Even if there’s a risk of overstating the Club’s importance as a way of unleashing the creativity of its members, it certainly provides a good basis for a study of intersecting lives. Damrosch sketches the lives adroitly, with an eye for anecdote: the farewell performance as Lear of the much loved Garrick, when the actresses playing Goneril and Regan kept bursting into tears; Gibbon beaming when Sheridan complimented him in Parliament on his ‘luminous pages’, when Sheridan may in fact have said ‘voluminous’; Johnson extemporising parodies of Percy’s Reliques in front of their squirming collector (‘I therefore pray thee, Renny dear,/That thou wilt give to me,/With cream and sugar softened well,/Another dish of tea’). Renny was Frances Reynolds, the gifted painter and writer whose wings her elder brother Joshua clipped, but whose plangent late portrait of Johnson catches the troubled power of his intellect like no other. This was in 1783, the year Johnson, now close to giving up on the Turk’s Head, tried to revive the old Ivy Lane group in new premises, the Essex Head tavern off the Strand. The ‘shadow club’ at Streatham Place was also over: Johnson broke traumatically with Thrale in a letter that also thanks her ‘for that kindness which soothed twenty years of a life radically wretched’ (radically: at, to, or from the root or centre). No club could really fix that, though individuals could try. With Johnson on his deathbed in London, obscure, learned, faithful Langton came down from Lincolnshire. ‘Te teneam moriens deficiente manu,’ Johnson said to him, quoting Tibullus: ‘Dying, may I hold you with my weakening hand.’
In a sense, Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791), dedicated to Reynolds and written with Malone’s daily encouragement, was the Club’s single greatest monument. This fact makes Damrosch’s focus on Boswell more fitting, but as a specimen of group biography this book remains – like the Club itself – a collection full of breadth and brilliance, lacking cohesion.
The Club is an unusual book: part group biography, part literary criticism and the cultural history of ideas, and part political and social history of 18th-century Britain. It is, in Damrosch’s words, “a book with pictures” — and lots of them, used to great effect. It takes the style of literary biography while recognising how the development of that genre is indebted to Boswell himself, thanks to his innovative inclusion of conversation in his Life of Johnson.
Were I always Grave, one half of my Readers would fall off from me: Were I always Merry, I should lose the other. I make it therefore my endeavour to find out Entertainments of both kinds.
Thus spake Joseph Addison in 1711, frustrated at the difficulty of keeping readers of The Spectator happy. Leo Damrosch, emeritus professor of literature at Harvard, appears to have taken heed when writing this detailed, gripping study of genius and geniality in 18th-century London. He oscillates between academic explanations of weighty intellectual ideas and gossipy stories on the men who spawned them. Subjects which would otherwise have been a dusty read become a joy.
Damrosch has a keen eye for the quirks of character and provides an engaging, informative introduction to most of these figures. Yet the shortage of source material relating directly to the Club means that very little of the book is about what happened there. In his prologue he identifies it as “the virtual hero of this story”, but explains that “the perspective... will constantly widen”, and so it does, with the Club disappearing from view for 122 pages while he portrays (warts and all) the lives Johnson and Boswell led before it came into being. After a chapter focused on its birth, he reverts to a more diffuse style of group biography, in which the most rewarding relationships, such as Johnson’s with Thrale and the novelist Frances Burney, occur at some remove from the Turk’s Head.