Samuel Johnson: A Biography

Early this year, during my Christmas vacation (which lasted into January), I read James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which I liked a lot. I mentioned in my review that I’d like to read a modern biography, to see how it differs from and enhances Boswell’s. For this project I chose Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography, more or less at random (it was cheap on Kindle, so even if I ended up not liking it, it wouldn’t much matter). Well, I’ve read it now, and it was not bad but not great.

The biography goes into a lot of detail about all the occurrences in Johnson’s life. I learnt a lot that wasn’t mentioned in Boswell’s Life, especially about Johnson’s early life, before he met Boswell. A lot about his struggles with procrastination (very relatable), writer’s block, and depression as well as illness. A great deal about his efforts to earn money before at last he was granted a pension – he was a poor and struggling author for many years. Boswell mentioned it as well, but not in such detail.


There is a lot more information about Johnson’s relationships with his wife and other women, especially with Mrs. Thrale, into whose family Johnson was integrated for many years until the death of Mr. Thrale. Mrs. Thrale then went on to marry a younger Italian, much to everyone’s censure. She also published recollections of her time with Johnson which mentioned complaints about his behaviour and his excessive reliance on her during his bouts of illness and depression – Boswell saw that as an act of betrayal and didn’t go into details but rather vilified Mrs. Thrale. It does seem rather nasty of her to publish such details after Johnson’s death, when he couldn’t give his view of things anymore, but on the other hand, Johnson does seem to have been a difficult guest at times. Still, she probably also published her recollections to cash in on Johnson’s fame and they were estranged because of her marriage, so it’s no wonder that she didn’t want to present Johnson in a purely adulatory way. And it’s interesting of course to have differing views on the same person.

In general, Martin’s biography dwells a lot more on Johnson’s hard life and the difficult side to his character while also showing his empathy and charity for others. Johnson supported quite a few people in his household who would otherwise have been in dire straits and didn’t forsake them although they could be very quarrelsome and sometimes made his life uncomfortable in his own home. He was contentious and liked to win arguments while also quickly ready to be reconciled with his friends when he had fought with them. He had a larger than life personality, which both biographies reveal.

Reading Boswell’s Life, I got the impression that Johnson was a Tory, a conservative, as opposed to a Whig (apparently the progressives of the 18th century – I’m not very well informed about the politics of the time). But with the details that Martin provides, it becomes much clearer that while Johnson had some conservative convictions, he also had a lot of progressive or libertarian ideas. In short, he used his brains and made up his own mind, always informed by his religious convictions and charitable attitudes.

Martin’s biography also dwelt on Johnson’s fear of death, which I don’t recall being so prominent in Boswell’s account. It’s quite striking but very relatable that someone like Johnson, a moralist, a Christian and person full of charity should be so uncertain about his state of redemption. He was eager to undergo horrible medical treatments if there was a chance that they would prolong his life and only became calm and reconciled with death in his last days or even hours (which are very well reported because a lot of his friends were with him during his last days, except for Boswell, who lived in Scotland and wasn’t in London at the time).

Martin’s biography gave a more detailed (in some parts) and perhaps more complete picture of Johnson than Boswell’s did, but I enjoyed Boswell’s view and writing much more. It is a work of art that I’m sure I’ll want to reread. Martin’s seems to be a well-researched biography, and I don’t regret reading it, but it is dry and kind of cold in comparison. I probably won’t want to reread it, but I’ll use it as a reference book, to look up facts, not to read for pleasure. If you are interested in Samuel Johnson, I think that the best and most congenial start is still Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Keep safe, world.

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