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MEMORIALS OF DR. JOHNSON'S
To the Editor of the Christian Observer.
ALTHOUGH the life and genius of Dr. Johnson have been illustrated by a greater variety of biographical disquisition than has distinguished any other name in our national literature, little is yet known, comparatively, of this eminent man's character as a Christian. An effort was made, in a work entitled "Christian Essays," first published in 1817, to disentangle the account of Johnson's death, from the confusion in which it had been left by Hawkins and Boswell; neither of whom was competent to the task they severally undertook; and each of them was evidently anxious to rescue Johnson's memory from all suspicion of what they considered enthusiasm. The report from "Christian Essays" is reprinted in the October and November Numbers of your work for 1827; and the truth of the account contained in it was forcibly attested by the Rev. C. I. La Trobe, in the Christian Observer for January 1828; where, nearly half a century after Johnson's death, appeared the first satisfactory record of his last days.
By the kindness of a friend, who has lent me some original letters, CHRIST. OBSERV. No. 349.
which will appear, either entire or in part, in the sequel; I seem to have discovered, with clearer evidence than has hitherto beamed upon the subject, some of the human sources whence Dr. Johnson derived his spiritual knowledge. The manuscripts in question now lie on my table; but, before I offer any extracts from them, it will be expedient to give some preliminary information respecting the parties to whom they refer. To those who are not familiar with the life and times of Dr. Johnson, it is necessary to state, that among his most intimate friends, during the period from about 1737 to 1756, were Mrs. Fitzherbert and Miss Hill Boothby; both of them resident in Derbyshire; and with whom Dr. Johnson probably became acquainted from their vicinity to his friend Dr. Taylor, of Ashbourne. The former of these ladies was Mary, eldest daughter of Lyttelton Poyntz Meynell, Esq. of Bradley, and wife of William Fitzherbert, Esq. of Tissington. Her fourth son, Alleyne, was created Lord St. Helens, and is yet alive; and her grandson, Sir Henry Fitzherbert, Bart. is the present representative of the family. Of Mrs. Fitzherbert herself Dr. Johnson said, "that she had the best understanding he ever met with in any human being*." "That woman," he re
* Boswell's Life of Johnson. Fourth edition. Vol. i. p. 55,
marked, "loved her husband as we hope and desire to be loved by our guardian angel." "Fitzherbert," he adds, was a gay, goodhumoured fellow, generous of his money and his meat, and desirous of nothing but cheerful society among people distinguished in some way-in any way, I think; for Rousseau and St. Austin would have been equally welcome to his table and to his kindness*. The lady, however, was of another way of thinking her first care was to preserve her husband's soul from corruption; her second, to keep his estate entire for their children: and I owed my good reception in the family to the idea she had entertained, that I was fit company for Fitzherbert, whom I loved extremely. They dare not,' said she, 'swear, and take other conversation-liberties, before you.' "I asked," says Mrs. Thrale, who gives this account, "if her husband retained her regard? He felt her influence too powerfully,' replied Dr. Johnson: 'no man will be fond of what forces him daily to feel himself inferior. She stood at the door of her paradise in Derbyshire, like an angel with the flaming sword, to keep the devil at a distance. But she was not immortal, poor dear! She died, and her husband felt at once afflicted and released.' I inquired if she
At Ashbourne, in 1776, Dr. Johnson thus characterized his friend :-"There was no sparkle, no brilliancy in Fitzherbert; but I never knew a man who was so generally acceptable. He made every body quite easy, overpowered nobody by the superiority of his talents, made no man think worse of himself by being his rival, seemed always to listen, did not oblige you to hear much from him, and did not oppose what you said. Every body liked him; but he had no friend, as I understand the word-nobody with whom he exchanged intimate thoughts. He was an instance of the truth of the observation, that a man will please more upon the whole by negative qualities than by positive." Boswell, vol. iii. p. 163.
Mr. Fitzherbert, who was member for the Borough of Derby in several Parliaments, and one of the Lords of Trade and Plantations, died at his house in
was handsome? She would have been handsome for a queen,' replied the panegyrist; 'her beauty had more in it of majesty than of attraction, more of the dignity of virtue than the vivacity of wit*.'
