Beryl Bainbridge is an author who has had no fewer than five of her novels short-listed for the Mann Booker Prize though none of them ever won. She was awarded a special prize posthumously in recognition of her contribution to English Literary fiction. According to Queeney was one of the last novels she published and is a work of historical fiction with a modern twist.
The novel is set in the second half of the 18th century and concerns the relationship between the Samuel Johnson and Mrs. Hester Thrale as seen through the eyes of Hester’s young daughter upon whom Dr. Johnson affectionately bestowed the pet name of Queeney. Soon after Dr. Johnson completed work on his famous dictionary he suffered a nervous breakdown. Mr. and Mrs. Thrale had been introduced to him only a short time before he became ill and took charge of his recovery providing him rooms where he could rest and quietly work in both their town and country houses. The Thrale’s were wealthy people who entertained a large circle of London’s brightest and most talented people. It was the young Mrs. Hester Thrale who possessed the gifts of wit, charm and above all amusing conversation who drew these intellectuals, writers and actors into the company of the Thrales. The addition of Dr. Johnson to their circle brought in a greater number of the notables of that period including Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Fanny Burney.
Hester Thrale lived two hundred years before women could avail of a dependable means of contraception and so experienced multiple pregnancies most ending in stillbirth or the early death of the child. Yet despite the distraction of being constantly pregnant she was always a lively, engaging hostess running a large bustling household. Her marriage to Henry Thrale was not a happy one as he was a disinterested husband (except it seems when it came to the act of procreation). Mrs. Thrale, according to the novel, felt free to pursue the society of other men all under the disapproving scrutiny of her daughter Queenie. Well, what was an adolescent to think when her mother kept seducing her tutors?
Johnson’s relationship with Mrs Thrale may have been for the most part Platonic but to read Beryl Bainbridge’s book it was the enjoyment of each other’s company on both an intellectual and family level that was the bond that made Dr. Johnson a part of the Thrale household. He came to live with the Thrales shortly after Queeney was born so that she grew up thinking he was a part of the family and overlooked those chracteristics of Johnson’s that others outside his circle found startling and even repellent. He seems to have been plagued by what today would be labled as obsessive impulsive disorders such as involuntary movements or twitches, the shaking back and forth of the head like a cow and talking to himself very loudly. Sometimes he suffered from hallucinations and in one chapter Queeney witnessesd a mysterious arguement between Dr Johnson and her mother when Dr. Johnson tried to give her a lock and chain so she could lock him up in his room at night for fear that one of his episodes of temporary insanity might cause him to harm one of the family members .
The story covers about a twenty year period and is told in the sort of fragmented way a child might do in trying to understand adult behavior and piece together the logic of the adult world for herself. In some ways Queeney feels her mother does not pay enough attention to her and in others she grouses silently and aloud that her mother pays too much attention to her and is hyper critical of her manners and the way she behaves in adult company. It was this behaviour that made me think that the story had a modern twist as it reminds me of that difficult stage teenagers go through when they come to understand that their parents are not perfect; are full of human flaws and perhaps not models of good behaviour.
To keep up the story’s momentum and to provide it with some overall structure Beryl Bainbridge has employed two clever devices. The first of these was to use a definition from Dr.Johnson’s dictionary as the title for the chapters of her novella. Chapter One is entitled Crisis and in addition to the definition an illustrative quote is used to better describe the word. Thus quoting John Dryden she offers: “This hour’s the very crisis of your fate; Your good or ill; your infamy or fame, And all the colour of your life depends on this important now.” I did not research whether Beryl Bainbridge was mimicking Dr. Johnson’s style or if she directly quoted his dictionary but that doesn’t matter as it bears a very good verisimilitude and this is a very tidy way of indicating a life changing moment that propelled Dr. Johnson out of his own home and into the household of the Thrales.
The second device comes at the end of every chapter. It is a copy of the adult Queeney ‘s correspondence with Letitia Hawkins, daughter of one of Dr. Johnson’s friends. Miss Hawkins was a writer and novelist who was trying to put together her memoirs for publication. She had been a guest of the Thrales from time to time and was trying to piece together some recollections of her association with Dr. Johnson. It is plain from these letters that Queeney is very cool to the idea of exploiting Dr.Johnson’s memory for the advancement of someone’s hubristic notions of self-importance. It is also clear from the letters that she has grown into a self confident and insightful woman who is reconciled to her mother’s oft-times selfish choices in life. Especially hard may have been her Mother’s rift with Dr. Johnson after her father died when her mother chose to marry Queeney’s music teacher.
I enjoyed this novel because of its author’s control over her subject matter. I admired her skill at capturing the complexity and intensity of human emotion in just a few compact chapters.