« AnteriorContinua »
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. · (1)
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 (2), 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 n; 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 insinuating. 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. 66 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 Mecenas, 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 accuracy.]
Aston (1), 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 himself in love with some princess or other. It was when he was a school-boy, under my grandfather, that the reputation of his talents and rapid progress in the classics induced the noble-minded Walmesley to endure, 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 he exclaim, in a room full of company. "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, Then 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.]
satire was native in the soil, and has often amused very superior minds to her own.
499. Lucy Porter.
After a gradual decay of a few months, we have lost dear Lucy Porter (1), the earliest object of Dr. Johnson's love. In youth, her fair, clean complexion, bloom, and rustic prettiness, pleased the men. More than once she might have married advantageously; but as enamoured affections,
'High Taurus' snow, fann'd by the eastern wind,
Spite of the accustomed petulance of her temper, and odd perverseness, since she had no malevolence, I regret her as a friendly creature, of intrinsic worth, with whom, from childhood, I had been intimate. She was one of those few beings who, from a sturdy singularity of temper, and some prominent good qualities of head and heart, was enabled, even in her days of scanty maintenance, to make society glad to receive and pet the grown spoiled child. Affluence was not hers till it came to her in her fortieth year, by the death of her eldest brother. From the age of twenty till that period, she had boarded with Dr. Johnson's mother, who still kept that bookseller's shop by which her husband had supplied the scanty means of subsistence. Meantime, Lucy Porter kept the best company in our little city, but would make no engagement on market days, lest Granny, as she called Mrs. Johnson, should catch cold by serving in the shop. By these good traits in her character, were the most respectable inhabitants of Lichfield induced to bear, with kind smiles, her mulish obstinacy and perverse contradictions.
(1) [Miss Porter survived Dr. Johnson just thirteen months. She died at Lichfield, in her seventy-first year, January 13. 1786.]
Johnson himself set the example, and extended to her that compliant indulgence which he showed not to any other person. I have heard her scold him like a schoolboy, for soiling her floor with his shoes; for she was clean as a Dutch-woman in her house, and exactly neat in her person. Dress, too, she loved in her odd way; but we will not assert that the Graces were her handmaids. Friendly, cordial, and cheerful to those she loved, she was more esteemed, more amusing, and more regretted, than many a polished character, over whose smooth, but insipid surface, the attention of those who have mind passes listless and uninterested.
500. Dinner at Dilly's. - Jane Harry.
The following are the minutes of that curious conversation (1) which passed at Mr. Dilly's, on the 15th of April, 1778, in a literary party, formed by Dr. Johnson, Mr. Boswell, Dr. Mayo, and others, whom Mrs. Knowles and myself had been invited to meet, and in which Dr. Johnson and that lady disputed so earnestly. It commenced with Mrs. Knowles saying: "I am to ask thy indulgence, Doctor, towards a gentle female to whom thou usedst to be kind, and who is uneasy in the loss of that kindness. Jenny Harry weeps at the consciousness that thou wilt not speak to her.' JOHNSON. Madam, I hate the odious wench, and desire you will not talk to me about her." KNOWLES. " what is her crime, Doctor?" JOHNSON. Apostacy, Madam; apostacy from the community in which she was educated." KNOWLES."Surely the quitting one community for another cannot be a crime, if it is done from motives of conscience. Hadst thou been educated in the Romish church, I must suppose thou wouldst have abjured its errors, and that there would have been merit in the abjuration." JOHNSON." Madam, if I
(1) [See antè, Vol. VII. p. 142. and 144. n.]