Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Kate Chisholm's 'Wits and Wives' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


The Dr Johnson Reading Circle once again gathered in what was (probably) Johnson’s bedroom to discuss his relationship with women. We were amply aided by Kate Chisholm, Spectator radio critic, Burney society member, biographer and the writer of ‘Wits and Wives: Dr Johnson in the Company of Women.’

The purpose of the book is to show more sides to Johnson than the clubbable man’s man of Boswell’s biography as well as to showcase some of the fascinating women who mixed and mingled with him. Picking the book up, I was concerned that it might be too close to the similarly intentioned ‘Johnson’s Women’ by Norma Clarke. (A title that sounds far more more scabrous then it is). My worries were ill-founded. ‘Wits and Wives’ is a more approachable book with a welcoming tone and a habit of finding different interpretations and new facts.

The evening’s discussion naturally revolved around three areas; Johnson’s relationship with women, the women themselves and the different ways women adapted to the eighteenth century public sphere in ways that either helped or hindered their talents.

My favourite chapters were the first two, one about Johnson’s mother and the other about his wife, Tetty. Most biographies are cruel to Sarah Johnson, John Wain blames her for most of the mental distress Johnson suffered throughout his life. His fierce vitriol towards Johnson’s mother seems more revealing about his own, but Chisholm highlights the lengths she went to. How she travelled to London whilst pregnant to heal Samuel’s scrofula. The reader is also reminded that it was Sarah who taught him to read, challenged his memory with collects of the day and formed his mind for the future.

Similarly, the chapter on Tetty sought to challenge the given view of her as a gin-swilling, useless woman with too much makeup. The book reminded us that Johnson was productive during his marriage to Tetty, never once succumbing to the black dog. We discussed what a strange relationship they had, with a twenty year age gap and their regular periods of (amicable?) separation. Most strangely, we learned that Johnson and Tetty’s wedding is recreated once a year in Derby. 

But what about the other women?

Probably most famous in her connection to Johnson was Hester Thrale. Our conversation mostly centred on what a quiet tragedy her life was - saddled with yearly pregnancy, losing many of those children and living in a loveless marriage. We wondered how much her horrible life could be used to excuse the way she dropped her children (and Johnson) after her marriage to Piozzi. Kate Chisholm told us how she read Hester’s letters to daughter Queeney from Italy, that they were extraordinary and deserved publishing. Something I’d definitely love to see.

One of the interesting points brought out was how freeing the press could be for a woman, if she adopted techniques to survive. Elizabeth Carter and Hannah Moore spent time hustling in London, proving themselves to be popular with the public before retiring to small towns and put their talents to moral uses. 

Charlotte Lennox was a different matter - she was an aggressively versatile writer who pioneered the serialised novel as well as essays, a female version of the Spectator and plays. She never had the financial comfort to ever settle down, stop writing or do good words - but she shares in the bravery and industry which characterises the best of the Grub Street hacks. 

One of the sadder story was that of Frances Reynolds. The older sister of Joshua, she kept his house for him and ran his dinner parties. She was famously bad at this, and there was never enough of anything needed at those parties, though that was more than made up in good conversation. Whether Frances was a better painter than Joshua was something we couldn’t decide, though she certainly seems a more frank and honest portraitist than him, as her portrait of the ghostly deathly Johnson shows. 

Not really surprising that he was to die in a few months. This portrait was started after Johnson reconciled the siblings after falling out. The fact is, that where Elizabeth Carter (and to a lesser extent, Hannah Moore) could use likeability to further their writing, Frances seems to prickly a character. Also, unlike Lennox, she never fully committed and just did it. Famously indecisive and trapped with her more sociable, famous (less talented?) brother, she was condemned to not have the success that many of the other women in the book had. We also reflected how it was possible for a deadline-shy grump like Johnson, or a foot-in-mouth buffoon like Goldsmith to have success with questionable social skills - but women like Frances Reynolds less so.

One of the greatest joys with having an author at the meeting is asking them what difficulties they had in creating the book. In the case of this group biography, it was all the excisions that needed to be made for clarity, chronology and narrative. Two women who didn’t make the book were Anna Seward and Elizabeth Montagu - for the very honest reason that their writing (especially letters) simply didn’t engage the author. 

Kate Chisholm said that if she could, she would spend her whole life rooting through the letters of people she admires, that the concentration and the thrill of handling something that belongs to that very moment of creation is something special. A hum of appreciation went up throughout the room - it’s that kind of group.


Aside from being an enjoyable and informative read, I recommend ‘Wits and Wives’ for having a very entertaining set of notes.

Next time we'll be reading Johnson himself with some of his lives of the poets.

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