Stupendous Mr Johnson

According to Queeny

Beryl Bainbridge<em> Little, Brown, 242pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0715629239

When James Boswell first met "the Stupendous Johnson", as he called him, in May 1763, he recorded in his London Journal "a man of most dreadful appearance . . . troubled with sore eyes, the palsy and the king's evil. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect and render him very excellent company." Boswell was by no means the only man in London to be much taken with the eccentric Dr Johnson. The following January, a wealthy Southwark brewer named Henry Thrale invited him to dinner, and Johnson was soon a regular visitor at the Thrale mansion in Streatham. When, a year later, Johnson suffered a breakdown, the Thrales took him into their home and nursed him back to health. The ensuing friendship lasted for the next 20 years, during which time Johnson frequently lived with the Thrales. According to Beryl Bainbridge, this long-enduring intimacy was fuelled in no small part by the crackling current of attraction between Johnson and Thrale's wife, Hester.

This is Bainbridge's 17th book and the latest in a series of historical novels, all of which are written with tremendous confidence and success. The unstinting inventiveness of Young Adolf, her book about the "missing years" of the young Hitler, was a complete delight, while Master Georgie and Every Man for Himself rightly won awards. According to Queeney takes the same format as these works: a small group of individuals (in this case, the Thrale family and friends) revolving around a central, charismatic figure (Johnson). Bainbridge excels at these intimate, often fractious circles of friends and acquaintances. She is an unfailingly acute observer of human foibles.

The Queeney of the title is the Thrales' oldest daughter, Hester, one of their few surviving children. Johnson took a great liking to her, called her Sweeting and Queeney, and wrote letters to her over many years. Twelve months old at the start of the novel, she is 19 or 20 at the end; the charmingly precocious child, who aged four can recite all the capitals of Europe and the four cardinal virtues in Latin, becomes a sharp-tongued, cynical young woman with nothing but disdain for her mother's self-indulgence. Over the two decades covered in the novel, Queeney views the adults whose lives impinge so thoughtlessly on her own with increasingly critical detachment, if not always with complete comprehension.

The carefully understated nature of the relationship between Mrs Thrale and Samuel Johnson is in stark contrast to Bainbridge's portrait of the close-quartered corporeality of 18th-century England. Flatulence, bad breath and sweat are as present at the Thrale dinner table as the combative displays of wit and repartee between Johnson, Garrick, Hawkins and an assortment of other relatives, friends and sycophants. The intellectual and the visceral are in constant, pressing proximity. Hester Thrale's woeful procession of fruitless pregnancies and dead progeny do nothing to stem the promiscuous flow of high-octane banter that streams through these pages.

At the heart of the Thrale menage is Johnson himself, egocentric, shambolic, incurably neurotic, but somehow magisterial, too. His peculiarities of speech and manner are affectionately rendered by Bainbridge, through the eyes of often astonished observers. Mrs Thrale's mother notes one morning how "Mr Johnson's advance along the path, though no less erratic, was more convoluted than usual. He had abandoned his rolling gait in favour of a zigzag progression, each diagonal embarked upon the moment the appropriate foot met the grass verge. Several times it was apparent he had turned too imprecisely, for he walked back and started over."

If According to Queeney has a fault, it is that the progression of events and relationships is almost too meandering to sustain the reader's attention. There is something static about the pacing of the novel so that, technically impressive as the various parts undeniably are, there is a lack of momentum to the whole. Pretty little Queeney ages into a prim, defensive adult, ruthlessly fending off the approaches of an inquisitive biographer. Her father (suffering from some as yet undiagnosed illness) eats himself to death under the appalled gaze of his family and servants, while her mother, finally free, has her prayers answered in the shape of her children's singing master, and is rewarded with universal reproval. Furious with humiliation, Johnson retreats to Bolt Court.

According to Queeney is not the best of Bainbridge's historical novels, but it is an exuberant homage to the stupendous Johnson.

Rebecca Abrams's most recent book is Three Shoes, One Sock and No Hairbrush (Cassell, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot