I took the afternoon off on Wednesday and went to a spa. First time in my life for any such thing (and I just turned 60 a couple of weeks ago). I wandered around in a bathrobe and partook of the various luxurious offerings: large outdoor hot tubs, saunas that drained me, a (ahem) “foot treatment,” and a massage. There was also a relaxation dwelling with a fire going in the middle and I was able to sit alone in a sort of swing and rock back and forth for a while in total quiet solitude. It was a lot of self-pampering for a humble librarian.

I took my Kindle along with me and as I had a smoothie and a bowl of soup at the cafe, I read a little more in Leo Damrosch’s great new book. It happened to be the part where he is talking about Johnson’s relationship with the talented but troubled poet Richard Savage. Johnson had certainly experienced poverty in his own life but he had come to London from Lichfield and made money at the Gentleman’s Magazine and from some relatively minor publications. Savage was always poor and never hesitated to ask to borrow from friends. Alas he often didn’t pay it back and, alas and alack, often squandered it too. But Johnson could relate to poverty. Damrosch quotes him:

In the prospect of poverty there is nothing but gloom and melancholy. The mind and body suffer together; its miseries bring no alleviations; it is a state in which every virtue is obscured and in which no conduct can avoid reproach; a state in which cheerfulness is insensibility, and dejection sullenness, of which the hardships are without honour, and the labours without reward.

Johnson of course went on to write his own biography of Savage, where he defended him against those who might make too easy a judgment. This is Damrosch’s account of the two friends’ parting and Savage’s death:

Savage eventually accepted enough money from friends to live frugally in the country, “and parted from the author of this narrative with tears in his eyes.” He got as far as Bristol, ran into debt, and was consequently imprisoned. There he fell ill and died. There is pathos in Johnson’s account of his last recorded words: “The last time that the [jail] keeper saw him was on July the 31st, 1743, when Savage, seeing him at his bed-side, said, with an uncommon earnestness, ‘I have something to say to you, Sir;’ but after a pause, moved his hand in a melancholy manner, and finding himself unable to recollect what he was going to communicate, said, ‘’Tis gone.’ The keeper soon after left him; and the next morning he died, at the age of forty-six.” Johnson concludes the story with a challenge to the reader: “Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty, nor will a wise man easily presume to say, ‘Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived, or written, better than Savage.’”

Empathy for poverty was a theme through Johnson’s life. He let some of the down and out stay for short or long periods at his home. And of course he famously laid into Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, in which Jenyns demonstrated little understanding for the effects of poverty on a person. It reminds me of George Orwell’s description of the “dull evil cloud of unemployment” which can prevent writers from doing any writing even though they have all that time on their hands:

To write books you need not only comfort and solitude — and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home — you also need peace of mind. You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.

Johnson often got things written even with the cloud hanging. It wasn’t until he got his pension and started living with the Thrales near the end of his life that he really had dependable comfort. He would have been a great one to talk to in the locker room at the spa the other day …

As I post this blog entry, I myself am about 20 hours from turning 60, and so in thinking about my own life I also thought about Johnson’s at the same age.

He was 60 in 1769. By that time, he had published most of the major works of his life — his influential edition of Shakespeare’s plays had been published only four years earlier — and ahead of him were some interesting political pamphlets and two more major works: his account of his trip to the Scottish Hebrides with Boswell, and his series of short biographies which we now generally refer to as the Lives of the Poets. In his personal life, Boswell was still around of course and he had established a close friendship with Hester Thrale, whom he’d met in 1765, and at whose house he spent a lot of his time.

His health was starting to decline, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. He’d had a major illness, both physically and mentally, in early 1766. Peter Martin writes:

One day near the end of June they found him imploring a guest to pray for him “in the most pathetic terms.” Shocked, Thrale “involuntarily lifted up one hand to shut his mouth.” Then and there, Mrs Thrale decided to take over, removing him from his “close habitation in the court” and whisking him off to Streatham Park where for three months she nursed him until his physical (if not mental) health returned.

For sure, he did recover physically: he was a big and strong man, and had a sturdiness about him that always seemed to get him back on his feet. Mentally, as Martin implies, not so much. Perhaps worse for him than visible outbursts was the constant melancholy, which often saw him shutting himself off in his room at the Thrales’.

