THE LITERARY CLUB, often called simply the Club, was founded in London in 1764 by Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, and seven other luminaries, including Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith. Later, the names of James Boswell, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith were added to the rolls. Their conversations must have been brilliant; however, in his new book, The Club, Leo Damrosch is able to quote at moderate length from only one. Blame Boswell, his primary source, who didn’t usually report in full on the meetings he managed to attend. Nor was he admitted to the Club until 1773, and he was often away from London after that. Though his Life of Johnson (1791) contains segments of conversations that took place at the Club, the context and setting are not given. As Damrosch points out, the Club was a strictly private establishment, and Boswell knew that its members did not care to be exposed.
Thus, there isn’t much directly about the Club in The Club. Moreover, although we can’t be sure what ideas were batted around at the weekly meetings, it seems likely that Burke would have delivered his orations and Smith written The Wealth of Nations (1776) even if the Club had never existed. Johnson published his Dictionary nine years before its founding. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to discount the importance of the Literary Club as a meeting place for the period’s most brilliant minds.
In a briefer compass, Damrosch does for them what Boswell did for his mighty subject in the Life. The great strength of The Club is that it renders these personages from another century so vividly that we feel we once knew them ourselves. Damrosch accomplishes this by incorporating into his text chapters of masterful biography — familiar territory for 18th-century scholars, who get to meet old friends brought to life as rarely before. For those who don’t know the era and its people well, The Club offers a wonderfully painless way of getting to know them.
The first chapter, “Johnson before Boswell,” begins with Johnson’s birth in 1709 and traces his life until the mid-1740s. Chapter two, identically titled, carries on to about 1760. Chapters three and four treat Boswell in a similar fashion, under the common title “Boswell before Johnson.” Then, in chapter five, the future biographer and his life’s task have their famous meeting in Tom Davies’s bookstore. In chapter six, “Boswell Abroad,” Johnson fades out for a while, and in chapter seven — “The Club Is Born” — the larger cast appears. There immediately follow biographical chapters on Reynolds, Burke, and Garrick; those on Smith and Gibbon come later. Johnson and Boswell reappear, too.
Certainly Damrosch understands the importance of these men’s achievements in forming the Britain that emerged toward the century’s end. Johnson’s brilliantly edited Shakespeare (1765), his Dictionary, and his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–’81), for example, helped forge not only the nation’s cultural identity but its political one as well. Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Damrosch says, “was immediately recognized as a major breakthrough in understanding where national wealth comes from.” While Damrosch is not reluctant to provide facts regarding his subjects’ public lives and projects, what matters more to him is presenting them as “the genuine progeny of common humanity,” Johnson’s celebrated words of praise for the characters of Shakespeare.
In the particular case of Johnson, who occupies the book’s center as he did that of the Club, Damrosch is powerfully impressed by the man’s heroism in carrying out such Herculean literary tasks while besieged by mental illness. A section of the first chapter, titled “Johnson’s Troubled Mind,” focuses on his disabling depression, which, paradoxically, was instrumental in the establishment of the Literary Club. Damrosch explains Johnson’s disorder as arising partly from his frustration at being unable to finish his edition of Shakespeare; but this short-term cause was joined to a long-term one: “a welling up of [sexual] obsessions that had plagued him ever since his youth,” exacerbated by a religion “always grounded in fear.” Having to quit Oxford as a young man after a wealthy patron stopped paying his way may have been the first serious blow that contributed to a lifelong malaise.
At any rate, by 1764 Johnson — according to his friend, William Adams — was “[i]n a deplorable state, sighing, groaning, talking to himself, and restlessly walking from room to room.” Another friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds, chose to do something about it. It was apparent to Reynolds that Johnson needed an outlet in the form of collegial company, and so he suggested the inauguration of a club. Johnson liked the idea, and soon it was a reality, with nine founding members. “They chose a Latin motto for the club, esto perpetua, ‘Let it be perpetual.’”
