Wits and Wives: Dr Johnson in the Company of Women by Kate Chisholm

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Wits and Wives: Dr Johnson in the Company of Women by Kate Chisholm

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: A wise and witty new biography of Dr Johnson that examines how the great man was influenced by the women in his life.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 9781845951863

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What's your mental image of a Great Writer? Most people would probably say the same thing: someone sitting in splendid isolation, probably in a garret, writing Great Words and hating them. The idea of Great Writers having friends, or even a family, is a bizarre one. Partly this is because most Great Writers were incredibly weird people. But there's another issue at play. We're simply not used to imagining them in context, just one small part of a large and busy world. Our notion of biography is an incredibly fragmented one: despite the fact that one of the best indications of someone's character is how they interact with other human beings, we expect biographers to essentially confine themselves to the person and their literary output.

Kate Chisholm, though, has turned this expectation on its head. Her Wits and Wives is a biography of Samuel 'Dictionary' Johnson told entirely through the lives of the eight women who knew him best. Although not a single chapter is actually dedicated to her most famous subject, Johnson's character comes through vividly: a man who felt as deeply as he thought but often struggled to act on his emotions. He may have been prickly and downright odd, but he also made strong, lasting female friendships and seems to have always been willing, even at his lowest moments, to give help and advice to younger writers. The Johnson who emerges in Chisholm's text is a man I'd have liked to know, a man I've come closer to understanding than I ever have before.

The real delight of Chisholm's book, though, is its female protagonists. Aside from Johnson's mother Sarah and his wife Tetty (Elizabeth), Chisholm has chosen six female bluestockings (a new term in the mid-eighteenth century, and one that did not carry the negative connotations it has today – it was originally a positive way to refer to a learned man or woman) who played major roles in Johnson's life, giving a powerful potted biography of each. It's difficult not to lose your heart to these fantastic women. They include best-selling poet Elizabeth Carter, who taught herself to read Hebrew and could bake a mean pudding, market-savvy writer Charlotte Lennox who worked to support her husband, and Hannah More who moved to London to take David Garrick and the West End by storm. These women were true stars of their own time, and, as Chisholm argues so convincingly, they have been undeservedly forgotten today. She's an excellent biographer who knows how to make her subjects come to life – at the end of each chapter I was desperate for more information about each woman.

Chisholm is never less than refreshingly realistic about her subjects. I sometimes feel that, in the quest to discover new feminist literary heroes, quality of work is sacrificed to the gender of the author. Chisholm, however, praises the truly great while not making apologies for the mediocre, and as a result you're left with the feeling that these are writers you'd like to read as well as women you'd like to meet. Moreover, she understands that there are many ways of being a valuable human being. Carter, More, and Johnson's last protégée Mary Wollstonecraft created wonderful works of art. Sarah and Tetty Johnson, on the other hand, were never interested in making a public name for themselves, but they still deserve to be written about in any biography of Johnson. Chisholm tells the story of how Sarah, Johnson's mother, took the infant Johnson unaccompanied all the way from Staffordshire to London in an effort to cure his life-threatening scrofula. Remember that the coach journey would have taken days, and remember that she had no prior knowledge of the capital, and it's difficult not to argue that a lot of Johnson's hard-headedness and steely resolve sprung from the character of this ordinary but forceful woman. Describing Johnson's life without mentioning Sarah would give a hopelessly incomplete idea of the man he became.

At the end of Wits and Wives, Chisholm paraphrases Johnson in asking what value… is there in a biography that does not investigate the private and domestic spheres of the individual just as much as the public realm? Her witty and wise biography does just that. It triumphantly portrays Johnson the friend, confidant and husband by bringing back into focus a group of bold, uncompromising and incredibly intelligent women who shaped the course of his life just as he influenced theirs. Hers is a great achievement, combining an engaging writing style with accessible but rigorous scholarship, and balancing fascinating anecdotal detail with a well-described overarching narrative.

I loved this book. It gave me a new appreciation of Johnson and, more importantly, a new interest in the world he inhabited. As all good biographies should, it has opened my eyes and expanded my understanding. I've got a whole new group of literary heroes to look up to and a realisation of just how far we have – and haven't – come since Johnson's day in terms of our reaction to female authorship. This is a biography to cherish.

If you want to discover more wonderful women, try Dickens's Women: His Life and Loves by Anne Isba or The Kingmaker's Sisters: Six Powerful Women in the Wars of the Roses by David Baldwin.

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Buy Wits and Wives: Dr Johnson in the Company of Women by Kate Chisholm at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Wits and Wives: Dr Johnson in the Company of Women by Kate Chisholm at Amazon.com.


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