Thomas Babington Macaulay’s review of Croker’s Boswell [Life of Johnson] (1831)

Source: The Works of Lord Macaulay, 12 vols. (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1898), VIII, pp.56-111; edited by Jack Lynch for his courses in 18th century literature at Rutger's University - ENG349 & ENG565 (2008-09) [accessed online - 12.11.2008.]
Note: the original journal-venue of the review is not given - either at Rutgers, in Wikipedia [under Croker or Macauley], or in Victorianweb.

See also C. E. Vullamy, ‘Macaulay on Croker’, in Ursa Major: A Study of Dr. Johnson and His Friends (London: Michael Joseph 1946) [Chapter XVI ] - attached.

This work has greatly disappointed us. Whatever faults we may have been prepared to find in it, we fully expected that it would be a valuable addition to English literature; that it would contain many curious facts, and many judicious remarks; that the style of the notes would be neat, clear, and precise; and that the typographical execution would be, as in new editions of classical works it ought to be, almost faultless. We are sorry to be obliged to say that the merits of Mr. Croker’s performance are on a par with those of a certain leg of mutton on which Dr. Johnson dined, while travelling from London to Oxford, and which he, with characteristic energy, pronounced to be ‘as bad as bad could be, ill fed, ill killed, ill kept, and ill dressed.’ This edition is ill compiled, ill arranged, ill written, and ill printed.

Nothing in the work has astonished us so much as the ignorance or carelessness of Mr. Croker with respect to facts and dates. Many of his blunders are such as we should be surprised to hear any well educated gentleman commit, even in conversation. The tomes absolutely swarm with misstatements into which the editor never would have fallen, if he had taken the slightest pains to investigate the truth of his assertions, or if he had even been well acquainted with the book on which he undertook to comment. We will give a few instances.

Mr. Croker tells us in a note that Derrick, who was master of the ceremonies at Bath, died very poor in 1760. We read on; and, a few pages later, we find Dr. Johnson and Boswell talking of this same Derrick as still living and reigning, as having retrieved his character, as possessing so much power over his subjects at Bath, that his opposition might be fatal to Sheridan’s lectures on oratory. And all this is in 1763. The fact is, that Derrick died in 1769.

In one note we read, that Sir Herbert Croft, the author of that pompous and foolish account of Young, which appears among the Lives of the Poets, died in 1805. Another note in the same volume states, that this same Sir Herbert Croft died at Paris, after residing abroad for fifteen years, on the 27th of April 1816.

Mr. Croker informs us, that Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, the author of the Life of Beattie, died in 1816. A Sir William Forbes undoubtedly died in that year, but not the Sir William Forbes in question, whose death took place in 1806. It is notorious, indeed, that the biographer of Beattie lived just long enough to complete the history of his friend. Eight or nine years before the date which Mr. Croker has assigned for Sir William’s death, Sir Walter Scott lamented that event in the introduction to the fourth canto of Marmion. Every schoolgirl knows the lines:

Scarce had lamented Forbes paid
The tribute to his Minstrel’s shade;
The tale of friendship scarce was told,
Ere the narrator’s heart was cold:
Far may we search before we find
A heart so manly and so kind!

In one place, we are told, that Allan Ramsay, the painter, was born in 1709, and died in 1784; in another, that he died in 1784, in the seventy-first year of his age.

In one place, Mr. Croker says, that at the commencement of the intimacy between Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, in 1765, the lady was twenty-five years old. In other places he says, that Mrs. Thrale’s thirty-fifth year coincided with Johnson’s seventieth, Johnson was born in 1709. If, therefore, Mrs. Thrale’s thirty-fifth year coincided with Johnson’s seventieth, she could have been only twenty-one years old in 1765. This is not all. Mr. Croker, in another place, assigns the year 1777 as the date of the complimentary lines which Johnson made on Mrs. Thrale’s thirty-fifth birthday. If this date be correct, Mrs. Thrale must have been born in 1742, and could have been only twenty-three when her acquaintance with Johnson commenced. Mr. Croker therefore gives us three different statements as to her age. Two of the three must be incorrect. We will not decide between them: we will only say, that the reasons which Mr. Croker gives for thinking that Mrs. Thrale was exactly thirty-five years old when Johnson was seventy, appear to us utterly frivolous.

Again, Mr. Croker informs his readers that ‘Lord Mansfield survived Johnson full ten years.’ Lord Mansfield survived Dr. Johnson just eight years and a quarter.

Johnson found in the library of a French lady, whom he visited during his short visit to Paris, some works which he regarded with great disdain. ‘I looked,’ says he, ‘into the books in the lady’s closet, and, in contempt, showed them to Mr. Thrale. Prince Titi, Bibliothèque des Fées, and other books.’ ‘The History of Prince Titi,’ observes Mr. Croker, ‘was said to be the autobiography of Frederick Prince of Wales, but was probably written by Ralph, his secretary.’ A more absurd note never was penned. The history of Prince Titi, to which Mr. Croker refers, whether written by Prince Frederick or by Ralph, was certainly never published. If Mr. Croker had taken the trouble to read with attention that very passage in Park’s Royal and Noble Authors which he cites as his authority, he would have seen that the manuscript was given up to the government. Even if this memoir had been printed it is not very likely to find its way into a French lady’s bookcase. And would any man in his senses speak contemptuously of a French lady, for having in her possession an English work, so curious and interesting as a Life of Prince Frederick, whether written by himself or by a confidential secretary, must have been? The history at which Johnson laughed was a very proper companion to the Bibliothèque des Fées, a fairy tale about good Prince Titi and naughty Prince Violent. Mr. Croker may find it in the Magasin des Enfans, the first French book which the little girls of England read to their governesses.

