Death is something that happens to other people: and hence, it might be inferred, the popularity of biography. Those whose lives are recorded die in the last chapter: the rest of us live for ever. The point was made by Lucretius in his long poem On the Nature of Things, which was intended to cheer us all up. We have no choice but to live for ever, since death is something we can see but not experience: living is necessarily independent of it. In his study of Samuel Beckett, Christopher Ricks says that we desire both oblivion and eternity; but except in the insidiously artificial world of writers like Beckett, who make death a cliché within the life of language, neither of these wishes makes much sense. Dr Johnson would have pooh-poohed them. Life, for him, hoped to be preparation for a future life: a living for ever by other means. In the meantime we could do it most satisfactorily by travelling briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman.
But if we are to live for ever someone else must die. We understand the sequence of life and death by reference to an alter ego, whose biography in a sense we are writing, and to whom we thus come as close as we can. The idea may sound fanciful, but it is pursued with remarkable force and fascination in Richard Holmes’s study. Richard Savage, the young Johnson’s alter ego, was a poor and talented writer whom Johnson had met in Grub Street. Each took a fancy to the other, and they became companions in want in London’s lower depths, where they often walked all night, deploring the hypocrisy of high society and the crimes of the government: much as a couple of useful friends might be doing today. His later account of Savage’s life and death showed Johnson inventing, however involuntarily, a new species of biography: the search for and objectification of one’s life outside oneself, as death is outside life. The creation of such a biography, and the intensity with which it can be transmitted in perusal, is – also one could say – a new method of imagining that one does not live for ever. For it presents to the self its own death and life.
Holmes’s ending has a good deal of the quiet intensity of Johnson’s own life of Savage. ‘Finally I should say that if my book strikes some curious chord in the reader’s mind, it came to me on such a night ... in the city, when a light winter rain was falling like a mist around the lamps. The echo you hear, of course, is of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’ A biographer, Holmes has told us, is always kin, too, to those two 18th-century presences, talking and arguing all night in the labyrinth of dark streets, ‘trying to find a recognisable human truth together’. The original conclusion of Johnson’s life of Savage, now the penultimate paragraph, ‘challenges the reader to accept the conditions of Savage’s existence’, and urges ‘empathy before judgment’. ‘Nor will a wise man easily presume to say,’ Johnson concludes, ‘“Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived, or written, better than Savage.”’ Lived, or written? Should have lived? His passionate interest in Mr Hyde confirms the perpetuity of Dr Jekyll; but also, more important, it removes all excuse for and grounds of judgment. Life can have no way of judging death, the completed life. ‘Those are no proper Judges of his conduct who have slumber’d away their Time on the Down of Plenty.’ The life and death in a biography, transferred to its maker and so to the reader, is the secret of its true intimacy, the biographer’s final goal. Johnson discovered how to become Savage.
And so invented, however accidentally, a new biographical form; one that is, as Holmes notes, the forerunner of the Romantic autobiography, of the varied self-creations of Rouseau and Goethe, Wordsworth and Thoreau. As his own brilliant biographies of Shelley and Coleridge have revealed, Holmes understands the art, and intuits its possible motivations, better than most biographers today; and he understands, too, not only the resemblance but the crucial difference between Johnsonian empathy and Romantic self-creation. Johnson implies the suspension of judgment, once the most important duty of the conventional biographer; but he does not idealise the man he creates, nor turn him into a Romantic icon, a model of some new or higher value. The words he gave to the end of the biography, as we now have it, were both just and conventional. In terms of a moral exemplum, Savage’s career must be condemned, for it shows that ‘nothing will supply the Want of Prudence; and that Negligence and Irregularity, long continued, will make knowledge useless, Wit ridiculous, and Genius contemptible.’
The biographee achieves the status of Rousseau’s first sentence in his Confessions on a simple technicality. ‘I am like no one else in the world,’ because I have both lived and died. Johnson hammers that home by making his friend Savage both exemplum and alter ego, both fantasy image and real-life charmer, who had the power to fascinate almost everyone he met, including the hard-bitten veteran keeper of Bristol Newgate, the prison where he ended his days as a debtor. Johnson records with a special tenderness this last period of strange security – ‘a Freedom from Suspense, and Rest from the disturbing Vicissitudes of Hope and Disappointment’ – in words which again look forward to Romantic dreams in a paradoxical Arcadia. Both Savage and Johnson may well have had Lear and Cordelia in mind, but behind them is a more personal note of lost innocence, and of a childhood neither felt they had ever possessed. In his long poem The Wanderer, itself a precursor of the Romantic narrative, Savage writes of his nocturnal rambles in the London slums, many of which had been with Johnson himself; and in both biographer and subject these become joined with mysterious ease to an innocence of which they might have seemed the very opposite.
