The Life of Samuel Johnson
Read by David Timson
Charming, vibrant, witty and edifying, The Life of Samuel Johnson is a work of great obsession and boundless reverence. The literary critic Samuel Johnson was 54 when he first encountered Boswell; the friendship that developed spawned one of the greatest biographies in the history of world literature. The book is full of humorous anecdote and rich characterisation, and paints a vivid picture of 18th-century London, peopled by prominent personalities of the time such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Wilkes, Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick, while also giving a compelling insight into Johnson’s complex humanity – his depression, fear of death, intellectual brilliance and rough humour.
Running Time: 51 h 01 m
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ISBN: 978-1-78198-102-3 Digital ISBN: 978-1-78198-103-0 Cat. no.: NA0294 Download size: 1163 MB Edited by: Sarah Butcher BISAC: BIO006000 Released: February 2018
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Delivered with magnificent aplomb by David Timson, Johnson bursts from these 51 hours as an intellectual and physical colossus. Timson’s vocal range for the variety of texts is masterly, and his accents are superb, from Johnson’s Birmingham, as rough ‘slow and deliberate’ as his shambling manner, to Boswell’s brisk and elegant Scots, and the prim, pedantic Irish of Oliver Goldsmith. Listening transported me into the Mitre Tavern, coffee house or club, as Johnson threw out conversational challenges (on the ‘mysterious disquisitions of ghosts’; or what is the proper use of riches?) to the assembled company while dining with ‘coffee and old port’. I was part of Johnson’s ‘frisking’ with Joshua Reynolds on the Thames, talking with Boswell for four whole nights, or debating ‘as long as the candles lasted’ with Henry Thrale. It is a man’s fault if his mind becomes ‘torpid’, Johnson proclaimed. Listening to Boswell and Timson’s tour de force is a guaranteed antidote to torpidity.
Rachel Redford, The Spectator
Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield in 1709 and died in London in 1784 aged 75. He came from a modestly middle-class background, but his father’s bookselling business failed and his Oxford education was abruptly terminated for want of funds. In spite of this, he became the greatest English scholar and man of letters of his day; he was a man of enormous learning but equally a man who loved life in all its variety.
He loved to talk and held in thrall a large circle of admirers
Having married, in 1735, Mrs Elizabeth Porter, a widow almost twice his age, and having had little success in running a school with only three students, Johnson moved to London, accompanied by his pupil David Garrick. Both found fame in the capital (Garrick more rapidly as the greatest actor of his time) and both remained lifelong friends. Johnson’s literary career began humbly enough, producing hackwork for various journals, but it was the publication of his Dictionary in 1755 which really set the seal on his reputation. The Dictionary was the result of nine years’ labour, in conditions of some poverty, and in the teeth of the terrible depressions which frequently afflicted him.
In 1762 Johnson was granted a crown pension, and in 1763 he met James Boswell, so from this time we have the full and wonderfully vivid account of his life given by the latter. Johnson’s acquaintance was wide and included such eminent men as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Fox: all were members of the Literary Club founded in 1764. Other of Johnson’s works include his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, his edition of Shakespeare, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, The Lives of the English Poets and Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
Johnson was a man of huge personality – almost terrifying to behold, with his scarred face, massive frame and eccentricities of word and movement. He could be a loyal friend and a formidable opponent; he loved to talk and held in thrall a large circle of admirers who contradicted him at their peril. He read voraciously and could talk on almost any topic; his politics were Tory, yet he abhorred slavery, condemned the English treatment of the Irish and attacked religious complacency – perhaps because his faith in the divine was coloured by a profound terror of death. His generosity to the poor and willingness to provide a home for some of those who had enjoyed little worldly success are touching testimonies to his deep humanity. It was, above all, Johnson’s love of society, conversation and friendship which gave Boswell the material for his biography – described by Macaulay as the best ever written.
James Boswell (1740–1795) was born in Edinburgh and studied law, but was more interested in travel, writing and politics – not to mention what he would have called the ‘dissipation’ of his London life. His Journals give an extraordinarily lively and intimate impression of this excitable, enthusiastic and energetically philandering character. His Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791, took him many years to compile and was mainly based on the extensive conversations and travels he enjoyed with his subject, for whom he had an affection bordering on worship.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside