According to Queeney

According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge.  Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., New York. 2001.  216 pps.  $22.00. 

Sometime before 1765, Samuel Johnson–inventor and author of the dictionary, philosopher, philanthropist, a literary and literal giant of a man–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. 

According to Queeney presents this disquieting tale of Johnson’s infatuation with Mrs. Thrale, and the unfolding drama of these interwoven lives from the viewpoint of one whose childhood was overshadowed by the presence of the great author in her home and by her mother’s preoccupation with him. 

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

Bainbridge’s approach to her characters is both 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.  Many geniuses are. 

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 humour.  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. 

Equally, 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 the mistress of such a large household as the Thrales’.

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 eighteenth 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 how they dressed, who they were, how they lived, what their morals and prejudices were. 

Not so the mid-eighteenth century.  Yet Bainbridge gives no quarter to the non-specialist.  Though Johnson’s friends, Garrick, Burney, Goldsmith, Reynolds et al. are no longer familiar household names, she gives them neither introduction nor context, relying heavily 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 and perhaps deserving to be counted among the better books of 2001–if only for its novelty against the monotonous sea of ‘gritty urban realism’ that clog the shelves of the booksellers.  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, her moral insight, she is undoubtedly capable of far greater works that this.

(This review first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)

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9 comments on “According to Queeney

  1. Rudolf says:

    Having read your review… I take it you didn’t like this book very much. Would that be a fair assessment?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      That would be more than fair…but it does, I hope, illustrate the point that although one doesn’t like a book, a book review is always about the work, not the author. It should never be a personal attack…and it does have to cover all aspects of the book, not just the plot or one of the other elements.

  2. How can some writing be both ‘dense’ and ‘spare’?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      No idea.

      I read the book and wrote this review years ago and can remember little about the whole incident except an overwhelming sense of distaste which coloured the entire process–the author’s distaste for her subject which communicated itself to the reader–something akin to removing slugs from off a rock. I do recall thinking that the reviewer in the Scotsman got it best when he referred to the author’s “tepid prose”.

      The critics from the other major newspapers were divided about it–some were strongly of the opinion that this was a dead cert for the Booker, others argued just the opposite. It was longlisted for the Booker, but not, I think, even shortlisted.

      An interesting footnote to the whole occurred a few years later at an exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s work, where, on display, were the portraits of several of those who had appeared in the book.

  3. Oh, the Thrale Library pictures, I’d love to see them together. The National portrait gallery has many paintings of the people from the book (and a range of ones for Johnson) but it would be nice to see the whole collection together – especially Goldsmith, Johnson may be a hero of mine, but I identify with Goldsmith more.

    As to the book, Beryl Bainbridge has a talent for creating grim, cramped little worlds that she displays in a lot of her work and she never seems to wade in there and slug it out with her characters, always sitting rather coldly in the sidelines.

    However, in dealing with Johnson, she is dealing with the last years of a depressive, no matter how witty or garrulous he seemed to others. A lot of the book is just slightly more dramatised versions of events from Mrs Thrale’s dictionary, so in terms of veracity, she is pretty accurate, even if you could attribute meanness to her.

    She’s also written a novel set in the Crimean war (Master Georgie). I would recommend it as historical war fiction but her style is a very flat one, and judging by your other articles, I feel you wouldn’t find it zesty enough. I prefer the more direct stuff, and I like Bainbridge’s rather non-committal attitude to her characters, so I guess it’s all about preference.

    • Mrs Thrale’s diary, I mean. I’ve got dictionaries on the brain this morning.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The whole experience of that Reynolds’ exhibition was very curious. The first gallery was all the ‘big’ pictures–the full length portraits of military chaps with their horses, and nobles, etc. The second and third galleries were the smaller portraits, including that of Johnson, so one could almost put the Thrale salon together at a dinner table, envisioning the whole…

      But what made it even more fascinating was that there had been an exhibition of Gainsborough’s works at the Tate just previously. And the emotional difference (for want of a better term) between the two artists was subtle, but unmistakable. It was as if there was a deliberate cultivation of loucheness or seediness running through the Reynolds’ portraits–a wisdom or worldliness in the female sitters’ eyes that bordered on the lewd which was generally absent in Gainsborough’s renditions.

      I’m certain Johnson’s last years weren’t a picnic, as it were. Depression is no laughing matter. Nonetheless, I felt Bainbridge dealt with him rather as Ivan Albrecht dealt with his sitters, with a rather clinical determination to shove the viscera in the readers’ faces.

  4. I prefer Reynold’s and his loucheness, I feel that he captures grimy truth – his angry looking Barretti, or the self portrait of himself as a deaf person. Then of course the one of Goldsmith which he described as ‘the most flattering I have ever done’.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Reynolds. But I do believe the portraits of Mrs. Brinsley Sheridan by Gainsborough are among the most sublime ever painted. Romney’s pretty superb too. And Ramsay and Raeburn aren’t half bad either. In fact, I think it would be fair to say it was the golden age of British portraiture.

      And Stubbs–for horses, of course.

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