Mr. Croker states that Mr. Henry Bate, who afterwards assumed the name of Dudley, was proprietor of the Morning Herald, and fought a duel with George Robinson Stoney, in consequence of some attacks on Lady Strathmore which appeared in that paper. Now Mr. Bate was then connected, not with the Morning Herald, but with the Morning Post; and the dispute took place before the Morning Herald was in existence. The duel was fought in January 1777. The Chronicle of the Annual Register for that year contains an account of the transaction, and distinctly states that Mr. Bate was editor of the Morning Post. The Morning Herald, as any person may see by looking at any number of it, was not established till some years after this affair. For this blunder there is, we must acknowledge, some excuse: for it certainly seems almost incredible to a person living in our time that any human being should ever have stooped to fight with a writer in the Morning Post.

’James de Duglas,’ says Mr. Croker, ‘was requested by King Robert Bruce in his last hours, to repair, with his heart to Jerusalem, and humbly to deposit it at the sepulchre of our Lord, which he did in 1329.’ Now, it is well known that he did no such thing, and for a very sufficient reason, because he was killed by the way. Nor was it in 1329 that he set out. Robert Bruce died in 1329, and the expedition of Douglas took place in the following year, ‘Quand le printems vint et la saison,’ says Froissart, in June, 1330, says Lord Hailes, whom Mr. Croker cites as the authority for his statement.

Mr. Croker tells us that the great Marquis of Montrose was beheaded at Edinburgh in 1650. There is not a forward boy at any school in England who does not know that the marquis was hanged. The account of the execution is one of the finest passages in Lord Clarendon’s History. We can scarcely suppose that Mr. Croker has never read that passage; and yet we can scarcely suppose that any person who has ever perused so noble and pathetic a story can have utterly forgotten all its most striking circumstances.

’Lord Townshend,’ says Mr. Croker, ‘was not secretary of state till 1720.’ Can Mr. Croker possibly be ignorant that Lord Townshend was made secretary of state at the accession of George I. in 1714, that he continued to be secretary of state till he was displaced by the intrigues of Sunderland and Stanhope at the close of 1716, and that he returned to the office of secretary of state, not in 1720, but in 1721?

Mr. Croker, indeed, is generally unfortunate in his statements respecting the Townshend family. He tells us that Charles Townshend, the chancellor of the exchequer, was ‘nephew of the prime minister, and son of a peer who was secretary of state, and leader of the House of Lords.’ Charles Townshend was not nephew, but grandnephew, of the Duke of Newcastle, not son, but grandson, of the Lord Townshend who was secretary of state and leader of the House of Lords.

’General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga,’ says Mr. Croker, ‘in March, 1778.’ General Burgoyne surrendered on the 17th of October, 1777.

’Nothing,’ says Mr. Croker, ‘can be more unfounded than the assertion that Byng fell a martyr to political party . By a strange coincidence of circumstances it happened that there was a total change of administration between his condemnation and his death: so that one party presided at his trial, and another at his execution: there can be no stronger proof that he was not a political martyr.’ Now what will our readers think of this writer, when we assure them that this statement, so confidently made, respecting events so notorious, is absolutely untrue? One and the same administration was in office when the court-martial on Byng commenced its sittings, through the whole trial, at the condemnation, and at the execution. In the month of November, 1756, the Duke of Newcastle and Lord Hardwicke resigned; the Duke of Devonshire became first lord of the treasury, and Mr. Pitt secretary of state. This administration lasted till the month of April, 1757. Byng’s court-martial began to sit on the 28th of December, 1756. He was shot on the 14th of March, 1757. There is something at once diverting and provoking in the cool and authoritative manner in which Mr. Croker makes these random assertions. We do not suspect him of intentionally falsifying history. But of this high literary misdemeanour we do without hesitation accuse him, that he has no adequate sense of the obligation which a writer, who professes to relate facts, owes to the public. We accuse him of a negligence and an ignorance analogous to that crassa negligentia, and that crassa ignorantia, on which the law animadverts in magistrates and surgeons, even when malice and corruption are not imputed. We accuse him of having undertaken a work which, if not performed with strict accuracy, must be very much worse than useless, and of having performed it as if the difference between an accurate and an inaccurate statement was not worth the trouble of looking into the most common book of reference.

But we must proceed. These volumes contain mistakes more gross, if possible, than any that we have yet mentioned. Boswell has recorded some observations made by Johnson on the changes which had taken place in Gibbon’s religious opinions. That Gibbon when a lad at Oxford turned Catholic is well known. ‘It is said,’ cried Johnson, laughing, ‘that he has been a Mahommedan.’ ‘This sarcasm,’ says the editor, ‘probably alludes to the tenderness with which Gibbon’s malevolence to Christianity induced him to treat Mahommedanism in his history.’ Now the sarcasm was uttered in 1776: and that part of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which relates to Mahommedanism was not published till 1788, twelve years after the date of this conversation, and near four years after the death of Johnson.

‘It was in the year 1761,’ says Mr. Croker, ‘that Goldsmith published his Vicar of Wakefield. This leads the editor to observe a more serious inaccuracy of Mrs. Piozzi, than Mr. Boswell notices, when he says Johnson left her table to go and sell the Vicar of Wakefield for Goldsmith. Now Dr. Johnson was not acquainted with the Thrales till 1765, four years after the book had been published.’ Mr. Croker in reprehending the fancied inaccuracy of Mrs. Thrale, has himself shown a degree of inaccuracy, or to speak more properly, a degree of ignorance, hardly credible. In the first place, Johnson became acquainted with the Thrales, not in 17