Wednesday, February 14, 2018

`If His Image Be Not in the Heart'

In the guise of Tom Toy, Dr. Johnson in The Idler #39 dispenses advice on marriage, love, gift-giving, jewelry and, as always, vanity. He speaks of what we call a charm bracelet:

“I know not whether it is the interest of the husband to solicit very earnestly a place on the bracelet. If his image be not in the heart, it is of small avail to hang it on the hand. A husband encircled with diamonds and rubies may gain some esteem, but will never excite love.”

This may sound like the prevarications of a cheapskate, but Johnson knew what he was talking about. His wife, Elizabeth Porter Johnson (1689-1752), known to him as “Tetty,” had been dead for seven years by the time he was writing the essay. When they married in 1735, he was twenty-five and she was forty-six. Tetty is said to have told her daughter after first meeting Johnson, “That is the most sensible man I ever met.” Sniggering began almost immediately after the wedding. In his biography of Johnson, W. Jackson Bate notes that when older women married younger men in eighteenth-century England, the male partner was judged “an unaggressive type of man—rather mousy, dependent, perhaps slightly infantile. Certainly the idea of such a marriage did not fit one’s notion of Johnson, with his huge, unwieldy frame, his immense physical strength, his courage and rhinocerine laughter, his uncanny incisiveness of mind.” Johnson told his friend Topham Beauclerk: “It was a love marriage upon both sides.”

Born forty-eight years after Tetty’s death, Macaulay confidently described her as “a short, fat, coarse woman, painted half an inch thick, dressed in gaudy colours, and fond of exhibiting provincial airs and graces.” His judgment remains influential, especially among those offended by Johnson’s eminence. Defaming a man in matters of love and romance is a favorite tactic of inadequate minds. Tetty’s epitaph, composed by Johnson, reads: “Formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae [beautiful, elegant, talented, dutiful].”

John Hawkins says in his 1787 biography of Johnson: “The melancholy, which seized Johnson, on the death of his wife, was not, in degree, such as usually follows the deprivation of near relations and friends; it was of the blackest and deepest kind.” In 1764, twelve years after his wife’s death, Johnson wrote in a diary: “Having before I went to bed composed the foregoing meditation and the following prayer, I tried to compose myself but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, dear poor Tetty, with my eyes full.” And yet, Johnson was to write in his Idler essay:

“He that thinks himself most secure of his wife, should be fearful of persecuting her continually with his presence. The joy of life is variety; the tenderest love requires to be rekindled by intervals of absence; and Fidelity herself will be wearied with transferring her eye only from the same man to the same picture.”

Ever the traditionalist, I have given my wife flowers and chocolate for St. Valentine’s Day. She has plenty of bracelets.

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