way up to the top floor, the attic. This is a long room, stretching the width of the house, where wooden desks were set up for Dr Johnson’s assistants and where the great dictionary was written. It is quite something to stand inside such a special place. Johnson, dictated the dictionary to his assistants and they together formed a method of recording it. Johnson must have had so many references scattered around this room.  First published in 1755, the dictionary took just over eight years to compile, required six helpers, and listed 40,000 words. The comparable French Dictionnarre had taken 55 years to compile and required the dedication of 40 scholars. Johnson’s dictionary was a gargantuan feet.

The attic of 17 Gough Square. It was here the dictionary was compiled.

Dr Johnson's empathy for human beings is famous. But it must be remembered that he felt an attachment to animals also. James Boswell writing about his friend in April 1783 states,
“ I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself would go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble might take a dislike to the poor creature. (Boswell goes on to write) I remember him one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back and pulled him by the tail.”

Hodge, looking back at 17 Gough Square after finishing his oysters.

In Gough Square, opposite the entrance to number 17, is a small life size statue of Hodge with  oyster shells at his feet. Passersby generally put their loose change in the empty oyster shells for Dr Johnson to buy some more fresh oysters for Hodge. A nice idea.

Ref: The Life of Samuel Johnson by  James Boswell (First published 1791) Penguin Classics 2008
The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia  by Samuel Johnson  (
Jane Austen’s Letters Collected and Edited by Deirdre Le Faye  Third Edition , Oxford University Press 1995
Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomlin  Penguin 1998
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen Penguin Classics 1966
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Penguin Classics 2003
Emma by Jane Austen Penguin Classics 2003
Dr Johnson’s House Museum :
Mentoring Jane Austen: Refelctions on ,"My Dear Dr. Johnson." Gloria Goss 
(Department of English California State University)


  1. How very interesting to learn more about Dr Johnson. Thanks for sharing, Tony! I agree that he was one of the people whose writing Jane Austen admired the most. I didn't realise that there was a museum dedicated to him. Have learnt lots today!

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    2. Removed the above accidently. Thanks for reading the article Anna. I hope you and the family are well? Tony

  2. Tony, I would love to visit this house. AND see the statue of Hodge. Had I not liked Dr Johnson before, I would now. A man with such love for his cat is irresistible! :-)

    1. Hi Jean. I am having a brilliant holiday here in Toronto. New York next week. Dr Johnson was a lovely effusive character. I would have liked to have met him. Thanks for your comment.