According to Queeney

by Beryl Bainbridge

Hardcover, 2001




London : Little, Brown, 2001.


Bainbridges brilliantly imagined, universally acclaimed, Booker Prize-longlisted novel portrays the inordinate appetites and unrequited love touched off when the most celebrated man of eighteenth-century English letters, Samuel Johnson, enters the domain of a wealthy Southwark brewer and his wife, Hester Thrale. The melancholic, middle-aged lexicographer plunges into an increasingly ambiguous relationship with the vivacious Mrs. Thrale for the next twenty years. In that time Hesters eldest daughter, the neglected but prodigiously clever Queeney, will grow into young womanhood. Along the way, little of the emotional tangle and sexual tension stirring beneath the decorous surfaces of the Thrale household will escape Queeneys cold, observant eye. A dark, often hilarious and deeply human vision ... a major literary accomplishment.Margaret Atwood, Toronto Globe and Mail the end of this luminous little novel ... we feel two losses ... the personal one and the loss to civilization.Richard Bernstein, New York Times Dialogue and descriptions subtly and skillfully convey a sense not only of the period but also the personalities.Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times Bainbridges] most accomplished novel so far.Washington Post Book World Majestically deft.... Absolutely wonderful.Kirkus Reviews (starred)… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member edwinbcn
According to Queeney is another understated historical novel by Beryl Bainbridge. It is set in 18th Century London, describing the last 20 years of Samuel Johnson's life, particularly focusing on Dr Johnson's relations with Hester Thrale, and her daughter Hester "Queeney" Thrale.

Compiling books on
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family members and friends was the fad of the day during the second half of the 18th Century, when the genre of biography was still taking shape. Parents documented the landmarks in the lives of their children in "Baby Books", "Children's Books" or "Family Books". Friends compiled "Table Talk Books" collecting facts and anecdotes about their friends and acquaintances. Samuel Johnson was the topic of several biographers, even during his lifetime.

The most famous of Johnson's biographers is John Boswell. However, it is wrong to believe that Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is a reliable biography. The work is highly biased, in which Boswell is described as correcting Johnson's quotations and many other "facts". In effect, Boswell's Life is only a story or version of Johnson's (real) life. In other words, it is Johnson's life according to Boswell.

John Boswell did not like Hester Thrale, who became one of Johnson's best friends during the last 20 years of his life. Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is particularly concerned with the last 20 years of Johnson's life, but the episode with Hester Thrale is largely omitted. Was is jealousy? Certainly, there was an element of envy, and Boswell saw Thrale as a literary competitor, knowing that she was compiling her own scrap book on the life of Johnson.

Hester Thrale kept a diary, referred to as the Thraliana, which she initially kept as a diary, but which, came to be her compilation of anecdotes on the life of Johnson. After Johnson's death, she published her correspondence with Johnson, together with this account in 1786 under the title Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. During the Last Twenty Years of His Life. Contemporaries of Samuel Johnson slashed the work as lively, though very inaccurate and artful. It was a disappointing, sensational account of Johnson life according to Hester.

Hester Thrale's daughter, also named "Hester Thrale" nicknamed "Queeney" by Johnson, grew up becoming an intellectual diarist and literary correspondent in her own right. Like her mother, she corresponded with Samuel Johnson whom she had known as a friend of the family since her earliest youth, and with whom she was as close as an uncle. Her letters were not published during her lifetime, but were published in 1934 as The Queeney letters. Being letters addressed to Hester Maria Thrale by Doctor Johnson, Fanny Burney and Mrs. Thrale-Piozzi

It is likely that Queeney, like her mother, beside her correspondence, kept a diary and compiled anecdotes about Samuel Johnson, but these were never published. Had the been compiled and published, they might have given us another glimpse of Johnson's life according to Queeney.

Beryl Bainbridge novel According to Queeney can be read as this fictional version of Johnson's life. The novel reads like a biographical account of Johnson's life, with apparently very unremarkable. The narrative chapters are interspersed with letters by people requesting Queeney for biographical details about Johnson's life, which Queeney seems reluctant to give. In her position as a close friend of Johnson, also particularly spanning the last 20 years of his life, Queeney must have possessed a wealth of information on Samuel Johnson, a treasure, which, unlike her gaudy mother, she seemed very unwilling to share.

Thus, Bainbridge's novel is a very understated biography of Johnson. Hardly worth reading.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
'According to Queeney' is a triumph of style, inventiveness, and most importantly, honesty. It follows the life of Samuel Johnson, the writer of the first English dictionary, and his friends in late 18th century England. The story, I am told, is factually very accurate, although I'm sure a lot of
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the tales must have been at least doctored by Bainbridge. There simply isn't enough about the man and the society around him to cover every assertion made about him and the events in the book.

The book is full of very interesting and well-drawn characters, from the irascible genius of Johnson himself, to the childhood prodigy Queeney, and her parents, who seem to love only other people. The dialogue sparkles as much as it honestly should. This is a compelling piece of historical literature, and I would recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in Georgian England.
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LibraryThing member stephenmurphy
I loved this short, sensitive book. Auntie Beryl wins again.
LibraryThing member Cariola
I had heard a lot of praise for this historical novel about the friendship between poet/critic/lexicographer Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale, so I thought I'd give it a try. Despite thte title, only some chapters are told from the point of view of Mrs. Thrales daughter, affectionately known as
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"Queeney" (or, to Johnson, "Sweeting"). The book was well written and researched, but, overall, I thought it was just OK. I listened to it in audio format; the reader, Miriam Margolyes, was perfect.
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LibraryThing member mpfickes
A social history of Samuel Johnson and his circle, told from the perspective of his beloved patroness' eldest daughter. Hester Thrace, bourgeois and brilliant wife of a well-to-do London brewer, is Johnson's muse and benefactress. Queeney, Hester's disaffected but sharply observant daughter, sees
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much and tells all - but is her perspective trustworthy? The reader is left with a wider knowledge of Johnson's colorful life and an unexpectedly poignant reminder that truth, far from absolute, is in the eye of the beholder.
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LibraryThing member piemouth
Dr. Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer and English man of letters, became friends with the wealthy brewer Henry Thrale and his wife Hester, and lived with them at their country and London homes for seventeen years. What's known is that Johnson and Mrs Thrale had some kind of flirtation; it doesn't
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seem to be known how far that went. Queeney is the eldest daughter of the Thrales, who observes her mother, Johnson, and other goings on in the strange household.

This book describes a various episodes during those years. People are always visiting, or going on journeys, or returning from them. The squalor, filth, and illness of the 18th century are described in detail.

There's a lot of tension between Mrs. Thrale and Queeney, for no obvious reason except that Mrs. Thrale is a classic narcissist and Queeney defies her. Mrs. Thrale is constantly pregnant but nearly all her children die and she seems to care only for her son and for a daughter who died before the story begins. At one point a family friend reprimands Mrs. Thrale for giving Queeney so many tin pills for worms and for purging her so vigorously, and I'm all, wow, is this going to be Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy in the 18th century? Wild! but no.

I'm not sure what to say about this books. It doesn't have a real story arc; there are various incidents described by an omniscient narrator, interspersed with letters from Queeney written years later that show her to be an unreliable source. If the stories the narrator tells us are true.

If it has a them, it's unrequited love: Johnson's for Mrs Thrale, his houskeeper Mrs. Desmoulins for Johnson, Mrs. Thrale for her music teacher. Queeney for her mother.

And yet, I liked it, and it stayed with me. That counts for something.
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LibraryThing member ccayne
I read this because it was on the Guardian's 1000 books to read list; it was my first on the list. The writing was very formal and well constructed. I am not a history buff and so I felt adrift and ignorant. It was funny but I didn't like the story.
LibraryThing member bergs47
Could not see the point of it all. Well written but could hardly be called a novel. Would have preferred an actual biography.
LibraryThing member phredfrancis
This is the second Beryl Bainbridge novel I've read, and I know I'll be reading many more. Because she writes in historical settings and, at least from what I've seen, about very English characters, one has to be willing not to have every detail and reference at hand while reading. One has to be
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willing to read up at least a little on the central characters (in this case, Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale) or the central even (in Master Georgie, it was the Crimean War) to best appreciate the nuances of the story, though not to understand the story itself. Other writers might take two or three times as many words to tell the same story, but Bainbridge is careful and spare in her choice of words, making her unusual in the world of historical fiction. To my mind, it also makes her superior.

While the historical backdrop is important, but it merely provides the framework for what Bainbridge does most brilliantly, and that is to grant the reader multiple viewpoints on the same events through the eyes of several key characters. The result is that one comes away with a fuller understanding of the story than do any of the characters, while at the same time gaining insight into the pervasive effect of subjectivity in interpreting one's life. None of Bainbridge's characters, no matter how brilliant or how practical, escapes influence of their subjective interpretations of events. To some degree, even the reader is implicated, because the revelations of these varying interpretations come about by degrees, so we are spared a tedious omniscient narrator's view of the characters and events. Bainbridge's doubled and sometimes tripled views of events emerge slowly over the course of the novel, and the insights are all the more rewarding for the delay and the reliance on the reader's memory to fill in the gaps.

The plot of the book is much less important than the manner in which events unfold. In short, the novel covers primarily the twenty-year period in which Samuel Johnson was an intimate friend of Henry and Hester Thrale's. But as Bainbridge is a psychological novelist masquerading as a historical novelist, the real story takes place in the characters' relating to one another and revealing the passions, desires, and fears that drive them.
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LibraryThing member Fence
This novel may possibly have had a greater impact on me if I knew anything about the life and times of Samuel Johnson apart from the fact that he wrote a dictionary, and of course that the Life of Samuel Johnson was written by Boswell. But I’ve never read it, and so am unfamiliar with Johnson,
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apart from the broadest of strokes. But while I may be lacking some of that knowledge I still really enjoyed this book.

We see a much different Johnson here than the one I’ve heard of, not a lot of genius showing, more depression and self-absorption.

The Queeney of the title is a child for much of the book, her mother and father have, in many ways, taken Johnson into their family and it is through this family, the Thrale’s that we see Johnson.

There are also letters interspersed with the story, Queeney’s written in adulthood to a cousin looking for information about Johnson. But the main part of the book is not specifically from Queeney’s POV, and this allows us to learn how wrong a lot of what Queeney thought about her mother Hester, was wrong.

This is an amusing little book, full of lines that’ll make you smile. Easy to read, and full of insights and interesting sentences. However, I never really got a sense of time from the book. The characters could have been from any era, not just that of Georgian England. Still, well worth a read.
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