Friday, October 23, 2015

The Life of Samuel Johnson by Lord Macaulay

A recent conversation with a friend about her tentative plans to visit London reminded me of one of my own adventures there in search of the Samuel Johnson house which is tucked so far off of the Strand at 17 Gough Square that I almost didn't find it. (You can read a little bit about that excursion here.) This led me to my bookshelf in search of anything I might own about our dear Dr. Johnson, author of the first English dictionary.

I thought I had a copy of a facsimile of that famous first published in 1755, but I must have given that away. I seem to remember that trying to read the antiquated typeface gave me a headache. 

Image result for samuel johnson dictionary
I found this sample of an entry in Dr. Johnson's dictionary online.

I did however find a biography of Dr. J among my family collection of Really Old Books. I have a small assortment of five books from a set called Eclectic English Classics that were from my grandmother's school days. They were published by American Book Company. The copyright date in my copy is 1895. 

On the back cover is a list of the 44 books in the series. The prices range from 20 cents to 50 cents. The other surviving ones are Silas Marner, The Life and Writings of Addison, The Sir Roger De Coverley Papers from The Spectator, and L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus, and Lycidas by Milton.

But back to Dr. Johnson. This account of the dictionary compiler's life is written by historian and essayist Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800 - 1859). The anonymously written introduction takes up 20 pages while Macaulay's chronicle is a mere 50 pages.

Since I am not reading anything of import at the moment, perhaps I will dip into this brief biography.

I don't suppose the books in this little set are worth much on the open market but I wouldn't sell them anyway as the sentimental value is priceless. There on the first page is my grandmother's signature (maiden name) written in pencil. No date, but on the last blank page is written her fond note to someone called "W.C" who may have been a teacher or friend. Or perhaps a beau.

I probably will never know. Another family history mystery.

Have you come across any 'mysteries' among the inscriptions in any of the books in your library?


  1. I can't think of any inscription mysteries, but I cherish any books with family inscriptions. I have a copy of Burns' poetry that my great-aunt Delia inscribed to my late father. He was of the generation that was required to memorize poetry in school and would regale us with poems long and short.
    I must have read a biography of something about Dr. Johnson because I remember that he was terrified of going insane, as his mother had. Any of us who have parents who have or had dementia or alzheimer's knows that feeling. Some things never change.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Joan. No one in my family recited poetry. Including me. My mother was too shy and my father was more interested in telling stories than learning lines of poetry!
      The only thing I remember about Dr. J. is that he had many health problems. I didn't know about the fear of dementia. I guess I will learn more when I read this short biography.

  2. Oh, Belle, I love the look of those old books! And how fun to read a biography of Samuel Johnson! Why didn't I go to his house in London? In college we read an abridged edition of Boswell's LONNNNNNNNGGGGG biography of Johnson, but of course I remember nothing about it. And I have never read Macaulay! Have fun!

    1. Hi, Kat. Well, Dr. J's house in London is quite austere. I don't think there is anything from his stay there to be found but still an interesting look into the rooms where he compiled the dictionary. I have often thought of reading Boswell's biography but it's length is a bit intimidating. I will just have to see what Lord Macaulay has to report...