And perpetual it may yet prove to be for, in an afterword, Damrosch mentions that the Club still exists, renamed as the London Literary Society. Unfortunately for Johnson, after a decade his interest in the Club dwindled. He came to the weekly meetings less frequently and remarked to Boswell that what he met with there was “a mere miscellaneous collection of conspicuous men, without any determinate character.”
Even in the Club’s earliest years, it was not quite enough. Johnson remained depressed, although surely less so than if Reynolds had never made his proposal. Luckily, other friends stepped in — specifically, Henry and Hester Thrale, who invited Johnson to stay with them at their estate, Streatham, for as often and as long as he liked. He lived there for much of the rest of his life. In old age, weak and ill, he wrote at Streatham a masterpiece of biography joined to literary criticism, his Lives of the Poets.
It would be close to impossible to write about Johnson at any length without bringing in Boswell, although Johnson might not wholly appreciate the linkage. He certainly resented Boswell’s practice of prodding him verbally to make him display his wit and, at times, his peculiarities. He could not have gazed without pity, however, on the self-destructive foolishness in Boswell that Damrosch amply describes. And surely Johnson recognized in his friend a fellow sufferer from mental disease — in Boswell’s case, according to Damrosch, bipolar disorder. Like Johnson, he fought through his afflictions and produced a masterpiece in the Life, the greatest portrait of a person ever crafted in words.
All of these men had their afflictions. So had the women around them. Thankfully, the fact that women were not allowed in the Literary Club hasn’t stopped Damrosch from writing about them with the sensitivity they deserve. Elizabeth “Tetty” Johnson, for example, married Samuel when she was 20 years his senior. The marriage was unhappy almost from the start, and they lived together for only a short time. Addicted to laudanum, she died in 1752. Johnson grieved — the effect, according to Damrosch, of guilt “for his part in the failure of the marriage.”
While Sir Joshua Reynolds was a great friend to Johnson, he revealed a different side of his nature in the treatment of his own sister, Frances. She was an excellent painter herself, but he refused to let her work and thus compete with him. Instead, he made her a housekeeper and was consistently cold and dictatorial toward her. Johnson liked her, called her by the pet name “Renny,” and even allowed her to paint his portrait, a color print of which appears in The Club. But he told Boswell, “Miss Reynolds ought not to paint. Public practice of staring in men’s faces is inconsistent with delicacy.”
Frances “Fanny” Burney is best known today for her novel Evelina, or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778). She was the daughter of a Club member, Charles Burney, a music teacher and historian of music. When she was 23 and still single, he pressured her to marry someone against her will, but he was decent enough to let her out of it. Later, however, Burney and a family friend, Samuel Crisp, ordered her to set aside a play she had written rather than try to have it produced, as Burney feared it would offend the people to whom he gave music lessons. She argued, but eventually gave in.
In 1786, at her father’s insistence, Fanny accepted an appointment at court as the Keeper of the Robes of Queen Caroline, a supposed honor but in reality merely a menial job. She hated it. After six years, Burney allowed her to resign. At this point in her life, she entered into what seems to have been a happy marriage with an aristocratic Frenchman, Alexandre d’Arblay. Her father objected to d’Arblay as a foreigner and a Catholic, but this time she was not deterred.
It is an unpleasant surprise, then, to learn that, some years earlier, Fanny had broken off her friendship with Hester Thrale for the reason that, after Henry’s death, she had married a foreigner and a Catholic, the Italian singing teacher Gabriele Piozzi. Johnson also criticized her choice of this second husband, describing her as “ignominiously married.” When Hester made it clear she didn’t care what he thought, he apologized. This marriage, too, proved a happy one.
Damrosch brings all these people, men and women alike, to vivid life. After finally closing the book, I found that I missed them.
A former professor of English, Jake Fuchs has written scholarly books, short fiction, two satiric mysteries (Death of a Dad: The Nursery School Murders  and Death of a Prof: The Nursery School Murders II ), a send-up of academe (Welcome, Scholar ), and the semi-autobiographical novel Conrad in Beverly Hills (2010).