Samuel Johnson: A Life, By David Nokes

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The Independent Culture

After numerous modern biographies and even one about his dictionary, all excellent in their different ways, you might think that everything worth saying about the self-styled "harmless drudge" of lexicography has been said. Yet no other recent portrait has captured this verbally inspired figure with the unvarnished clarity of Nokes.

Remarking on Johnson's preference for sitting in a broken chair with only three legs, Nokes says this would be Johnson's brand image if had lived in the 21st century: "a man alone, a half-blind widower balanced neatly by his own disproportionate bulk, making clarity in the dictionary out of chaos."

Not the least of Nokes's merits is that he avoids trotting out well-worn Johnsonian coinages. Instead, we have lesser known utterances, such as his gleeful revenge on a Mrs Mudge who sniped at his epic tea drinking.

Later, he confided that he swallowed "five and twenty cups of tea, and did not treat her with as many words". The plodding talk of Henry Thrale, the dull brewer to whom his lively friend Hester was married, produced a brilliant metaphor: "His conversation does not show the minute hand" but he could strike the hours "very correctly".

Nokes explores Johnson's crushing melancholia. The lonely death of his wife Tetty, whose addiction to drink and opium was financed by Johnson, prompted him to hit the bottle and "according to many, going close to death himself". He could not bring himself to attend her funeral in Bromley, "where she had no known connection". He finally visited her grave the following year but, pursuing his habit of procrastination, it was another three decades before he erected a gravestone. Nokes brilliantly observes Johnson's relationship with her "replacement", his black servant Francis Barber.

The very intimate nature of this portrait is exemplified by Nokes's reading of Johnson's diaries, in particular the mysterious M's that appear in the text. "We are told on editorial authority that this is his symbol for defecation; why, we are not informed," Nokes asserts. "If, on the other hand, it is a symbol for masturbation, some difficulties may be understood."

Nokes provides insight and entertainment on every page, but it seems unlikely that this is the last word on the Great Cham. Johnson just keeps on giving. Nokes finished this book shortly before his death and it is a superb parting gift.