I also thought of Jonathan Swift even before I got out of bed today, and his famous ( but somehow also little-known) resolutions for when he would become old. He wrote them when he was in his early 30s, but even though my friends assure me that 60 is not old — we have agreed that it is neither “the new 40” nor “the new 50” and so I am compromising at “45” — they’re still fascinating to read, with that great tone of Swift’s of simultaneously writing about something important to him, but not quite taking it seriously:

Not to marry a young Woman.

Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.

Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.

Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.

Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.

Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.

Not to be covetous.

Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.

Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.

Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.

Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.

To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.

Not to talk much, nor of my self.

Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.

Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.

Not to be positive or opiniative.

Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.

I agree with most of these but disagree strongly with some (“Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly”). But I can mostly relate to the last one, in my modern interpretation of it: as I turn 60, I’ll set some standards and rules for myself, but won’t over-criticize myself if I fail regularly with some of them and occasionally with others.

Well, enough about sex (here, here!), for now.

One of Johnson’s closest friends in his latter years, and frankly one that accommodated him (literally and figuratively) and put up with a lot of his idiosyncrasies, was Hester Thrale. He met her for the first time in 1765, when he was 55 and she was 23, and their long and close friendship ended in 1784, only about five months before his death. The end was ugly, and heart-breaking to anyone who knows how much they had shared as friends, and it was also categorical. Johnson expressed himself harshly to her in a letter, and her reply to him effectively put an end to everything. Johnson was hurt and perhaps jealous in his letter, and Thrale was also hurt in hers as well, but she maintained her dignity and integrity.

The issue was simple: she had decided to marry Gabriel Piozzi, a “singer and composer … who [had] taught the girls [her daughters] singing and encouraged them to translate Italian poetry.”1 Johnson was livid when he found out about it, and sent her this letter:

If I interpret your letter right, you are ignominiously married; if it is yet undone, let us once more talk together. If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness: if you have forfeited your fame and your country, may your folly do no further mischief. If the last act is yet to do, I who have loved you, esteemed you, reverenced you, and served you, I who long thought you the first of humankind, entreat that, before your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see you. I was, I once was

Madam, most truly yours,

Sam: Johnson

I will come down, if you permit it.

Thrale’s response was:

I have this morning received from you so rough a letter in reply to one which was both tenderly and respectfully written, that I am forced to desire the conclusion of a correspondence which I can bear to continue no longer. The birth of my second husband is not meaner than that of my first; his sentiments are not meaner; his profession is not meaner, and his superiority in what he professes acknowledged by all mankind. It is want of fortune then that is ignominious; the character of the man I have chosen has no other claim to such an epithet. The religion to which he has always been a zealous adherent will, I hope, teach him to forgive insults he has not deserved; mine will, I hope, enable me to bear them at once with dignity and patience. To hear that I have forfeited my fame is indeed the greatest insult I ever yet received. My fame is as unsullied as snow, or I should think it unworthy of him who is henceforth to protect it.

I write by the coach the more speedily and effectually to prevent your coming hither. Perhaps by my fame (and I hope it is so) you mean only that celebrity which is a consideration of a much lower kind. I care for that only as it may give pleasure to my husband and his friends.

Farewell, dear Sir, and accept my best wishes. You have always commanded my esteem, and long enjoyed the fruits of a friendship never infringed by one harsh expression on my part during twenty years of familiar talk. Never did I oppose your will, or control your wish; nor can your unmerited severity itself lessen my regard; but till you have changed your opinion of Mr. Piozzi let us converse no more. God bless you.

Johnson did write a letter in reply — “What you have done, however I may lament it, I have no pretence to resent, as it has not been injurious to me: I therefore breathe out one sigh more of tenderness, perhaps useless, but at least sincere,” it says in part — but the damage had been done, and their friendship was ruined. I’ve always found this one of the saddest exchanges and one of the worst things that ever happened during Johnson’s life — a life that had many sad things in it.

