From the beginning of 1765 Johnson’s circle of friends continued to increase after he was introduced to the MP and brewer Henry Thrale and his wife Hester. Hester in particular was an enthusiastic socialite and correspondent, holding frequent dinner parties that were well-documented, at which Johnson was often present. Other regular guests included Johnson’s friends Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell and David Garrick. The walls were lined with portraits of all of them by Reynolds, with Johnson’s hung above the fireplace. For many years Johnson spent extended periods of time as a guest of the Thrale family at their country house at Streatham; as well as undertaking various tours together he was treated as one of the family. As he grew older the Thrale house at Streatham became Johnson’s second home.
After years of work and delay the edition of Shakespeare that Johnson had long promised was finally published in October 1765 as The Plays of William Shakespeare. Over the previous century Shakespeare’s dramas had been regularly rewritten for the changing tastes of contemporary audiences, with updated language and plots. In this new work Johnson carefully worded each play as true to the original as he was able from surviving documents, correcting mistakes made by previous publishers. It was a revolutionary work and became recognized as the most accurate, thorough and comprehensive version of Shakespeare’s plays and their meaning available at that time.
Following the publication of Shakespeare Johnson did little writing for the following three years. Yet by the 1760s his reputation and fame as a scholar, writer, lexicographer, critic, moralist and raconteur had spread throughout Britain and he was recognized as perhaps the country’s most famous author. In 1767, hearing that Johnson was to visit the library at Queen’s House at Greenwich, George III asked the librarian to arrange for them to meet. The two spent time together in the library discussing various intellectual matters and George requested that Johnson write a literary biography of Britain. Afterwards Johnson told his friends of his great satisfaction with their conversation.
Despite Johnson’s great intellect and success he was often mentally troubled and during the 1760s occasionally wrote quite incoherently, often pacing up and down talking to himself. When he felt his mind “disordered” he would confine himself to his room and study mathematics, constructing complex formulae. His behaviour while out walking in the streets was so eccentric that he could draw a small crowd of spectators. He also suffered from a number of ailments, including rheumatism.
In 1781 Johnson’s last major work was completed, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. It was published in six volumes and featured the writings of a number of poets, each preceded by a biography and critical study by Johnson. Until that time English biographies had been influenced by classical texts but Johnson introduced a revolutionary style, writing of both greater and lesser-known people, talking of both their positive and negative achievements, and using trivial details to illustrate his points. In fact he did little research for the work, simply relying on his memory of books he had read over the previous thirty years. He asked only four hundred guineas from the publisher, far less than others believed he could have demanded at the height of his fame and with his knowledge of the subject. His answer was that he was not paid too little, simply that he had written too much.
With failing health, hearing and sight, and ever greater idiosyncrasies, Johnson was increasingly isolated in his home. He was saddened by the deaths of a number of friends, including David Garrick in 1779, who had had such great theatrical success in previous years that the two old companions had seen little of each other. Johnson died at his home at Bolt Court in December 1784 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to Shakespeare’s monument.
Samuel Johnson’s life is well-documented because so many of his friends kept detailed notes of their times with him, recording his conversations. In the year of his death Thomas Tyler published A Biographical Sketch of Dr.Samuel Johnson. A year later came Boswell’s account of his tour around Scotland with Johnson, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. From their close friend Hester Thrale came Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson and in 1786 John Courtenay’s Poetical Review of the Literary and Moral Character of Dr.Samuel Johnson. The first major biography was Life and Works of Samuel Johnson by John Hawkins (one of Johnson’s fellow founding members of the Club), which was published in eleven volumes between 1787 and 1789, followed in 1792 by Arthur Murray’s An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson. Further details could be found in the diaries of the novelist and friend Fanny Burney. James Boswell, who succeeded his father to the title of Laird of Auchinleck, spent his last years writing his Life of Samuel Johnson, first published in 1791, which became one of the most famous biographies in the English language.
Sources include: Christopher Hibbert ‘The Personal History of Samuel Johnson’; Jean Benedetti ‘David Garrick’; Ian McIntyre ‘Joshua Reynolds’. Thanks to Simon Birrell for proof-reading.
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