(University of Toronto)
Submitted 6 December, 2001, published January 2002 (HSL/SHL 2)
Both Dr. Samuel Johnson and his century have often been linked with language that was explicitly and indeed excessively “literate”. However, shortly after his death in 1784, memoirs of Johnson also associated him with linguistic informality: with his own contractions, as mediated by James Boswell, one of his biographers; and with the notoriously colloquial and idiosyncratic style of another, Hester Piozzi. “Low” Johnsonian language has already attracted the attention of scholars like Hudson (1998) and McIntosh (1998, 1995); McIntosh (see 1995: 149ff) is one recent participant in an old and ongoing debate about whether Johnson or his biographers should get credit for the stylistic features of the spoken language represented in biographies and memoirs as Johnson’s (see also, e.g., Korshin 1991). The present paper will contextualize the social significance of Johnson’s use of nicknames like “Bozzy” and of Hester Piozzi’s use of colloquial prose in her Anecdotes of Johnson. Drawing on a new and unique database corpus of systematically collected linguistic criticism in the Monthly and the Critical Review (see Percy 1997a), I hope to illuminate our understanding not just of Johnson but, considering Piozzi’s style in context, of some eighteenth-century prose genres. I will also consider how Boswell and Piozzi sought to exploit the connotations of colloquial language, though not always successfully.
The years immediately after Johnson’s death saw the publication of several tributes by his former intimates. Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson was to appear in 1791, but even before that date other accounts had come out - in 1785 Boswell’s own Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, which he had undertaken with Johnson in 1773; a Life by John Hawkins in 1787; and Hester Piozzi’s Letters from and Anecdotes of Johnson, published in 1788 and 1786 respectively. In December 1784, Boswell “had learned that he was not mentioned in Johnson’s will and that six others were preparing biographies of Johnson”. Goyette has argued that Boswell wrote the Tour not merely as “a sort of advertisement” for the Life but especially to authorize his “precarious” position as biographer by “demonstrating his intimacy with Johnson”, “an intimacy that” – Goyette argues – “did not in fact exist”. Goyette describes Boswell’s first copy of a combined advertisement for the Tour and the Life; “stressing the ‘minute accuracy’ of his Tour and the ‘authenticity’ of the Life”, Boswell “claimed `the intimate friendship of DR. JOHNSON’ as the basis for his special fitness as biographer” (Goyette 1979: 311-314).
Some contemporary responses suggest that many readers found Boswell’s and Piozzi’s material inappropriately and uninterestingly intimate. For instance, in 1786, the topical verse satirist John Wolcot, better known as “Peter Pindar”, wrote two poems provoked by Boswell’s Tour. Bozzy and Piozzi, or the British Biographers, ridiculed both authors; refereed by Sir John Hawkins, Bozzy and Madame Piozzi alternately accused each other of falsehood and triviality:
How could your folly tell, so void of truth,
That miserable story of the youth,
Who, in your book, of Doctor Johnson begs
Most seriously to know if cats laid eggs!
Who told of Mrs. Montague the lie -
So palpable a falsehood? - Bozzy, fy!
Who, madd’ning with an anecdotic itch
Declar’d that Johnson call’d his mother b-t-ch? …
Who would have said a word about Sam’s wig,
Or told the story of the peas and pig?
Who would have told a tale so very flat,
Of Frank the Black, and Hodge the mangy cat!
Good me! you’re grown at once confounded tender---
Of Doctor Johnson’s fame a fierce defender:
I’m sure you’ve mention’d many a pretty story
Not much redounding to the doctor’s glory.
Now for a saint upon us you would palm him -
First murder the poor man and then embalm him!
(Wolcot 1786a: Part II: lines 274-279; partially quoted in McCarthy
The initial impetus for this paper was a line from earlier in Wolcot’s poem. Summoned by Hawkins along with Madame Piozzi “to farther anecdote”, “Bozzy” tops Piozzi’s enumerations of Johnson’s favourite foods (“a leg of pork” and “veal pie”) by retorting that Johnson “took a pride” in contractions:
(2) One Thursday morn did Doctor Johnson wake,
And call out, “Lanky, Lanky”, by mistake -
But recollecting - “Bozzy, Bozzy”, cry’d -
For in contractions Johnson took a pride!
(Wolcot 1786a: Part II: lines 53-56; emphasis added)
Wolcot’s line identifies two issues: that “Doctor Johnson” used contractions, and that
Boswell chose to disclose this habit.
2. Boswell and Dr. Johnson’s contractions
Wolcot’s poem alludes to a passage from Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in
Which Boswell describes Johnson’s “way of contracting the names of his friends”:
(3) When Dr. Johnson [MS: “Mr. Johnson”] awaked this morning, he called, “Lanky!” having, I suppose, been thinking of Langton; but corrected himself instantly, and cried, “Bozzy!” He has a way of contracting the names of his friends. Goldsmith feels himself so important now, as to be displeased at it. I remember one day, when Tom Davies was telling that Dr. Johnson said, “We are [MS: “We’re”] all in labour for a name to Goldy’s play”, Goldsmith cried, “I have often desired him not to call me Goldy” (Boswell 1961: 297).
Johnson’s contracted names attracted contemporary comment. Wolcot had already drawn attention to them in another poem, his Poetical and congratulatory epistle to James Boswell, Esq., on his journal of a tour to the Hebrides (1786b):
(4) How sweetly grumbled too was Sam's remark,
'I smell you, Master Bozzy, in the dark!' (Wolcot 1786b: ll. 35-46).
Johnson’s familiar diminutives of surnames may have been doubly marked: they were informal, and they may well have been very unusual in eighteenth-century England or at least in eighteenth-century writing. Although the OED attests many instances of –y being appended to a contracted Christian name, the entry for -y describes that suffix as only “recently appended to surnames to form a familiar name”, with the 1941 Smithy the first of its three examples (s.v. –y6). (Forms like Smithy, of course, differ from forms like Bozzy in that the latter the base has been contracted.)
Wolcot was not the only contemporary to cite nicknames as a synecdoche of Boswell’s and Johnson’s style. In 1791, after the publication of his Life of Johnson, Boswell was parodied in the Morning Herald:
(5) LESSON IN BIOGRAPHY
HOW TO WRITE THE LIFE OF ONE’S FRIEND
(An Extract from the LIFE OF DR. POZZ, in ten volumes folio, written by JAMES BOZZ, Esq.; who flourished with him near fifty years). (quoted in Boswell 1989: 146)
Moreover, in 1785, Boswell had been criticized in the Public Advertiser for the lack of “good-manners” and “good breeding” he exhibited by using such “vulgar diminutives of … christian names” as “Sam Johnson” and “Jack Lee”:
(6) An admirer at [sic] Mr. Boswell, wonders whether he considers it as any proof of wit or good-manners to call gentlemen of learning and gravity by the vulgar diminutives of their christian names? Sam Johnson, Jack Lee, (late Attorney-General) &c. are familiarities equally disgusting to sense and good breeding, and they are peculiarly out of character in a Scotchman (Anon. 1785a: 2).
This comment emphasizes that nicknames were “vulgar” “familiarities” – impolite in speech and in print.
The familiar nickname “Bozzy” is a key to Boswell’s presentation of himself as Johnson’s future biographer. “Bozzy” presented this evidence of his status as Johnson’s friend in the same journal entry (14 October 1773) as he recalled
(7) The Sunday evening that we sat by ourselves at Aberdeen, I asked him several particulars of his life from his early years, which he readily told me, and I marked down before him. This day I proceeded in my inquiries, also marking before him. I have them on separate leaves of paper. I shall lay up authentic materials for THE LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D., and if I survive him, I shall be one who shall most faithfully do honour to his memory. I have now a vast treasure of his conversation at different times since the year 1762 when I first obtained his acquaintance; and by assiduous inquiry I can make up for not knowing him sooner. (Boswell 1785:389, 1961: 300)
In the published account of the Tour, Boswell adds further emphasis to the “Bozzy” passage by placing it at the beginning of the entry (Boswell 1785: 384); the incident not only began the day, but was a proof of Boswell’s status as Johnson’s friend – and of his “superiority” to friends like Goldsmith in his happy subjection to Johnson so appropriate in a biographer.
Goldsmith’s reaction suggests that Johnson’s “familiarity” could be taken as an insult but also as a mark of intimacy. McIntosh has observed Boswell’s Johnson using the low style in order to “deflate pomposity” (1995:143), here Goldsmith’s. Indeed, Boswell was later to contextualize the same observation about Johnson’s “contracting the name of his friends” in an extended discussion of “Goldsmith’s incessant desire of [MS, deleted: shining or] being conspicuous in company”. In both the manuscript and published account of his Life of Johnson, it is clear that Boswell uses the anecdote to illustrate how Goldsmith, though “sometimes content to be treated with an easy familiarity … upon occasions would be consequential and important”. This passage gives some more examples of Johnson’s
(3a) way of contracting the name of his friends as Beauclerk Beau Langton Lanky Murphy Mur Boswell Bozzy … I recollect [Tom Davies] telling me once on my arrival in London, “Sir our great friend has made an improvement on his appellation of old Mr. Sheridan. He calls him now Sherry derry (MS, Boswell 1998: 112).
