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Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of inward nobility and sensitivity of Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

When at the first session of the class I was leading, The Enlightenment: At Risk? one of the people in the room remembered back to having had John Radner as “Study Guide Leader” (prof-teacher) twice for courses just on Johnson, and had clearly come for more, I felt I had made an effective choice of Samuel Johnson as the third of the writers we would read and discuss. Also when another man brought in his W.J. Bate biography of Johnson, an old battered and much read-looking book, and said how much he had enjoyed it, I felt vindicated. When someone had volunteered that he “liked” Johnson, after someone else said he much preferred Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides to Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, read aloud passages in which (it must be admitted) Boswell seemed the far more accessible, funny, vivid, concretely in an immediate way informative writer, while Johnson by contrast might seem so colorless and dull. Then the first man turned around to confess that Johnson in Boswell’s Life and A Tour seems a totally different person, not deep, not thoughtful, but a dense bully, by no means accurate in his pronounced assessments, coarse examples, stubborn, a contradictory egoistic, a religiously intolerant man. Were there two Johnsons? We had read Lisa Berglund’s essay on how Boswell’s presentation of Johnson’s cat-companion, Hodge, differs from Hester Thrale’s. Another man said he was reading John Wain’s biography of Johnson and agreed with me, that in some lines we seem to hear Johnson’s very tone, his meditative nobility of soul intermingling with Wain’s. Finally most of them read the supplementary reading by Johnson on line in the Ramblers, Idlers and prefaces.

Have I mentioned this is a group of highly intelligent adults more or less retired adults, have held positions of considerably responsibility in their lives? That made a huge difference in how the class went but I’m not sure how to talk about this. Also simply they seemed more able or willing to take Johnson’s point of view in than either Voltaire or Diderot’s.

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Colin Hunter (1841-1904); Good-Night to Skye (2895) (Glasgow Museums)

My second question to myself was, Did I chose the right text from among Johnson’s many? I avoided the Life of Savage because (like Boswell before me and I think Clarence Tracy too) I believe Johnson was deluded and that Savage was himself an imposter whose delusions grew to such a reinforced point, he believed them; similarly, as I couldn’t see how I could write about Johnson’s Life of Savage in as positive a vein as was wanted for a paper comparing his biographical art to Woolf’s, I couldn’t see how I could teach people over 60 that this text is a great biography even though its central information and even respectful sympathetic perspective of Savage is misleading. Johnson is obsessive in his understandable compassion and horror (because he believes that Anne Brett denied this child). In the biography Johnson believes the story that Anne Breet tried to have Savage hanged — and tries to justify his murder of someone in a violent brawl — Richard Holmes (Dr Johnson and Mr Savage as in Jekyll & Hyde) understands that one much more accurately. Apparently Anne Brett’s family had members willing to pay Savage off as long as he will agree to be silent (he wasn’t) and behave minimally decently in their houses — but he would not do that either, and after a while he was thrown out and the allowance stopped.  The key story is hers as much as Savage’s: she was subject to violence from more than one husband, hers as hard a life. What this material cries out for is a life of Anne Brett.

It turned out yes. Maybe even some chose the course because they had gone to the Hebrides! I counted four people in the class who had been to the Hebrides or at least northern Scotland. So I also showed Patrick Watkins’s stunning anti-war docudrama, Culloden, and they were gripped, or at last interested to ask questions after I sent three good essays on Patrick Watkins’s art, on its place in 20th century great films, on the problem of teaching history from written fragments, visits to relics and landscapes, from a lack of evidence, from inescapable biases and identifications I read aloud from John Lister-Kaye’s poetically brilliant The Song of the Rolling Earth.

I retold Johnson’s life, and had sent a review of a biography of Francis Barber. At the time of the death of Johnson’s wife, Tetty, Colonel Richard Bathurst whose estates in Jamaica failed came back with a white son and one black boy given apparently a common name: Quashey. Richard Bathurst the son strong abolitionist and friend to Johnson. Given name Francis Barber and sent to school for 2 years – about age 10, and then came to live with Johnson in London. At one point he ran away. A bid for freedom?but Johnson thought this choice not a good idea, and agitated to get Francis back and at age 26 sent him to Grammar school. Francis came home and became a sort of servant, married a white woman and was set up in a shop to sell books in Lichfield. It’s said he was given a generous legacy, but the shop failed. He died impoverished in 1801, a schoolmaster. He is said to have given details of intimate domestic life to Boswell.  He had a circle of African friends in London: there was a population of African black people living in London.

I also offered background on Scottish culture at the time, Jacobitism, Buchan’s Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind, and offered a narrative of Johnson’s life, and then we got down to going through Johnson and Boswell’s book. I found a number of the people also read a good deal of Boswell’s, which comes with most editions of Johnson’s.

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Johnson had desired to go to Scotland for a very long time, he says; he wanted to travel to another society and here was one close by, and now they were doing it: they spent about a hundred days in a place neither man was used to. Although Boswell had connections, once they crossed Inverness, he was essentially an Enlightenment lowlands city Scot whose rank and family, and father’s known position, made an opening wherever they went. This is not a package tour nor a comfortable one made very convenient and easy: they have to find accommodation where they can; they went through wildness, solitude, untamed, and as they go, Johnson repeatedly attempts to imagine the history of a object: why does a castle take the form it does? Or the landscape they are seeing.  What happened here to make this building look this way or that?  Johnson tries to analyze the economic activity that he sees and extrapolate from it to understand the economic and political systems of Scotland. His ideas about the tacksman could be applied to why communism failed as a system of exchange among people.

Johnson wanted to compare European society, to him modern, with what existed earlier; he wanted to discover a feudal society (so did Ann Radcliffe in her joural tour of a summer tour — she eventually went north too), but this was a society in the “agonies of change” to quote John Wain. Johnson was also observing two societies side-by-side — lowland modern Scotland and highlands older Scotland. Meanwhile the English were killing a way of life — and didn’t care who or what this affected. Again and again Johnson sees whole groups of people emigrating. How deeply sceptical Johnson was of claims of attribution and past glories and history. Yet he persists at each stop-over to read and write on – and at each turn Johnson is really describing what he sees, testing and verifying, an ethnography of a society in the throes of change, forced emigration and death and exploitation is what he describes to us.

To me it’s almost natural and understandable that Boswell’s book should be the one preferred by many readers as – to tell the accurate truth if like Johnson you really try to find out “which Johnson” the person is discussing – you discover often it’s Boswell’s Johnson, Johnson as described by Boswell and from Boswell’s book who is so well known or subject of fan groups not Johnson himself considered apart from Boswell. Boswell offers a comic, immediate, psychologized and prosaic talk-y language, going over the same incident with details nowhere to be found in Johnson but which support his point of view. Johnson’s is the tragic book: we see the tragedy of people’s lives, the difficulty of survival, and hard struggle each person makes to carry on. That’s the true emphasis of his book. By contrast, Boswell’s jovial filled with his real belief in hierarchy, enjoyment of good times, considerable self-esteem; he is continually name-dropping.

Johnson analyses the basic constraints and history behind each human existence or type of life he comes across with real depth of understanding. He is seriously looking at a different way of life in its death-throes and the violent history behind it. He really describes the desolation before him. His language moves from quiet to brilliant uses of general terms which capture so much meaning to magnificence and deep emotionalism of gratitude or enjoyment. Johnson ends his book on a school for the deaf. Deaf people were treated as idiots until the 18th century when two French philosophes (Abbe Sicard one, discussed by Oliver Sacks in his Seeing Voices) invented sign language. I regret to have to report this was one of those schools where the teachers were to force deaf children to learn to speak so it was not kind place but it was backward step (still not gone) in a forward movement.

Boswell gives us a good time with individual justifications as we go along. We meet individuals and rejoice in them or help or listen to or just interact with them: the old woman and her goat is to Johnson an epitome of hard-scrabble life; how admirably she uses all her resources. To Boswell, she’s a merry joke; she thought one of them would want to go to bed with her, or rape her. She seems unaware that Boswell does not find her attractive. In a frightening tempest, Boswell shows us how frightened he was, what a fool he made out of himself, how he tried to help and appreciated all the captain did. Johnson barely notices this transitory if deeply (to them as frail human beings) ephemeral experience of life. What does Boswell end on their last agreeable days –- how Johnson was feted, what they saw, what they laughed about where they stayed and that he deserves the credit for having gotten Johnson to go, taken him through and so the existence of Johnson’s book. Boswell’s book is an advertisement for the coming biography which he was already diligently at work at.In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell — there are a number of such books, I brought in Israel Schenker.

I cited some months ago Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, with or without Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides, as one of ten that had the most influence on me in my life. I quoted a passage where Johnson tells us how he came to choose to want to travel to Scotland even now in his old age. Now I’ll emphasize Iona, which island experience (and others) we went over carefully in class. I read Henry Hitchings’s redaction in his The World in 38 Chapters:

An inscription over the door, to show what kind of a Book this is

A scrap of land, a speck in the sea’s breath. On an OctoTuesday, two travellers arrive after dark. The sea has been rough, and their craft’s four oarsmen can find no easy place to disembark; it seems they must carry the visitors to dry land, though one of them chooses to spring into the water and wade ashore. In the moonlight the two
figures embrace. It is late to be inspecting monuments, so they retire for the night — sleeping fully clothed in a barn, nestled in the hay, using their bags as pillows.

The next day they explore the island. Its buildings have been battered by storms and stripped by locals needing materials for their homes; now they are ruins, caked in filth. The old nunnery is a garden of weeds, and the chapel adjoining it is a cowshed. The two men walk along a broken causeway — once a street flanked by good houses — and arrive at a roofless abbey. Its altar is damaged; islanders have carried off chunks of the white marble, believing that they afford protection against fire and shipwreck. A few intricately carved stone crosses still stand.

Later, the visitors will write about what they saw. One will comment that the island used to be ‘the metropolis of of learning and piety’ and wonder if it ‘may be sometime the instructress of the Western Regions’. The other will reflect that ‘the solemn scenes of piety never lose their sanctity and influence’: ‘I hoped that, ever after having been in this holy place, I should maintain an exemplary conduct. One has a strange propensity to fix upon some point of time from whence a better course of life may begin.’

This is a sketch of Iona, where in AD 563 the energetic Irish exile St Columba founded a monastery. Today, the island’s great sites have been restored and are often mobbed with day trippers – a mix of Christian pilgrims and happy­snapping tourists. Yet in 1773, when Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited, few people went there. It was Johnson who reflected on the island’s lost role as ‘the metropolis of learning and piety’, recalling how, as he experienced its decay but also its tranquillity, he was transported into the past — to a time when it was ‘the luminary of the Caledo­nian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion’. This was a place where earth and heaven seemed only a finger’s width apart. Somehow it cheered the soul.

‘Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses,’ Johnson wrote, ‘and makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the
dignity of thinking beings.’ This is a rallying cry, an appeal for historical understanding. He doesn’t mean that we should refuse to live in the moment, ignoring the pith of the present to spend our lives dwelling on how idyllic the past was or how ambrosial the future might be. Instead he is arguing that we are dignified by our ability, through the operations of our minds, to transcend our circumstances, to reach beyond the merely local, to appreciate difference. It is an insight typical of Samuel Johnson, a heroic thinker whose intelligence exerted itself in a startling number of directions. A poet and a novelist, a diarist and editor and translator, as well as the author of numerous prefaces and dedications, h produced the first really good dictionary of English, invented the genre of critical biography …


There is more than one edition of the original two copies as In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell (Israel Schenker from the NYTimes wrote one and now lives in Scotland).

Hitchings led to talk of  journeys people in the class had taken to the Hebrides and even  Iona and how “spiritual” it had felt. I used Matthew Arnold’s old touchstone method — I quoted Johnson: in the midst of telling how the Highlanders are fleeing the place, and that there are some “lairds of more prudence and less rapacity [who] have kept their vassals undiminished,” Johnson writes: “From Rasaay only one man has been seduced, and at Col there was no wish to go away” — because of the good man running the place. It’s that “at Col there was no wish to go away” that captures the dense concision of understanding in the man’s texts.

We then went over a number of individual passages. What Johnson is interested in? the past, meditation of what was, on generalization about humanity trying to survive in hard and various conditions: looking upon human life; passionate student of history, and of geology, geography, culture in general and that’s what he puts in his book. Sudden affection. Universities are decaying, on Canongate. Inch Kenneth, high point. How he spontaneously, inspired, wrote poetry in Latin. How he admires people: Col, so well educated trying to help his people, spends such time with them, drowns suddenly, Macquarry emigrating. Topics included his interest in castles and dungeons and the violent past they reveal. Mountainous people and their cultures. His Sardonic humor. But also merry and unself-conscious; can imitate a kangaroo. They spend a long time in Sky, Ostig: Johnson talks of what really corrodes people’s minds. Power overcomes law but money has power to abrogate law. When guns appear, non-human animals decrease. The fight over the Ossian poems: James Macpherson claimed to have found and just rewritten slightly these epic fragments in ancient gaelic and Johnson challenged him to produce the manuscripts. Of course there were none; people wanted ancient poems and unscrupulous writers produced them – it was a kind of watered down Miltonism style that appealed – tremendous international popularity but Johnson stubbornly held out. The man, thug-like threatened him, and Johnson said he’ll carry a big stick and protect himself Boswell often quotes Johnson, and works passages in, like this.

Johnson provides somber, Boswell the prosaic thought. The two of them talking, different perspectives, Johnson goes about to show us how different the re-tellings of history and concludes how little Boswell’s tour he just complains he can’t learn anything from oral tradition. In the mornings Boswell would bring what he wrote to Johnson and Johnson fix what he had written, rewrite, plan in his mind. They were making books together.

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The Yale edition of Johnson is now complete and online, open to the public

I assigned a few other texts found online. We went on to the Rambler and Idler, etexts online. We read the history of Misella (Nos 170-71) How she was drawn from her parents’ house with promises, never given the advantages claimed; then seduced by the benefactor, removed from the house when pregnant and gradually abandoned and her life as a prostitute now. Then Idler No 22 the mother vulture teaching her children — how 18th century readers liked allegory of this type in the period – an outgrowth of Aesop’s Fables. The vulture thinks man made for them and Johnson approaches Voltairian satire. We turned for an example of Johnson at his most witheringly sardonic: the review of Soames Jenyns. The malevolence in the idea that extending education to all is dangerous, will make people discontented, rebellious. The notion that human and animal sufferings produce good effects made Soames imagine that immortal beings enjoy watching us for their diversion and those in heaven derive satisfaction from those in hell. Unforgettable. Idler 22 similarly against debtors’ prisons. Idler No 81: native Americans discussing behavior of European armies and how they can use these killers.

Lives of the poets: constitutes a history of English poetry across the long 18th century, a discussion of the nature of poetry, even in this different style, lives of writers, and he is at his personally involved or make political points. He chooses some of subjects because booksellers told him to (they had the man’s works – no woman I regret to say) and others because he knew the man. Great compassion for some: William Collins. He added names he thought should be included, but one can be very disappointed because a poet today thought important isn’t there: Christopher Smart who died raving in a prison when he should have not been put in their in the first place.. Famous for a long poem on his cat Jeffrey who kept him company. I went briefly over Boswell’s, Hawkins, Thrale’s and Murphy’s biographies of Johnson himself. His letters. I read a couple to Warton, one to Mrs Thrale, part of the one to Chesterfield.

As editor of Shakespeare’s works: he did not idolize the man and some students reading the preface are surprised to find critical and evaluative comments. He puts Shakespeare in the context of his time, looks at his ultimate vision. His observations on passages are like close readings of Shakespeare’s texts. From Measure for Meausre. They did not have novels the way we do and what they read often were bound up groups of plays sold as books. Shakespeare’s plays could be read as realistic novels, so on Macbeth …

Lastly I offered a bit on Johnson’s politics. I recommended Donald Greene’s Twayne book. Thoughts on the Falkland Islands is his most anti-colonialist. But he supports gov’t sometimes because he fears chaos and who might rise to power. Oddly it has been rumored and whole essays written to show Johnson as Jacobite because he supported the Tory party and in context, from Boswell he seems sympathetic but anyone who knows the realities of Jacobitism and he did would be hard put to go that far. In his own day some accused him of this — he was often corrosive over the Hanoverian gov’t – more anti-whig than pro-Tory. Wrote Swiftian parodies. He did support expulsion of John Wilkes seen as this ultimate patriot at the time. England had the right to tax the colonialists without their permission – because they defended the colonialists against the Native Americans (but why did they so?), he attacked the anonymous Junius – a kind of Deep Throat writing eloquent diatribes exposing corruption.

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Another depiction of Johnson by Reynolds — a more familiar one

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. As shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon … finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

I had assigned Isobel Grundy’s irreplaceable essay on Johnson’s depiction of death in his biographies. She says he shows both the older views and the modern towards death: it’s a rounding off and leaving a meaning, but also confusing, ambiguous, making one feel that the life had no significance beyond for the person and for most of us the few people who we’ve been meaningful to. We still see the older attitude in churches and religious places, and in people who plan their death, care about their will, make due preparations. Pope did. She says that Johnson repeatedly fails to find this significance or meaning in the deaths he recounts or describes, asked what he felt while dying: he wanted to live” deaths ironic, horrifying, show a lack of concern in reality; jarring and shocking. Did they die as they had lived? He again and again refuses to draw a moral. More: he deliberately puts before us the ironies, casual comedy, inappropriateness of what happens, the grotesqueries. In his essays we find death is the great leveller, what is the case for common humanity, avoids religious talk or judgement; early lives he does offer exemplary deaths; he looks into legends: Hermione Lee who has written a number of even great biographies says the most problematic of chapters is often the last because so many lies, distortions, agendas come in – we hear what the survivors of the scene want to tell us – yet you can’t avoid it and so recent biographies tend to scant it. He moves from seeing death as a kind of testing to part of common humanity – ridiculous, frailty of human body, not dignified not in control. The person or people comforting the dying can try to help the dying person feel he or she has that control over the last if that’s what the person wants or cares about.

