Johnson Without Boswell

Hugh Kingsmill
Date Published
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Boswell’s life of Johnson is incontestably one of the great biographies in the English language. And yet not even it can give a completely rounded portrait. It is for that reason Hugh Kingsmill hit upon the idea of assembling this alternative anthology: Samuel Johnson as recalled diversely by those including Johnson himself, Mrs Piozzi, Sir John Hawkins, Anna Seward (not flattering) and Miss Reynolds, Sir Joshua’s sister. Here is an example from the latter:

‘One Sunday morning, as I was walking with him in Twickenham meadows, he began his antics both with his feet and his hands, with the latter as if he was holding the reins of a horse like a jockey on full speed. But to describe the positions of his feet is a strange task; sometimes he would make the back part of his heels to touch, sometimes his toes, as he was aiming at making the form of a triangle, at least the two sides of one. Though indeed, whether these were his gestures on this particular occasion in Twickenham meadows I do not recollect, it is so long since, but I well remember that they were so extraordinary that men, women and children gathered round him laughing. At last we sat down on some logs of wood by the river side, and they nearly dispersed; when he pulled out of his pocket Grotius De Veritate Religionis, over which he seesawed at such a violent rate as to excite the curiosity of some people at distance to come and see what was the matter with him.’

This is richly readable and informative volume offering an endlessly fascinating conspectus of the Great Man. It is being reissued at the same time as Hugh Kingsmill biography of Samuel Johnson.


Hugh Kingsmill (1889-1949) was a novelist, a biographer of note and a talker of outstanding verve and brilliance. In his introduction to The Best of Hugh Kingsmill, Michael Holroyd wrote, ‘Behind the big names of twentieth-century literature there stands a shadow cabinet of writers waiting to take over once the Wind of Change has blown. My own vote goes to…

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