Reveiew: John Wiltshire’s The Making of Dr Johnson

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John Wiltshire. The Making of Dr Johnson, Helm Information, Great Britain, 2009

2009, Johnson’s tercentenary year, saw the publication of three biographies for the popular market. And one scholarly work on the making of biographies – our own John Wiltshire’s The Making of Dr Johnson.  John’s book deals with the biographies, anecdotes, memoirs, pictures, and lampoons that have created our conception of the Great Cham. It’s the ‘the story of how Samuel Johnson was made into Dr Johnson’. The book is also an implicit analysis of the craft of making biographies.

Boswell’s life is there, of course. An  extensive chapter, ‘The Johnson Boswell Scarcely Knew’, takes us through various sources prior to the publication of the Life, noting and discussing differences in early accounts of events, with Boswell’s versions of the same events. Mrs Thrales ‘Anecdotes’, and Fanny Burney’s diaries are also opened up for us.

Other biographers, including contemporaries, Victorians and moderns, are given extensive treatment, their emphases and possible prejudices examined critically.

Pictorial ways of presenting and ‘making’ the Johnson we ‘know’ are there too, including cartoons, etchings, portraits and memorials, and all generously illustrated

John’s book is scholarly, as we would expect, with liberal and detailed footnotes, a huge bibliography and a detailed index. Quotations are numerous and extensive, and are informative and enjoyable in their own right. In fact, as I read the book, Kevin Hart’s Fleeman lecture of some years back, “Reading a page of Boswell’, came to mind. Reading just a page of John’s book, at random , can be a great pleasure.