Johnson’s letter to Thrale, July 2, 1984. (Image from Harvard University, Houghton Library [here])
  1. Martin, Peter. Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008)

In Part 1 of this topic, I concentrated on sex work in general in both centuries, but in this post I will focus on the specific detail of how sex workers made money. This may seem obvious, but in a telephone interview I did with William Savage on September 6, for example, he talked about more than just the obvious. (BTW, Savage is a writer of historical fiction set in the Georgian era, and also a prolific tweeter on a wide variety of details about general life in the long 18th century. See his site here or follow him @penandpension.)

The one thing that I hadn’t known about, which Savage enlightened me on, was that one of the key ways that sex workers made — or at least acquired — their money during the 18th century was through theft. A man approaching a prostitute on the street might give her his payment first, and she would then simply run off with it. Kind of ingenious in its simplicity really. The other way for prostitutes managed to get money was indeed the obvious: they would perform a sexual service and then be paid for it. The sexual acts would generally take place in one of three places:

  • outdoors – the prostitute and the customer would simply walk to some more or less secluded area and do their business (e.g., under a bridge)
  • in a brothel
  • in a “common lodging house”1

The lodging houses also made a fortune off the work of the prostitutes. Tony Henderson writes:

… the keepers of quite ordinary houses were able to demand hugely inflated rents from the prostitutes who lodged with them. Compare Dorothy George’s estimate of the average rent of a London artisan of around 2s.6d. a week with the 14s. [prostitutes] Ann Thompson and Elizabeth Webb each paid for board and lodging in the house of Jonathan Britt — with an additional 2s. due for every occasion on which a man accompanied them to their rooms.2

There are some analogies between these things and some practices in 21st-century sex work as well. The taking of the money from a customer without actually providing a service can sometimes be accomplished electronically. If the man sends funds electronically, for example through PayPal or Interac, for a sex worker to arrive at his own home or hotel room (a “reverse common lodging house” perhaps!) then he is taking a chance that the sex worker will show up at all. If she’s responsible, or if she sees the potential of a repeat customer, she will. If not, the money will be in her account and the man may never hear from her again.

You may wonder why I’m interested so much in sex work in the 18th century when I’m nominally writing a biography of Samuel Johnson, who was not known to frequent prostitutes (unlike Boswell of course). Sex work is just one of the parts of the milieu of 18th-century England that I want to provide information about to the general reader for whom I’m writing the book. Unlike scholars, they likely won’t know much or anything about how society worked 250 years ago, and so I want to be able to provide some of that background in order to orient them. I find the comparisons with the current century are useful in order to make the points clearer — and to demonstrate what’s changed or not, and how it’s changed. My plan is to do the same with other aspects of life and culture, such as clothing, publishing, households, and much more.

  1. See Tony Henderson, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830 (Routledge, 2013) for excellently and succinctly written chapters on all aspects of the sex trade at the time. Chapter 2 covers the basics on the “infrastructure” of the business, including payment and income.
  2. Henderson, pp. 34-35.

If you collected all of the things that Johnson said and assumed about women, as reported by Boswell and others, and showed them to 21st-century eyes, it wouldn’t necessarily portray a positive or progressive stance. Some of his words have become pretty infamous, like the one about what it’s like to witness a woman preaching (via Boswell):

Next day, July 31, I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I heard a woman preaching. JOHNSON: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on its hinder legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

In this particular example, some critics have come to Johnson’s defense, for example Donald Greene in “The Myth of Johnson’s Misogyny: Some Addenda,” where he questions the truth or validity of this anecdote as well as others (South Central Review 9:4 (1992)). That’s a good reminder of when you’re conducting any kind of scholarship on anyone. Is the source valid, accurate, dependable? And, if so, did the person really mean what they said? These days, stand-up comedians, for example, are often criticized and even excoriated for some of the bits and jokes that they perform on stage. The assumption by the critics is that the comedians mean what they say, that it’s not “just a joke,” and part of the argument is that some things are too serious to be joked about — which then starts one of two other arguments:

  • even if you are just joking and don’t mean it, some topics shouldn’t be the subject matter of comedy at all
  • if there are going to be restrictions, who decides what’s verboten to be brought up by a stand-up comedian?

