Tea at Dr Johnson's House with David Garrick – and Charlotte Lennox
By MICHAEL CAINES
On Sunday evening, I eavesdropped on a conversation at Samuel Johnson's house. The writer Charlotte Lennox and the great man himself began it; they were soon joined by Dr Johnson's former pupil, the actor David Garrick. The subject of their chat was a play: King Lear.
They sipped their dishes of tea, and disputed. What had Shakespeare done with his sources? How had Nahum Tate and Garrick, in turn, "improved" on Shakespeare? And now what was Johnson going to do with it, since he was meant to be editing this most unbearably unjust of tragedies for his edition of Shakespeare's plays? . . .
How dare you suggest that I've been hallucinating again. I'm obviously talking about Palimpsest's Playing to the Crowd, a dramatized account of how such a conversation might have run in 1756. According to Katherine Tozer, the author of Playing to the Crowd, the answer is: not very smoothly. Johnson (played by Mark Elstob) is annoyed that Garrick won't trust him with his precious early editions of Shakespeare. Garrick (Nick Barber) brings along his own acting version of Lear and spends most of the time playing the buffoon. Mrs Lennox (Tozer herself) traces the Lear's history, remarking on where, in her view, Shakespeare got it wrong.
By coincidence, the New Statesman mentioned Lennox the other week, in the course of a somewhat muddled announcement about a new literary prize. There she appears as the author of prose fiction – perhaps principally for the sake of The Female Quixote, a witty hit of 1752 – alongside a few other eighteenth-century women novelists. "When we do remember them", the NS opines, lumping together writers as different as Lennox, Delarivier Manley and Mary Hays, "it is through the eyes of male writers", which certainly isn't true of modern scholarship. Pope's unpleasant references in the Dunciad to Eliza Haywood and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu are duly quoted as if Pope had it in for them alone, and not for them plus a considerably greater number of male writers.
It would have been better, perhaps, to stick to Lennox, whose literary career was indeed to some extent dependent on how a male writer saw her – albeit mostly positively – that writer being Dr Johnson.
Johnson said a vile thing when told by James Boswell of a woman preaching at a Quaker gathering: "a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all". But reviewing Kate Chisholm's Wits and Wives: Dr Johnson in the company of women for the TLS, Frances Wilson could quote his contrasting assertion: "it is a Paltry trick indeed to deny women the cultivation of their mental powers, and I think it is partly a proof we are afraid of them". As testified by both Chisholm's book and Dr Johnson's Women by Norma Clarke, Johnson himself was unafraid. Literary female friends included the classicist and poet Elizabeth Carter, the "Queen of the Blues" Elizabeth Montagu, the high-minded Hannah More and the brilliant young Frances Burney. And according to Boswell (who may have had an ulterior motive for saying this, admittedly), Johnson could say, after dining with Carter, More and Burney, that "Three such women are not be found"; yet Lennox he thought “superior to them all”.
It was Johnson who had welcomed Lennox's first novel, The Life of Harriot Stuart (1751), with an all-night party in her honour, at which he presented her with an apple pie – "stuck with bay leaves, because, forsooth, Mrs Lennox was an authoress, and had written verses". Boswell's rival biographer, Sir John Hawkins, recalled that Lennox's champion "had prepared for her a crown of laurel, with which, but not till he had invoked the Muses by some ceremonies of his own invention, he encircled her brows". He went on to advise her on literary matters, and write dedications for her books, including one for The Female Quixote. He may even have written a part of that novel; he certainly reviewed it (his only review of a novel) and quoted it several times in his Dictionary.
Lennox had her difficult side: she appeared in court in 1778, for beating her maid. That side of her personality doesn't come through in Playing to the Crowd, although a coarse remark from Johnson does cause her to walk out at one point. She had a habit of losing friends, and was seldom far from the irresistible Grub Street poverty trap.
Her most historically significant achievement perhaps isn't in prose fiction. (Terry Castle, for one, thinks The Female Quixote “heartless and mediocre”.) No, I suspect it's Shakespeare Illustrated (1753–4), a pioneering attempt to account systematically for Shakespeare's sources.
This is is a “far more critical account” of Shakespeare than, say, Elizabeth Montagu’s adulatory Essay on Shakespeare of 1769. Garrick and Johnson were both dismayed. As Playing to the Crowd faithfully shows, however, they could hardly disagree with her about, say, the brutality of Shakespeare's Lear. "This Fable, although drawn from the . . . history of King Lear, is so altered by Shakespear, in several Circumstances, as to render it much more improbable than the Original." Lear does not run mad until the third Act, Lennox observes, but is made to act madly from the outset. The promising of Cordelia to the King of France is managed "unartfully". The end of the play violates "poetical Justice", a hackneyed but then still potent charge: in his version, Garrick stuck to Tate's idea of a happy ending. The "Adventure of the Rock", meaning Dover Cliff, is "heightened . . . with too little Attention to Probability". And so on.
The boldness of Shakespeare Illustrated has implications beyond its immediate subject, as Emily Hodgson Anderson has noted in the TLS: it constituted "one way of showing intellectual equality between the sexes". Johnson was comfortable with that aspect of the matter – he made use of Lennox's research in his own Shakespeare edition, after all – but the dedication he wrote on Lennox's behalf is "highly ambivalent" about the book it prefaces.
One modern reader, Jonathan Brody Kramnick, has seen that book as "an argument on behalf of the novel" in the guise of an attack on Shakespeare's improbabilities and indecencies. Was it entirely a joke when Johnson suggested that she go on to "illustrate" another supposedly unassailable poet, Milton, after she has "demolished" Shakespeare? A "bird of Prey", he called her, "but the Bird of Jupiter".
In Playing to the Crowd, Lennox is sometimes reduced to playing the umpire in Johnson and Garrick's endless, affectionate yet difficult dialogue, between the scholarly authority and his preening protégé. (This is the second time this year, incidentally, after Mr Foote's Other Leg, that I've seen a play by an actor in which Garrick, one of the all-time greats, is presented as some kind of vapid fool.) It's an enjoyable compendium of quotable moments, a three-hander anthology of eighteenth-century-isms – but next time round, if there is a next time round, I'd like to see the forthright Mrs Lennox given her own show.