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ANECDOTES OF DR. JOHNSON,
BY ANNA SEWARD. (1)
494. Johnson's “ Beauties." Love is the great softener of savage dispositions. Johnson had always a metaphysic passion for one princess or other : first, the rustic Lucy Porter, before he married her nauseous mother; next, the handsome, but haughty, Molly Aston ; next, the sublimated, methodistic, Hill Boothby, who read her bible in Hebrew; and, lastly, the more charming Mrs. Thrale, with the beauty of the first, the learning of the second, and with more worth than a bushel of such sinners and such saints. It is ridiculously diverting to see the old elephant forsaking his nature before these princesses
“ To make them mirth, use all his might, and writhe,
His mighty form disporting.” This last and long-enduring passion for Mrs. Thrale was, however, composed equally, perhaps, of cupboard love, Platonic love, and vanity tickled and gratified, from morn to night, by incessant homage. The two first ingredients are certainly oddly heterogeneous; but Johnson, in religion and politics, in love and in hatred, was composed of such opposite and contradictory materials, as never before met in the human mind.
(1) [From “ Letters of Anna Seward, written between the years 1784 and 1807."]
This is the reason why folk are never weary of talking, reading, and writing about a man —
“ So various, that he seem'd to be
Not one, but all mankind's epitome.”
495. Johnson's Courtship. I have often heard my mother say she perfectly remembered Johnson's wife. He has recorded of her that beauty which existed only in his imagination. She had a very red face, and very indifferent features; and her manners in advanced life for her children were all grown up when Johnson first saw her -- had an unbecoming excess of girlish levity, and disgusting affectation. The rustic prettiness and artless manners of her daughter, the present Mrs. Lucy Porter, had won Johnson's youthful heart, when she was upon a visit at my grandfather's in Johnson's school-days. Disgusted by his unsightly form, she had a personal aversion to him. Business taking Johnson to Birmingham, on the death of his own father, and calling upon his coy mistress there, he found her father dying. He passed all his leisure hours at Mr. Porter's, attending his sick-bed, and, in a few months after his death, asked Mrs. Johnson's consent to marry the old widow. After expressing her surprise at a request so extraordinary — “No, Sam, my willing consent you will never have to so preposterous a match. You are not twenty-five, and she is turned of fifty. If she had any prudence, this request had never been made to me.
Where are your means of subsistence ? Porter has died poor, in consequence of his wife's expensive habits. You have great talents, but, as yet, have turned them into no profitable channel.” “ Mother, I have not deceived Mrs. Porter: I have told her the worst of me; that I am of mean extraction, that I have no money, and that I have had an uncle hanged. She replied, that she valued no one more or less for his descent; that she had no more money than myself; and that, though she had not had a relation hanged, she had fifty who deserved hanging." And thus became accomplished this very curious amour. (')
496. Miss Elizabeth Aston. The following is the conversation that passed between Dr. Johnson and myself in company, on the subject of Miss Elizabeth Aston (?), of Stowe-hill, with whom he always passed so much time when he was in Lichfield, and for whom he professed so great a friendship :SEWARD. “ I have often heard my mother say, Doctor, that Mrs. Elizabeth Aston was, in her youth, a very beautiful woman; and that, with all the consciousness and spiteful spleen of a very bad temper, she had great powers of pleasing ; that she was lively, and insinu. ating. I knew her not till the vivacity of her youth had long been extinguished ; and I confess I looked in vain for the traces of former ability. I wish to
(1) This account was given to Mr. Boswell; who, as Miss Seward could not have known it of her own knowledge, asked the lady for her authority. Miss Seward, in reply, quoted Mrs. Cobb, an old friend of Johnson's, who resided at Lichfield. To her, then, Boswell addressed himself; and, to his equal satisfaction and surprise, was answered that Mrs. Cobb had not only never told such a story, but that she had not even ever heard of it. Notwithstanding this denial, Miss Seward persisted in her story to the last. The report as to the hanging was probably derived from a coarse passage in the Rev. Donald M‘Nicol's Remarks on Dr. Johnson's Journey to the Hebrides :-“ But, whatever the Doctor may insinuate about the present scarcity of trees in Scotland, we are much deceived by fame if a very near ancestor of his, who was a native of that country, did not find to his cost, that a tree was not quite such a rarity in his days.” That some Scotchman, of the name of Johnston, may have been hanged in the seventeenth century, is very likely; but there seems no reason whatsoever to believe that any of Dr. Johnson's family were natives of Scotland. - C.
(2) [See antè, Vol. I. p. 85. She died in 1785.]
have your opinion of what she was-you, who knew her so well in her best days.” JOHNSON. “ My dear, when thy mother told thee Aston was handsome, thy mother told thee truth : she was very handsome. When thy mother told thee that Aston loved to abuse her neighbours, she told thee truth; but when thy mother told thee that Aston had any marked ability in that same abusive business, that wit gave it zest, or imagination colour, thy mother did not tell thee truth. No, no, Madam, Aston's understanding was not of any strength, either native or acquired. SEWARD. “But, Sir, I have heard you say, that her sister's husband, Mr. Walmesley, was a man of bright parts, and extensive knowledge; that he was also a man of strong passions, and though benevolent in a thousand instances, yet irascible in as many. It is well known, that Mr. Walmesley was considerably governed by this lady. Could it be, that, without some marked intellectual powers, she could obtain absolute dominion over such a man? JOHNSON. “Madam, I have said, and truly, that Walmesley had bright and extensive powers of mind; that they had been cultivated by familiarity with the best authors, and by connections with the learned and polite. It is a fact, that Aston obtained nearly absolute dominion over his will; it is no less a fact, that his disposition was irritable and violent: but Walmesley was a man; and there is no man who can resist the repeated attacks of a furious woman. Walmesley had no alternative but to submit, or turn her out of doors.” (1)
497. Molly Aston. Mr. Gilbert Walmesley, my father's predecessor in this house, was Johnson's Mecænas, and the Molly
(1) (Mr. Boswell declined to insert this account in his Life of Johnson. He had, no doubt, seen much reason to question its ac:uracy.]
Aston ('), whom he mentions with such passionate attachment in his letters to Mrs. Thrale, was his wife's sister, - a daughter of Sir Thomas Aston, a wit, a beauty, and a toast. Johnson was always fancying binself in love with some princess or other. I was when he was a school-boy, under my granurather, that the reputation of his talents and rapid progress in the classics induced the noble-minded Walmesley to en. dure, at his elegant table, the low-born squalid youth - here that he suffered him and Garrick to “imp their eagle wings,” a delighted spectator and auditor of their efforts. It was here that Miss Molly Aston was frequently a visiter in the family of her brother-in-law, and probably amused herself with the uncouth adorations of the learned, though dirty stripling. Lucy Porter, whose visit to Lichfield had been but for a few weeks, was then gone back to her parents at Birmingham, and the brighter Molly Aston became the Laura of our Petrarch.
498. Mrs. Cobb. (2) Poor Moll Cobb, as Dr. Johnson used to call her, is gone to her long home. Johnson spoke with uniform contempt both of the head and heart of this personage. “How should Moll Cobb be a wit?” would be exclaim, in a room full of company. 66 Cobb has read nothing, Cobb knows nothing; and where nothing has been put into the brain, nothing can come of it, to any purpose of rational entertainment.” Somebody replied, why is Dr. Johnson so often her visiter ?” "O! I love Cobb — I love Moll Cobb for her impudence." The despot was right in his premises, but his conclusion was erroneous. Little as had been put into Mrs. Cobb's brain, much of shrewd, biting, and humorous
(1) [See antè, Vol. I. p. 85.)