The Details Make It Real and Interesting

I am working on the part of the book where Sam has just gotten married in the town of Derby, and now he and his wife, Elizabeth – his beloved “Tetty” – are back in Sam’s home town of Lichfield. They need to find a job for him as a teacher. He is 26, well educated and knowledgeable, but with no experience and no degree, the latter because he had to drop out of Oxford after just over a year because the funds to support him simply ran out. Tetty, née Jervis, by the way, is 46, and one scholar suggests that the reason the wedding wasn’t held in either of their hometowns (hers was Birmingham) was that the families on both sides were adamantly opposed to the marriage for many reasons.

It’s the kind of situation one can easily imagine playing out today as well. Sam is young, without financial prospects, and (unfortunately this was an issue for some people) ungainly and unhandsome. Tetty was recently widowed and at that age where, many would conclude based on stereotypes, her romantic prospects for the future were slender. The thing that often gets forgotten is that they liked each other, they were sexually attracted to each other, and, well, they were in love. So, the families railed, but Sam and Tetty got down to the business of finding an income for their household.

The way I try to write, as much as possible, is to be “finished” with a section or sentence or word before I move on to the next one. I don’t just quickly write just to get the facts down, with the idea that I will be revisiting all this and likely making some major editorial changes. Instead, when I write a sentence it is, at the time, what I think it will look like in the final book. However, the reason I put “finished” in quotation marks is that I know from experience, editing my own writing and that of others, that all writing will be changed to some extent once it gets re-read (and it should be re-read, and more than once). It’s probably true though that my writing will change less than the writing of those who write more in the “just get it all down now” style. No method is better: you have to write in the way that works best for you.


I was writing earlier this week, and I not only came across an ad that Sam had put in a magazine to advertise for a school he would set up and take in students as boarders, but also because of the awesomeness of the internet – notably the various projects going on around the world to digitize older materials, usually universities either alone or in cooperation with projects such as the Internet Archive and the Hathi Trust ­– so because of that, I was able to sit here in my chair and read it (digitized) in its original form. Here are what the title page of the issue and Sam’s specific ad look like.

I was about to start writing about this ad when I suddenly realized that it was published in July 1736, and Sam and Tetty had gotten married in 1735. So once I did a little more research I realized that at first Sam just tried to get jobs, and it wasn’t until about a year later that he and Tetty made the decision to rent a building and set up his own school. As you can see from the ad, the school would be in a town called Edial, which is about 5 km west of Lichfield.

What happened after the wedding (five weeks after) is that Sam’s lawyer friend Gilbert Walmesley wrote a letter (a “reference”) in support of Sam’s candidacy for the headmaster position at the school in the town of Solihull, about 40 km south of Lichfield. The reply that came back a couple of weeks later (August 30) was a rejection. Sam wasn’t even interviewed – they simply took “some time to make enquiry of the caracter of Mr. Johnson” – and conclude that though he’s an excellent scholar and the job at Solihull might even be a bit beneath him, he also has some personal and physical faults which make them say no. They are referring here to his sometimes rough manner, his physical appearance (scars on his neck from childhood scrofula), and his tics and gesticulations which some scholars and doctors now think was Tourette syndrome.

So, no job, but if you have three more minutes, I can tell you a bit about his marriage, and what the next big step in his life was …

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