Boswell may have recognized and rhetorically exploited what Goldsmith rejected as a deflation of his dignity. The potentially undignified diminutive “Bozzy” may have contributed to what Schwalm argues was Boswell’s construction of his own “relative inferiority” in necessary contrast to his elevation of Johnson as a “heroic figure” (1976: 247, 283). However, nicknames also, and especially, indicated intimacy. Although Goldsmith wouldn’t put up with being called Goldy, Bozzy seems to have interpreted and welcomed Johnson’s familiarity as “kindness”. In the manuscript of the Life, quoted above in (3a), “Bozzy” is given end-position; in the printed edition, the list is augmented (with “Sherry”) and alphabetized, with “Bozzy” taking his place amongst Johnson’s intimates:
(3b) Beauclerk, Beau ; Boswell, Bozzy ; Langton, Lanky ; Murphy, Mur ; Sheridan,
Sherry (printed edition, Boswell 1934: 258).
It is perhaps possible that Boswell subtly signals the emotional and economic value of intimacy with Johnson when in his Journal of a tour to the Hebrides he juxtaposes Johnson’s coining of “Mony”, his nickname for Lord Monboddo, with his pronouncement that “a man … cannot coin guineas but in proportion as he has gold”:
(8) ‘But, sir,’ said he, ‘a man cannot make fire but in proportion as he has wood. He cannot coin guineas but in proportion as he has gold.’ He came the length this day of contracting Monboddo and calling him ‘Mony.’ This was a piece of kindness, for he does so to all his friends (Boswell 1961: 189).
And having revised his manuscript to change “Mr.” to “Dr.” Johnson (see (3) above), Bozzy perhaps emphasized the magnitude of his catch. In a letter to his publisher Dilly, Boswell claimed this “`intimate friendship of DR. JOHNSON’ as the basis for his special fitness as biographer” to which the Tour attested (Goyette 1979: 312).
Nicknames like “Bozzy” signalled great intimacy; their use by the wrong person was a social violation. A recent discussion of Frances Burney on the eighteenth-century discussion list has reminded us of how few people knew her as “Fanny”, and how “consternated” she was when sent a letter addressed to “Miss Fanny Burney” from someone Betty Rizzo describes as Burney’s “close friend the singer Pachierotti” (Rizzo 2000). At least one of Bozzy’s contemporaries, the admittedly biased Samuel Lysons, questions Boswell’s claim to intimacy with his subject in a letter to none other than his friend Mrs. Piozzi. “It was a shameful thing in Boswell to mention so many foolish things relating to living persons … Bozzy (as he says Johnson called him) is unique” (Piozzi 1989: 178). More explicitly, Lyson criticizes Boswell for having made public so many private, present follies. The printing of such private names is one example of what for Bozzy and Piozzi’s contemporaries was an issue of immense importance: the biographers’ indiscriminate indiscretion in making private details of Johnson’s life - and those of other people - public. Wolcot may have emphasized Johnson’s contractions in order to epitomize how his biographers inappropriately made private material public in print.
The presence of contracted names in print may also have violated other late-eighteenth-century stylistic conventions. Studies by Biber and Finegan (1989), Fitzmaurice (1998), and McIntosh (1998) have observed and explained how some registers of written English acquired even more traits of “written-ness” during the eighteenth century. The infiltration of written language by stereotypically oral contractions seems to have been regarded as particularly impolite in this period. Indeed, the construction of Johnson by Boswell and his co-editor Edmond Malone (Boswell 1961: xiv-xxi) also involved removing “informal syntax and inelegant phraseology” as they transformed Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides for publication (xxi). The manuscript journal contains some contractions in representations of direct speech; not all of these contractions survive in the printed edition. For example, We’re on a “tatter[ed] … leaf” of Boswell’s manuscript was emended to We are in the printed edition:
(3) I remember one day, when Tom Davies was telling that Dr. Johnson said, “We are [MS: “We’re”] all in labour for a name to Goldy’s play[.]” (Boswell 1961: 297, 433; Boswell 1785: 385)
A comparison of a few pages of the manuscript journal with the printed edition establishes that other contractions were cut, in the speech of Johnson and others. For instance,
(9) Honest Mr. Macqueen said of me, “His governor’s gone to bed” (Boswell 1961: 160).
