Sam Johnson, Married and Widowed

Sam Johnson got married in 1735 to Elizabeth Porter. He was 25 and she was 46; in addition, they had met only about a year or so before and she had been widowed just over 10 months when the wedding took place. Sam was a bit younger than the average age at the time for a man to get married, which was 29. As for Tetty, she was one of only about 8 percent of widows to get remarried during that era (see Sally Holloway’s great book, The Game of Love in Georgian England: Courtship, Emotions, and Material Culture). This was a very narrow possibility-window

from the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, England

for Sam and Tetty then. She was unlikely to get married again at all, and she was also marrying a man who was both 21 years younger than her but also 4 years younger than the average man getting married at all. And the dollop on top was that the families on both sides vehemently opposed it.

Hey, perhaps, all the theories aside, they were in love. Imagine that.

They remained married for 17 years, until she died in 1752. It would be fascinating to read in detail about only that period in both their lives. I may be wrong, but as far as I know there is no full published book which focuses on the marriage only. It is written about in all the biographies of Sam, of course, and it was a good and bad journey. They disagreed and had arguments as all couples do, but they also spent frequent and long periods not even living in the same city. She was home and Sam was a working writer in London, which is basically where he lived from 1737 — less than two years after their marriage — until his own death in 1784. Sam is often remembered for his famous quip about getting remarried as “the triumph of hope over experience,” but his other expressed thoughts about marriage were often more positive and practical.

Sam was bereft and inconsolable at the death of Tetty. He couldn’t even attend her funeral. Instead, he wrote prayers over the course of four days in late April and early May 1752 which demonstrate the extent of his grief. As was usual for him in prayers of many kinds, he prostrates himself at the mercy of the God he believed in, and asks for strength in getting through it all.

I have to say that his characterizing her death in the first prayer as “the affliction which it has pleased Thee to bring upon me” is more deference than I would have been able to muster to a putatively benevolent God. It ends with Sam imagining his own death (“when it shall please Thee to call me from this mortal state”) and hoping to “finally obtain mercy and everlasting happiness.” The “finally” is very telling, of course, as it betrays his anticipation that he won’t be able to be happy while he’s still alive.

The last of this series of prayers, on May 6, is in effect his call to himself to get on with his life as a widower:

O Lord, our heavenly Father, without whom all purposes are frustrate, all efforts are vain, grant me the assistance of thy Holy Spirit, that I may not sorrow as one without hope, but may now return to the duties of my present state with humble confidence in thy protection … I used this service … as preparatory to my return to life to-morrow.

He did ultimately get on with life, of course, and published several significant works afterwards, as well as living well and fully. He continued with the habit of prayer, and many of his annual resolutions were written on the anniversary of Tetty’s death.

In this week’s 3 More Minutes about Sam, I’ll recite the first and last of those prayers. Please listen …

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