A documentary from 2016 called Can We Take a Joke? defended comedians’ right to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about, but as some of the interviewees demonstrated, this sentiment is far from universally shared. Outside of this documentary, comedians often have to defend their stance either on stage, after they appear on stage, or of course on social media. Comedian David Cross makes a joke about the issue itself in his introductory bit on his live-performance CD It’s Not Funny. He sets up the audience by saying that women are smarter than men on the whole, but then also says that he believes that dogs are smarter than women. Many audience members balk at that of course, and Cross says: “I’m gonna go ahead and admit that I do not believe what I just said. It was what is described as a joke. I’ll be tellin a bunch of em here tonight.” (You can hear the one-minute bit here.) Coincidentally it brings us back to dogs again. In the case of Johnson, critic Donald Greene wonders whether Johnson really meant what he said.

I’m reading Norma Clarke’s excellent book, Dr Johnson’s Women, specifically the chapter on the extraordinarily talented Elizabeth Carter, whom Johnson first met when they both worked for Edward Cave at the Gentleman’s Magazine in the late 1730s. Clarke writes that “Johnson’s respect for Carter’s scholarship was unequivocal; he rated her as possibly the best Greek scholar in the land, avowing that nobody he had ever known knew more Greek than she did. In her scholarship, she was his equal.”

Clarke also writes that Johnson was not the only person to see Carter’s genius. Thomas Birch praised her translation of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explain’d for the Use of the Ladies, in Six Dialogues on Light and Colours (yes, some books in the 18th century had titles with “for the use of the ladies”):

This lady is a very extraordinary phenomenon in the Republic of Letters, and justly to be ranked with the Cornelias, Sulpicias, and Hypatias of the Ancients, and the Schurmans and Daciers of the Moderns. For to an uncommon vivacity and delicacy of genius and an accuracy of judgement worthy of the maturest years, she has added the knowledge of the ancient and modern languages at an age, when an equal skill in any one of them would be a considerable distinction in a person of the other sex.

Alas, perhaps the main or at least best-known assessment of Carter by Johnson himself comes down to us phrased in a way that has a “she’s smart — for a woman” feel about it. Voilà:

A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek. My old friend, Mrs Carter, could make a pudding, as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek, and work a handkerchief as well as compose a poem.

Clarke defends Johnson by pointing out that Johnson’s comment “was actually about what men wanted not what women could or couldn’t do,” but many readers won’t be able to forget about the pudding and the embroidery.

Carter’s and Johnson’s literary careers did intersect occasionally during the century (they were near chronological contemporaries, by the way, with Johnson only about eight years older than her). Most famously, she was one of the very few people other than Johnson himself to contribute essays to the Rambler that Johnson wrote between 1750 and 1752. In fact, she wrote two: no. 44 (Aug. 18, 1750) and no. 100 (Mar. 2, 1751). They are both anonymous and also both in the form of a letter to the Rambler. No. 44 recounts a dream which the writer had in which she was guided through “a melancholy picture of life” until she meets a “deliverer”: “My name is Religion.” She outs the former guide as “Superstition … the child of Discontent, and her followers are Fear and Sorrow.” Religion’s advice is to the point:

Return from the contracted views of solitude to the proper duties of a relative and dependent being. Religion is not confined to cells and closets, nor restrained to sullen retirement. These are the gloomy doctrines of Superstition, by which she endeavours to break those chains of benevolence and social affection, that link the welfare of every particular with that of the whole. Remember that the greatest honour you can pay to the Author of your being is by such a cheerful behaviour, as discovers a mind satisfied with his dispensations.

Rambler no. 100 is written in a kind of polite, ironic, satiric style, the premise being that it would be better if common people imitated the actions of people of high rank and fashion. This gives a taste of it:

For this purpose you should give a very clear and ample description of the whole set of polite acquirements; a complete history of forms, fashions, frolics; of routs, drums, hurricanes, balls, assemblies, ridottos, masquerades, auctions, plays, operas, puppet-shows, and bear-gardens; of all those delights which profitably engage the attention of the most sublime characters, and by which they have brought to such amazing perfection the whole art and mystery of passing day after day, week after week, and year after year, without the heavy assistance of any one thing that formal creatures are pleased to call useful and necessary.

Johnson maintained his friendship with Elizabeth Carter for most of his life. She had dinner with him and others at Eva Garrick’s house about six months before Johnson’s death in 1784.