One day last week Mr Dagge, finding me at the door, asked me to take a walk with him, which I did a mile beyond Baptist Mill in Gloucestershire; where, at a public house, he treated me with ale and toddy ... I found the smell of the newmown hay very sweet, and every breeze was reviving to my spirits.
Mr Dagge the keeper, like Johnson’s own tough old drunken doctor friend of later years, Robert Levet, joins this company of the blest in the land of all our wishes. Of course Johnson is in no way deceived, either by his own feelings for Savage or by Savage’s own persistent fantasy projections of the self. Johnson’s most persistent fascination with his old friend is the recognition in him, and reconstruction by his means, of his own sense of human perversity and incongruity. Man is not made for happiness, and men like Savage (and himself) exemplify on a heroic scale the inability to be happy.
Thus, after enjoying the quiet haven of Bristol Newgate, Savage was suddenly seized with the wish to write a violent satire against Bristol, a wish that Johnson cannot help regarding with both awe and admiration. ‘A Prisoner! Supported by Charity ... he could forget on a sudden his Danger, and his Obligations, and publish a Satire by which he might reasonably expect, that he should alienate those who had then supported him, and provoke those whom he could neither resist nor escape.’ Yet this final act of defiance before he died in the prison aged 46, probably of liver failure – he had always been a heavy drinker – was, as Holmes remarks, ‘perfectly in accord with everything that had gone before’. In terms of his besoin de fatalité Savage could put Byron or Baudelaire in the shade. More important, though, he is a perfect instance of obsessive self-creation, asserting and reasserting the persona out of which his biographer will make the portrait.
The man he wanted to be, and always claimed to be, was the illegitimate son of the fourth Earl Rivers and Lady Macclesfield, who afterwards married a Colonel Brett and survived her putative child by many years. He insisted that she not only refused to recognise him as her natural son but pursued him with implacable hatred and malice, even attempting to ensure that he would be hanged when he had been found guilty on a murder charge. Apart from the character of Savage himself, which was of such absorbing interest to Johnson, the story has the fascination which attaches itself to all frauds, pretenders and aristocratic claimants, as in the Victorian Tichborne case, and the one imagined by Trollope in Is He Popenjoy? As Holmes makes clear, the balance of proof seems to suggest that Lady Macclesfield was not Savage’s mother, although he may have had some connection with the family, possibly being the child of one of the nurses. (The matter was gone into exhaustively in an edition of Notes and Queries in 1858.) Nor does Lady Macclesfield’s nature seem to have been as obdurate and hard-hearted as Savage always presented it to be, to himself and to his friends. She seems to have been a sad, withdrawn and rather pathetic person, living quietly as a widow, and endlessly persecuted by Savage’s vitriolic abuse of her in both his poems and his conversation as a fiendish and unnatural mother, and by his claims against her, which amounted to a continuous process of blackmail.
Certainly she had natural children to live down; and her life appears, for that and other reasons, to have been one continuous process of calamity brought about through feebleness and compliance rather than vice. But what matters, and what clearly mattered to Johnson and deeply impressed him, was Savage’s absolute and unwavering conviction that he was indeed the natural son of Earl Rivers and that Lady Macclesfield, who had certainly been the Earl’s mistress, was his mother. The Rivers family, incidentally, tended to be large, blonde and flamboyant, while Savage was short, dark and intense; but who knows? – genes don’t always appear on the surface.
The psychology of the pretender was brilliantly dramatised by Schiller in his fragmentary Perkin Warbeck and Dimitri. In the latter the pretender loses his faith in himself, and hence the loyalty of his followers, when presented with evidence that his claims are false. Savage’s own faith in himself seems to have persuaded all his friends, young Johnson included, that he was indeed the man he claimed to be. And of course, the archetype is one to which, to use a phrase of Johnson’s from a different context, every bosom is capable of returning an echo. Few of us would mind being a prince in exile, persecuted, impoverished, our genius like our lineage neglected and unrecognised; provided, of course, that everything came right in the end, and the grand world bowed down both to our talents and to our title.
