The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age by Leo Damrosch - review by Clare Bucknell

Clare Bucknell

Thinkers & Drinkers

The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age


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If you had been in the vicinity of the Turk’s Head Tavern on Soho’s Gerrard Street on a Friday evening in the second half of the 18th century, you might have recognised a number of famous men disappearing up the stairs to a private room. The Club, as Leo Damrosch explains in this group biography of its members, was a dining, drinking and debating society for some of the leading lights of the age, established by Samuel Johnson and the portraitist Joshua Reynolds in 1764 to lift Johnson’s spirits as he struggled to complete his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. At its high point in the 1770s it brought together Johnson and Reynolds, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick.

Remarkably, it was composed almost entirely of self-made men from the middle classes or humbler backgrounds. Johnson’s father was a bookseller in Lichfield and Burke’s a solicitor; Reynolds and Goldsmith were the sons of clergymen. Not a single peer was elected until the late 1770s. Its social make-up tells a fascinating story about the energy and confidence of middling intellectual culture in an age supposedly dominated by the traditional elite, and about the importance of clubs and conversational societies more generally as hubs of debate, creativity, controversy and gossip.

Damrosch’s book is concerned less with this social history than with the lives of the Club’s most famous figures. Focusing on Johnson and Boswell (about whom we know a huge amount because of Boswell’s own pioneering work as a biographer and diarist), it’s structured as a series of self-contained cradle-to-grave biographies interspersed with wider-lens historical chapters. We are told that Johnson slaved away in poverty for years before winning fame with his monumental Dictionary of the English Language; that Johnson and Boswell met for the first time in Thomas Davies’s bookshop in Covent Garden and began a friendship that would last for more than twenty years; that Burke wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France to inveigh against dramatic political change; and that Adam Smith explained in The Wealth of Nations how the common good was promoted by individuals pursuing their own interests. There are accessible full-length intellectual biographies of each of these men that will tell you these facts and a good deal more besides. The Club itself gets rather lost in the narrative, not least because in some cases it was only a transitory or insignificant presence in its members’ lives. Garrick didn’t become a member until three years before he retired from the stage. Boswell had to wait until 1773 for election because the others didn’t think he was distinguished enough. Smith was seldom in London and when he could attend meetings he barely spoke, ill at ease in a room of ‘competitive talkers who loved to show off’.

The brightest stars of the Club were literary men – including historians and political theorists, such as Gibbon and Burke, who would have conceived of themselves as men of letters first and foremost. Some of their most important works were written during the years they were Club members and benefited from the stimulus of conversation. However, Damrosch’s focus is frustratingly historical rather than literary: he swerves in-depth discussion of texts or ideas in favour of treating the Club as a window onto contemporary British society and politics. There are several broad-brush portraits of 18th-century London and explications of well-known Hogarth scenes. We are told that beer and roast beef were ‘symbol[s] of Britishness’. A chapter entitled ‘Empire’ supplies potted histories of colonial Ireland, America and India, the last two discussed in the context of Burke’s parliamentary interventions but Ireland included on the grounds that ‘Johnson had many close Irish friends’. We learn about the Jacobites and the Battle of Culloden because Johnson and Boswell undertook a tour of the Highlands, and about public executions at Tyburn because Boswell once went to see a highwayman hanged. The impression is of an attempt to produce a kind of total history of mid-18th-century Britain, but the work is often skewed or limited by dint of the spectacles it’s seen through. It’s unhelpful, for instance, to learn about contemporary views of slavery or the American War of Independence through Johnson and Boswell, who had their own (often rather extreme) opinions but weren’t political theorists, and likewise about Rousseau’s philosophy through Boswell, whose comments reveal – as Damrosch admits – ‘how little he understood Rousseau’s writings’.

The 18th century can seem like a boys’ club at the best of times, so writing a book about an actual all-male club requires delicate handling if it’s to offer something other than the usual narrative. Damrosch’s approach is to show that what makes the Club’s members worth revisiting is the fact that they weren’t always the ‘great men’ we picture them as being. In several cases they were dogged by anxieties or neuroses; often their cultivation of the intellect went hand in hand with an indulgence of powerful physical appetites.

Johnson suffered from depression (which he called ‘hypochondria’ or ‘indolence’) and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Damrosch also diagnoses, on the basis of rather thin evidence, ‘psychosexual needs’ involving domination and restraint. Boswell’s diarised mood swings indicate bipolar disorder and narcissistic tendencies, and his alcoholism caused memory blanks, self-injury and violent episodes. His fondness for prostitutes (‘I ranged an hour in the street and dallied with ten strumpets’) brought on bouts of venereal disease that would eventually kill him. This is all part of the story, of course, but it takes up a disproportionately large part of the book and it seems a shame that it should get in the way of exploring the intellectual achievements of these figures or taking a closer look at the dynamic culture of sociability that stood behind them. 

Some of the most interesting sections of The Club aren’t about the Club at all. Damrosch tells us about the ‘shadow club’ of intellectual women – Frances Burney, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More – presided over by Hester Thrale at Streatham, where Johnson spent much of the latter part of his life, and about the talented wives and female relatives of Club members who might have achieved fame of their own had they not been overshadowed by the men. Frances Reynolds was discouraged by her older brother from developing her skills as an artist because she was needed to manage the household. Sheridan insisted that his wife, Elizabeth, give up a brilliant career as a soprano because it didn’t suit his social image (‘Would not a gentleman be disgraced by having his wife singing publicly for hire?’). The musicologist Charles Burney, elected a member in 1784, persuaded his daughter Frances to drop a projected satire on the Bluestockings group because he needed them to keep taking music lessons with him. These are compelling stories that deserve the space they’re given – and perhaps rather more.

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