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FLORENCE MISCELLANY AND ANECDOTES.
what deviations there are from precise truth, in the account which is given of almost everything. I told Mrs. Thrale, You have so little anxiety about truth, that you never tax your memory with the exact thing."
Her proneness to exaggerated praise especially excited his indignation, and he endeavors to make her responsible for his rudeness on the strength of it.
“Mrs. Thrale gave high praise to Mr. Dudley Long (now North). Johnson. “Nay, 'my dear lady, don't talk so. Mr. Long's character is very short! It is nothing. He fills a chair. He is a man of genteel appearance, and that is all. I know nobody who blasts by praise as you do; for whenever there is exaggerated praise, everybody is set against a character. They are provoked to attack it. Now there is Pepys; you praised that man with such disproportion, that I was incited to lessen him, perhaps more than he deserves. His blood is upon your head. By the same principle, your malice defeats itself; for your censure is too violent. And yet (looking to her with a leering smile) she is the first woman in the world, could she but restrain that wicked tongue of hers; she would be the only woman, could she but command that little whirligig.'”
Opposite the words I have printed in italics she has written : “ An expression he would not have used ; no, not for worlds."
In Boswell's note of a visit to Streatham in 1778, we find :
“ Next morning, while we were at breakfast, Johnson gave a very earnest recommendation of what he himself practised with the utmost conscientiousness : I mean a strict attention to truth even in the most minute particulars. “Accustom your children,' said he, constantly to this : if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them : you do not know where deviation from truth will end. Boswell. “It may come to the door; and when once an account is at all varied in one circumstance, it may by degrees be varied so as to be totally different from what really happened. Our lively hostess, whose fancy was impatient of the rein, fidgeted at this, and ventured to say, • Nay, this is too much. If Dr. Johnson should forbid me to drink tea, I would comply, as I should feel the restraint only twice a day ; but little variations in narrative must happen a thousand times a day, if one is not perpetually watching.' Johnson. 'Well, Madam, and you ought to be perpetually watching. It is more from carelessness about truth, than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.””
Now for the illustrative incident, which occurred during the same visit:
“I had before dinner repeated a ridiculous story told me by an old man, who had been a passenger with me in the stage-coach to-day. Mrs. Thrale, having taken occasion to allude to it in talking to me, called it, “ The story told you by the old woman.' • Now, Madam,' said I, “give me leave to catch you in the fact : it was not an old woman, but an old man, whom I mentioned as having told me this.' I presumed to take an opportunity, in the presence of Johnson, of showing this lively lady how ready she was, unintentionally, to deviate from exact authenticity of narration."
In the margin : “Mrs. Thrale knew there was no such thing as an Old Man: when a man gets superannuated, they call him an old Woman.”
The remarks on the value of truth attributed to Johnson are just and sound in the main, but when they are pointed against character, they must be weighed in reference to the very high standard he habitually insisted upon. He would not allow his servant to say he was not at home when he was. “A servant's strict regard for truth,” he continued, “must be weakened by such a practice. A philosopher may know that it is merely a form of denial ; but few servants are such nice distinguishers. If I accustom a servant to tell a lie for me, have I not reason to apprehend that he will tell many lies for himself ?”
One of his townspeople, Mr. Wickens, of Lichfield, was walking with him in a small meandering shrubbery formed so as to hide the termination, and observed that it might be taken for an extensive labyrinth, but that it would prove a deception, though it was, indeed, not an unpardonable one. “Sir,” exclaimed Johnson, “ don't tell me of deception; a lie, Sir, is a lie, whether it be a lie to the eye or a lie to the ear.” Whilst he was in one of these paradoxical humors there was no pleasing him; and he has
been known to insult persons of respectability for repeating current accounts of events, sounding new and strange, which turned out to be literally true; such as the red-hot shot at Gibraltar, or the effects of the earthquake at Lisbon. Yet he could be lax when it suited him, as speaking of epitaphs : “ The writer of an epitaph should not be considered as saying nothing but what is strictly true. Allowance must be made for some degree of exaggerated praise. In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.” Is he upon oath in narrating an anecdote ? or could he do more than swear to the best of his recollection and belief, if he was? Boswell's notes of conversations are wonderful results of a peculiar faculty, or combination of faculties, but the utmost they can be supposed to convey is the substance of what took place, in an exceedingly condensed shape, lighted up at intervals by the ipsissima verba of the speaker.
“ Whilst he went on talking triumphantly,” says Boswell, “ I was fixed in admiration, and said to Mrs. Thrale, “O for shorthand to take this down!' “You 'll carry it all in your head, said she : 'a long head is as good as shorthand.'”* On his boasting of the efficiency of his own system of shorthand to Johnson, he was put to the test and failed.
