Reading the life of Dr Johnson is always rewarding

Dr Johnson

Caring deeply for the works of a great writer sometimes prompts a reflective modern author to suggest that he can teach us how to live. Thus Alain de Botton on Proust and now Henry Hitchings in his recent book: The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life (Macmillan).

Writing about the life of Dr Johnson will always be rewarding for its author and for readers, given Johnson’s largeness of stature, both physically and intellectually and the indispensable anecdotes provided by James Boswell; nonetheless, to try to treat him as a mentor for how to change or improve one’s life, is a fanciful and useless enterprise. I don’t know anyone who has seriously reformed his habits in this way – except – occasionally – by reading the life of a saint.

And this is the flaw in an otherwise well-written and informative book by someone who has steeped himself in the life of this great-souled man. As I commented in my blog earlier this week about Caroline Slocock’s memoir of her time working for Margaret Thatcher, the author does not try to get inside Thatcher’s strong, if conventional, religious views (to be fair to her, they are hardly relevant to her brief period of working inside Number 10).

Johnson, it hardly needs to be said, is a much richer, more fascinating character to think about than this famous political leader. Nonetheless, underlying all his literary enterprises, his friendships, his public reputation and the portrait that emerges from Boswell, was a man of deep and unshakeable Christian faith, though it could be tinged with morbidity and a powerful sense of his own sinfulness.

Hitchings, a 21st century author – though well-read and who clearly has a lifelong love of Johnson, first reading Boswell at university, aged 19 – does not much consider or dwell on this crucial aspect of his own mentor; nor does he quote or reflect upon Johnson’s personal prayers, composed not out of conventional piety but out of his overwhelming need for spiritual consolation and his recognition, following the writings of William Law, that religious belief is the most fundamental question a man can wrestle with.

That aside, Hitchings reminds one why one returns again and again to a favourite author and why Johnson is still read and loved, as much for the way he lived as for what he wrote.

When people speak about him it is never merely a question of “Have you read his Lives of the Poets? Have you read his Prefaces to Shakespeare?” because the man himself, with all his human oddities and frailties, is so completely bound up with his literary productivity; they cannot be separated, even if, as I have remarked above, it is hardly the case that Johnson’s way of coping with misfortune will inspire us – despite Hitchings writing that he “has known long sickness and its opportunities, and his experienced of navigating suffering can be an inspiration to anyone who’s sick.”

I first discovered Dr Johnson, long before reading Boswell, by being directed to read his Life of Richard Savage, who as Hitchings explains was “the story of a failure and an outcast [suggesting] that a marginal figure can be interesting, worth treating with compassion and psychological acuity.”

You can only be drawn to and indeed love (as Hitchings clearly does) the man who, feeling himself to be in some ways an outcast himself, despite his social standing and his wide circle of friends, made an improbable marriage to a woman 20 years his senior; and who had a 36-year friendship with Robert Levet, an unlicensed doctor and of whom Johnson later wrote in a poem, that he was “obscurely wise and coarsely kind”.

Finally, you have to warm to someone whose household usually consisted of homeless or otherwise socially unacceptable or unusual people: Robert Levet, Anna Williams, a blind poet, Francis Barber, a former West Indian slave-boy – and many others who came knocking on his door for charity or refuge. A century and a half before Dorothy Day began her Houses of Hospitality in the tenements of Washington, Dr Johnson practised his own warm-hearted version of a “house of hospitality” in Gough Square and Bolt Court.