When my old friend Dr Johnson died in December 1784, I soon received a letter from a bookseller, wanting to know if I could have an octavo volume of 400 pages of his conversations ready by February. Yet I desired to be scrupulously comprehensive, and I had many other cares, so The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. appeared only in 1791. After such long labour, I resented the disapproval I received for presenting a rounded view of Johnson and including episodes that some writers might have discreetly veiled.
My critics little knew how much I had, in truth, omitted from the Life. Here I speak not of Johnson himself, whose piety and chastity required no contrivance to record. I speak instead of his associates. As the world knows, Johnson's fame stemmed as much from his conversation as from his writing. Yet such colloquy cannot be reported without describing the characters of his interlocutors, together with the subjects discussed — which on occasion bordered upon the coarse and even the criminal.
I began work on this piece not long after my story "The Report of a Doubtful Creature" appeared in Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show. That story was set in the 19th century and starred Charles Darwin. I found that I enjoyed writing about historical figures, and so I set out to write a story about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.
Unlike Darwin, these names may not be immediately familiar to everyone. However, if you've seen Blackadder then you've seen Samuel Johnson portrayed by Robbie Coltrane, in the episode "Ink and Incapability". It's the one where he turns up to see the Prince Regent, having spent years writing his dictionary — you can see a clip of the episode here.
Johnson's work is not widely read today, but he remains famous as the subject of The Life of Samuel Johnson, a hugely influential biography written by his younger friend James Boswell. This biography preserved many quotations and anecdotes: Johnson was famous for his wit and conversation. The Life is well worth reading, although I'd recommend an abridged edition rather than the full version.
Boswell himself is a fascinating figure. Throughout his life he wrote detailed private journals. Because they were never intended for publication, they are extremely frank. They deal with his amorous adventures, his encounters with famous people, and so on. When the full journals were finally published in the 20th century, they ran to more than a dozen volumes. A single-volume selection of the highlights, for general readers, was published in 1991 as The Journals of James Boswell 1762-1795, edited by John Wain.
Having read the Life and the Journals, I was ready to undertake the task of writing about Johnson and Boswell. But what should the story be about? My first thought was: they fight crime! After all, Johnson and Boswell are a perfect double act, with the same dynamic as Holmes and Watson: the genius and his sidekick narrator.
But that wasn't a serious notion. I tend to dislike fiction that wrenches historical figures out of their context and uses them for completely different purposes, to the point where the only thing they retain is their famous names. I prefer fiction that's more attuned to the historical context, where characters are grounded in their actual personalities and preoccupations.
In the Life, there are several passages where Johnson and Boswell discuss ghosts, life after death, and so on. Here's an excerpt from a conversation where Boswell asks Johnson about heaven:
BOSWELL: One of the most pleasing thoughts is, that we shall see our friends again.
JOHNSON: Yes, Sir; but you must consider, that when we are become purely rational, many of our friendships will be cut off. Many friendships are formed by a community of sensual pleasures: all these will be cut off. We form many friendships with bad men, because they have agreeable qualities, and they can be useful to us; but, after death, they can no longer be of use to us. We form many friendships by mistake, imagining people to be different from what they really are. After death, we shall see every one in a true light. Then, Sir, they talk of our meeting our relations: but then all relationship is dissolved; and we shall have no regard for one person more than another, but for their real value. However, we shall either have the satisfaction of meeting our friends, or be satisfied without meeting them.
This exchange becomes poignant when you contemplate Boswell's debauchery and wonder how much Johnson knew about it. Here's an example taken from Boswell's journal:
But when I got into the street, the whoring rage came upon me. I thought I would devote a night to it. I was weary at the same time that I was tumultuous. I went to Charing Cross Bagnio with a wholesome-looking, bouncing wench, stripped, and went to bed with her. But after my desires were satiated by repeated indulgence, I could not rest; so I parted from her after she had honestly delivered to me my watch and ring and handkerchief, which I should not have missed I was so drunk. I took a hackney-coach and was set down in Berkeley Square, and went home cold and disturbed and dreary and vexed, with remorse rising like a black cloud without any distinct form; for in truth my moral principle as to chastity was absolutely eclipsed for a time. I was in the miserable state of those whom the Apostle represents as working all uncleanness with greediness. I thought of my valuable spouse with the highest regard and warmest affection, but had a confused notion that my corporeal connexion with whores did not interfere with my love for her.
There are several such passages in Boswell's journal; I paraphrased one of them and used it in my story to illustrate his character.
I still needed a plot. I invented a visit by Johnson and Boswell to a country house where the lord of the manor has a secret. This incident is fictional, but the attitudes of the characters are as authentic as I could make them — considerably more authentic than Blackadder, albeit not as funny.