We are told not to judge a book by its cover. We should also not be influenced by presumptions of genre. According To Queeney might be an historical fiction, but there is little that is purely historical about this plot. Some of the salient detail is documented elsewhere. Samuel Johnson, after labouring on his dictionary, needed silence and rest to avoid breakdown, both physical and mental. The Thrale family, who resided in Streatham, then a country retreat far from the bustle of the city, lived comfortably by virtue of profits from the family brewery. They had space and the inclination to invite. Johnsen accepted. His sojourn with the family, perhaps the most settled years of his life, is not documented, even by Boswell, though the diarist occasionally walks in and out of this novel, that charts the transformation of Johnson in the household from mere lodger to something more than a companion.
According To Queenie has nothing to do with genre fiction. It fits no mould, occupies no stereotypical niche. The events that unfold while Johnson’s relationship with the Thrales develops, especially with Mrs. Thrale, are described by Hester, a daughter of the household, who is better known to all as Queeney. The same character, via letters from decades later, also reflects upon what happened in an illuminating light. According To Queeney is thus a series of probably recalled scenes during Samuel Johnson’s stay with the Thrales, recollections that shed considerable light on the eighteenth century family, social relations and cultures of the era and contemporary concerns, as well as the specifics of Samuel Johnson’s character. We meet other notable names along the way, such as Charles Burney and his scribbling daughter Fanny, Joshua Reynolds of the peeling paint and David (Davy) Garrick who seems to ham his way through life.
Genre fiction this is not. What happens is not important here, only how it happens. Johnson develops an apparently pragmatic relationship with Mrs. Thrale, who tolerates, encourages, enjoys and rejects all at the same time. We are left with the impression that marriage may be for life, but commitment within it is taken as variable. Her overeating husband munches away. Hester, the Queenie, seems determined to compete with her mother, perhaps merely to state her own claim on individuality. Her insights along the way and afterwards are often grounded more in judgment than insight.
But what is most startling about Beryl Bainbridge’s novel, communicated via simple, transparent yet vivid prose, is the proximity the reader is brought to eighteenth century life. By the end of the book, we feel we have been there, rather than have been told about it. Exactly where we have been, let alone let alone why, is as confusing as life itself was, and remains, for its protagonists. Things happen that have no explanation. People do things for complex, often contradictory reasons. Individuals put themselves first. They overeat. They over-indulge. They get ill. They get better. They die. They pee by the roadside. They pontificate. They hurt one another. They use their stools in public. That, it seems, is life, whatever the era and whoever the celebrity. Some, like Queenie, do survive, at least for a while.