Grundy’s was the last text I talked about and then I did wish I had assigned the Oxford Authors volume of Johnson, edited by Donald Greene, because we could have read some of the Lives of the Poets as then the people in the room would have read some of these texts.

The three to four sessions were about as successful as I’ve ever been with a “older” more difficult author. More successful than the Voltaire and Diderot sessions I felt. I asked if I tried to do this theme again, did they think it was a good idea? They said they did. I said I would try to substitute other authors: Jean-Jacques Rousseau for Voltaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker as it needs to be a shorter text), Goethe (either The Sorrows of Werther or Elective Affinities). Mary Wolstonecraft for Madame Roland (The Rights of Women, Residence in Sweden), but I thought to myself I can probably not find an analogous substitute.

Ellen

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John Harrell as Dorimant, the Man of Mode


Jessika Williams as Margaret of Anjou (The American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, 2018)

Friends and readers,

EC/ASECS 49th annual conference, held in Staunton, Virginia, October 25th to 27th, 2018, has just ended a rewarding two days of panels, papers and presentations on the theme of performance in 18th century art and life. We were next door to the Shenandoah Shakespeare company (“We do it with the lights on!”), now in its 30th year. Up the street is Mary Baldwin University (once all-women, now co-ed).  On Friday night the Shenandoah troop performed George Etheridge’s The Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter; on Saturday afternoon, Emma, as adapted from Jane Austen’s novel, by Emma Whipday; and on Saturday night, a rousing Shakespeare’s Richard III.


A scene from the current production of Richard III

Our plenary talk was by Dr Paul Menzer, on aspects of the history of performing ghosts and other problem characters and scenes  in Shakespeare. He is Professor and Director at Mary Baldwin University of the MLitt/MFA Shakespeare and Performance graduate program and himself continually actively involved in the Shenandoah program as a director and writer. He and two colleagues, Profs Katherine Turner and Matt Davies also ran a panel on Fielding’s Tom Jones as a vehicle for discussing Shakespeare and 18th century performance, with special attention to Book XVI, Chapter 5 where Jones goes to see Garrick in Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Mrs Miller and Partridge.


David Tennant addressing Yorick’s skull (Gregory Doran 2008 production of Hamlet at the RSC)

On Saturday evening Maestro Robert Mayerovitch of Baldwin-Wallace College, performed a wondrous recital of two symphonies, one by Haydn and the other by Beethoven.  The conference theme was performing the 18th century.

Since my paper was not on performance, but rather on Austen’s Bakhtinian use of dialogics in the tone and complex moving themes of Persuasion, I thought I’d download it separately on academia.edu before proceeding to a two blog-essay report on this entertaining conference.


Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Poems (9th edition, 1800)


Matthew Prior, Poems upon Several Occasions (1719)

The Presence of Charlotte Smith, Matthew Prior and George Crabbe in Austen’s Persuasion


George Crabbe, The Borough, and Tales (1812)

Ellen

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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, terrified because she has had another miscarriage (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as dramatized by Peter Straughan, BBC 2015)

Friends and readers

I have been so surprised at Austen’s vehement defense of Mary Stuart in her History of England, that I’ve tended to read her words as ironic, playful, or somehow not really meaning it. But in conversation on the Net here I’ve learnt that Samuel Johnson also empathized with Mary: more, some of the terms in which he put his defense, or one reason he singled out for indignation on her behalf are precisely those of Austen.

She writes in the chapter, Elizabeth

these Men, these boasted Men [Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the rest of those who filled the chief offices of State] were such Scandals to their Country & their Sex as to allow & assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen Years, a Woman who if the claims of Relationship & Merit were of no avail, yet as a Queen & as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect Assistance & protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death.

Johnson, said my friend, reviewed William Tytler’s book on “the casket letters.” This is scheduled to be published in the final volume (20) of the Yale Edition of Johnson’s Works (so it is not yet on the Yale Digital Site), nor (alas) can I find it ECCO, but in a conversation with Boswell recorded in Boswell’s Life, Johnson retorts:

BOSWELL: ‘I here began to indulge old Scottish sentiments, and to express a warm regret, that, by our Union with England, we were no more; — our independent kingdom was lost.’
JOHNSON. ‘Sir, never talk of yourr independency, who could let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity, and then be put to death, without even a pretence [sic] of justice, without your ever attempting to rescue her; and such a Queen too; as every man of any gallantry of spirit would have sacrificed his life for.’ (Life, 5:40)

I took down from one of my bookshelves (the one with books on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots) and found in Jayne Lewis’s Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation that Lewis has a section on a painting Boswell commissioned by Hamilton of Mary Queen of Scots for which Boswell wanted Johnson to write an appropriate inscription. Johnson would not as the painting is a travesty of what happened.


Gavin Hamilton, The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Her captors (says Lewis) are in classical, she in historical dress.  Looking at the image, it does seem to me man is in armor, another in a clerical kind of outfit, with a 16th century cap on his head, and a third is some kind of white cape or overcoast.  Lewis remarks they are absurdly “restrained,” and I agree it’s not shown this was coercion. Johnson sent an inscription which ignores the falsely bland (decorous?) picture by Hamilton Boswell paid for, which is (in Boswell’s words) “a representation of a particular scene in her history, her being forced to resign her crown.” Johnson instead produced lines which referred to Mary’s “hard fate,” i.e. her execution.: “Mary Queen of Scots, terrified and overpowered by insults, menaces, and clamours of her rebellious subjects, sets her hand, with fear and confusion, to a resignation of the kingdom.”

Lewis provides an image by Alexander Runciman much closer to Johnson’s response:

Lewis says the review Johnson wrote of the book on the casket letters was “glowing” and that Johnson “reprimanded” the Keeper of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh for his countrymen in having “let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity and then be put to death.”

Johnson “understood, even felt the fatal role that the symbols and signs which reduced her to a thing — and thus potentially to nothing — had played both in Mary’s own tragedy and in the patriarchal farce so recently re-enacted by the artists, critics and collectors of Georgian England … it was the will to freeze her in symbolic form (through ‘insults, menaces, and clamours’) that once stripped Mary of her sovereignty, and that does so as she becomes again a sacrifice to the modern frenzy of renown” (Lewis, 118-19)

According to Lewis, Johnson felt personally (“especially”) close to Mary, perpetually aware of how her predicament could be re-enacted in the present. Austen too sees Mary as affecting her close friends and neighbors and about how her family deserted her: readers have been distracted and puzzled by the lines referring to Mary’s Catholic religion:

Yet she bore it with a most unshaken fortitude, firm in her mind; Constant in her Religion; & prepared herself to meet the cruel fate to which she was doomed, with a magnanimity that could alone proceed from conscious Innocence. And yet could you Reader have beleived it possible that some hardened & zealous Protestants have even abused her for that Steadfastness in the Catholic Religion which reflected on her so much credit? But this is a striking proof of their narrow souls & prejudiced Judgements who accuse her

But these lines show the personal identification that actuates her:

Oh! what must this bewitching Princess whose only friend was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones are now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight & myself, who was abandoned by her Son, confined by her Cousin, abused, reproached & vilified by all, what must not her most noble mind have suffered when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her Death!

And this footnote remembering Charlotte Smith’s first novel, Emmeline, or The Orphan of the Castle reinforces Austen’s sense of Mary and Elizabeth’s contemporaneity. Austen writes of Robert Devereux Lord Essex.

This unfortunate young Man was not unlike in Character to that equally unfortunate one Frederic Delamere. The simile may be carried still farther, & Elizabeth the torment of Essex may be compared to the Emmeline of Delamere. It would be endless to recount the misfortunes of this noble & gallant Earl. It is sufficient to say that he was beheaded on the 25th of Feb:ry, after having been Lord Leuitenant of Ireland, after having clapped his hand on his Sword, and after performing many other services to his Country. Elizabeth did not long survive his loss, & died so miserable that were it not an injury to the memory of Mary I should pity her.

So when Johnson tried to convince Hester Thrale not to marry Piozzi, that “only some phantoms of the imagination” could “seduce her to Italy,” “eased [his] heart” “by reminding Thrale of Mary Stuart’s fateful flight from Scotland into England:

When Queen Mary took the resolution of sheltering herself in England, the Archbishop of St. Andrew’s attempting to dissuade her, attended on her journey and when they came to the irremeable stream that separated the two kingdoms, walked by her side into the water, in the middle of which he seized her bridle, and with earnestness proportioned to her danger and his own affection, pressed her to return. The Queen went forward. — If the parallel reaches thus far, may it go no further. The tears stand in my eyes” (quoted by Lewis, 119)

Johnson and Austen bring Mary into the present, and also acknowledge her distance from them, Austen by alluding to a novel which sets Mary in the world of “the fancy” (imagination), Johnson by saying “the parallel can go no further.”

Lewis goes on to say Mrs Thrale herself copied one of Mary’s poems into her private journal (244, n42). I don’t know which one but offer this as an example of Mary’s use of the sonnet form in a poem

First the original French:

Que suis-je hélas? Et de quoi sert ma vie?
Je ne suis fors qu’un corps privé de coeur,
Une ombre vaine, un objet de malheur
Qui n’a plus rien que de mourir en vie.
Plus ne me portez, O ennemis, d’envie
A qui n’a plus l’esprit à la grandeur.
J’ai consommé d’excessive douleur
Votre ire en bref de voir assouvie.
Et vous, amis, qui m’avez tenue chère,
Souvenez-vous que sans coeur et sans santé
Je ne saurais aucune bonne oeuvre faire,
Souhaitez donc fin de calamité
Et que, ici-bas étant assez punie,
J’aie ma part en la joie infinie.

Then a good modern English translation:

Alas what am I? What use has my life?
I am but a body whose heart’s torn away,
A vain shadow, an object of misery
Who has nothing left but death-in-life.
O my enemies, set your envy all aside;
I’ve no more eagerness for high domain;
I’ve borne too long the burden of my pain
To see your anger swiftly satisfied.
And you, my friends who have loved me so true,
Remember, lacking health and heart and peace,
There is nothing worthwhile that I can do;
Ask only that my misery should cease
And that, being punished in a world like this,
I have my portion in eternal bliss
— from an excellent Mary Stuart site.

For good measure Lewis shows how “in private life” David Hume reacted spontaneously, personally and viscerally to aspects of Mary’s character and in his printed History did all her could to make Mary’s suffering present to readers (120-21). To all these later 18th century people Mary had not yet become wax-work, or an abstract site of scholarship.

I see close parallels in thinking between Austen and Johnson — how people are oblivious, dismissive, show a total failure of the imagination when it comes to the injustices towards the suffering of others — which offers another explanation for why Austen so devotedly and vehemently favored Mary Stuart.

****************************

Hitherto when I’ve discussed Austen’s History of England or her ardent defenses (and attacks) on Tudor queens, I’ve tried to show a fervent feminism at work (For Austen’s birthday: what she said about Tudor queens, especially Katharine Parr).

But this does not help us understand her particular reactions to particular figures, e.g., “Lady Jane Gray, who tho’ inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman & famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting.” Now I’m thinking the analogy to make for Austen’s History of England is also our modern historical romances and historical films, where women writers especially mirror women’s modern experiences of victimhood.

The scene of Anne at the window parallels one close to it in time in the film where she looks out to show Thomas Cromwell how her beloved dog, Purkoy, has been cruelly killed in an act of surrogate threat:

Honestly, I look forward to when the 20th volume of the Yale edition of Johnson appears with that review of an 18th book on the casket letters. I still remember what deeply moving use Stephan Zweig made of them in his biography of Mary, and how by contrast, Antonia Fraser acted as a prosecuting attorney whose interrogation demonstrates Mary could not have written them (at least as is). Gentle reader you also owe this blog to my having begun to teach Wolf Hall: A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter and how much in love I have begun to be with Mantel’s first two novels of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I think very highly of Bring Up the Bodies too.


Mary Queen of Scots by Federico Zuccari or Alonso Sanches Coello — an image from yet another era.

I will go back to my notes on Scott’s The Monastery and The Abbot and see what they yield. Scott is of Austen’s era, historical fiction begins with his Waverley (1815), though I admit the one early illustration for The Abbot I could find seems to encapsulate all the failures of historical imagination Austen, Johnson, Hume, Hester Thrale and now Hilary Mantel work against.


Getty image

Ellen

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Jean Huber, Voltaire Planting Trees, 1775 (click to enlarge).

A Syllabus

Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization. — Samuel Johnson

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes — Pangloss, Voltaire, Candide .

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Eleven Mondays,
Sept 24 to Dec 3
4801 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

The Enlightenment: At Risk

It’s been suggested the ideas associated with the European Enlightenment, a belief in people’s ability to act rationally, ideals of social justice, human rights, toleration, education for all, in scientific method, are more at risk than any time since the 1930s. In this course we’ll ask what was & is meant by the term, how & why did this movement spread, against what obstacles, what were the realities of the era and what were the new genres & forms of art that emerged. Our focus will be Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s The Nun, Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, and an abridged edition of Madame Roland’s Memoirs. But we will also see clips from films, and I’ll offer a group of famous on-line texts (in the philosophical treatise vein), which people are free to peruse or not for further context. It is suggested that before class starts, people obtain and read Dorinda Outram’s The Enlightenment: New Approaches to European History.


Garand, Diderot (1760)

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Voltaire, Candide, trans. Robert M. Adams, ed. NIcholas Cronk. 1966; rpt. NY: Norton, 2016. 978-393-93252-2
(Alternative: Voltaire, Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories, trans. Donald Frame, ed. John Iverson, afteward Thaisa Frank. 1961; rpt. NY: Signet, 2009.978-0-451-53115-5
Diderot, Denis. The Nun, trans., introd. Leonard Tancock. NY: Penguin, 1974. ISBN 978-0-140-44300-4
(Alternative: Diderot, Denis. The Nun, trans., introd. Russell Goulbourne. 2005: rpt. NY: Oxford, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-955524-6)
Johnson, Samuel. A Journey to the Western Islands in Scotland, together with Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, ed., introd. notes, Peter Levi. NY: Penguin, 1984. ISBN:0-14-043221-3
(Alternative: Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, Journey to the Hebrides, ed., introd. Ian McGowan. 1996; rpt: Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001. ISBN 978-0-86241-4
Johnson, Samuel: Oxford Authors, ed. Donald Greene. NY: Oxford, 1984.
Roland, Marie-Jeanne Phlipon, Memoirs of Madame Roland: A Heroine of the Revolution, trans, abridged, introd. Evelyn Shuckburgh. NY: Moyer Bell, 1990. ISBN 1-55921-014-1. It is nowadays available in paperback.


Johnson and Boswell’s route through Scotland (click to enlarge)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 24th: 1st week. Introd. What do we mean by this term? Overview of course. For next week read Letters on the English 5-11, 13; and all of Candide.

Oct 1st: 2nd week: Clip from La Nuit de Varennes; Voltaire, life, career. For next week finish or reread Candide, and Letters on England, 15-16, 18, 23-24. Also Roy Wolpert, “The Gull in the Garden,” Eighteenth Century Studies, 3:2 (1969):265-77. For those who bought the Norton, J. G. Weightman’s “The Quality of Candide,” pp 175-88.

Oct 8th: 3rd week: Candide & Letters on England. For next week, read one-half of Diderot’s The Nun.

Oct 15th:  Voltaire’s life and career;  then introduction to Diderot, life, career. The Encyclopedia, On Slavery, other works. For next week, finish Diderot’s The Nun.

Oct 22nd: Clips from Candide?  Diderot; career, Eloge de Richardson, Rameau’s Nephew, The Nun, introducing Johnson

Oct 29th: 6th week Clips from 2013 film, Finish discussion of Diderot. Introducing Scotland, Jacobitism,  Johnson and English enlightenment:

Nov 5th: 7th week. Johnson biography. Dictionary, Shakespeare.   ?ourney to the Western Islands of Scotland, Boswell’s Tour of Hebrides.

