The Making of
Samuel Johnson's
The printer Strahan's business was at the heart of eighteenth-century book production, but the Dictionary was a dauntingly large commission. It demanded rigorous management, and Strahan found himself having to allay the tensions between Johnson and his commercially sensitive paymasters. A work on the scale of the Dictionary could not be printed all at once. Even though a busy printer would hold a couple of tons of type, neither he nor any other would have held sufficient type to be able to set up so vast a work in its entirety. The job had to be performed in installments. This was a source of vexation on both sides, for Johnson and the shareholders soon differed sharply in their senses of what might constitute a sufficiently definite schedule. Strahan was the intermediary between them.

During the years in which Johnson worked on the Dictionary, Strahan was his paymaster, acted as his unofficial banker, franked his letters, and even periodicially provided him with breakfast. Johnson visited frequently; he found his printer good and generous company. Strahan was a warm host, and an unaffected one. He and his wife had an impressive library of unusual books; occasionally these were lent to Johnson, and we know that one of the volumes he borrowed was a recent treatise on the tranquilizing powers of opium by a Scottish doctor called George Young. Besides, there were more immediately analgesic rewards to be had from visiting the Strahans' home. In the courtyard stood a lime tree which Johnson, in moments of abstraction, liked to hug.

It was near the Strahans, at 17 Gough Square, that Johnson lived throughout his work on the Dictionary. The square took its name from Richard Gough, a successful wool merchant who, some fifty years before, had envisaged it as an elegant quadrangle of bourgeois dwellings. By the time Johnson relocated there, it was less respectable, and his annual rent was a modest £30. The house, which still stands, is one of a very few of its age to survive in the City of London, and the only one of Johnson's eighteen London homes to have done so. A solidly built William and Mary property, five bays wide and five stories high, it now houses a small, well-run museum, cowering behind the offices of the American investment bank Goldman Sachs. In the cobbled square outside there is a modern statue of Johnson's cat Hodge, for whom he loved to buy oysters. The life-size bronze, shaded by an acacia tree, shows Hodge sitting at stroking height on the Dictionary --- a perpetual reminder of Johnson's magisterial achievement, and of his more affectionate side.

The house itself has had several different incarnations since Johnson vacated it. It has served as both a printworks and a hotel. Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1832 of having "lately discovered" Gough Square, told how he had found Johnson's former home occupied by an "elderly, well-washed, decent looking man." The property struck him as "stout" and "old-fashioned." Its garden, to which Johnson must occasionally have retired when exhausted by his work, was fittingly described as "somewhat larger than a bed-quilt."

By modern standards 17 Gough Square is fairly spacious. There are only three bedrooms, but the proportions of the rooms and landings are generous. A steep staircase leads to the garret where Johnson worked --- a long gallery with oak beams. Visitors can now see only a reconstruction of the room, as the original fabric was damaged by fire during the Second World War. Yet we can imagine Johnson staring from his garret window towards St Paul's, dowsing for inspiration.

Today the outlook is straitened, the skyline interrupted by office buildings. In Johnson's day it would have been less cramped, but the surrounding area was a maze of dark alleys. The neighborhood was densely populated with booksellers, along with a motley assortment of other tradesmen --- wig-makers, watchmakers, mercers and chandlers. The street names are suggestive: Shoe Lane, Wine Office Court, Printer Street, Gunpowder Alley. The quick pulse of commercialism was matched by a brisk conviviality. There were taverns and coffee houses, chop houses and pie shops; of the taverns, Johnson favored the Mitre and the Old Cheshire Cheese, both on Fleet Street. There was a seedy side to the neighborhood, too. It was known for its prostitutes, and for the shotgun marriages solemnized by debt-ridden clerics incarcerated in the Fleet Prison. Johnson spoke euphemistically of the area's "animated appearance;" it was often the scene of riots and public protests.

The garret at 17 Gough Square was the center of Johnson's world. The room was ideal for his purposes --- more office than study, and blessed with good light. Johnson equipped it with long trestle tables, giving it at first the appearance of a counting house, where clerks could finick over their papers. Yet within no time it became a sort of backstreet abattoir specializing in the evisceration of books. Johnson presided over the scene from an odd three-legged chair; traumatized volumes lay all around. "A man will turn over half a library to make one book," he reflected. His choice of verb is telling; he makes the process sound like a cross between a treasure hunt and a house clearance. And in this case, as we shall see, he turned over several libraries.

Johnson's garret quickly took on an appearance of philosophic squalor, but it is worth remembering a few of the shortcomings of the eighteenth-century house that were not unique to 17 Gough Square. Until the reign of Queen Victoria, houses were lit with either lamps or candles. The candles tended to gutter, and posed a serious fire hazard (in later years Johnson, when he troubled to wear a wig, would scorch it by getting too close to his light). They also smelt: only the rich could afford beeswax candles, and most people's were made of animal fat. The atmosphere was smoky --- houses were heated by burning coal, and cooking was usually done over a fire. Soot got everywhere. So did fleas: the first King George had found it necessary to employ his own dedicated "bug destroyer." Drainage was primitive: the majority of London houses were served by leaky cesspits, and although water closets became increasingly common as the century progressed, the sanitary arrangements were by modern standards crude. The drainage system Londoners today take for granted was an innovation of the Victorian period: Georgian waste pipes were made of elm, and oozed at their iron joints. The proximity of glue-makers, black-smiths and paintworks thickened the air with noxious odors. Eighteenth-century houses were often dangerously unhygienic, as well as dark and cold. Gough Square was no exception.

Although their new home was an improvement on previous arrangements, the Johnsons did not entertain. Tetty's [his wife] recurrent ill health, exacerbated by the urban filth, meant that visitors were discouraged. Johnson preferred to leave the house in order to socialize; when he remained at home, confident that he would receive no callers, he could rise late, heave himself upstairs, and pursue his work in a state of perfect dishevelment. A maid was often in attendance, and probably a cook as well, but all such arrangements were irregular. On one occasion, when Tetty's son Jervis turned up unannounced after a spell at sea, the maid was so unused to dealing with visitors that she neglected to ask him in; when she returned from telling her mistress that Jervis was at the door, he had gone. Indeed, it seems that the only other people to cross the threshold of 17 Gough Square with any regularity were Johnson's newly recruited helpers, a clutch of Grub Street's poorest citizens.

--- From Defining the World
Henry Hitchings
©2007 Picador
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