Mrs. Piozzi at once admits and accounts for the inferiority of her own collection of anecdotes, when she denounces “a trick which I have seen played on common occasions, of sitting steadily down at the other end of the room, to write at the moment what should be said in company, either by Dr. Johnson or to him, I never practised myself, nor approved of in another. There is something so ill bred, and so inclining to treachery in this conduct, that, were it commonly adopted, all confidence would soon be exiled from society, and a conversation assembly-room would become tremendous as a court of justice.” This is a hit at Boswell, who (as regards Johnson himself) had full license to take notes the best way he could. Madame D'Arblay's are much fuller, and bear a suspicious resemblance to the dialogues in her novels.
Mrs. Piozzi prefaces some instances of Johnson's rudeness and harshness by the remark, that “ he did not hate the persons he treated with roughness, or despise them whom he drove from him by apparent scorn. He really loved and respected many whom he would not suffer to love him.” Boswell echoes the remark, multiplies the instances, and then accuses Mrs. Piozzi of misrepresenting their friend. After mentioning a discourteous reply to Robertson the historian, which was subsequently con. firmed by Boswell, she proceeds to show that Johnson was no gentler to herself or those for whom he had the greatest regard. “ When I one day lamented the loss of a first cousin, killed in America, “ Prithee, my dear (said he), have done with canting : how would the world be worse for it, I may ask, if all your relations were at once spitted like larks and roasted for Presto's supper?' – Presto was the dog that lay under the table.” To this Boswell opposes the version given by Baretti, in the course of an angry invective, which Mr. Croker justly designates as brutal : —
* This happened March 21st, 1783, in Argyll Street, the year after Johnson had bidden farewell to Streatham.
“Mrs. Thrale, while supping very heartily upon larks, laid down her knife and fork, and abruptly exclaimed, “O, my dear Johnson ! do you know what has happened? The last letters from abroad have brought us an account that our poor cousin's head was taken off by a cannon-ball. Johnson, who was shocked both at the fact and her light, unfeeling manner of mentioning it, replied, · Madam, it would give you very little concern if all your relations were spitted like those larks, and dressed for Presto’s supper.'”
This version, assuming its truth, aggravates the personal rudeness of the speech. But her marginal notes on the passage are : “ Boswell appealing to Baretti for a testimony of the truth is comical enough! I never addressed him (Johnson) so familiarly in my life. I never did eat any supper, and there were no larks to eat.”
“ Upon mentioning this story to my friend Mr. Wilkes,” adds Boswell, “ he pleasantly matched it with the following sentimental anecdote. He was invited by a young man of fashion at Paris to sup with him and a lady who had been for some time his mistress, but with whom he was going to part. He said to Mr. Wilkes that he really felt very much for her, she was in
such distress, and that he meant to make her a present of 200 louis d’ors. Mr. Wilkes observed the behavior of Mademoiselle, who sighed indeed very piteously, and assumed every pathetic air of grief, but ate no less than three French pigeons, which are as large as English partridges, besides other things. Mr. Wilkes whispered the gentleman, “ We often say in England, “ Excessive sorrow is exceeding dry,” but I never heard “ Excessive sorrow is exceeding hungry.” Perhaps one hundred will do. The gentleman took the hint.” Mrs. Piozzi's marginal ebullition is : “ Very like my hearty supper of larks, who never eat supper at all, nor was ever a hot dish seen on the table after dinner at Streatham Park.”
Two instances of inaccuracy, announced as particularly worthy of notice, are supplied by “ an eminent critic,” understood to be Malone, who begins by stating, “I have often been in his (Johnson's) company, and never once heard him say a severe thing to any one ; and many others can attest the same.” Malone had lived very little with Johnson, and to appreciate his evidence, we should know what he and Boswell would agree to call a severe thing. Once, on Johnson's observing that they had "good talk” on the “ preceding evening,” “Yes, Sir," replied Boswell, “you tossed and gored several persons.” Do tossing and goring come within the definition of severity ? In another place he says, “I have seen even Mrs. Thrale stunned ;” and Miss Reynolds relates that “One day at her own table he spoke so very roughly to her, that every one present was surprised that she could bear it so placidly ; and on the ladies withdrawing, I expressed great astonishment that Dr. Johnson should spaak so harshly to her, but to this she said no more than, “O, dear, good man.”
One of the two instances of Mrs. Piozzi's inaccuracy is as follows: “ He once bade a very celebrated lady (Hannah More) who praised him with too much zeal perhaps, or perhaps too strong an emphasis (which always offended him) consider what her flattery was worth before she choked him with it.”
Now, exclaims Mr. Malone, let the genuine anecdote be contrasted with this :
“ The person thus represented as being harshly treated, though