Nov 12th: 8th  Culloden; Discuss movies

Nov 19th: 9th week:  Finish Johnson; Begin Madame Roland and the 1790s in France, England, Ireland, US

Nov 26th: 10th week French Revolution seen from outlook of Roland Memoirs. Helen Maria Williams, Letters from France

Dec 3rd: 11th week. More on French revolution, 1781-1995; going over Roland’s text; final thoughts on what’s at risk; Richard Feynman’s Address to the Academy of Sciences upon his resignation


Stills from La Nuit de Varennes

Bibliography: Supplementary reading:

Blum, Carol. Diderot: The Virtue of a Philosopher. NY Viking, 1974. Very readable reasonably short biography.
Buchan, James. Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind. London: Harper Collins 2003.
Cobb, Richard & Colin Jones, ed. Voices of the French Revolution. NY: HarperCollins, 1998.
Craveri, Benedetta, trans. Teresa Waugh. Madame du Deffand and Her World. Boston: Godine, 1994. One chapter on her correspondence with Voltaire.
Davidson, Ian. Voltaire in Exile. NY: Grove, 2004. You’ll learn a lot about Voltaire.
Diderot, Denis. Selected Writings on Art and French Literature, ed, trans. introd. Geoffrey Bremner. Penguin, 1994.
Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, trans., intro. Leonard Tancock. NY: Penguin, 1966. Also Gutenberg pdf at University of Australia. http://tems.umn.edu/pdf/Diderot-RameausNephew.pdf
Diderot, Éloge de Richardon [In praise of Richardson], translated online: http://graduate.engl.virginia.edu/enec981/dictionary/25diderotC1.html
Greene, Donald. Samuel Johnson. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Has the real merit of presenting Johnson apart from Boswell.
Johnson, Samuel. Selected Writings, ed. Patrick Cruttwell. 1968; rpt. NY: Penguin, 1986. Wonderful choices of texts. You emerge with a good picture of Johnson and having read some of his finest texts.
Hitchings, Henry. The world in 38 Chapters, or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life; Defining the World: The extraordinary story of Johnson’s Dictionary. Macmillan, 2018; Picador (Farrar, Strauss Giroux), 2006.
Yale Digital Works: http://www.yalejohnson.com/frontend/node/1 Complete Works.
Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment.” 1784. Online: http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html
May, Gita. Madame Roland and the Age of Revolution NY: Columbia, 1970. Superlative.
McLynn, Frank. The Jacobites. Law Book Co of Australasia, 1985.
Mitford, Nancy. Voltaire in Love, introd. Adam Gopnik. NY: New York Review of Books, 2012. A classic.
Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. 3rd edition. London: Cambridge, 2013
Prebble, John. Culloden, The Highland Clearances. Both Plimico, new edition 2002.
Roland, Jeanne-Marie Phlippon. Memoires of Madame Roland, complete, unabridged, ed. C.A. Daudan. Paris, 1864. Elibon facsimile reprint
Shenker, Israel. In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell. NY: Oxford UP, 1982.
Trouille, Mary. Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Read Rousseau. State University Press of NY, 1997.
Voltaire, Letters on the English, or Lettres Philosophiques. Fordham University, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1778voltaire-lettres.asp
Wain, John. Samuel Johnson. NY: VIking Press, 1974. If you can get hold of this one, it is so enjoyable.
Williams, Helen Maria. Letters Written in France, ed. Neil Fristat & Susan Lanser. Ontario: Broadview, 2001.
Wilson, Arthur. Diderot. London: Oxford UP, 1972. The standard and a great biography of the man.
Yalom, Marilyn. Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women’s Memory. NY: Basic Books, 1994. A long excellent chapter on Roland

Films:

Candide. Dir. Humphrey Burton. Script. Hugh Wheeler. Music: Leonard Bernstein. Featuring: Jerry Hadley, June Anderson, Christa Ludwig. Barbican, 1991.
Candide. Dir. Lonny Price. Script changed to Broadway comedy. Music: Marin Alsop. Featuring: Paul Groves, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti LuPone. Lincoln Center, 2004
Culloden. Dir, Peter Watkins. Fictional documentary. Featuring: Tony Cosgrove, Olivier Espitalier-Noel, Don Fairservice. BBC, 1968.
La Nuit de Varennes. Dir. Ettore Scuola. Script. Sergeo Armidei. Featuring: Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcello Mastroianni, Hanna Schygulla, Harvey Keitel. Opera Film, 1982
The Nun. Dir., Script. Guillaume Nicoloux. Featuring: Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Martha Gedeck, François Négret. Les films de Worso, 2013.


Madame Roland, circa 1790 (click to enlarge)

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Madame Roland, from her last year of life

Friends,

For quite a while I’ve been considering giving a course on “The Enlightenment: at risk?” at one of the two Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning I teach at, and finally I bit the bullet and wrote this proposal for an 11 week course at the American University OLLI:

It’s been suggested the ideas associated with the European Enlightenment, a belief in people’s ability to act rationally, ideals of social justice, human rights, toleration, education for all, in scientific method, are more at risk than any time since the 1930s. In this course we’ll ask what was & is meant by the term, how & why did this movement spread, against what obstacles, what were the realities of the era and what were the new genres & forms of art that emerged. We’ll read Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s The Nun, Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, and excerpts from Madame [Jeanne-Marie] Roland’s Memoirs.

I originally thought to repeat my work on Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover, the novel of Naples in the 18th century, but decided it was too long, top heavy, and obviously tendentiousnessly pessimistic.

Then I discovered an English translation and good paperback edition of Madame Roland’s Memoirs as A Heroine of the French Revolution, translated and edited by Evelyn Shuckburgh. New York: Moyer Bell/Rizzoli, 1989. I first read Roland’s Memoirs in an Elibron facsimile of the 19th century original French edition published by her daughter, and at that time had just read a great biography by Francois Kermina (not well-known among English readers), Madame Roland ou La Passion Revolutionaire (Paris, 1976). In type Kermina’s biographies are like Amanda Vickery’s marvelous books, or Amanda Foreman’s biography of the Duchess of Devonshire. Beautifully well done scholarship meant to be read by the serious common reader, and written from a woman’s point of view. Not worshipful: she sees the ambitious conflicted woman who had an affair with Brissot. I enjoyed Gita May’s biography less because it seemed more superficial even if factually full. Gita does show what a reading girl Roland was. Now I look upon May as a conventional biographer with Kermina writing a modernist biography. Also Charles A. Dauban, Etude sur Madame Roland et son temps, another Elibron reprint, a perceptive study in the thorough 19th mode.

The value of Dauban is about 1/3 is made up of her letters. Though all my notes on a review I wrote of Eighteenth-Century Women: Studies in Their Lives, Work, and Culture, ed. Linda V. Troost, an anthology of mostly excellent essays on 18th century women writers seems to have vanished, I have the review itself on my website. I’ll transfer it to the academia.edu page (where such papers get more attention).

One exception was of Madame Roland by Mary Cisar (“Madame Roland and the Grammar of Female Sainthood”). Cisar erases what Marie-Jeanne (Manon) Phlippon (born 1754, guillotined 1793) turned to in order to lead a life at odds with her era’s mores and customs: the power of an intensely rebellious and non-religious private spiritual life. Cisar argues that Roland was an unconsciously religious anorexic recluse through a chart which correlates a generalized life pattern of a typical saint with Roland’s unsocial habits and, emptied of its political content, the record Roland left of her sexual and literary experiences; and through an insistence that a subset of religious books meant far more to Roland than all others. Cisar denigrates Roland: Roland’s memoir is “a somewhat self-indulgent reminiscence,” her “intellectual journey [is] hardly original;” she was reluctant to marry because she “considered all of [her suitors] inferior to herself”; her life was “flight from social obligation.” (How terrible.) Roland’s preference for communing with her books and thoughts and overt claims to “exceptionality” are treated with resentment.

Cisar cites and then ignores Caroline Bynum Walker’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast and “Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols” (in Anthropology and the Study of Religion, ed, R. L. Moore and F. E. Reynolds [Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Relgion, 1984], 105-25) whose study of female saints, women’s symbols and individual women differentiates actual life patterns and those of women from men. Cisar also dismisses Edith Bernardin’s Les Idées Religieuses de Madame Roland (Paris, 1933), which does persuasively show Roland’s faith to have been theoretically optimistic, secular, and Rousseauistic. Roland’s references to Francis of Sales’s “La Philothée” (which Cisar makes much of), consist of one ironic reference to its sensuality and one anxious one to its injunction to repress unprocreative sex (Mémoires de Madame Roland, ed. C. A. Dauban [Paris: Elibron Facsimile edition, 2002], 50, 67).

Cisar reads Roland’s texts at face value. As has been shown by a number of scholars (e.g., Dorina Outram, The Body and the French Revolution, and Nicole Trèves, “Madame Roland ou le parcours d’une intellectuelle à la grande âme,” Femmes savantes et femmes d’esprit, ed. R. Bonnel and C. Rubinger [New York: Peter Lang, 1994], 321-40]), Roland’s writings are defensive, guarded, often disingenous to protect her, and contain a multiplicity of intellectual journeys, each fascinating and on the level of an original genius. Cisar does not cite Françoise Kermina’s Madame Roland ou la passion révolutionnaire (1957; rpt. Perrin: Librairie Académique, 1976), which is meant to reach a wide audience and based on thorough archival research of her subject’s life. Kermina shows Roland to have been intensely ambitious: Roland’s writings hide from view her frustration, two years of intense politicking, and “une amertume terrible” (the phrase is Trèves, 322).