Something not very unlike that happened to Byron. To Savage it most emphatically did not. And from the point of view of Johnsonian biography this was all to the good. ‘Slow rises Worth, by Poverty deprest’ was the exemplar that fitted the young biographer; and which he could picture in the most compassionating dramatic form in the alter ego whose genius never rose, because of the heartlessness of the world and the defects of his own character – defects which were also the glorious stigmata of sturdy independence and defiant pride. As Pat Rogers remarks in his excellent little book on Johnson, by far the best short account of his life and the progress of his work, ‘we know little of his inmost being during these years’ – the years in which he came to know Savage, and hastened after his death to give his impressions of him. By these means Johnson was virtually able to create his own image of himself up to that time – an apologia no less intimate for being so frank and eloquent an apologia for Savage as well. In his poem ‘The Bastard’ Savage had things both ways, being proud of a noble origin and also proud of being the fruit of joyous sin, ‘stampt in nature’s mint of ecstasy,’ and ‘No tenth transmitter of a foolish face,’ rather than ‘the sickly product’ of ‘faint compliance’.
Johnson was shrewd enough to see the possibilities in a life of Savage when he put the matter to his publisher John Roberts in 1744, a year after his friend’s death. Everyone who heard about the dead poet at once became interested in him. Sir Joshua Reynolds remembered how he had found a copy of Johnson’s book, when it first came out, on a friend’s mantelpiece, and read it through without changing his position so that his elbow became quite numb. And it was the thing that first helped to make known Johnson’s own name. Holmes suggests wonderfully well the totally unBoswellian situation of Johnson in those early days: poor; so ugly and peculiar that the children shouted after him in the street; married to a woman with a fondness for gin and thirty years older than himself. No wonder he had a taste for day-dreams and a fantasy life, no less than did Savage.
More than that, if Savage felt himself to be like the Frog Prince in the fairy-tale, as Holmes thinks, Johnson must himself have felt like the Beast in the other story, passionately attached to the idea of a Beauty who disregarded him or never came his way. Mrs Lucy Price was one such, Molly Ashton another: both were beautiful and vivacious bluestockings whom Johnson had pined after from afar. Savage seems to have suffered the same sort of hopeless attachment; including of course to his supposed mother, his hatred for whom was also a longing for maternal love. More fortunate with old family friends from Lichfield days, the Porters, Johnson married the widowed mother and became deeply attached to her daughter, a kind and selfless young woman who looked after them and the business, and Johnson’s old mother as well. Although he always swore after she died that his wife, his ‘dear Tetty’, had made him happy, and this may well have been so, he none the less spent long periods away from her. He preferred when he could to have separate London lodgings.
How he passed his time there is not known. Scribbling of course; but also with a routine very like Savage’s own – endlessly talking and walking the streets, drinking, sometimes in dubious female company. As Holmes stresses, much of their talk and their sympathy together was political. One should not forget that to be a Tory and a Jacobite was for most young writers and intellectuals then the done thing, the equivalent of political correctness. The Whigs were the Establishment: Robert Walpole, the Hanoverian monarchy, the new bourgeois, were Thatcherites. Johnson and Savage together denounced colonialism, slavery, sugar and speculation – all the wicked things that were making Britain great and rich, and the poor poorer.
Holmes makes clear the ways, some subtle, some not, in which Johnson’s account of his friend is far from unbiased. Johnson not only passes over the details of the murder, when three violent and drunken friends broke into a room at a coffee-house and Savage stabbed one of the customers, but also underplays the highly dubious strategies his friend adopted to obtain funds from the woman he claimed was his mother. Johnson’s purpose is always to make his subject the helpless victim of society; and yet the victim whose stoicism and style overcomes all miseries that fate and injustice can heap on him. In fact Savage was lucky not to be hanged. Both in the deed itself and in his vigorous efforts to escape the consequence he was very far from being a helpless victim. Johnson’s approach has a curiously modern flavour; although, at the time he was writing, so sober and serious an account of what had long been a subject of gossip-column scandal was unusual, to say the least. As Holmes points out, the normal way of treating such a subject was that of Mrs Eliza Haywood, a female rival of Defoe, who compiled ‘scandalous romans à clefs (the “key” being provided in a tantalising index) which hovered between lush, sentimental fiction and rumour-mongering biography’. In treating such a topic at once seriously, and with a kind of romantic intensity, Johnson was indeed creating a new genre.
Towards the end of his absorbing tale, packed with details of the time, Holmes likens himself as a biographer to Charon, ferrying the dead across the Styx; and he modestly makes the comparison because there was indeed a ferryman called Holmes, who plied his trade at Fleet stairs and may have been known to Johnson. The notion might well have appealed to the future Doctor’s sense of the grotesque, whether in futurity or around him in the courts and alleys of London. Johnson’s most final remarks on death are well-known, and they came in the form of a stern reply to Anna Seward. ‘The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful.’ A great biography may not be a preservative against that nothing, but it does help.