The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Forty

Changes in the Literary Club — Johnson’s Objection to Garrick — Election of Boswell

The Literary Club (as we have termed the club in Gerard Street, though it took that name some time later) had now been in existence several years. Johnson was exceedingly chary at first of its exclusiveness, and opposed to its being augmented in number. Not long after its institution, Sir Joshua Reynolds was speaking of it to Garrick. “I like it much,” said little David, briskly; “I think I shall be of you.” “When Sir Joshua mentioned this to Dr. Johnson,” says Boswell, “he was much displeased with the actor’s conceit. ‘He’ll be of us?’ growled he. ‘How does he know we will permit him? The first duke in England has no right to hold such language.’”

When Sir John Hawkins spoke favorably of Garrick’s pretensions, “Sir,” replied Johnson, “he will disturb us by his buffoonery.” In the same spirit he declared to Mr. Thrale that if Garrick should apply for admission he would blackball him. “Who, sir?” exclaimed Thrale, with surprise; “Mr. Garrick — your friend, your companion — blackball him!” “Why, sir,” replied Johnson, “I love my little David dearly — better than all or any of his flatterers do; but surely one ought to sit in a society like ours,

“‘Unelbowed by a gamester, pimp, or player.’”

The exclusion from the club was a sore mortification to Garrick, though he bore it without complaining. He could not help continually to ask questions about it — what was going on there — whether he was ever the subject of conversation. By degrees the rigor of the club relaxed: some of the members grew negligent. Beauclerc lost his right of membership by neglecting to attend. On his marriage, however, with Lady Diana Spencer, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough, and recently divorced from Viscount Bolingbroke, he had claimed and regained his seat in the club. The number of members had likewise been augmented. The proposition to increase it originated with Goldsmith. “It would give,” he thought, “an agreeable variety to their meetings; for there can be nothing new among us,” said he; “we have traveled over each other’s minds.” Johnson was piqued at the suggestion. “Sir,” said he, “you have not traveled over my mind, I promise you.” Sir Joshua, less confident in the exhaustless fecundity of his mind, felt and acknowledged the force of Goldsmith’s suggestion. Several new members, therefore, had been added; the first, to his great joy, was David Garrick. Goldsmith, who was now on cordial terms with him, had zealously promoted his election, and Johnson had given it his warm approbation. Another new member was Beauclerc’s friend, Lord Charlemont; and a still more important one was Mr., afterward Sir William Jones, the famous Orientalist, at that time a young lawyer of the Temple and a distinguished scholar.

To the great astonishment of the club, Johnson now proposed his devoted follower, Boswell, as a member. He did it in a note addressed to Goldsmith, who presided on the evening of the 23d of April. The nomination was seconded by Beauclerc. According to the rules of the club, the ballot would take place at the next meeting (on the 30th); there was an intervening week, therefore, in which to discuss the pretensions of the candidate. We may easily imagine the discussions that took place. Boswell had made himself absurd in such a variety of ways, that the very idea of his admission was exceedingly irksome to some of the members. “The honor of being elected into the Turk’s Head Club,” said the Bishop of St. Asaph, “is not inferior to that of being representative of Westminster and Surrey.” What had Boswell done to merit such an honor? What chance had he of gaining it? The answer was simple: he had been the persevering worshiper, if not sycophant of Johnson. The great lexicographer had a heart to be won by apparent affection; he stood forth authoritatively in support of his vassal. If asked to state the merits of the candidate, he summed them up in an indefinite but comprehensive word of his own coining; he was clubable. He moreover gave significant hints that if Boswell were kept out he should oppose the admission of any other candidate. No further opposition was made; in fact none of the members had been so fastidious and exclusive in regard to the club as Johnson himself; and if he were pleased, they were easily satisfied; besides, they knew that, with all his faults, Boswell was a cheerful companion, and possessed lively social qualities.

On Friday, when the ballot was to take place, Beauclerc gave a dinner, at his house in the Adelphi, where Boswell met several of the members who were favorable to his election. After dinner the latter adjourned to the club, leaving Boswell in company with Lady Di Beauclerc until the fate of his election should be known. He sat, he says, in a state of anxiety which even the charming conversation of Lady Di could not entirely dissipate. It was not long before tidings were brought of his election, and he was conducted to the place of meeting, where, besides the company he had met at dinner, Burke, Dr. Nugent, Garrick, Goldsmith, and Mr. William Jones were waiting to receive him. The club, notwithstanding all its learned dignity in the eyes of the world, could at times “unbend and play the fool” as well as less important bodies. Some of its jocose conversations have at times leaked out, and a society in which Goldsmith could venture to sing his song of “an old woman tossed in a blanket,” could not be so very staid in its gravity. We may suppose, therefore, the jokes that had been passing among the members while awaiting the arrival of Boswell. Beauclerc himself could not have repressed his disposition for a sarcastic pleasantry. At least we have a right to presume all this from the conduct of Dr. Johnson himself.

With all his gravity he possessed a deep fund of quiet humor, and felt a kind of whimsical responsibility to protect the club from the absurd propensities of the very questionable associate he had thus inflicted on them. Rising, therefore, as Boswell entered, he advanced with a very doctorial air, placed himself behind a chair, on which he leaned as on a desk or pulpit, and then delivered, ex cathedra, a mock solemn charge, pointing out the conduct expected from him as a good member of the club; what he was to do, and especially what he was to avoid; including in the latter, no doubt, all those petty, prying, questioning, gossiping, babbling habits which had so often grieved the spirit of the lexicographer. It is to be regretted that Boswell has never thought proper to note down the particulars of this charge, which, from the well known characters and positions of the parties, might have furnished a parallel to the noted charge of Launcelot Gobbo to his dog.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38