Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson by Hester Lynch Thrale - Preface

  • Posted on: 25 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

Preface

Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1772
I have somewhere heard or read that the preface before a book, like the portico before a house, should be contrived so as to catch, but not detain, the attention of those who desire admission to the family within, or leave to look over the collection of pictures made by one whose opportunities of obtaining them we know to have been not unfrequent.

I wish not to keep my readers long from such intimacy with the manners of Dr. Johnson, or such knowledge of his sentiments as these pages can convey. To urge my distance from England as an excuse for the book's being ill-written would be ridiculous; it might indeed serve as a just reason for my having written it at all; because, though others may print the same aphorisms and stories, I cannot here be sure that they have done so. As the Duke says, however, to the Weaver, in A Midsummer Night's Dream,

Never excuse; if your play be a bad one, keep at least the excuses to yourself.

The erudition of Mr. Johnson proved his genius.

— Hester Lynch Thrale.

I am aware that many will say I have not spoken highly enough of Dr. Johnson; but it will be difficult for those who say so to speak more highly. If I have described his manners as they were, I have been careful to show his superiority to the common forms of common life. It is surely no dispraise to an oak that it does not bear jessamine; and he who should plant honeysuckle round Trajan's column would not be thought to adorn, but to disgrace it. When I have said that he was more a man of genius than of learning, I mean not to take from the one part of his character that which I willingly give to the other. The erudition of Mr. Johnson proved his genius; for he had not acquired it by long or profound study: nor can I think those characters the greatest which have most learning driven into their heads, any more than I can persuade myself to consider the River Jenisca as superior to the Nile, because the first receives near seventy tributary streams in the course of its unmarked progress to the sea, while the great parent of African plenty, flowing from an almost invisible source, and unenriched by any extraneous waters, except eleven nameless rivers, pours his majestic torrent into the ocean by seven celebrated mouths.

But I must conclude my preface, and begin my book, the first I ever presented before the public; from whose awful appearance in some measure to defend and conceal myself, I have thought fit to retire behind the Telamonian shield, and show as little of myself as possible, well aware of the exceeding difference there is between fencing in the school and fighting in the field. Studious, however, to avoid offending, and careless of that offence which can be taken without a cause, I here not unwillingly submit my slight performance to the decision of that glorious country, which I have the daily delight to hear applauded in others, as eminently just, generous, and humane.

Hester Thrale's spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalisation, some of which may not conform to today's standards, are reproduced faithfully throughout. More writings by Hester Thrale

Written by Hester Lynch Thrale in September 1785 and first published March 1786, by Cadell of London. Transcribed from the Project Gutenberg Etext [#2423] by Les Bowler, Dorset from the 1901 Cassell and Co. edition. Reformatted and hyper-linked by Thrale.com.