Cracking jokes with Dr Johnson

27 April 2019

9:00 AM

27 April 2019

9:00 AM

I cast my Readers under two general Divisions, the Mercurial and the Saturnine. The first are the gay part of my Disciples, who require Speculations of Wit and Humour; the others are those of a more solemn and sober Turn, who find no Pleasure but in Papers of Morality and sound Sense…Were I always Grave, one half of my Readers would fall off from me: Were I always Merry, I should lose the other. I make it therefore my endeavour to find out Entertainments of both kinds.

Thus spake Joseph Addison in 1711, frustrated at the difficulty of keeping readers of The Spectator happy. Leo Damrosch, emeritus professor of literature at Harvard, appears to have taken heed when writing this detailed, gripping study of genius and geniality in 18th-century London. He oscillates between academic explanations of weighty intellectual ideas and gossipy stories on the men who spawned them. Subjects which would otherwise have been a dusty read become a joy.

That’s appropriate for a work about men who turned thought into fun. The book is ostensibly about the social circles surrounding a club which Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson set up together in 1763, to cheer Johnson up after a heavy bout of depression. Members gathered for a pint, a plate and a leisurely debate in the Turk’s Head Tavern on Gerrard Street (just behind Leicester Square) every Friday. They were selected for their intellectual acumen, the greatest minds of the age.

But it’s wrong to assume that a high-minded genius won’t have lowbrow taste. Edward Gibbon may have been the first historian to argue against divine influence in the early expansion of Christianity, but that didn’t stop him cracking jokes about being so fat he couldn’t see his own penis. Edmund Burke was undoubtedly the greatest orator of the age, but his humour rested on puns worthy of a Poundland Christmas cracker. For members, the serious went hand in hand with the silly.

Damrosch is eclectic, sketching out the lives of Club members who influenced both their age and ours, in a wide variety of fields. Reynolds gets a chapter, as do David Garrick and Adam Smith. But there is a gap in the form of the president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks. He advised the British government on how the latest scientific discoveries could be applied for state benefit, and was an 18th-century superstar for his role in the discovery of Australia on Cook’s first voyage. In a century which advanced globalisation further than ever before, Banks ‘shaped the age’ too.

Pride of place is given to the unsinkable relationship between Johnson and James Boswell. They were an unusual pairing: the former 6ft tall, austere, dressed in dishevelled clothes and an ill-fitting wig. The latter was 30 years younger, 5ft 6in, jocular, double-chinned and impeccably dressed. Johnson treated Boswell as a friend and son, to be advised and guided. Boswell regarded Johnson as a father and mentor, to be heeded and worshipped. Boswell was the keenest of groupies. As a member of a house party, the diarist Fanny Burney was seated next to Johnson at breakfast. Boswell took his chair and placed it right behind Johnson who, oblivious, continued talking. ‘His eyes goggled with eagerness,’ wrote Burney; ‘he leant his ear almost on the shoulder of the Doctor, and his mouth dropped open to catch every syllable that might be uttered.’

Damrosch looks beyond the Johnson who cynically squints out of the famous portrait by Reynolds, the man of iron logic and scorching put-downs. His pronounced tics aroused pity. ‘His mouth is in perpetual motion, as if he was chewing’, said Burney; ‘he has a strange method of frequently twirling his fingers, and twisting his hands — his body is in continual agitation, seesawing up and down.’

His daily life was riddled with OCD. When walking the streets of London, he obsessively touched every other one of the posts which lined the pavement, doubling back if he missed one. The Great Lexicographer adored children and shared their impish flair for the ridiculous. When congratulated by a pair of women for having omitted rude words from his dictionary, he responded, with a twinkle: ‘What, my dears! Have you been looking for them?’ Getting up from his chair at a dinner party in Inverness, ‘he stood erect, put out his hands like feelers, and gathering up the tails of his huge brown coat so as to resemble a pouch… made two or three vigorous bounds across the room.’ He was imitating a kangaroo, newly arrived in London.

By contrast, Boswell struggled to be serious. He fancied himself a writer of substance. But aged 46, he was still stuck on the students’ benches at Inner Temple, training to be a barrister. His drinking sprees were notorious: he once consumed five bottles of claret and then fell down the entire flight of stairs off Edinburgh’s Advocate’s Close.

His thinking can only be described as non-existent. For Lord Macaulay, ‘there is not in all his books a single remark of his own on literature, politics, religion or society which is not either commonplace or absurd’. He composed awful poems championing slavery (‘wise subordination’s plan’) and never bothered to hide his dalliances with prostitutes from his wife. So ashamed were the Boswell family of this wayward laird that one great-granddaughter invited guests to take pot-shots with a pistol at his Reynolds portrait.

But Boswell redeems himself through his remarkable journals — a great read in their own right. He brought them to life by adding mannerisms, direct speech, body language, tone of voice and facial expression, something no diarist had thought to do before. ‘In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost to oblivion.’ The frequency with which Damrosch cites Boswell demonstrates his importance for those seeking to inject wit and humour into the be-wigged solemnity of London’s Enlightenment.

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