I would add that, like many another woman, Roland’s writings reveal a woman who valued the friendships she managed to sustain. There is a set of touching letters between her and a good friend, Sophie Canet; she was close to her mother and meant to be devoted to her daughter, who remained loyal. I think Roland was throughout her life profoundly depressed. When she and her husband fell from power and she was anathematized (with salacious slander very like that directed at so many other ambitious intelligent women), a barely controlled hysteria and paralyzing trauma actuated her decision not to flee death. She kept herself sane and explored this trauma by writing the famous memoir.


I discovered an excellent Norton

The course will of course be but one quarter on Roland. If it goes well, perhaps another time I can try Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden, and replace Johnson’s travel book with one of the era’s new biographies.

For the other three: I have not read Voltaire’s Candide in many years. When I did, I thought it was the 18th century equivalent of Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce for the 20th century, a sina qua non of the 18th century.


We hear her shouting and then muffled

I read Diderot’s The Nun in French (La Religieuse) and watched the extraordinary 1966 film directed by Jean Rivette, screenplay Jean Gruault, produced by George de Beuregard, starring Anna Karina as Suzanne when I wrote my paper on rape in Richardson’s Clarissa. A study which illuminates much of the process Clarissa and Suzanne go through is Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic violence to political terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992). For my study of Johnson and Woolf I’ve begun listening to Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands (blended with Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) on Recorded Books. The two readers do it very well.

Documents from the era in one of its new genres would make the point of what was the actuality of the era against its ideals more convincingly. I may add just snippets or excerpts on-line from the most famous books, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Hume’s famous chapter on the argument for a belief in God based on miracles (in the Dialogues), and Beccaria’s against torture from his Crimes and Punishments.

I can Sontag’e Volcano Lover, an important philosophical book for our time rooted in the 18th century — with Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General, in the spring. A reprise of the summer course I did at OLLI at Mason last summer.


An 18th century painting of “the Pont Neuf and pump house” (painter unnamed)

Ellen

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The Great Picture by Jan Van Belcamp: it takes three panels to suggest Clifford’s outer life

We should ourselves be sorry to think that posterity should judge us by a patchwork of our letters, preserved by chance, independent of their context, written perhaps in a fit of despondency or irritation, divorced, above all, from the myriad little strands which colour and compose our individual existence, and which in their multiplicity, their variety and their triviality, are vivid to ourselves alone, uncommunicable even to those nearest to us, sharing our daily life … Still, within our limitations it is necessary to arrive at some conclusion, certain facts do emerge … Vita Sackville-West, Introduction, Diary of Lady Anne Clifford (1923)

The knowledge that his arrow pointed to that impossible mark [‘a duplication of an image in the mind’] was Boswell’s source of confidence. Other biographers might forestall his book, but that they could rival it he never, in his most sombre moments, conceived. Those others did not know that biography is impossible … Geoffrey Scott, in the Malahide Papers, as quoted by Iris Origo, in “Biography: True and False” (1984)

Friends,

This is me again working out evolving thoughts about biography and the relationship of Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as modernist biographers. I’ve gone on to consider Maurois’s Aspects of Biography and define Woolf’s Flush as a canonical modernist biography. I’ve been reading Iris Origo’s short biographies and her essay on biography as well as Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage and Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles as two true sources for Woolf’s Orlando. And I’ve spent two to three weeks teaching Woolf’s Orlando.

One of the characteristics those who first wrote and theorized about biography after 1910 (the year when, we will remember, the world changed) as such, described the history of the genre, its development between the early modern period and 19th century, and then outlined and defined the type they were writing as “modern” all come to when they discuss the genre is its impossibility. It is impossible to write a text that truly accurately tells the life of an individual. It’s arguable that the way modernist biographies were written in the wake of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zélide, and longer examples of the same sort of thing (it’s not true that modernist biographies are always concise) like Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, and self-reflexive experiments, A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, were attempts to overcome the considerable complicated obstacles in the way.


Two chapters are inserted fragments of an autobiographical memoir by Sackville-West about her sexually free marriage, her lesbianism and love of her husband, whom she nonetheless exploited hard

Most of the time this continual reassertion is dismissed because the plain reality is that these writers and others (colleagues, friends, rivals, people privileged by living knowledge of the subject) went on trying to achieve such impossible feats in words, sometimes accompanied by pictures, anyway. My feeling is this blithe sliding over is also done because at the same time it has proved also impossible to persuade the countless readers of fat popular biographies (“great men,” lurid women) to stop looking at the text they are devouring as a compilation of facts from unquestionable documents that add up to what is seen as an existence telling to know about. The “common reader” so strongly yearned after by Samuel Johnson and then supposedly targeted by Virginia Woolf also will not accept frank fictionalization in their intake of biography, and are on the record (on the Internet and elsewhere) as regarding another modernist tenet (admission) that the greatest biographies are autobiographies in disguise as a convenient way to dismiss a book that contains a perspective or whatever information they might not want to consider seriously.

It will be part of my iconoclastic argument that the value of examining Johnson and Woolf’s biographical art in alignment from a modernist point of view is that both worked hard in pursuit of their repeated self-appointed or commissioned biographical tasks conceived in the most high-minded way, all the while coming up against their own bedrock accurate perception that what they aimed to do was highly problematic, if not quite impossible. It is important to see where they failed in order to recognize where they succeeded, not just to do justice to to under-recognized because not well-known or long texts, but to grasp in what biography inheres. I want to write up first how they understood the biographical process, its aims and its problems, which they never solved. My belief now after reading so much (including Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale) is that someone’s biography is a product in the mind of the reader and writer after a process of induced identification and empathy: this process requires several texts taken together.

How about that? a biography and autobiography does not end where the text ends at all? I have to return to Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in Fictional Woods, which was so essential for my chapter on Trollope’s Autobiography in my Trollope on the ‘Net.


Taking it down form its shelf

With this kind of outlook or basis, one can then move into biographical texts by them that have attained the status of masterpiece biographies, Johnson’s Life of Savage and Woolf’s Roger Fry: A Biography. These two texts have seemed to do the essential required core of biography, convey a complex living presence, mind and body, in the context of, or emerging from a historically accurate portrait of their society as these people experienced it. I admit to loving the Roger Fry after having read some of Fry’s writing and Frances Spalding’s biography of Fry as an artist and art critic, connoisseur, museum person, curator. Woolf also wrote biographical fantasies one of which post-modern attitudes would include a legitimately biographical: Orlando: A Biography. It’s a woman’s time-traveling fantasy perhaps inspired by the idea behind a tiny girls’ book by Vita Sack-ville West (A Note of Explanation). I’m not sure how I feel about Orlando. At some level I even dislike it, it’s too frivolous for me, at times silly, and deeply elitist. How should a biography be written? is some form of verisimilitude necessary? I think so, so Orlando doesn’t make the cut at all. In some of Johnson’s unfair Lives of the English Poets he allows the political perspective of the whole set or his own personal distaste for a kind of personality or literary style or stance to lead him into fictional biography, the most obvious his life of John Milton — where Johnson gets away with what he writes by using verisimilitude with a seemingly practiced novelistic art.

All these texts stand up to scrutiny only in the context of more recent biographical, autobiographical, critical and even fictional texts on and by the subject — they are printed with long notes and annotations. In the case of Johnson’s Life of Savage, I am convinced after reading Tracy Clarke that like Boswell, concluded Savage was at first simply lying and then became a self-deluded impostor. Johnson’s text is also egregiously misogynistic towards Anne Brett (who appears as Lady Easy, a bullied woman in Cibber’s The Careless Husband). Johnson captures the pity of this gifted man never being given a real chance to enter the aristocracy or gentry he was so determined to belong to; his strangeness in some ways, the angry, the mysteries, that he was thrown away. But what was he? Tracy comes much closer to capturing the real man. Woolf’s Fry cannot pass muster without Diane Gillespie’s long introduction and annotations (two thirds again as long as the book). It should be considered a literary biography, the kind I can hope to write about Winston Graham. Orlando just won’t do (I shall write on it separately next week): it’s a time traveling wish-fulfillment fantasy, telling of the life of a woman writer seeking an identity in society. For Johnson’s Thomas Gray two modernist concise biographies: one by Edmund Gosse and the other David Cecil can function as touchstones on what’s lacking in Johnson: they are both so much superior, as is Frances Mayhew Rippy’s Matthew Prior (an unassuming Twayne book).

Which are or what kinds of other biographical texts constitute Johnson and Woolf’s problematic attempts and successes? Thus far from my reading Johnson’s Lives of Dryden, Pope, Thomson and Collins, and Virginia Woolf’s short biographical essays about obscure and unknown women (one of Geraldine [Jewsbury] and Jane [Carlyle] is superior to Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights, gathered in the Common Reader, others in other collections (especially Memoirs of a Novelist) and still more in the Collected Essays. In all these the needed background, the panoply of other texts are the paradoxically long biographies of the treated literary figures which fail to address central cruxes of these lives which Johnson and Woolf do.

