When April meets November
The fact that the soon to be new French President has been involved /married to a women 25 years older for the last quarter century is public record. My indifference can easily be interpreted as tolerance, on this as on many matters. But it got me thinking about the subject of young April in the spring of his life hitching up with ageing November in the (at best) autumn of hers.
Which brings me easily to the marriage of Dr Johnson. One of my three all time heroes(Nelson and Orwell make up the trio ) Aged 25 he married the widow Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter aged 46. Surely one of the most intriguing unions in literary history.
At the time Johnson was an unknown, suffering from depression and in something of a trough since he had left Oxford without a degree five years before. Mrs Porter was the wife and daughter of wealth and position. Johnson as he did throughout his life presented an unattractive sight. “Lean and dank,his immense structure was hideously striking to the eye.” But even then in 1735 Johnson had gifts. How the man could speak, converse argue. As he did throughout his life Johnson sat at more organised and wealthier tables. Henry Porter was a merchant in Birmingham. Johnson would visit. Mrs Porter declared on hearing the young man “This is the most sensible man that I ever saw in my life.”
Henry died ,Mrs P encouraged the inexperienced Samuel. She was in her late bloom,he was always a deeply religious man who felt that sex should only be within marriage. Her family resisted the match. Her two sons disowned her, her brother in law offered her money not to marry. They went ahead. They started a school which failed and ate into her fortune. But one of the few pupils it attracted was David Garrick the father of British acting. Johnston and Garrick became entwined and they came together to London to make their respective fortunes.
Garrick like many actors was a great mimic and loved to hold court. One of his party pieces was acting put the love making of Mr and Mrs J. It was he who came up with the description of the later day Tetty “very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, swelled cheeks of florid red produced by thick painting and increased by the liberal use of cordials.” That is she was the port and lemon lady who used to be such a staple of our pubs. Later in life she retreated to her bed, often drunk to read romances. But her husband was pounding the streets arguing, staying up late writing or getting into fierce discussions in some pub or other. He gave up drinking as a reproach to his wife.
Johnston was not an instant success. It was not until his mid thirties that his career and reputation got into any kind of gear. It is felt that without the confidence and faith that Tetty showed in him he may never have got onto the starting grid.
It seems that the marriage in any romantic sense was really over in five years, but lasted 17. They spent many months apart. As Johnston’s career went north his wife’s looks and sexual interest went south. But the reason Johnston is a hero is because he writes well,thinks clearly, is so English and is morally huge. He never forgot his debts, even before his ship came in he paid for his wife’s doctor’s and other bills. For this he mortgaged the family’s Lichfield home. He never deserted her. His profound grief after her death was very much part of his deeply involved spiritual sensibility. On her grave he had written “beautiful, pious, ingenious, polite.” His quotes on marriage are worth googling.