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Soon after his domestication at Streatham, the Blue-Stocking Clubs came into fashion, so called from a casual allusion to the blue stockings of an habitué, Mr. Stillingfleet. Their founders were Mrs. Vesey and Mrs. Montagu ; but according to Madame D'Arblay, “ more bland and more gleeful than that of either of them, was the personal celebrity of Mrs. Thrale. Mrs. Vesey, indeed, gentle and diffident, dreamed not of any competition, but Mrs. Montagu and Mrs. Thrale had long been set up as rival candidates for colloquial eminence, and each of them thought the other alone worthy to be her peer. Openly therefore when they met, they combated for precedence of admiration, with placid though high-strained intellectual exertion on the one side, and an exuberant pleasantry or classical allusion or quotation on the other; without the smallest malice in either.”
Wraxall, who makes the same comparison, remarks : “ Mrs. Thrale always appeared to me to possess at least as much information, a mind as cultivated, and more brilliancy of intellect than Mrs. Montagu, but she did not descend among men from such an eminence, and she talked much more, as well as more unguardedly, on every subject. She was the provider and conductress of Johnson, who lived almost constantly under her roof, or more properly under that of Mr. Thrale, both in Town and at Streatbam. He did not, however, spare her more than other women in his attacks if she courted and provoked his animadversions.”
Although he seldom appeared to greater advantage than when under the combined spell of feminine influence and rank, his demeanor varied with his mood. On Miss Monkton's (afterwards Lady Cork) insisting, one evening, that Sterne’s writings were very pathetic, Johnson bluntly denied it. “I am sure," she rejoined, " they have affected me.” “ Why,” said Johnson, smiling and rolling himself about, “ that is because, dearest, you ’re a dunce.” When she some time afterwards mentioned this to him, he said, with equal truth and politeness, “ Madam, if I had thought so, I certainly should not have said it.”
He did not come off so well on another occasion, when the presence of women whom he respected might be expected to operate as a check. Talking, at Mrs. Garrick’s, of a very respectable author, he told us, says Boswell, “ a curious circumstance in
his life, which was that he had married a printer's devil. Reynolds. “A printer's devil, Sir! why, I thought a printer's devil was a creature with a black face and in rags.' Johnson. Yes, Sir. But I suppose he had her face washed, and put clean clothes on her.' Then, looking very serious, and very earnest. * And she did not disgrace him; the woman had a bottom of good sense. The word bottom thus introduced was so ludicrous when contrasted with his gravity, that most of us could not forbear tittering and laughing; though I recollect that the Bishop of Killaloe kept his countenance with perfect steadiness, while Miss Hannah More slily hid her face behind a lady's back who sat on the same settee with her. His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule, when he did not intend it: he therefore resolved to assume and exercise despotic power, glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, • Where's the merriment?' Then collecting himself, and looking awful, to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, 'I say the woman was fundamentally sensible ;' as if he had said, Hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.”
This resembles the influence exercised by the “ great commoner” over the House of Commons. An instance being mentioned of his throwing an adversary into irretrievable confusion by an arrogant expression of contempt, the late Mr. Charles Butler asked the relator, an eyewitness, whether the House did not laugh at the ridiculous figure of the poor member. “ No, Sir,” was the reply, “ we were too much awed to laugh.”
It was a redeeming feature in Johnson's character that he was extremely fond of female society; so fond, indeed, that on coming to London he was obliged to be on his guard against the temptations to which it exposed him. He left off attending the Green Room, telling Garrick, “ I'll come no more behind your scenes, Davy; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities.”
The proneness of his imagination to wander in this forbidden field is unwittingly betrayed by his remarking at Sky, in support of the doctrine that animal substances are less cleanly than veg
etable: “I have often thought that, if I kept a seraglio, the ladies should all wear linen gowns, or cotton, I mean stuffs made of vegetable substances. I would have no silks: you cannot tell when it is clean : it will be very nasty before it is perceived to be so; linen detects its own dirtiness." His virtue thawed instead of becoming more rigid in the North. “ This evening," records Boswell of their visit to an Hebridean chief, “ one of our married ladies, a lively pretty little woman, good-humoredly sat down upon Dr. Johnson's knee, and being encouraged by some of the company, put her hands round his neck and kissed him. • Do it again,' said he,' and let us see who will tire first. He kept her on his knee some time, whilst he and she drank tea."