Flush: A Biography is a wholly successful modernist biography if we take what Woolf says in her two essays on biography seriously. (Another would then qualify: Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing, a fictionalized life of Marie de Gournay from the point of view of her maid. A fictionalized biography.) So is Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen more insightful than Josephine Ross’s.

I’ve also been questioning the assumed great worth of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, thinking about how good John Wain is, how original and questioning Nokes, and the respect I once gave to WJBates’s book. About 2/3s the way through the listening to Bernard Mayes reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I’ve tired of it. Johnson is there all right, but I have realized I have been mis-remembering, elevating him, forgetting how he regards women as instruments for men to make children with, yes an obsessive Christian; Boswell further skews the portrait by his constant justifications, idealizing, omitting Johnson’s sex life (very troubled), misrepresenting Mrs Thrale. Every once in a while a letter by Johnson brings his deeply humane character through, his comments his sensitive morality towards everyone (an off-the-cuff argument showing how slavery can never ever be justified in human arrangement, a deep violation). Johnson nails precisely that something is deeply wrong with a society where the homeless and sick are simply ignored — with the leaders he says, as they must act first. But I’ve stopped listening (gone on to Gabaldon’s Outlander 3: Voyager, read by Davina Porter). I probably much prefer Johnson straight than Johnson through Boswell.

I ought to decide which of the several still respected biographies of Woolf stands up: Julia Brigg’s Inner Life, Phyllis Rose’s Women of Letters, Hermione Lee’s old fashioned huge tome, whose aims are nonetheless those of modernist biography. I admit I need to read through the first two.

Not everyone fails; indeed my favorite form of reading is the literary biography and many masterpieces exist in the genre. This summer I read one: Claire Haman’s Charlotte Bronte, and Iris Origo made a career as a writer because she wrote great biographies and diary-journals. One of the great books for me of the later 20th century is Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: The confessions of a Romantic Biographer, which I taught three times in a class called Advanced Writing on the Humanities.

And I still believe that the key to understanding any one’s art is to understand their lives and that means reading the life-writing coming from and attached to the subject in all its forms. Wrong-headed biographies if they are intelligent and written out of sincerity and original thought are important in understanding writers too, e.g., David Nokes on Johnson and Austen.

This is where I’m at tonight on this project. I think I had better give this one up for a while. Put it away. And come back to it in May when the heavy teaching and most courses end. My thesis as far as I can manage is the value of studying these two writers seen as modern biographers is in what they teach us about biography in their successes and their failures, brilliant insights and misapprehensions and along the way about the people they create or misapprehend.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader, and invite any commentary on what you think of biography as a form or any of the texts I’ve cited. These have been thoughts I pushed out of myself with difficulty and then added to late at night and then early in the morning before dawn.


Isabel Coddrington (1874-1943), Evening 1925

Next up: blogs on Woolf’s Orlando and then (if I can only discipline myself once more to it) women artists.

Ellen

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A portrait of Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage


Photo of Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry

“Could not biography produce something of the intensity of poetry, something of the excitement of drama, and yet keep also the peculiar virtue that belongs to fact — its suggestive reality, its own proper excitement ….” Woolf, “The Art of Biography”

Bayle’s Dictionary is a very useful work for those to consult who love the biographical part of literature, which is what I love most … Johnson, quoted by Boswell

Friends,

This past Thursday after reading away for weeks and weeks, I gave a working name for a paper for a volume of essays on Johnson: “Presences Among Us Imagining People: Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf’s Biographical Art.” Here is what I then came up with for tentative theses, plan or lines of argument. It’s a document to work from:

“Presences Among Us Imagining People: Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf’s Biographical Art.”

In histories, theoretical works on, and close readings of the art of biography, Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf have been credited with themselves writing, and having stirred others to write significant and transformative essays on and works of autobiographical and biographical art. The reactions of people who knew Johnson or Woolf or the circles of people in which they throve, or who read them early on, have been so strong that it has been a source of distress to scholars and fans alike that many readers’ perceptions of Johnson derive from Boswell’s Life of Johnson and not Johnson’s writing; or of Woolf from misogynist, politicized and ignorant distortions of Bloomsbury and not Woolf’s writing. As a presence among us, like many women and 19th century writers, Woolf has further suffered from the family biography and control (e..g., Quentin Bell’s biography), and films ranging from ambivalent to hostile towards a woman intellectual who killed herself (e.g., The Hours). The mission of this volume is to refute through his own writing the apparent misfit and caricatures of Johnson to post-modern, post-colonial minds.

Woolf’s biographies fall into the specifically modernist type of biography beginning most notably with Lytton Strachey’s ironic Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria: a socio-psychoanalytic portrait written in aesthetically appropriate ethically invigorating forms true to the human experience of time. It need not follow the conventions for verisimilitude or literal documented supposed evidence, and her Flush and Orlando do not. The crucial feature of modernist biography is the recreation of convincingly particularized felt life in a documentable individual. Woolf was influenced by her father, Leslie Stephen’s interest in, writing about Johnson and the 18th century, and work as the editor and writer for the British Dictionary of National Biography. But in what Woolf writes in her life-writing and her journalism, it seems impossible to distinguish a sense of Johnson as a man apart from Boswell’s biography (especially “The Genius of Boswell,” “Saint Samuel of Fleet Street”). In his literary biographies, Johnson imagines their subjects through his encounter with his subject’s texts where time is irrelevant or timeless, while he takes what he can find out from others, from documents about their lived lives, and from specific political and cultural pressures, all to help account for the form these texts take. For Woolf also the life and personality of her subject is brought forth from their papers and environment, but she goes well beyond this consciously to take on board fictionalizing techniques and fantasy. Beyond this alignment and difference with and from Johnson, Woolf seems to have been influenced by Boswell and Johnson’s twin-tours to the Hebrides in her fiction; in To the Lighthouse Cornwall becomes the Hebrides.

Texts possibly to be discussed and examined: opening more general framing discussion from Johnson’s lives of Dryden, Pope, Milton, then for specific close reading The Life of Savage and the lesser known texts lives of Prior, Gray, and maybe Swift because there exist good modernist and portrait biographies for comparison; ending on how the lives as a whole cannot be regarded as literary history (too many important people left out), but can be seen as projecting the interconnection of politics in the era with poetry; maybe bring in fictional types in Johnson’s journalism in order to include women.

Turn to Woolf: texts possibly to be discussed and examined: opening more general framing discussion from her biography, Roger Fry, her Orlando (highly problematic as a literary life of Vita Sackville-West), then for specific close reading from Flush, her “Lives of the Obscure,” her Memoirs of Novelist (“Miss Joan Martyn,” “Mysterious Case of Miss V”). She argues fictional characters are more real and remembered more than non-fictional except in rare cases (like Boswell’s Life of Johnson) even if fiction is de-centered (Lighthouse, Jacob’s Room). We should read her fiction as autobiographical despite all the prejudice again this

[I’m not sure of the above: Maybe I’d do better in the central section just to analyze Life of Savage first and then her Roger Fry.]

Conclusion: Johnson alive, relevant to our age: his work can function as a good antidote against hagiography prevalent today despite all the supposed “interrogation:” he idolizes no one. He takes an ethical stand so often avoided in today’s academic literary study (candid talk about why this is so). Johnson keeps to strong standards of truth and is against acceptance of delusions & corruption (found in post-modern discussions of literary works, misled scholars, and fan groups). Woolf is crucial today, for she anticipates experiments in getting beyond impasses in biographical art: e.g., the aftermath life (Janet Malcolm on Sylvia Plath); the life made up of fragments; the quest biography; where the subject’s family or friends are obstacles and have held back letters. She is intensely aware how biography is a form of autobiography;he may be. Both respect serious literature of the past as a journey, an adventure, lending identity and meaning and distinguish it from trash, junk, and the mediocre.

Closure: She does seem very fond of him, and politically she is deeply of the left liberal anti-war anti-hierarchical, anti-colonial persuasion. A married lesbian. He seems to have great compassion for the marginalized, from a young boy who would have been a slave (whom he leaves his property to) and cats (much abused in the era), to at least an awareness (as a disabled person) of the place of disability in people’s lives, with affection for a number of women, e.g., Fanny Burney, Charlotte Lennox, Hill Boothby, Catherine Desmoulins (the latter two less well-known). He is fiercely anti-war (one of his Ramblers has a vulture teaching her young how to live by watching men slaughter one another), loathes debt-collectors and the unjust prison system of his age.

Why did I agree to do this? A friend asked me and for me this is not an unlikely pairing. I’ve loved both authors’ books and have been absorbed reading about them, their lives and work for many years now; like Johnson, the biographical part of literature is often what I love best.


