20 March 2023
A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (27)
During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.
The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield recently displayed a beautiful portrait of Johnson’s step-daughter, Lucy Porter, showing Lucy as a child.
At the time the portrait was loaned to the museum, the museum curator, Jo Wilson, told the Lichfield Mercury that Lucy ‘was very close to Johnson, but also an interesting figure in Lichfield’s history as she often helped in the Breadmarket Street shop, and had Redcourt House built later in her life.’
Thomas Macaulay described Johnson’s wife Tetty as ‘a short, fat, coarse woman, painted half an inch thick, dressed in gaudy colours, and fond of exhibiting provincial airs and graces.’ Other largely negative and unsympathetic descriptions of Elizabeth come from the actor David Garrick, a former pupil of Johnson, and Johnson’s friend the actor and diarist Hester Thrale.
But Johnson was very fond of his wife. Born Elizabeth Jervis, Tetty first married Henry Porter (1691-1734) in 1715, and they became friends of Johnson in 1732. On first meeting him, she said to her daughter Lucy: ‘That is the most sensible man I ever met.’
They married in Saint Werburgh’s Church, Derby, in 1735. Her dowry of over £600 was invested in setting up Edial Hall, a private school at Edial, near Lichfield. After the school’s failure in 1737, Johnson moved to London, where she joined him later that year.
Although the couple went through difficult periods, their marriage was certainly tested throughout their life together, only to be proven at the very end that their love was infinite and true.
Elizabeth died at 63 in 1752. Her gravestone inscription in Bromley Churchyard says in Latin: Formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae, ‘Beautiful, elegant, talented, and dutiful.’
The full inscription reads:
Hic conduntur reliquiae Elizabethae, Antiqua JARVISIORUM gent Peatlingae, apud Leicestrienses ortae; Formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae, Uxoris, primis nuptiis, Henrici PORTER, Secundis, Samuelis JOHNSON: Qui multum amatam diuque defletam Hoc lapide contexit Obiit Londini, Mense Mart, A.M. MDCCLIII.
The inscription mistakenly gives the year of her death as 1753.
Some years after her death, Johnson prayed in these words:
Almighty God, sanctify unto me the reflections and resolutions of this day. Let not my sorrow be unprofitable; let not my resolutions be in vain. Grant that my grief may produce true repentance, so that I may live and please thee … Grant me that the loss of my wife may teach me the true use of the blessings which are yet left me, and that however bereft of worldly comforts, I may find peace and refuge in thy service … May my affliction be sanctified, and that remembering how much every day brings me nearer to the grave, I may every day purify my mind and amend my life, by the assistance of thy Holy Spirit, till at last I shall be accepted by Thee, for Jesus sake. Amen.
In 1764, 12 years after his wife’s death, Johnson wrote in a diary:
Having before I went to bed composed the foregoing meditation and the following prayer, I tried to compose myself but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, dear poor Tetty, with my eyes full.
Johnson wrote an extended sermon for his wife, describing her vivacious character; although this was not published until after his death in 1788.
When Johnson died, he left Tetty’s wedding ring to his servant Francis Barber, who had the ring enamelled then gave it to his wife as a ring of mourning. This beautiful ring is on display in a small elegant box in the ‘London Life’ room in Samuel Johnson Birthplace and Museum in Lichfield.
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