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February 15, 2006

A contemporary biographer considers the first modern biography: The Life of Mr Savage - Samuel Johnson

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

The Life of Mr Savage by Samuel Johnson
first published in 1744

Available in paperback, edited and with an introduction by Richard Holmes, Johnson on Savage: The Life of Mr Richard Savage (HarperPerennial, 2005, 6.99).

The celebrity autobiography is possibly the most popular literary genre on the bookshelves. Readers love to know the inner lives of plastic celebs. Sharon Osbourne's recent confessional is a stunningly lucrative case in point. Here is a flamboyantly bonkers woman mulling over issues (eating disorders, dysfunctional families, fear of ageing) that make other women think Madame Osbourne, c'est moi. They are reading themselves writ large.

Then we have the rapidly fading genre of literary biography. Facts, facts, facts about lives spent in front of a typewriter, or getting drunk, laid, and depressed. These exhaustively researched studies can be dry in their scholarliness, awestruck in their exhumation of talent.

Biography, in the old sense of the genre, is a strange, alchemical process of imaginative reconstructions, psychological projections and blurred identities that, when it's done at its best, leaves the novel standing. Well, I'm prejudiced, I'm a biographer. But for me, in biography, there is a story to be told, a story about a person, and, heedless of the contemporary insistence on celebrity, that person doesn't have to be famous or talented. The mysteries of another person's personality exercised the first practitioner of the biography. And this person was not especially talented or famous. In writing his story, Johnson brought his own personality into play.

Dr Johnson and Mr Savage make an exemplary pairing of light and dark, or the split self. They were friends, and two years after Savage's death in debtors' prison, Johnson published The Life of Mr Savage. It was as much about him as it was about his friend.

Richard Holmes, award-winning, critically acclaimed biographer, introduces what he reckons to be the first modern biography, with an essay that highlights the purpose of biography. With this slim account of his friend's disreputable life, frankly detailed and freely aware of moral ambivalences, Johnson did away with the hagiography that had typified biography before. This was biography concerned with psychological realism, with a Freudian forensic thrust that laid bare everyone concerned, including the author. The context Johnson gives us is the deliciously gossipy, 18th-century Grub Street, with all the conniving, manoeuvring, backstabbing, and bitching that one could possibly want.

This edition comes in a series of classic biographies introduced by Holmes. Other volumes include Defoe on Sheppard and Wild, Godwin on Wollstonecraft and Southey on Nelson. Like Johnson's, Defoe's biography is partly reconstructed from interviews in Newgate, an updated religious confessional. Saints' Lives and prison confessions are re-worked by both authors into the biography as we know it.

Richard Savage (1698?-1743), like Sheppard and Wild, was a criminal, a murderer in fact, saved from execution by royal decree. Johnson describes the brawl in the tavern, the fatal sword thrust, and the ensuing rush for the door with all the precision of a man who had studied all the eye-witness accounts. Savage was also a notorious poet, and self-proclaimed illegitimate son of the fourth Earl Rivers. His most famous poem was The Bastard. A juicy fact that Johnson supplies us with is that Savage supplied the especially bitchy bits to Pope's Dunciad.

On gaining his royal pardon, Savage was lionized by high society and became a lucrative literary property. His readers delighted especially in those works in which he attacked his mother, Lady Macclesfield, for denying him filial recognition. And this is where Johnson comes in.

When he met Savage, it was as a disappointed and frustrated schoolmaster newly arrived in London, hoping to launch himself on the literary scene. Savage was suave and flamboyant, a stylish man. Johnson, who had been affected by a childhood tuberculosis, passed on by his wet nurse, which left him partly blind, disfigured, and suffering convulsions, was none of these things. The younger, socially ill-at-ease man was desperate for friendship and miserably married to a woman 20 years older than himself.

Significantly, like Savage, he bore a grudge against his mother.

When Savage wrote the following lines, claiming that his mother

push'd me from shore,
And launch'd me into life without an oar
it would seem that Johnson's ears were ringing.

Holmes points out, where Johnson doesn't, that Savage's campaigns against Lady Macclesfield sometimes have the appearance of blackmail. He managed, after all, to extract a generous allowance from her cousin, Lord Tyrconnell, for several years - until they fell out (and there'll be more fallings out later). But the young Johnson didn't see it that way. Instead he felt an instant rapport for Savage's mistreatment from the hands of his own mother. Holmes points out he was also clearly charmed by the worldly, gracious, and edgy Savage. Both men considered themselves outsiders and espoused anti-establishment politics. Most tellingly, however, both men are reputed to have been neglected by their mothers.

Johnson's heartfelt advocacy of Savage did not blind him to the flaws in his personality. Johnson would not be himself if he was not being clear-sighted in this. He describes nights spent in Savage's fascinating company walking the streets of London. He does not include himself in these scenes but we know (from Holmes) that both men tramped the nights away, talking, declaiming poetry, denouncing tyrants, when they were down on their luck. Savage's fortunes rose and fell with alarming rapidity. He could not hold on to a patron, and Johnson shows us how he could not hold on to money. As soon as Savage received a bookseller's advance, he spent it in the nearest tavern, and then further sabotaged himself by failing to deliver the work. His friendships were fuelled by alcohol. They were passionate, intense, and short-lived. He sponged continually, and yet begrudged the obligation of being in debt. He was proud and touchy and ungrateful.

Johnson does not confuse the:

love of a friend with the judgment of a biographer.
He writes that Savage:
was morally incapable of friendship in its true sense.
And yet, in the one scene where he does insert himself, he describes their last parting as tearful. He writes with love, mourning a man who though not strictly speaking "good" in his conduct, yet in his writing was "the friend of goodness".

Savage was a manipulator. And when he'd run out of influential friends, he would befriend beggars. Lack of money and squandered opportunities led him into bad habits. Johnson is generous in this judgement, and rightly so. This deeply flawed man was lovable. And Johnson describes him, entertaining thieves and beggars in a grim cellar, the man who had written The Bastard, and The Wanderer, the man who had been Queen Caroline's Volunteer Poet Laureate (a title he created for himself and for which he wangled 50 p.a. out of her in exchange for birthday poems). And yet here he is squandering his talent. Johnson laments his friend reciting his poetry in a dodgy dive:

the man of exalted sentiments, extensive views, and curious observations; the man whose remarks on life might have assisted the statesman, whose ideas on virtue might have influenced senates, and whose delicacy might have polished courts.
And he highlights the poet's vanity. When Savage read, Johnson notes that he was scanning the faces of his audience, hungry for their approval of his performance. Savage was finally pensioned off by concerned and patient friends to a far-away retreat in Wales. But typically, he squandered his payments on drink before he got there, and ended up dying in a debtor's prison in Bristol. He befriended his gaoler just in time for his gaoler to pay for his burial.

The Savage that Johnson presents is a compelling figure in a morality play: a gifted outcast challenging hypocrisy but fatally flawed himself. No wonder Johnson was in love with him.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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