Honest Mr M’Queen observed that I was in high glee, “my governour being gone to bed” (Boswell 1785: 214).
(10) I took the liberty to observe to Mr. Johnson that he [always eat fish with his fingers]. “Yes”, said he; “but it is because I am short-sighted, and afraid of bones; for which reason I’m not fond of eating many kinds of fish, because I must take my fingers” (Boswell 1961: 165).
“… I am not fond of eating many kinds of fish, because I must use my fingers” (Boswell 1785: 247)
(11) He answered, “I’d have it both first and last” (Boswell 1961: 167).
He answered, “I would have it both first and last” (Boswell 1785: 249).
(12) Mr. Johnson said, “’Tis a good book in general, but a foolish one as to particulars” (Boswell 1961: 168).
… “It is a good book in general, but a foolish one in particulars” (Boswell 1785: 251).
I must stress that not all contractions recorded in Boswell’s journal were expanded for print:
(13) JOHNSON: “Nay, don’t give us India” (Boswell 1961: 168).
JOHNSON: “Nay, don’t give us India” (Boswell 1785: 251).
Removing some of the contractions seems to have taken priority over what Boswell stressed was the “minute accuracy” of his Tour (Goyette 1979: 312). For in the later eighteenth century, contractions might signify that their user was “low”, and perhaps also a social climber. Haugland’s survey of the eighteenth-century distribution of reduced forms, contractions like don’t and it’s, notes that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century these forms “were being established as legitimate variants even in scholarly prose” (1995:179), but their proscription by Addison and Swift, and by later prescriptivists, resulted in their subsequent disappearance from many genres (1995:180). Prescriptivists condemned contractions - sometimes for no reason, sometimes on the grounds that they were harsh-sounding, colloquial, even vulgar (Haugland 1995: 174-176). Haugland identifies Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776) as “among the few” works on language that “do not approve of the rigid anti-variationist attitude”. Although Campbell finds some contractions “intolerably bad” or “vulgarism[s]”, he argues that other elisions “improve … the sound”; moreover, he argues that contractions are “’natural’” in conversation and should be “allowable in writings in the familiar style” (Haugland 1995: 176). However, in the same decade some book reviewers branded users of contractions as vulgar and uneducated, even when the contractions appeared in representations of speech in such `conversational’ genres as comedies and trial transcripts. Contractions like don’t and won’t certainly appeared in print in originally oral genres like comedies: Sheridan’s comedy The rivals (1775) contains many types and tokens of contractions of not (Brainerd 1989) despite many types having been condemned decades earlier (Haugland 1995: 165, 172ff). A few book reviewers attributed contractions like don’t and won’t to such hyperbolically stereotypical social climbers as the “hair dresser”, the “valet”, and especially the “milliner”. Hugh Kelly’s play The school for wives (1774) is criticized for its contractions, for putting “the affected style of a mincing milliner, or a coxcomb valet, into the mouths of people who are supposed to have enjoyed the advantages of education” (Woodfall 1774). In 1770, a reviewer of a supposedly verbatim transcription of the Grosvenor divorce trial complains about “inaccuracies” and indeed “vulgarisms” in the “speeches” of “the learned and eloquent speakers”. For instance, Lord Mansfield’s “vile contraction don’t for do not” “would be rather expected from the mouth of a hairdresser, or a milliner’s apprentice”. The vulgarity of the contraction is underscored by its juxtaposition in the review with a glaring grammatical error, the confusion of lay and lie: the reviewer “cannot attribute” “this vulgarism” to Lord Mansfield, the alternative being “the poor people who write paragraphs for the news-papers” (Anon. 1770: 332). It is important to remember that there is often little correlation between negative attitudes towards variants and their actual distribution: comments like these cannot, of course, be used as evidence for actual milliners’ usage, but merely confirm that politeness was being configured as writtenness in the 1770s, as Fitzmaurice and McIntosh have already shown – yet also that there were at least some writers who did not equate the use of contractions with a lack of education. Moreover, lords might use whatever linguistic variant they liked: it is a truism that socially superior speakers ignored prescriptive rules followed by the socially mobile or marginal. How did educated writers like Johnson use contractions in writing and in speech? A study of Johnson’s contractions, as represented by Boswell in manuscript and in print, invites investigation.
