I'm taking a brief break from blogging about "Bleak House" because...I'm on vacation in London! I've never been here before except to change planes flying from Africa to the US, which hardly counts. I've seen plenty of sights, enjoyed many pints of excellent English ales and bitters, seen old friends, and eaten plenty of delicious, artery-clogging food. But in addition to this, a pilgrimage was made to one particular site of literary interest...Dr. Samuel Johnson's house!!
Right before I started this blog, I read Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson". This took me awhile, as it's a very long book, but as someone interested in both literature and history, I found it a great read. Boswell's biography is more than a conventional biography...he made great friends with Johnson, during his (Johnson's) later years, and basically wrote down most everything Johnson said when he hung out with him. This makes for excellent reading, as Johnson was a great wit and conversationalist. He had an outsized personality, and outsized body (he was 6 feet tall in an era when that height towered over most everyone else), yet was blind in one eye, suffered from scrofula, and also appeared to be either depressive, obsessive compulsive, or both. In short, a fascinating character, and I highly recommend Boswell's book.
Anyway, I noticed that Samuel Johnson's house was marked on my London map, so an investigation was immediately called for. The house is located off of Fleet Street, a busy commercial thoroughfare, tucked back in a corner between some modern office buildings. Apparently it's one of the last remaining residential buildings of its time (mid 1700s). Someone bought it around 1900 when it was completely dilapidated, and carefully restored it.
Johnson lived in this house from 1748-1759, which was when he worked on his great English dictionary, and before he knew Boswell. The house is now open as a "museum", although it's not really your typical museum. None of Johnson's possessions are there...just mostly empty rooms, with a few bits of period furniture. But covering the walls are some great pictures of Johnson and his friends, and works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a friend of Johnson's. Below is one of the rooms:
They also had a 20 minute video of actors playing Johnson and Boswell, discussing Johnson's life. Yeah, sounds corny, but it was actually quite well done. The house had some great old details, such as a five story stairwell:
And then there was the front door, complete with hi-tech 18th century security measures:
Note the heavy chain across the door, with the corkscrew latch on one end, so that thieves couldn't put a rod down through the window above and unlatch it. Then there are the two huge deadbolts. And the bar over the window above the door was to prevent thieves from breaking the window and then lowering a child down inside so they could unlatch the door. Johnson was no doubt quite worried that other great literary figures would attempt to steal his dictionary-in-progress.
But the topper (literally) was the garrett at the top of the house, where Johnson and his assistants worked on the dictionary:
It was a smallish, sparse room, probably very quiet in Johnson's day. The huge wooden beams on the ceiling were blackened and burned from when a bomb blew up the garrett during the Blitz. Fortunately, the fire was quickly put out before it could consume the entire building.
All-in-all it was a satisfying literary pilgrimage! Of course, it was then time to hoist a pint of ale to this great literary figure. We would have done so at "Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese", a nearby pub that Johnson use to frequent, but they were closed, so alas, we had to venture elsewhere to quench our bountiful thirst.