Mrs. Fitzherbert died in 1753; and was succeeded in the management of the family at Tissington by Miss Hill Boothby, who was the only daughter of Brook Boothby, Esq. and his wife Elizabeth Fitzherbert. Of this lady Mrs. Thrale relates: "Dr. Johnson told me she pushed her piety to bigotry, her devotion to enthusiasm ; that she somewhat disqualified herself for the duties of this life, by her perpetual aspirations after the next. Such was, however, the purity of her mind, he said, and such the graces of her manner, that Lord Lyttelton and he used to strive for her preference with an emulation that occasioned hourly disgust, and ended in lasting animosity. may see,' said he to me, when the Poets' Lives were printed, 'that dear Boothby is at my heart still. She would delight in that fellow Lyttelton's company though, all that I could do; and I cannot forgive even his memory the preference given by a mind like hers.' I have heard Baretti say, that when this lady died Dr. Johnson was almost distracted with his grief, and that the friends about him had much ado to calm the violence of his emotiont." A Hebrew grammar, or the sketch of one, composed for her own use, and written in a character eminently beautiful, has been preserved by her family, as a specimen of her literature. Mrs. Piozzi was permitted to publish six letters addressed by Johnson to Miss Booth
London - by his own hand! nineteen years after the departure of one, to whom others might have said,—
Cara Maria vale! at veniet felicius ævum, Quandoiterum tecum,simmodo dignus,ero!
* Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D; by Hester Lynch Piozzi. Fourth edition. p. 159. + Ibid. p. 160.
by, which appeared in 1788, in a collection now very scarce, and never reprinted. Neither, with the exception of the first, have they been copied by any of Johnson's biographers; nor are they inserted in his Works. They are consequently, comparatively, unknown; and the following extracts from them will illustrate the present memorials.
“Jan. 1,1755.—Dearest Madam, -Though I am afraid your illness leaves you little leisure for the reception of airy civilities, yet I cannot forbear to pay you my congratulations on the new year; and to declare my wishes that your years to come may be many and happy. In this wish, indeed, I include myself, who have none but you on whom my heart reposes; yet surely I wish you good, even though your situation were such as should permit you to communicate no gratification to, Dearest, dearest, Madam, your," &c.
"Dec. 30, 1755.-It is again midnight, and I am again alone. With what meditation shall I amuse this waste hour of darkness and vacuity? If I turn my thoughts upon myself, what do I perceive, but a poor helpless being, reduced by a blast of wind to weakness and misery?......This illness, in which I have suffered something, and feared much more, has depressed my confidence and elation; and made me consider all that I have promised myself, as less certain to be attained or enjoyed. I have endeavoured to form resolutions of a better life; but I form them weakly, under the consciousness of an external motive......Continue, my dearest, your prayers for me, that no good resolution may be in vain.
think, I believe, better of me than I deserve. I hope to be, in time, what I wish to be, and what I have hitherto satisfied myself too readily with only wishing......... There has gone about a report that
I died to-day; which I mention lest you should hear it and be alarmed.
You see that I think my death may alarm you; which, for me, is to think very highly of earthly friendship. I believe it arose from the death of one of my neighbours. You know Des Cartes's argument, 'I think, therefore I am.' It is as good a consequence, 'I write, therefore I am alive.' I might give another, 'I am alive, therefore I love Miss Boothby,' but that I hope our friendship may be of far longer duration than life. I am, dearest Madam, with sincere affection, your," &c.
"Dec. 31, 1755.-My sweet Angel,—I have read your book, I am afraid you will think without any great improvement; whether you can read my notes I know not. You ought not to be offended: I am, perhaps, as sincere as the writer. In all things that terminate here I shall be much guided by your influence, and should take or leave by your direction; but I cannot receive my religion from any human hand. I desire, however, to be instructed, and am far from thinking myself perfect......It affords me a new conviction, that in these books there is little new, except new forms of expression; which may be sometimes taken, even by the writer, for new doctrines. Í sincerely hope that God, whom you so much desire to serve aright, will bless you, and restore you to health, if he sees best. Surely no human understanding can pray for any thing temporal otherwise than conditionally. Dear Angel, do not forget me. My heart is full of tenderness."
Jan. 8, 1756.—I beg of you to endeavour to live. I have returned your Law, which, however, I earnestly entreat you to give me. I am in great trouble; if you can write three words to me, be pleased to do it. I am afraid to say much, and cannot say nothing when my
Dr. Johnson composed the following prayer on occasion of her death:"O Lord God, almighty Disposer of all things, in whose hands are life and death; who givest comforts, and takest them away; I return Thee thanks for the good example of Hill Boothby, whom Thou hast now taken away; and implore thy grace, that I may improve the opportunity of instruction which Thou hast afforded me, by the knowledge of her life, and by the sense of her death; that I may consider the uncertainty of my present state, and apply myself earnestly to the duties which Thou hast set before me; that, living in thy fear, I may die in thy favour, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Ament."
* Or rather in a chantry, or chapel, attached to this fine building, containing the cemetery of the Boothby family. Among its sepulchral monuments is the celebrated figure of Penelope Boothby, by Flaxman; which has been since eclipsed by Chantry's Two Children, in the south choral isle of Lichfield cathedral.
+ Prayers and Meditations, composed by Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Published by the Rev. George Strahan, in 1785.