The Rev. Dr. Maxwell relates in his “ Collectanea,” that “Two young women from Staffordshire visited him when I was present, to consult him on the subject of Methodism, to which they were inclined. Come,' said he, ' you pretty fools, dine with Maxwell and me at the Mitre, and we will talk over that subject ;' which they did, and after dinner he took one of them upon his knee, and fondled her for half an hour together.”
Women almost always like men who like them. Johnson, despite of his unwieldy figure, scarred features, and uncouth gestures, was a favorite with the fair ; and talked of affairs of the heart as things of which he was entitled to speak from personal experience as confidently as of any other moral or social topics. He told Mrs. Thrale, without the smallest consciousness of presumption, or what Mr. Square would term the unfitness of things, of his and Lord Lyttleton's having contended for Miss Boothby's preference with an emulation that occasioned hearty disgust and ended in lasting animosity. “ You may see," he added, when the Lives of the Poets were printed, “ that dear Boothby is at my heart still. She would delight in that fellow Lyttleton's company though, all that I could do, and I cannot forgive even his memory the preference given by a mind like hers." *
* In point of personal advantages the man of rank and fashion and the scholar were nearly on a par.
" But who is this astride the pony,
Mr. Croker surmises that “Molly Aston,” not dear Boothby, must have been the object of this rivalry; and the surmise is strengthened by Johnson's calling Molly the loveliest creature he ever saw ; adding (to Mrs. Thrale), “ My wife was a little jealous, and happening one day when walking in the country to meet a fortune-hunting gypsy, Mrs. Johnson made the wench look at my hand, but soon repented of her curiosity, for,' says the gypsy, 'your heart is divided between a Betty and a Molly : Betty loves you best, but you take most delight in Molly's company. When I turned about to laugh, I saw my wife was crying. Pretty charmer, she had no reason.” This pretty charmer was in her forty-eighth year when he married her, he being then twenty-seven. He told Beauclerc that it was a love match on both sides ; and Garrick used to draw ludicrous pictures of their mutual fondness, which he heightened by representing her as short, fat, tawdrily dressed, and highly rouged.
One of Rochefoucauld's maxims is : “ Young women who do not wish to appear coquettes, and men of advanced years who do not wish to appear ridiculous, should never speak of love as of a thing in which they could take part.” Mrs. Thrale relates an amusing instance of Johnson's adroitness in escaping from the dilemma: “As we had been saying one day that no subject failed of receiving dignity from the manner in which Mr. Johnson treated it, a lady at my house said, she would make him talk about love; and took her measures accordingly, deriding the novels of the day because they treated about love. It is not,' replied our philosopher, ' because they treat, as you call it, about love, but because they treat of nothing, that they are despicable : we must not ridicule a passion which he who never felt never was happy, and he who laughs at never deserves to feel, — a passion which has caused the change of empires, and the loss of worlds, a passion which has inspired heroism and subdued avarice. He thought he had already said too much. “A passion, in short, added he, with an altered tone, “that consumes me away for
my pretty Fanny here, and she is very cruel,' speaking of another lady (Miss Burney) in the room."
These peculiarities throw light on more questions than one relating to Johnson's prolonged intimacy with Mrs. Thrale. His
gallantry, and the flattering air of deferential tenderness which he knew how to throw into his commerce with his female favorites, may have had little less to do with his domestication at Streatham than his celebrity, his learning, or his wit. The most submissive wife will manage to dislodge an inmate who is displeasing to her. “Ay, a marriage, man,” said Bucklaw to his led captain, “ but wherefore droops thy mighty spirit ? The board will have a corner, and the corner will have a trencher, and the trencher will have a glass beside it; and the board end shall be filled, and the trencher and the glass shall be replenished for thee, if all the petticoats in Lothian had sworn the contrary.” “ So says many an honest fellow," said Craigenfelt," and some of my special friends; but curse me, if I know the reason, the women could never bear me, and always contrived to trundle me out before the honeymoon was over.”
It was all very well for Johnson to tell Boswell, “I know no man who is more master of his wife and family than Thrale. If he holds up a finger he is obeyed.” The sage took very good care not to act upon the theory, and instead of treating the wife as a cipher, lost no opportunity of paying court to her, though in a manner quite compatible with his own lofty spirit of independence and self-respect. Thus, attention having been called to some Italian verses by Baretti, he converted them into an elegant compliment to her by an improvised paraphrase:
“ Viva! viva la padrona!
“ Long may live my lovely Hetty!
Her marginal note in the copy of the “ Anecdotes” presented by her to Sir James Fellowes in 1816 is: “I heard these verses sung at Mr. Thomas's by three voices, not three weeks ago."