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"All That Life Can Afford":
The London of Samuel Johnson

by Sean McLachlan

Statue of Samuel
JohnsonAs it entered the 18th century, London was at the start of its golden age. In the previous two centuries England had burgeoned from an island kingdom to a worldwide empire, and the wealth of its colonies poured through London, which was both its capital and largest port. The city transformed from a cramped, rather primitive town into a booming metropolis with wide avenues, attractive squares, and a wealth of galleries, bookshops, and museums. London seemed to have the best of everything, being a major center for art and culture and having the largest publishing industry in the world.

There were plenty of ramshackle, poor neighborhoods left, however, and the streets were filled with criminals and beggars. The city government was corrupt and inefficient, sanitation bad, riots common, and disease and drunkenness rife. London offered the best and worst of life. It was, in sum, the perfect place for a writer.

One of the most famous writers from this era was Samuel Johnson, a prolific author of articles and commentaries on just about everything. His most famous work was the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. There had been dictionaries before, but his was far more complete and contained derivations of words. His work became a model for later lexicographers.

Strangely, Johnson is actually better known not for his writings, but for his biography, published by James Boswell in 1791. A classic of the genre, it's filled with fascinating details about the man and his times and reveals him to be as clever and engaging in conversation as he was on paper. Johnson had an uncanny ability to shoot off a one-liner for every conceivable situation. On the vast differences between rich and poor in London, he commented, "A decent provision for the poor, is the only true test of civilization." On politics he quipped, "Politicks are now nothing more than means of rising in the world. With this sole view do men engage in politicks, and their whole conduct proceeds upon it." This sort of cynicism, which pervades his commentaries on Parliament, earned him no shortage of critics, but he philosophized, "I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his words."

Perhaps his most famous quote, and certainly the one reproduced the most in his city is: "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

He also offered a piece of good advice to travelers to this fascinating city:

Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.

Samuel Johnson HouseOne of these "innumerable little lanes" is Wine Office Court, just off the old publishing center of Fleet St. Pass up this alley and you'll end up in Gough Square, where Dr. Johnson lived at number 17. It's a perfectly preserved Georgian courtyard and the house, built in 1700, is now a museum, providing a good idea of how a reasonably well-to-do gentleman lived in those times.

While most often associated with London, the city that he loved, Johnson was actually born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, in 1709. Johnson decided to make his fortune in London as a journalist and found work with The Gentleman's Magazine, a leading periodical. He soon became popular for his sharp wit and perceptive prose. One of his duties was to report on the proceedings of Parliament, much like Charles Dickens' first writing job a century later. When the government banned such coverage, Johnson continued his column under the title "Debates of the Senate of Magna Lilliputia", using invented dialog and names, but showing the real people and positions all too clearly. Later, a group of booksellers pooled together to have Johnson write a dictionary of the language he could use so skillfully.

Johnson decided his current quarters were too small and the six assistants he hired for the dictionary project, so he moved to 17 Gough Square in 1748. It was here that Boswell met Johnson and wrote his biography, and reading this book, or at least a portion of it, is highly recommended before visiting. Boswell vividly describes a house filled with productive chaos, books everywhere, Johnson hunched over piles of manuscripts, visitors coming and going, and frequent breaks to go around the corner for a drink at Johnson's favorite pub, Ye Cheshire Cheese.

The house has been lovingly restored by Johnson's modern admirers and is furnished according to the period, although not nearly with as much furniture as would have been when it was in use. Johnson's hectic life, with servants, writing assistants, and guests would have made his home quote crowded. Displays discuss Johnson's career and that of his many famous friends, and there are various mementoes from his life.

Hodge, Samuel
Johnson's CatAn eloquent indication of 18th-century life in a big city is the massively fortified front door. The thick wooden portal is equipped with two heavy bolts and the fanlight is blocked with a spiked bar to stop the common practice of burglars employing young boys to crawl through and open the door from the inside. As added protection, there is a heavy chain fasted to a corkscrew latch. A skilled burglar could pull a chain off a normal latch with a hook on the end of a string thrown through the fanlight, but it wouldn't have been able to unwind it from the corkscrew.

The garret is where Johnson and his assistants worked, and here the displays cover the writer's most famous project. There's a copy of his dictionary to flip through that makes fascinating reading. The definitions often come with a bit of editorializing, such as: "LexicographerĐa writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."

In the courtyard out front is a statue to Hodge, "a very fine cat indeed". The fact that there's a statue to Johnson's cat says a lot about English character. Johnson used to go out and buy Hodge oysters, not trusting the servants to keep Hodge as sufficiently well fed as such a fine cat is entitled.

Sadly, the atmosphere of Gough Square is being disturbed by a massive building project just to the north. Towering office and apartment blocs already loom over the square, and while their completion will finally end the relentless staccato of jackhammers, visitors will still have to shade their eyes to screen out this modern intrusion on Georgian London.

Once you're done with the house, get a drink at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, named simply Ye Cheshire Cheese in Johnson's era. It's not clear when a pub was first built here, but the current building dates to 1667, having been erected on the site of an older pub destroyed by the Great Fire of London. Come here to see the way pubs used to be: a rambling layout with tiny little rooms, dim lighting, and great beer. Boswell drank with Johnson here as he worked on Johnson's biography, and many of the good doctor's witticism were probably said here after a pint or three. Dickens and Chesterton drank under these beams too, as does the struggling and soon-to-be-famous novelist Sean McLachlan when he's in town. The crowd is a mixture of tourists and City lawyers (called barristers in England), but despite this well-heeled clientele it's one of the cheaper pubs in town. Johnson's favorite bench is preserved in the dining room, as is one of the chairs from his house, and there's a painting of him in one of the front drinking rooms.

The square, the house, and the pub add up to a fine taste of Georgian London, so head on over to the good doctor's house, say hello to Hodge, and quaff a pint where men of letters have quaffed for generations.

Ye Old Cheshire Cheese

More Information:

Dr. Johnson's House is located at 17 Gough Sq. EC4 and is open Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. May-Sept.; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct.-April. Entry is £4.50 for adults, £3.50 for seniors and students, £1.50 for children, and £10 for a family. The closest Tube station is Blackfriars and their phone number is 020-7353-3745. More information can be found on their website at http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is located at 145 Fleet St. EC4 and is open Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. noon-10:30 p.m. The nearest Tube station is Blackfriars and their phone number is 020-7353-6170. It's right off Fleet St. down an alley called Wine Office Court.

Sean McLachlan is a freelance writer specializing in travel and history. He has written several books including Byzantium: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 2004) and Moon Handbooks London (Avalon, 2007). Visit him on the web at http://midlistwriter.blogspot.com and http://grizzledoldtraveler.blogspot.com.

Article and photos © 2007 Sean McLachlan


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