This is to me a memorable year ; for in it I had the happiness to obtain the acquaintance of that extraordinary man whose memoirs I am now writing; an acquaintance which I shall ever esteem as one of the most fortunate circumstances in my life. Though then but two-and-twenty, I had for several years read his works with delight and instruction, and had the highest reverence for their author, which had grown up in my fancy into a kind of mysterious veneration, by figuring to myself a state of solemn elevated abstraction in which I supposed him to live in the immense metropolis of London ...
Mr. Thomas Davies the actor, who then kept a bookseller's shop in Russell Street, Covent-garden, told me that Johnson was very much his friend, and came frequently to his house, where he more than once invited me to meet him; but by some unlucky accident or other he was prevented from coming to us.
Mr. Thomas Davies was a man of good understanding and talents, with the advantage of a liberal education. Though somewhat pompous, he was an entertaining companion; and his literary performances have no inconsiderable share of merit. . . . Mr. Davies recollected several of Johnson's remarkable sayings, and was one of the best of the many imitators of his voice and manner while relating them. He increased my impatience more and more to see the extraordinary man whose works I highly valued, and whose conversation was reported to be so peculiarly excellent.
At last, on Monday the 16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr. Davies's back-parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us—he announced his awful approach to me somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost, `Look, my lord, it comes.' I found that I had a very perfect idea of Johnson's figure, from the portrait of him painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds soon after he had published his Dictionary, in the attitude of sitting in his easy chair in deep meditation, which was the first picture his friend did for him, which Sir Joshua very kindly presented to me, and from which an engraving has been made for this work. Mr. Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, `Don't tell him where I come from.'—'From Scotland,' cried Davies, roguishly. `Mr. Johnson,' said I, `I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.' I am willing to flatter myself that I meant this as light pleasantry to soothe and conciliate him, and not as an humiliating abasement at the expense of my country. But however that might be, this speech was somewhat unlucky; for with that quickness of wit for which he was so remarkable, he seized the expression `come from Scotland', which I used in the sense of being of that country; and, as if I had said that I had come away from it, or left it, retorted, `That, Sir, I find is what a very great number of your countrymen cannot help.' This stroke stunned me a good deal; and when we had sat down, I felt myself not a little embarrassed, and apprehensive of what might come next. He then addressed himself to Davies: `What do you think of Garrick? He has refused me an order for the play for Miss Williams because he knows the house will be full, and that an order would be worth three shillings.' Eager to take any opening to get into conversation with him, I ventured to say, `O, Sir; I cannot think Mr. Garrick would grudge such a trifle to you.' `Sir,' (said he, with a stern look) `I have known David Garrick longer than you have done: and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.' Perhaps I deserved this check; for it was rather presumptuous in me, an entire stranger, to express any doubt of the justice of his animadversion upon his old acquaintance and pupil. I now felt myself much mortified, and began to think the hope which I had long indulged of obtaining his acquaintance was blasted. And, in truth, had not my ardour been uncommonly strong, and my resolution uncommonly persevering, so rough a reception might have deterred me for ever from making any further attempts. Fortunately, however, I remained upon the field not wholly discomfited; and was soon rewarded by hearing some of his conversation....
I was highly pleased with the extraordinary vigour of his conversation, and regretted that I was drawn away from it by an engagement at another place. I had, for a part of the evening, been left alone with him, and had ventured to make an observation now and then, which he received very civilly; so that I was satisfied that though there was a roughness in his manner, there was no ill-nature in his disposition. Davies followed me to the door, and when I complained to him a little of the hard blows which the great man had given me, he kindly took upon him to console me by saying, `Don't be uneasy. I can see he likes you very well.'
Boswell, Life of Johnson, i. 383-4, 390-3, 395.
I WAS in true spirits; the earth was covered with snow; I surveyed wild nature with a noble eye. I called up all the grand ideas which I have ever entertained of Voltaire. The first object that struck me was his church with the inscription: `Deo erexit Voltaire MDCCLXI.' His chateau was handsome, I was received by two or three footmen, who showed me into a very elegant room. I sent by one of them a letter to Monsieur de Voltaire which I had from Colonel Constant at the Hague. He returned and told me, `Monsieur de Voltaire is very much annoyed at being disturbed. He is abed.' I was afraid that I should not see him. Some ladies and gentlemen entered, and I was entertained for some time. At last Monsieur de Voltaire opened the door of his apartment, and stepped forth. I surveyed him with eager attention, and found him just as his print had made me conceive him. He received me with dignity, and that air of the world which a Frenchman acquires in such perfection. He had a slate-blue, fine frieze night-gown, and a three-knotted wig. He sat erect upon his chair, and simpered when he spoke. He was not in spirits, nor I neither. All I presented was the `foolish face of wondering praise'.
We talked of Scotland. He said the Glasgow editions were `très belles'. I said, `An Academy of Painting was also established there, but it did not succeed. Our Scotland is no country for that.' He replied with a keen archness, `No; to paint well it is necessary to have warm feet. It's hard to paint when your feet are cold.' Another would have given a long dissertation on the coldness of our climate. Monsieur de Voltaire gave the very essence of raillery in half a dozen words....
I told him that Mr. Johnson and I intended to make a tour through the Hebrides, the Northern Isles of Scotland. He smiled, and cried, `Very well; but I shall remain here. You will allow me to stay here?' `Certainly.' `Well then, go. I have no objections at all.'
I asked him if he still spoke English. He replied, `No. To speak English one must place the tongue between the teeth, and I have lost my teeth.' . . .
