Johnson in Devon

August 16: On this day in 1762, Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds departed on their six-week trip to Devonshire, an excursion that has proven rich in Johnsonia. The holiday was made possible by the impoverished and very Tory Johnson having recently received a government pension from the ruling Whigs. This was the Party which had suffered Johnson’s widely-quoted definition of “pension” in his Dictionary: “An allowance made to anyone without an equivalent [equal value of work]. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” Supporting definitions establish “pensioner” as “a slave of state hired by a stipend to obey his master.” That Johnson was more than willing to accept the money and the criticism—”I wish my pension were twice as large that they might make twice as much noise”—reflects his enjoyment of controversy as well as his financial need.

Devon was to be relief from personal woes, too—the habits of melancholia, procrastination, and widowhood squalor which would have him rising at noon (to put on, haphazardly, last week’s clothes) and still dining at 3 a.m. “Give me the Grace to break the chain of evil custom,” he wrote in a diary prayer at the time, “Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth.”

Some habits went to Devon with him. One hostess, filling Johnson’s teacup for the eighteenth time, exclaimed, “What! another Dr. Johnson?” and received, “Madam, you are rude” in return. But the sights and new society did seem to help, and idleness was routed on at least one evening, when the portly, fifty-three-year-old in booklover shape, challenged a young lady’s boast that she could outrun anyone present. Below the upshot as described by Boswell:

The lady at first had the advantage; but Dr. Johnson happening to have slippers on much too small for his feet, kick’d them off up into the air, and ran … leaving the lady far behind him, and … returned, leading her by the hand, with looks of high exultation and delight.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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