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.)