I returned yesterday to this enchanted castle. The magician appeared a little before dinner. But in the evening he came into the drawing room in great spirits. I placed myself by him. I touched the keys in unison with his imagination. I wish you had heard the music. He was all brilliance. He gave me continued flashes of wit. I got him to speak English, which he does in a degree that made me now and then start up and cry, `Upon my soul this is astonishing!' When he talked our language he was animated with the soul of a Briton. He had bold flights. He had humour. He had an extravagance; he had a forcible oddity of style that the most comical of our dramatis personae could not have exceeded. He swore bloodily, as was the fashion when he was in England. He hummed a ballad; he repeated nonsense. Then he talked of our Constitution with a noble enthusiasm. I was proud to hear this from the mouth of an illustrious Frenchman. At last we came upon religion. Then did he rage. The company went to supper. Monsieur de Voltaire and I remained in the drawing room with a great Bible before us; and if ever two mortal men disputed with vehemence, we did. Yes, upon that occasion he was one individual and I another.... I demanded of him an honest confession of his real sentiments. He gave it me with candour and with a mild eloquence which touched my heart. I did not believe him capable of thinking in the manner that he declared to me was `from the bottom of his heart'. He expressed his veneration—his love—of the Supreme Being, and his entire resignation to the will of Him who is All-wise. He expressed his desire to resemble the Author of Goodness by being good himself. His sentiments go no further. He does not inflame his mind with grand hopes of the immortality of the soul. He says it may be, but he knows nothing of it. And his mind is in perfect tranquillity. I was moved; I was sorry. I doubted his sincerity. I called to him with emotion, `Are you sincere? are you really sincere? He answered, `Before God, I am.' Then with the fire of him whose tragedies have so often shone on the theatre of Paris, he said, `I suffer much. But I suffer with patience and resignation; not as a Christian—but as a man.'
Boswell on the Grand Tour, ed. Frederick A. Pottle (1953), pp. 272-3, 285-6.
WHEN we had advanced a good way by the side of Loch Ness, I perceived a little hut, with an old-looking woman at the door of it. I thought here might be a scene that would amuse Dr. Johnson; so I mentioned it to him. `Let's go in,' said he. We dismounted, and we and our guides entered the hut. It was a wretched hovel of earth only, I think, and for a window had only a small hole, which was stopped with a piece of turf, that was taken out occasionally to let in light. In the middle of the room or space which we entered was a fire of peat, the smoke going out at a hole in the roof. She had a pot upon it, with goat's flesh, boiling. There was at one end under the same roof, but divided by a kind of partition made of wattles, a pen or fold in which we saw a good many kids.
Dr. Johnson was curious to know where she slept. I asked one of the guides, who questioned her in Erse. She answered with a tone of emotion, saying (as he told us), she was afraid we wanted to go to bed to her. This coquetry, or whatever it may be called, of so wretched a being was truly ludicrous. Dr. Johnson and I afterwards were merry upon it. I said, it was he who alarmed the poor woman's virtue.—'No, sir,' said he, `she'll say, "There came a wicked young fellow, a wild dog, who I believe would have ravished me, had there not been with him a grave old gentleman who repressed him: but when he gets out of the sight of his tutor, I'll warrant you he'll spare no woman he meets, young or old."'—'No, sir,' I replied, `she'll say, "There was a terrible ruffian who would have forced me, had it not been for a civil decent young man, who, I take it, was an angel sent from heaven to protect me."'
Boswell, Life of Johnson, v. 132-3 (from The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides).
IT was Boswell's custom during the sessions to dine daily with the judges, invited or not. He obtruded himself everywhere. Lowe (mentioned by him in his life of Johnson) once gave me a humorous picture of him. Lowe had requested Johnson to write him a letter, which Johnson did, and Boswell came in while it was writing. His attention was immediately fixed; Lowe took the letter, retired, and was followed by Boswell.
`Nothing,' said Lowe, `could surprise me more. Till that moment he had so entirely overlooked me, that I did not imagine he knew there was such a creature in existence; and he now accosted me with the most over-strained and insinuating compliments possible:
`How do you do, Mr. Lowe? I hope you are very well, Mr. Lowe? Pardon my freedom, Mr. Lowe, but I think I saw my dear friend, Dr. Johnson, writing a letter for you.'
`I hope you will not think me rude, but if it would not be too great a favour, you would infinitely oblige me, if you would just let me have a sight of it. Every thing from that hand, you know, is so inestimable.'
`Sir, it is on my own private affairs, but—'
`I would not pry into a person's affairs, my dear Mr. Lowe, by any means, I am sure you would not accuse me of such a thing, only if it were no particular secret.'
`Sir, you are welcome to read the letter.'
`I thank you, my dear Mr. Lowe, you are very obliging, I take it exceedingly kind. (Having read) It is nothing, I believe, Mr. Lowe, that you would be ashamed of.'
`Why then, my dear sir, if you would do me another favour, you would make the obligation eternal. If you would but step to Peele's coffee-house with me, and just suffer me to take a copy of it, I would do anything in my power to oblige you.'
`I was overcome', said Lowe, `by this sudden familiarity and condescension, accompanied with bows and grimaces. I had no power to refuse; we went to the coffee-house, my letter was presently transcribed, and as soon as he had put his document in his pocket, Mr. Boswell walked away, as erect and proud as he was half an hour before, and I ever afterward was unnoticed. Nay, I am not certain', added he sarcastically, `whether the Scotchman did not leave me, poor as he knew I was, to pay for my own dish of coffee.'
Memoirs of the late Thomas Holcroft Written by Himself, ed. William Hazlitt (1816; World's Classics edition 1926), pp. 254-255.
|« NEXT »||« 18th Century Anecdotes »||« All Anecdotes »||« Humour »||« Library »|