The Grand Cham of 18th-century English letters is the primary subject of Bainbridge’s majestically deft new novel: the best yet in her series of dazzling historical reconstructions of British history (Master Georgie, 1998, etc.).
James Boswell’s great Life gave us the partial lowdown on scholar-lexicographer Samuel Johnson’s tenure as permanent honored guest of the family of prosperous Southwark brewmaster Henry Thrale—and the Great Man’s courtly friendship with his host’s charming wife Hester, a self-made bluestocking and the mistress of an ineffably fashionable salon that also embraced eminences like author Oliver Goldsmith and actor David Garrick. Bainbridge’s conceit is that Johnson—a middle-aged widower (bereft of his much older wife) whose teeming brain waged continual warfare with his “lower’ faculties—was both sustained and tormented by the sophisticated mixed signals emitted by the intellectually flirtatious matron, a fascination mirrored in his avuncular friendship with the Thrales’ precociously gifted eldest daughter, the eponymous “Queeney.” The latter’s perspective on her mercurial parent’s outwardly platonic relationships is conveyed in letters in which Queeney replies to a female acquaintance’s importunate queries, some 20 years following Johnson’s domination of her mother’s circle. Testimony from several other characters (many servants) is skillfully integrated into the swiftly moving narrative, and Bainbridge also offers brief glimpses of Johnson’s own tempestuous demeanor, dictated by his vulnerability to gout, depression, sudden and impulsive emotional outbursts, and the occasional “loathsome descent into sensuality.” The tale is told with its author’s customary masterly economy, graced by Bainbridge’s tone-perfect imitations of period speech (even illiterate nursemaids speak—quite believably—like Jane Austen characters) and genius for suggestive imagery (“a glimpse of gray river beneath a rind of weeping sky”).
Absolutely wonderful. Grateful thanks, too, to Carroll & Graf, which has stepped in where many “major” publishers have faltered, bringing us the otherwise neglected recent work of British masters like the late Anthony Burgess and the irresistible, indispensable Beryl Bainbridge.