07 March 2016

A journey through Lent 2016
with Samuel Johnson (27)

Detail of the Herkenrode windows in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

I was reflecting on Saturday [5 March 2016] on how Johnson grieved and prayed after the death of his wife Elizabeth (‘Tetty’) in 1752.

Yet, in 1753 Johnson was considering marriage once again, and the woman who was the object of his affection was Hill Boothby (1708-1756). However, the circumstances of her life changed dramatically, and W Jackson Bate, in his prize-winning biography Samuel Johnson (1975), says “any thought of marriage was quickly dropped.”

Hill Boothby was a descendant of William and Hill Boothby, who owned the Moat House, the Jacobean house in Lichfield Street, Tamworth, once owned by the Comberford family. She was a grand-daughter of Sir William Boothby (1664-1731), 3rd baronet, and a daughter of Brooke Boothby of Ashbourne Hall, Derbyshire.

The Lichfield poet Anna Seward calls her “the sublimated methodistic Hill Boothby who read her Bible in Hebrew.”

Hill Boothby got to know Samuel Johnson in 1753, while she was presiding over the household of a distant relation, William Fitzherbert (1712-1772), of Tissington, near Ashbourne, and MP for Derby. Johnson says sadly of Fitzherbert:

There was no sparkle, no brilliancy in Fitzherbert; but I never knew a man who was so generally acceptable. He made everybody quite easy, overpowered nobody by the superiority of his talents, made no man think worse of himself by being his rival, seemed always to listen, did not oblige you to hear much from him, and did not oppose what you said. Everybody liked him; but he had no friend, as I understand the word, nobody with whom he exchanged intimate thoughts.

Hill Boothby and Samuel Johnson soon developed such a warm friendship that he addresses her as “sweet angel” and “dearest dear,” and he assures her that he “has none other on whom his heart reposes.”

His letters to her were preserved by Anna Seward, and they all show this affectionate strain. However, Johnson was annoyed by her friendship with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Lyttelton, and this jealousy influenced his writing Lyttleton’s biography.

Hill Boothby died on 16 January 1756. After her death, Samuel Johnson wrote this ‘Prayer after the death of a good friend’:

O Lord God, almighty disposer of all things, in whose hands are life and death, who givest comforts and takest them away, I return thee thanks for the good example of H[ill] Boothby, whomtThou hast now taken away. I implore thy grace, that I may improve the opportunity of instruction which thou hast afforded me, by the knowledge of her life, and by the sense of her death; that I may consider the uncertainty of my present state, and apply myself earnestly to the duties which thou hast set before me; that living in thy fear, I may die in thy favour, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hill Boothby wrote her letters to Samuel Johnson with vivacity and in a tone of enthusiastic piety. They were collected and published by Richard Wright, the Lichfield surgeon, in 1805. That book includes a fragment of Johnson’s autobiography, and some verses to Hill Boothby’s memory by her nephew, Sir Brooke Boothby, 6th Bt (1744-1824).

Sir Brooke Boothby was a linguist, translator, poet and friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was part of the intellectual and literary circle in Lichfield that included Anna Seward, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Erasmus Darwin and of the Lunar Society. In 1803, he bought the 16th century Herkenrode stained glass for Lichfield Cathedral. But as a result of this extravagance he met economic disaster and he died in exile in Boulogne.

Detail of the Herkenrode windows in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.

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