The Club: Johnson, Boswell and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, by Leo Damrosch
Yale University Press, 2019 Club: an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain circumstances (Johnson’s Dictionary)
At a distance of more than two hundred years, the world of Johnson and Boswell might seem impossibly remote, but it is accessible through the writing that they and others left behind. While these two worthies of the English literary sphere may be inextricably linked, both through their friendship and their literary output, there is still much that we do not know about their relationships with each other and with those around them. This book does not provide anything startlingly new in this respect, but it does combine several strands of scholarship and literary investigation to create an entertaining overview of the world in which they, and others, interacted. Damrosch brings the different characters to life, revealing them as fallible but likeable human beings, rather than just revered cultural figures. More importantly, we get a glimpse of the enjoyment that they felt in one another’s company.
The Club, later re-named the Literary Club, was not the first with which Johnson was associated. In the winter of 1748/49, at the instigation of his lifelong friend and early biographer Sir John Hawkins, Johnson was the leading light of the Ivy Lane Club, an association of like-minded men who met each Tuesday at the King’s Head, a beefsteak house in Ivy Lane near St. Paul’s. When the Club was formed in 1764 Hawkins was one of the nine founder members, along with Johnson, Reynolds, Burke, Goldsmith, and others now less well known. Boswell was not elected until much later, in 1773. Towards the end of Johnson’s life, in December 1783, he became convinced that the Club had grown too big to be enjoyable, and formed the Essex Head Club, a small association of some twenty-four members who met three times a week at the Essex Head, an inn near the Strand. These details suggest that something about these gatherings was of immense value to the men who met together on a regular basis and, most of all, to Johnson himself.
Much of the available evidence of Johnson’s character shows that, like Boswell, he suffered bouts of severe depression throughout his life. However, in contrast to Boswell, who would often deal with his dark moods through excessive drinking and visits to prostitutes, Johnson found the company of intelligent, sociable men and stimulating conversation a perfect remedy for what he termed his “black dog.” It was at the instigation of his friends, most notably Reynolds, that the Club was formed, in part to distract Johnson from the “melancholy” which, after the death of his wife Tetty in 1752, had become almost unmanageable. It is with this background in mind that the book should be approached, for it is a carefully constructed journey around the disparate group who became part of the circle who encouraged Johnson, sought out his company and conversation, and recognised his need for diverting company.
The membership of the Club grew quite quickly, as did the reputation of its early members. Reynolds, of course, was the first President of the RA, a post that he held from 1768, four years after the founding of the Club. Goldsmith gained fame after 1773 when his play She Stoops to Conquer was first performed to great success. Edmund Burke became the most renowned orator in the House of Commons, and wrote Reflections on the French Revolution. Besides Boswell, the later members included Adam Smith, Richard Sheridan, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, Charles Fox and Edmund Malone. Taken together, they read like a Who’s Who of English literature, art and politics in the late eighteenth century and, as such, they represent a cultural network of huge significance to our understanding of the period. While much of what we know of these illustrious men’s interactions comes from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, this is by no means the only source —thankfully, perhaps, because he had his own biases and prejudices, not all of them particularly sympathetic to those about whom he wrote, other than Johnson himself.
Given the exceptional but varied talents within the group, the conversations between them must have been interesting, and Boswell was there to record them after 1773. However, as Damrosch correctly points out, Boswell’s habit of sitting close to Johnson so that he could hear every word was not universally approved by his fellow members. More significant, perhaps, are the subjects which were —or were not— open for discussion. Men like Burke and Johnson held very strong views on several pressing issues of the day, such as the emancipation of the American colonies and the morality of slavery, subjects which the members knew were contentious and were therefore, by tacit agreement, usually avoided.
A perfect example of this can be found with respect to the American War of Independence, its causes and resolution, and how contemporary views of the political and economic disputes involved widely differed. Damrosch summarises the various viewpoints expertly and notes just how diametrically opposed those of Burke and Johnson were. While Burke was a critic of the way in which the colonies were treated, Johnson firmly believed that their administration was entirely within the purview of those who had discovered and settled these far-off lands. The following are some of the more restrained opinions on the subject which Johnson expressed publicly:
“He who goes voluntarily to America, cannot complain of losing what he leaves in Europe. By his own choice he has left a country where he had a vote and little property, for another, where he has great property, but no vote.” “We have always protected the Americans; we may, therefore, subject them to government.” “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
In contrast, Burke supported the Americans’ cause, seeing it as a legitimate reaction to a political situation in which their status as a colony meant that they were unrepresented in either Parliament or government. He hoped that Great Britain would be restrained in its response and not allow the conflict to drift into war, and indeed, in one of his finest parliamentary speeches on the subject he included these remarks, the first of which Johnson would have rejected, although the second would have met with his approval:
“… the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen... They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles.”
“Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil.”
On the question of slavery, Boswell would have disagreed with them both: he saw nothing wrong in the possession of one person by another as a piece of property which could be disposed of at will. In one of the more bizarre sections of the book Damrosch references a poem which Boswell wrote in praise of the Caribbean slave’s idyllic life, a notion which even then must have seemed as strange as it does today —it is hard to imagine that Boswell could seriously have believed the poem to represent a realistic image of plantation conditions.
While the friends may have enjoyed each other’s company, then, their friendships were not based on similarity of opinions or political positions, but their recognition of the others’ value as individuals, and an ease in engaging with one another on a wide range of contemporary subjects and issues.
Early in 1766, Johnson was suffering badly with his depression. He had just published his edition of Shakespeare and was struggling to find a new focus in life. The year before he had been befriended by Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer, and his wife Hester. After a visit to Johnson’s home, where they found him in a desperate state, he was invited to their mansion in Streatham, where he stayed as a guest several nights every week for the next sixteen years. Damrosch deals sympathetically with this relationship, but perhaps does not stress sufficiently the close connection between the Thrales’ social gatherings at Streatham and the Club. While by this time the Club was meeting every Friday, each Thursday a soiree was held at Streatham House, to which many of the same people were invited. Such was the overlap that, when Henry Thrale commissioned Reynolds to paint pictures for his new library, many of the thirteen portraits completed were of Club members.
The ‘Streatham Worthies,’ as the group of portraits is known, is remarkable for the depictions of the people involved, almost a microcosm of the Club itself. Within the library’s setting, the portraits can be viewed simply as a visual record of Henry Thrale’s career. The first two portraits were of Oxford friends, and the third was a beautiful double portrait of Hester and her eldest daughter (also named Hester but commonly known as ‘Queenie’). This was followed by a picture of Arthur Murphy, the man who first introduced Johnson to the Thrales, in turn succeeded by no less than seven portraits of Club members: Goldsmith, Reynolds, Chambers, Garrick, Burney, Burke, and finally Johnson. Thrale himself was placed in the centre of the room, above the main door —the figure who had brought all these eminent men and women together.
This group of portraits is a fascinating visual representation of the Club’s dynamics. While Boswell is absent (he and the Thrales never really got along), most of the other significant members are there. Each portrait reveals an individual set within a specific social context: that of a personable conversationalist. Reynolds portrays himself as hard of hearing, his left hand curved around his ear, looking at us as if straining to listen to the conversation. These are honest portraits, each telling us something about the sitter, but more about his or her social connectivity. The series was specifically designed for the library of the group’s patron, capturing the individuals who gathered to eat, drink and enjoy one another’s company, while discussing matters of interest to them. The portraits are a subtle interplay of symbolism and realism, providing an accurate visual summation of all that the Club, and perhaps other such groups of the period, came to represent. Sadly, the series of portraits was broken up when the house’s contents were sold in the early nineteenth century, and the pictures are now scattered in galleries around the world.
As Johnson’s health deteriorated, he attended the Club less often. However, his reputation, and that of the other founding members, ensured that membership came to be regarded as a measure of high intellectual and social status, especially as just one black ball from existing members meant rejection. So the Club developed into a more elite group predicated on members’ social and political harmony, which was a break with the group’s origins. As Damrosch so clearly demonstrates, the early members may not have agreed about many important issues of their day, but they enjoyed each other’s company and friendship. Perhaps this is the most touching revelation in the book: this picture of exceptionally talented men enjoying conversation and wine in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
This a well written and meticulously researched account of an ad-hoc association that included many leading eighteenth-century literary, political, and artistic lights. Damrosch is to be applauded for the way in which he goes about his task, neither too deferential nor too critical. Political and social norms change over time, and it is difficult sometimes to avoid making critical judgments about behaviour which, in the past, might be considered unusual but acceptable, but which today would bring immediate censure. Boswell is quite the case in point —despite his many character flaws, he was a valued friend to those who knew him, and was renowned for his good conversation. A quote attributed to him could well be used to sum up the characteristics of the early Club members who contributed so much to our intellectual heritage:
“There have been many people who built castles in the air, but I believe I am the first that ever attempted to live in them.” --Paul Flux