Tuesday 23 September 2014

Madame Gilflurt's Georgian Gallimaufry: Dr Samuel Johnson

Today, the estimable Mr Gareth Southwell and I are proud to reveal the first name to be honoured with a place in Madame Gilflurt's Georgian Gallimaufry. We threw open the salon doors and asked readers for their nominations and one character in particular proved popular. A gentleman of words, singular habits and legendary status in the history of English language, we are proud to welcome Samuel Johnson and the tale of his 1755 masterwork, A Dictionary of the English Language.

A man of letters who lived a most eventful life, Dr Johnson had already known a somewhat checkered few years when he was approached by a group of immensely influential publishers and invited to write an exhaustive dictionary of the English language, in order to finally lay to rest the numerous incomplete works already in existence. In return, Dr Johnson would be bound by a contract worth 1,500 guineas (some £210,000 today) ​and in June 1746, the debt​-​ridden lexicographer signed that same contract with a promise that he would deliver the book before three years had passed. This proved to be a somewhat optimistic aim but nevertheless, Johnson's dedication did not waver.

At the start of the process, Johnson wrote his work, A Plan for a Dictionary of the English Language, under the patronage of Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield. The Plan set out his methodology and goals and clearly set out the reasons behind the work. Alas, his relationship with the Earl was not a happy one as Johnson saw little of his illustrious patron and received little or no assistance from him. Finally, seven years after their relationship began, Johnson wrote to Chesterfield and asked him famously, "Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?" 

For nine years, the dedicated gentleman worked tirelessly to complete the work for which he had been commissioned and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the impact on his home life was not a happy one. Johnson's eleven year marriage to Elizabeth Jervis Porter, known as "Tetty", had not always been harmonious and the disruption of the Dictionary proved somewhat unsettling to the household. Tetty, by now suffering from the illness that would kill her, was concerned that her home would be disrupted by Johnson's noisy copyists and assistants but a move to Gough Square placated Tetty and provided valuable extra breathing space for all concerned.

Tetty died in 1752 and the devastated Dr Johnson worked on, filling the void left by his beloved wife with words and toil. Thousands of hours were devoted to the compilation of the book, with 42,773 entries populating 2,300 densely-packed pages. Johnson's personality is writ large throughout the Dictionary and he never missed a chance to stamp his mark on the definitions therein, with the entry for own profession of lexicographer famously reading, "a harmless drudge".

On 15th April 1755, some nine years after Johnson began work on A Dictionary of English Language, his monumental work was finally published to enormous acclaim. Not only was it vast in terms of the scope of the project, but physically too, and the sheer size of the book meant that it came with a hefty price tag. Yours for the princely sum of £4 10s​ (more than £400 today)​, Johnson's work would not see a profit for years.

Original illustrations featured in Madame Gilflurt's Georgian Gallimaufry can be purchased direct from Gareth Southwell. To find out more about Gareth and his work, please visit him at www.patreon.com/woodpig and www.woodpig.co.uk.


Drayton Bird said...

You can still go to Gough Square behind Fleet Street and see the room where Dr. Johnson' (and his assistants) laboured away on the dictionary. Then you can stroll a few yards and have a pint at his local, The Cheshire Cheese, where they have his (alleged) chair. Good fish and chips and a fine array of bars.

Catherine Curzon said...

I've visited the Cheshire Cheese but sadly did not try the food!