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Dr. Samuel Johnson’s House

On September 8, 2009

Dr. Johnson’s home is as sparsely furnished as Sir John Soane’s home is profusely furnished which again may give insight to the man and his life. For many years, Johnson toiled in near poverty; after his death, his home passed through several hands and physically deteriorated for more than 120 years.

 

Johnson was thought to be the first writer to earn a large portion of his living from writing as opposed to having a patron. Much of his income came from subscriptions he solicited for writing the Dictionary of the English Language and other works. Despite being the preeminent text of its kind for almost 150 years, Dr. Johnson received no payment for it other than the original sum he was given for his work. He did, however, some twenty years before the end of his life receive a pension from King George III in recognition of the Dictionary’s contribution to the English language. Largely due to Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, he is also known as a true wit.

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In his personal life, Johnson was a deeply committed abolitionist. Francis Barber, born a slave in Jamaica but later freed, lived with Johnson until Johnson’s death at which time he received a £70 pension in Johnson’s will. Dr. Johnson was also known to be a kind-hearted man who often lent his support – financially when able, his home often times, always his moral support – to those in need, sometimes unwisely. He is thought to have suffered from Tourrette’s Syndrome which hindered his teaching career and caused him no end of ridicule from cruel contemporaries. For more than twenty years, he was married to a woman twenty years his senior (the former Elizabeth Porter) and never recovered from her death. There are many theories about his relationship with Hester Thrale, the wife of one of his benefactors. During his lifetime, Johnson consorted with some of the greatest intellects of his day including Edmund Burke and luminaries of the arts such as Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith .

Much of Johnson’s greatest work was done at the house at 17 Gough Square. Still, the presentation of the house does little to hint at the contradictory and complicated life Dr. Johnson lived. Visitors who don’t already know a lot about Johnson will learn little here other than the factual details of his life. Still, a visit can be a solid introduction to a man who contributed so much to the English language and to critical thought about the English language.

Interestingly, the elaborate Sir John Soane Museum requests only voluntary contributions from its visitors (well deserved and needed); the much more austere home of Dr. Johnson requires an entry fee of £4.50 – still, a modest sum and worth it for a nearly solitary ramble round the premises.

No visit to Dr. Johnson’s stomping grounds could be complete without a visit to his “local” – Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese – plus, it had been a good three hours since our last pub visit so off we went to 145 Fleet Street.

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