Dr Johnson, having completed his life's major work (the first ever Dictionary of the English Language) is running an increasingly chaotic life, torn between his strict morality and his undeclared passion for Mrs Thrale, the wife of an old friend. Her daughter, Queeney, narrates.
Compiling books on 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.
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.
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.
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.