Cover of the book I read in 2000s

First Johnson: as a graduate student I fell in love with Johnson as he presents himself in his writing. I took a course with Frank Brady (well-known scholar of Boswell, pupil of a once better-known scholar, Frederick Pottle), which turned out to be 3/4s Johnson and Boswell. My trip this past summer to the Scottish Highlands was partly prompted by reading more than 40 years ago now Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, together with its twin book, Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides. In my later 20s I used to solace myself reading to myself one a night of Johnson’s Ramblers, Idlers, Adventurers. They inspirited, strengthened, helped me to accept life because after seeing it fully, Johnson did — ironically.


Reynolds’s famous portrait of Johnson supposedly devouring a book — he seems to have become blind in one eye when a toddler

Jim liked Johnson too and when he took an undergraduate course in 18th century literature to finish his B.A. here in the states in the 1970s (in order to go to graduate school in math), he wrote a paper he called “The War of Johnson’s Ear.” He tried to demonstrate Johnson had a good ear for poetical rhythm. The professor was not impressed and gave him a B :(. Jim hadn’t like the course: he had looked forward to reading Johnson and Boswell (as I had), Burke, Paine, Reynolds, great poetry (Goldsmith but also women poets) and novels and memoirs. Maybe a couple originally in French (Voltaire). Admittedly his view of the great works were shaped by an old canon. He was appalled to be given the marginalia of Blake in Blake’s edition of Reynolds’s treatise on art. He found himself reading Eliza Fenwick whose texts Jim found beneath contempt. There was Goldsmith, Christopher Smart and early Wordsworth. Maybe Burns and Cowper. No Crabbe. And he probably let the professor know what he had felt. In the mid-1990s I taught a selection of Johnson in a Penguin book (edited by Patrick Cruttwell) for a literary survey course at George Mason university (British Literature first half): my representatives of the era were Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and this volume of Johnson. I didn’t use an anthology. I said we were reading intensively not extensively.

Then in the early 2000’s I and a friend opened a list for Eighteenth Century Worlds @Yahoo, and among the books that sustained it through the life it had, were Boswell’s Life of Johnson (there is apparently a fan group for Johnson as he appears in or with Boswell), the twin-tour books, then Johnson’s Ramblers, Idlers, Adventurers, and a single volume selection of Fanny Burney’s diary and journals (part of their circle). On my own, I turned to Hester Thrale Piozzi then, her travel book, Clifford’s biography of her, then just immersed myself in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters and poems — a member of a tangential world. I love to read and to write life-writing, letters, biographies. I would always go to the sessions on Johnson at ASECS and EC/ASECS. I’ve blogged on Johnson too.


The cover of the book I first read her in

That’s but one half of the diptych. My love for Virginia Woolf goes back to when Jim and I were first married and we used to take turns reading her letters and diaries aloud to one another in the evening (in Leeds where we didn’t even have a radio). Her Common Reader I read and remembered before that — in college. And before that for me in my later teens, The Voyage Out. He liked her too, and bought her essays and diaries — all the volumes, which I now possess in my library house. But even better or as much he read Leonard Woolf, the many volumed biography and novel — I read Glendinning’s magnificent biography on Leonard aloud to Jim on a long train trip. Teaching her brilliant anti-war, anti-patriarchal treatise, Three Guineas, in those same mid-1990s classes (the second half of British Literature where I also taught Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day) taught me so much.


Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Dalloway

It had been Woolf’s essays and life-writing that entranced me; but again in the 2000s, on another Yahoo list (Women Writers through the Ages) we had a Virginia Woolf summer and I listened to and read The Years and read her essays on early modern and 17th century people. Hooked once again. I went to Woolf sessions at all the MLAs I attended, even, with Jim by my side, a Virginia Woolf Society party — how daring of me. Since then I’ve belonged to the International Society, and get the yearly rich newsletter. For three years now I’ve been reading her on and off, begun again with on Wwtta, through Hermione Lee’s biography, posted about mostly on my Ellen and Jim have a Blog, Two. I’d go off and read the shorter of the works she analyzed. A year and a half ago, an OLLI course at AU took me through Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, books, and wonderful films & YouTube (Eileen Atkins). I just joined a Virginia Woolf list.

I love the short and long works, and this summer listened to, skim-read Between the Acts, just now finishing the deeply life-filled Jacob’s Room. I listen as well as read, and find Wanda McCadden’s cadences (her other name, Nadia May) emphasizes the more outward or dramatic aspects of the work: she does lose its peculiar combination of poignancy and comedy. It ought to be read as often as Mrs Dalloway. Jacob is a lover of the Greek classics: they are what he escapes from the modern world to, what paradoxically help him to understand at least one skein of the complicated life all around him. The feel of the text is captured in the lines of Patricia Fargnoli in one of her poems: “Life moves on like shadows of the windblown willows/to other lives …” Jacob keeps these beloved books in his room.

Jacob’s Room begins as a widow’s story. No where is this mentioned in the literature. Mrs Betty Flanders’ husband died in an accident years ago, leaving her with three children, one so young it cannot have been that many years. But we are made to feel her husband’s death happened a long while ago to her. She is in Cornwall for the holidays and writing a Captain friend, Barfoot (he’s married so safe) in Scarborough. There is a painter about whom Woolf writes in similar ways to what she says of Lily Briscoe, color, and lonely people who don’t fit in: Mr Steele. On the beach, a little later Mrs Flanders hears the waves, the ship — her husband died of an accident at sea. We are told he left her impoverished, but Woolf’s idea of poverty is different from some of us it seems. She has a nanny, doesn’t cook her own supper, doesn’t have to work for money. But she is at a great loss with these boy children, hanging from her….

She continually moves from inward presence to inward presence and by so doing uncovers a real feeling of living life which includes sex bought from prostitutes by our hero. Many of the presences come from utterly different classes in different areas of life. We also experiencing Jacob in a large variety of social worlds and deeds. Suddenly too the narrator will go into deep dream time on the place where the narrative has settled and allude way back in time so it becomes a movement through centuries, deep history embedded in people today One aristocratic lady likes such-and-such food because her ancestors have been enjoying it since their death, this partial recreation. The novel of manners or social life is left far behind.

Jacob’s Room is as decentered as unheroic as Roger Fry as de-centered as The Waves, Between the Acts. While we can believe in Jacob, he is just a center knob in a wheel where all the spokes — all the many living presences and places come out of. I just love how he loves and thinks in terms of the Greek classics. This morning I listened to how Woolf manages to bring in tandem a sense of a desperately homeless (near) prostitute trying to get into the house where Jacob lives and other street people and the people at a party he went to — when he came home he thought how delightful to be with 10 new people (themselves beautifully captured), and we find a long reverie on the books at the British library, all by men, Jacob is spending his evening’s reading.

3/4’s through I began to worry about Jacob. I’ve read somewhere that he dies at the end — perhaps that’s why people say (carelessly) this book is about her brother. Jacob is the central node of the book, but it is in space equally about many people whom he comes across and spends time with. Especially women who are vulnerable. I am so touched with those women Jacob goes to bed with — this is indicated discreetly. They are the models paid to strip naked by his friends or at the Slade: ignorant, even dumb, without a chance in the world for respect or security or comfort. Prostitutes. His mother, the widow, whom the book opened with hardly goes any where in her life, hardly meets anyone outside her narrow class sphere and local area.

By near the end of the book Jacob has fallen in love with a married woman he meet while touring, but he has not connected deeply with anyone (not her either). He is not married. It’s hinted people think he’s homosexual and he writes to a male friend Bonamy. I can’t see any other ending but death. Probably in World War One. The book takes place just earlier. At the end of The Voyage Out Rachel dies. In the middle of To the Lighthouse Mrs Ramsay dies, and in the last third we are told of three other deaths of characters who meant something. I wonder if anyone has written about this urge to death in Woolf’s novels — probably, this one seems the saddest of all. We cherish this character as we are told his close friends do. Others say he is the best person they ever met. He never hurts anyone. He has truly intelligent (sceptical) attitudes towards politics. Acts with compassion and courtesy. The book is about life itself as a stream of feeling; she feels equally intense over say a crab or some other creature endlessly trying to say jump over something and it cannot.

I even managed The Waves (just) using a reading aloud on CDs (I couldn’t have managed without Frances Geater). This morning I began a second reading of her biography of Roger Fry, this time in the superlative edition by Diane Gillespie.


Fry’s portrait of Virginia Woolf — they were at times very close

I’ve lots of wonderful reading ahead: other “modern biographies,” more on visual art, portraiture. I use the titles Dr and Mrs for fun — that’s how he is known popularly and what she was called, how addressed in her lifetime.

So now I will listen to Boswell’s Johnson read aloud (unabridged), from Librivox, which I have put here, with a hope of reading/listening to it late at night — if the MP3 of the same work there called The life of Samuel Johnson (unabridged) read by Bernard Mayes doestn’t work well in my car.

Ellen

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