I spent most of Wednesday afternoon with my friends Mary and Robert, socially distanced in the back yard but maskless because each of us has had the first shot of a COVID vaccine. It was wonderful — the first time I have done that for almost two years.
One of the things we talked about was my Sam Johnson biography, and specifically about the dissipation of Sam’s wife, Tetty, and their married life in general. I am writing the book in focused “chunks,” so even though I’ve written about their marriage, I haven’t gotten to writing the details of their life together (and apart) yet. As I mentioned in last week’s post, they were married in 1735 when he was 25 and she was 46, and the marriage lasted till her death in 1752.
Images from the Donald & Mary Hyde Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Note that the portrait of Tetty was done around the year that she and Sam were married, and that her copy of the Rambler was signed the day after the last essay was published and two days before she died.
I know what Sam was up to for those 17 years, and I know the general sweep of Tetty’s life during the same period, but after my garden get-together I consulted some of the standard biographies to glean a preliminary sense of some of the details of what Tetty was doing.
A few facts about her to keep in mind:
1. Tetty and Sam lived apart in different cities and towns during the whole course of their marriage, even from early on. Nine months in 1737. Over a year between 1738 and 1740. Long periods during 1746-1752.
2. Tetty was born into wealth, her first husband had money, and she was used to a more genteel life than a struggling writer, and then an erratic icon, could offer her.
3. Speculation on my part, but I don’t think she liked to be alone. When she was away from Sam, she often lived with her daughter Lucy.
4. As much as one can determine 300 years later through the lenses (and covers) of others’ observations, and my own, I see her as a sincere and honest person. She wasn’t hesitant to give praise. She said of her young suitor Sam before they were married that he was “the most sensible man that I ever saw in my life.” And her assessment of The Rambler, Sam’s twice-weekly essays published in the two years before her death, “I thought very well of you before; but I did not imagine you could have written anything equal to this.”
5. As for the criticisms and mean-spirited assessments of her (many from men and many about her looks and body) … hey, everyone has their own taste, and sometimes what a body does at it ages is less and less out of our full control.
6. Sam called it a “love-marriage” on both sides, and other biographers have noted that both of them had healthy sexual appetites. That may not always lead to the best results long-term, but it’s a pretty good place to start a romantic partnership together.
One biographer, David Nokes, writes of their days living together in London: “We know little of how she filled her days while Johnson worked; she corresponded with her daughter Lucy in Lichfield and argued daily with the servant she considered absolutely essential. In the warmer months she sauntered the streets of the metropolis, gazing in shop windows, feeding her imagination with all the things she saw in newspapers that would soon be theirs, once Samuel’s play was the great success he promised.”
It was the draft of a play called Irene that he had in his pocket when he left Lichfield in 1737 for London, and it did ultimately get produced and staged in 1749 and was a commercial success (nine nights). But many scholars today view it as one of his weaker works, and, tellingly perhaps, he never wrote another one. A tragic circumstance is that Tetty was ill at the time and did not get to attend any performances of the play she had so much hoped to see from her husband.
It was during the 1740s that Tetty’s health began to slowly decline. She injured her tendon, which became the source of much pain and several letters of condolence from Sam. And it was also during this time that she started taking opium. As Nokes notes, opium “was available at a price and without criminal associations, for ills of every kind.” She may also have taken a combination of opium and alcohol called laudanum. But ultimately she was, frankly, taking opium and also drinking, and this whole combination of circumstances led to a much reduced (what we would call today) “quality of life” during her last few years. One doctor who was a friend of Sam put it pretty harshly to a mutual friend: she “was always drunk & reading Romances in her Bed, where she killed herself by taking Opium.”
Tetty died on March 17, 1752, at the age of 63.
For my 3 More Minutes about Sam podcast this week, I’ll recount some happier and funnier stories about Sam and Tetty. (One even involves sex.)