Samuel Johnson knew the definition of 'peccadillo'

A historical novel that traces the good doctor's affair in a friend's house

Sometime before 1765, Samuel Johnson - inventor, author, philosopher, and philanthropist - met Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer, and his wife. In the ensuing years, Johnson came first to dine and then to reside frequently with the Thrales.

His presence in their home acted as a magnet to those of the London literary world, transforming Mrs. Thrale's drawing room into one of the great literary salons of the age. Johnson also oversaw the education of the Thrales' eldest daughter, Queeney, and may have been Mrs. Thrale's lover.

In "According to Queeney," Beryl Bainbridge presents this disquieting tale of Johnson's infatuation with Mrs. Thrale and the unfolding drama of these interwoven lives from the viewpoint of her daughter.

Bainbridge relates the irony and tragedy of this 12-year relationship in a sequence ofvignettes packed so tightly that they resemble a plot, with a shifting narrative voice, punctuated by letters from the adult Queeney. It is a warts-and-all portrait of Johnson and mid-18th century London, with an emphasis on the warts.

Bainbridge's approach to her characters is cold and clinical.Even if one discounts as gross exaggeration half of James Boswell's three-volume "Life of Samuel Johnson," Johnson was still a much-loved and generous man. Certainly, he was a difficult man, decidedly prone to melancholy and depression.

But Bainbridge's Johnson is a deeply flawed, unlovable, bumbling fool of a man, and she writes of him, indeed of all the characters, with little compassion, empathy, or humor.

Her Mrs. Thrale is a peevish, clever, mean-spirited coquette who uses Johnson to attract his artistic friends to her home.Seen in this light, it's virtually impossible to understand what tied the philosophical Johnson to her.

Also, Bainbridge is strangely pitiless in her treatment of Mrs. Thrale's constant pregnancies, stillbirths, and the loss of several of her children, and she acknowledges few of the numerous responsibilities belonging to the mistress of such a large household.

Bainbridge's prose is dense, relentless as rain, so taut and spare that it gives the reader no breathing space. The novel, although full of detail, is full of detail that tells us little, offering the reader trivia in the place of real information and no opportunity to conjure up an image of this time long since gone.

The 18th century has had little of the media attention given to later periods like the Regency. Say Jane Austen, and many will think of the television and film adaptations of her work - that is to say, we have an idea of who these people were, how they dressed, how they lived, what their morals and prejudices were. Not so the mid-18th century.Yet Bainbridge gives no quarter to the non-specialist.Though Johnson's friends, Garrick, Burney, Goldsmith, and Reynolds, are no longer familiar household names, she gives them neither introduction nor context, relying on a presumed knowledge of the period and of Johnson himself.

All of which is not to say that "According to Queeney" is not an interesting book. But with Bainbridge's track record of acclaim - she's been short-listed for the Booker Prize five times - her undeniable gifts as a literary stylist, her intelligence, her rigorous command of the English language, and her moral insight, she is undoubtedly capable of far greater works that this.

Melissa Bennetts is a historian and freelance writer, living in England.

According to Queeney By Beryl Bainbridge Carroll & Graf 216 pp., $22

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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