A sparkling WIT but a terrible husband: Dr Johnson may not have tired of London, but he did tire of his wife — and took a mistress said to have chained and beaten him

  • Author Henry Hitchings recalls 18th century man-of-letters Samuel Johnson 
  • Samuel became famous for his sayings and was often quoted by others
  • The larger than- life aphorist was paid £1,575 to compile a dictionary in 1746 
  • Henry reveals Samuel’s struggles with depression and heartache in a new book  
  • Samuel believed: ‘Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures’



by Henry Hitchings (Macmillan £16.99)

The orotund, sagacious, 18th-century man-of-letters Samuel Johnson is variously described in this jolly tribute as ‘a heroic thinker’ and a ‘pedantic grump’.

Born in provincial Lichfield, in Staffordshire, in 1709, Johnson became a metropolitan celebrity ‘whom everybody thought they had a right to visit and consult’. His sayings were famous and much quoted: ‘Whoever thinks of going to bed before 12 o’clock is a scoundrel’; ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’; ‘most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.’

Samuel Johnson was reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Falstaff and maybe even of Boris Johnson. There is an atmosphere of the gentleman’s club or inn about the way he lays down the law, an exaggeration for comic effect, with a convivial pewter pot of port always near to hand.

Unsurprisingly, he was not a healthy specimen. Johnson was asthmatic, bronchial, gouty, rheumatic, dropsical and flatulent. He was big, as ‘I mind my belly very studiously’.

Henry Hitchings explores the life of 18th century man-of-letters Samuel Johnson (pictured)who became a metropolitan celebrity in a new book 

He took opium, was bled by the quacks frequently and dosed himself on a diuretic ‘otherwise employed as rat poison’. Johnson was also often clinically depressed, ‘lost in a maze of indolence’.

He’d been a sickly child, suffering from impaired vision and deafness, plus there was ‘an inflammation on my buttock’. Johnson’s clothes were always dishevelled, his wig askew and it is fair to say, as Henry Hitchings does, that ‘he lacked polish’.

In addition, Johnson went in for excitability, jerks, grimaces and harrumphing. Among his eccentric habits was a propensity to mimic a kangaroo, hopping heavily about the room. He collected scraps of orange peel.

Luckily, Johnson was formidably intelligent. His father was a bookseller and manufacturer of parchment and, in infancy, the future author began the habit of reading for five hours a day.

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He was educated at the local grammar school, where the teachers ‘whipped me very well’. In 1728, he went to Pembroke College, Oxford, but left after a year, as family funds had run out. Classmates remembered him for his ‘irritability and nervous energy’. Johnson then tried school-mastering in Leicestershire. Salvation beckoned in 1735, when he married Elizabeth Jervis Porter, who came with a dowry of £600. Tetty, as Elizabeth was known, was 20 years his senior. ‘Marriage has many pains,’ said Johnson, ‘but celibacy has no pleasures.’

When he tried running a school of his own, the establishment failed to prosper. One of his pupils was David Garrick, the future actor. The pair of them decided to seek their fortunes in London, Europe’s largest city, and, in 1737, they walked there together all the way from the Midlands.

Though Johnson was to say that ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, life was hardly salubrious. The streets were a ‘glutinous mixture of animal manure, dead cats and dogs, ashes, straw and human excrement’.

Samuel (pictured left) was busy establishing himself as a literary agent around the time his wife Tetty died

Tetty wouldn’t stand for this and remained at a safe distance in Hampstead, in those days a remote country village. ‘The tenderest love requires to be rekindled by intervals of absence,’ reasoned Johnson, who set up his own headquarters in lodgings between Fleet Street and the Strand.

However, there is absence and there is neglect. When Tetty died, in 1752, Johnson didn’t attend her funeral or visit her grave for more than a year ‘and it would be more than 30 years before he had a memorial stone laid there’.

Johnson, in his defence, was busy establishing himself as a literary gent. His great good fortune was to have appeared on the scene in the earliest days of newspapers and magazines, when mass literacy was beginning to take hold.

Johnson took his place, says Hitchings, in ‘a society where bookish accomplishments were treasured and fame was achieved through the medium of print’.

Could anything less like the philistinism of today be imagined? Nevertheless, as an 18th-century pre-incarnation of old Roger Lewis, Johnson wrote weekly columns on everything from beekeeping, the history of Jamaica, the National Debt and techniques used in bleaching to the geography of the Isles of Scilly.

Samuel (pictured) died, in 1784 after battling rumours surrounding his friendship with wealthy married woman, Hester Thrale

‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’ — then, as now, the motto of the harried freelance hack.

To pay for his mother’s funeral, Johnson had to write a book in a week — Rasselas, a story about a prince in Abyssinia, his sister Nekayah, her maid Pekuah and his tutor Imlac.

It doesn’t possess ‘the psychological richness we now expect in a novel’, says Hitchings, diplomatically.

Though in 1746, Johnson was paid £1,575 to compile his famous dictionary, he spent seven years at his task and was threatened with arrest for debt. But the book was worth the pain of its composition. Johnson, for example, distinguished between 124 senses of the verb ‘to take’, found 20 meanings of ‘up’ and 14 of ‘time’.


Emotionally, Johnson was assuaged (and impassioned) through his friendship with Hester Thrale, a wealthy married woman in Streatham, whose children deemed him a combination of ‘a friend and a toy elephant’. Hester, 30 years his junior, was a strange blend of a mother and a daughter surrogate. Their letters were flirtatious and, when the widowed Hester married an Italian, Johnson, his heart broken, never spoke to her again.

A rumour persists that she used to chain Johnson up and cane him, which ‘both satisfied and punished his sexual urges’.

Johnson was on safer ground with his male boon companions — James Boswell chief among them. It is Boswell’s gigantic biography that fixed the image we have of the larger-than-life aphorist, always ready with an apt and well-phrased quote and opinion — for example, that actresses in silk stockings ‘do make my genitals to quiver’ or, as this was later emended, ‘do excite my amorous propensities’.

When, in 1762, George III granted him an annual pension of £300, Johnson couldn’t decide whether to go to Constantinople or to China and see the Great Wall. He went to the Hebrides with Boswell and decided that, on the whole, Scotland was worth seeing, but not worth going to see. A hundred years later, Oscar Wilde would speak like that.

When Johnson died, in 1784, he was teaching himself Dutch.


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