3. Dr. Johnson’s low language
Boswell’s printed account had also omitted a passage in his original manuscript in which Dr.
Johnson swore; in Boswell’s manuscript, this passage immediately followed the “Bozzy”
anecdote discussed in (3) above:
(14) MS: On Monday we had a dispute at the Captain’s whether sand-hills could be fixed. Mr. Johnson said, “How the devil can you do it?” but instantly took himself: “How can you do it?” I never before heard him use such a phrase. (Boswell 1961: 433)
Although the point of Boswell’s manuscript anecdote is that Dr. Johnson does not habitually use such phrases, the juxtaposition of Johnson’s swearing and his contractions unintentionally brands Johnson as “low”.
The association of Johnson with contractions and invective might seem uncharacteristic of the man who even in his own day was associated with a register that was not only formal but overly so:
(15) It is true, that his words are now and then too gigantesque for familiar letters: he talks of waters, whose stream is obstructed by protuberances, and exasperated by reverberations, but pompous words were natural to him, as well in conversation as in The Rambler. He said every thing as he thought, and always in his own style (Anon. 1788c: 326).
However, Johnson’s association with low language was not incompatible with his lavish Latinity. The excessive and inflexible use of what an earlier age called “inkhorn” terms was often the sign of a social climber: for the sixteenth-century Thomas Wilson, it is the “vnlearned” who “Latin their tongues” (quoted in Millward 1996: 229-230). The English Review links his “sesquipedalia verba” with his professional beginnings as a boys’ schoolteacher (Anon. 1786b: 255). Johnson was the son of a provincial bookseller and, until he received his royal pension, a grub street writer. Hudson (1998) continues to remind us how innovative Johnson was to include “low” words in his folio dictionary, and of how ungentlemanly Johnson was himself, in person as well as birth. McIntosh’s study of “Boswell’s Artistry” reminds us that Johnson, a fine stylist, used low words in conversation sometimes to “driv[e] home a point”, sometimes for “shock value” . Boswell removed many of these low words when editing the Life, as Mizuno has demonstrated (1991). However, he retained some low words, thereby preserving “Johnson’s humanity”, McIntosh argues, and securing his own “principal achievement as biographer” (1995: 142-143).
Johnson’s poor manners were well known to his contemporaries. In his memoirs, Johnson’s younger contemporary Wraxall (1751-1831) sincerely acknowledges Johnson’s “beautiful compositions” but emphasizes and elaborates on his
(16) rugged exterior and garb, his uncouth gestures, his convolutions and distortions … the rude and dogmatical manner in which he delivered his opinions and decisions on every point …the usages of polished life imposed a very inadequate restraint on his expressions, or his feelings.
Wraxall’s description culminates in Johnson’s rudeness, exemplified in his name-calling: opponents are “rascals”, “dogs”, “blockheads”, “scoundrels” (1904: 88-89). Contemporary reviews noted that memoirs like Piozzi’s further publicized details of Johnson’s often poor conduct, “for which he deserved to be expelled from society”. The Critical Review (1786), for instance, asserts that “there can be no excuse” for Johnson’s inappropriate manners:
(17) The great attention which was always paid to him, added a severity and despotism to his manner, which seem to have been always void either of grace or elegance. For many of the speeches which Mrs. Piozzi has recorded, he deserved to be expelled from society, if he had not a power of compensating for his errors, by the moral rectitude of his life, and the chearing salutary tendency of his precepts … For conduct of this kind there can be no excuse” (Anon. 1786a: 275-276).
Johnson’s conduct was epitomized by his comparison of two of God’s creations—Hell and Scotland, “a vile country” (Anon 1786a: 275-276). The English Review of Piozzi’s Anecdotes devoted a full page not only to Johnson’s hatred of “whole societies of men” (Whigs, the Scotch, the French), but also to his habitual ridicule of his friends and family. “He professed to love his mother. One day she called him a puppy. `Pray,’ says this dutiful and loving son, `Do you know what they call a puppy’s mother?’” This review links Johnson’s “wit” with lowness: “He knew he could not shine by elegant wit and polished manners, and therefore cultivated the easier graces of the vulgar, ill nature, insolence, rusticity, and barbarity” (Anon. 1786b: 258-259). The Edinburgh Magazine, perhaps unsurprisingly, reviews Piozzi’s Anecdotes as an utter failure as a panegyric, as they reveal Johnson to be “the very quintessence of ill-nature and pedantry” (Anon 1786c: 213). Bozzy’s and Piozzi’s books were full of many other Johnsonian insults, for Johnson in life was not polite. So it is not surprising that Pindar should call to our attention Dr. Johnson’s fondness for contractions: the contractions recalled Johnson’s unmannerly misanthropy as well as Boswell’s over-familiarity. But contracted names like Bozzy and Lanky had one final function. A review of Piozzi’s Letters infers from nicknames like “Queeney”, Johnson’s “little infantine appellation” for her eldest daughter, “that he possessed a good and affectionate heart” (Anon. 1788a). That some reviewers emphasized Johnson’s misanthropy explains why it was necessary for others to emphasize his good heart.