Having furnished these reminiscences from sources already open to public examination, I shall proceed to draw from the private treasury in my temporary possession some illustrations of the character of the two ladies who honoured Dr. Johnson with their intimacy. The first of these is a letter from Miss Boothby to Mrs. Fitzherbert, dated Holly Bush*, October 8, 1746.
"My dearest, best friend on earth,-The trial which our Lord, in his wise disposal of events, has at this time ordered for us, has given me a new and surprising proof of your affection and tenderness for met; founded on such motives as I think I may say, without presumption, Heaven approves, from the great success your most kind endeavours for me have met with. The heart may be too full to disclose its thoughts; and, in some cases, the tongue is an instrument which fails us in expressing them out of the abundance of the heart it may be silent, as well as speak. This is my case; from the abundance of my heart I cannot speak; but I must w[onder‡]. That nothing may be wanting to encourage perseverance in offices of charity, our gracious Master [has] added a temporal reward, by putting into the [minds] of those on whom it is exercised the sincerest gratitude and acknowledgment. 'Tis this I would give
The house thus designated is close on the border of Needwood Forest, and belonged at that time to the Fitzherbert family. It became, many years afterwards, the property and residence of John Gisborne, Esq. now of Darby Dale, Derbyshire; and is situated within a few miles of Yoxall Lodge, the mansion of his revered brother, the Rev. Thomas Gisborne.
All the extracts in the text are faithful to their originals, except with regard to a few corrections in orthography and punctuation. The parts within brackets, as being supplied, where the manuscript was torn or illegible, by conjecture, are left to the reader's judgment.
+ There is no clue in the manuscript to the cause of this affliction.
To the copyist this is an unsatisfactory conjecture. Query, "write."
you. I [thank] my God, and your God (the Father of all mercies, the God of all comforts) for making you the great instrument of his wonderful and persevering [love] to me. That you have been remarkably so at [this] time, you must see, and I do, and ever shall f[eel]. My dearest creature, you have exactly followed [your] Lord's example! gone about doing good; visited the fatherless and widow in their affliction; supported the sick and weak, and helped to raise up them who were falling. All this, if possible, still more endears you to me, and makes me more earnest to be every thing you would have me. Let us, my dearest, go hand in hand together in the great work of our salvation; and in our way through this vale of tears be each other's best human assistant in obtaining the one thing needful. My prayers shall be instant at the Throne of Grace, that I may be enabled to assist you effectually in all your [progress]. From this inexhaustible fountain only can I [hope to] have my weaknesses supplied; and be made to you [what you] are to me, the greatest of earthly blessings...... Your tenderly affect. and warmly grateful "Hill Boothby."
The next letter has no address or envelope, but was evidently written at Bath, and is dated June 17, 1751.-" When you regarded a poor weak helpless creature, undertaking what I was about to do when I left you, my dearest friend, you might figure to yourself infinite hazards; but I bless God I always trust in him for strength, and lean not either to my own understanding or power in any thing, as well knowing they must both fail me. I firmly trusted the end of my journey would, as, thank God, it has, pay my friends for any anxiety they might too kindly suffer with regard to the means and way. And as I doubt not your prayers for my success much
helped to procure it, so I am sure your thankfulness for my preservation would be full and sincere. I cannot yet learn any thing of dear Lady Huntingdon. Nobody I have seen were such as could be supposed to know any thing of her, alas!......I was at the chapel* yesterday, but so yesterday, but so placed as not to be able to get out, before Mr. C. was gone......He preached a sermon I heard, and mentioned to you last year, on 2 Cor. iv. 6: For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, &c. in which he first remarked the allusion in the text to the chaos, and the speaking light into it at the creation; then shewed us what was the darkness of every unconverted soul, fully and strongly in all its parts, and what the light which could alone, by shining in our hearts, create them anew. For this light all must go to Jesus Christ; and in him, and from him, by the influence of his Holy Spirit, be brought to the knowledge of the glory of God. He displayed largely the folly of those who imagined they were to bring any thing of their own, and treat in the way of purchase for the blessings of the Gospel; [for] which no claim could avail but the merits of Christ, and faith in him who gave himself freely for us. He concluded with an affecting exhortation, drawn from several weighty and striking observations he had made, on the different consequences of his doctrine, as immediately and sincerely embraced, or neglected; and hinted as if many of his hearers had sat long under moving and persuasive ordinances, without faith. 'Tis a vast blessing to have an opportunity of hearing the Gospel preached, so clearly, plainly, and, as I verily believe, so experimentally and I pray God I may profit by it, as
*Not that erected by Lady Huntingdon, which was not opened till 1765; but one attached to the Established Church, near the Cross, Bath, superintended by Mr. Chapman.