Samuel Johnson: A Biography, By Peter Martin

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Dr Johnson is known through Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson as a literary celebrity, star conversationalist, scholar and sage of international renown. Without undermining that portrait, Peter Martin explores the parts that Boswell does not reach. He gives a much fuller account of Johnson's childhood – his family poverty, his disfigurement from scrofula, his poor eyesight, his physical clumsiness, his hostility towards his younger brother, his prowess at swimming, his quickness at learning and his prodigious memory – and also a much fuller account of Johnson the writer, and his long struggle to earn a living by his pen. It's often forgotten that as well as producing his great dictionary, Johnson was a poet, playwright, prolific essayist, critic, biographer, translator and, if we count his picaresque tale Rasselas as a novel, a novelist.

Martin also pays full attention to Johnson's fits of depression, his nervous tics, his fear of death and attacks of guilt. (When a teenager, Johnson refused to go and help at his father's bookstall in Uttoxeter, some 12 miles away from Lichfield; he was so wracked by guilt at this omission that 50 years later, long after his father was dead, he walked there and stood bare-headed in the rain where the stall used to be.) A man of immense appetites (he once drank 17 cups of tea at a sitting), he was also a mass of contradictions: he could spend weeks in idleness then work at a furious rate for months; rude and abrasive in conversation, he was immensely generous, dispensing money and letting friends live rent-free in his house; a staunch Tory with surprisingly radical opinions – a befriender and encourager of bluestockings, and a fierce opponent of slavery.

A large and impressive biography of a large and impressive subject, Martin's Samuel Johnson makes you wish someone would invent a time machine so you could go and meet the man in person.

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