4. Mrs Piozzi’s “colloquial barbarisms”
Dr. Johnson had lived in Mrs. Piozzi’s household when she was married to Henry Thrale: in 1786, Piozzi implicitly identifies her conversations with Johnson as the source of her authority as a biographer, asserting that “my acquaintance with him consisted in little else than talking” (quoted in Parke 1997: 29). However, her recent second marriage to an Italian musician had publicly estranged her from her own family as well as from Johnson. Mrs Piozzi now had to assert her intimacy with Johnson as she published what were the first of a number of monographs. These included her Johnsonian Anecdotes and Letters, published in 1786 and 1788 respectively; her travelogue of 1789, Observations and reflections made in the course of a journey through France, Italy, and Germany; her British Synonymy of 1794; and her 1801 Retrospection: or a review of the most striking and important events, characters, situations and their consequences which the last 1800 years have presented to the view of mankind.
It is well known that Mrs. Piozzi used a deliberately colloquial and idiosyncratic style for all of these books (see McCarthy 1985: 196ff). McCarthy’s fine literary study (1985: 196-209) persuasively describes Piozzi as a pioneer in applying women’s conversational style in print. McCarthy describes other ways in which Piozzi, who could have chosen to write like a man, artfully exploited the associations of the more feminized register of conversational, colloquial language with which any woman writer was bound to be associated anyway. “The mode of drawing room conversation” was “intimate, social, friendly”; it was also, by association with “Bluestocking conversation”, an entirely authoritative and appropriate medium for the dissemination of learning (McCarthy 1985: 204-208). McCarthy observes that British Synonymy, Piozzi’s potentially transgressive exercise in linguistic criticism, was framed as a deferential exercise in “direct[ing] the choice of phrases in familiar talk” (1985: 178ff). Berglund (1999) has observed that Piozzi also exploited the apparently desultory, conversational structure of her British Synonymy: or, an Attempt at Regulating the Choice of Words in Familiar Conversation (1794) in order to make political points about the French Revolution. Not all women writers wrote in “familiar” language, of course. McCarthy describes Hannah More’s “career triumph” as the result of “neutering” her style (1985: 201).
Hester Piozzi’s contemporaries criticized her style as not only inappropriately colloquial for “collected remarks” or “biography”, but as too “vulgar” or “barbar[ous]” even for “the conversation of every elegant and well-educated woman”. Anonymously reviewing her Anecdotes of Johnson, Charles Burney enumerated “vulgarisms”:
(18) [the final prose sketch], like the rest of the book, is confused and desultory, and is written with a negligence of method and arrangement, which ill suits with the true spirit of biography” ¼ ‘The style, indeed, of the whole is unequal, sometimes elegant, forcible, and decorated, at other times inaccurate, ungraceful, and degraded by the introduction of vulgarisms: Said I, and said he occur too frequently, and we are wearied with the inelegant usage of the particle how, instead of that, which deforms almost every tenth page. The introduction of the Gallicism one should likewise have been avoided (Burney 1786: 373-383)
Similarly, the Critical Review, for instance, complained of the Anecdotes that they were “too often deformed by colloquial barbarisms” (Anon. 1786a: 278); these barbarisms are later exemplified in a review, also in the Critical Review of her Observations with words like such, so, somehow, and one (Anon. 1789b: 104):
(19) The style which we might have praised in letters is disgusting in the author of more collected remarks; and the inaccuracies which are excusable in these unpremeditated effusions, must be condemned in what appears to be a more serious attempt … Every thing is at times so elegant—and it is so disgusting … Then it is such; and this little word, without the corresponding part of the sentence, is repeated many times in a few lines. Again, it is very often somehow … At another time, one is wholly predominant . Really, Madam, one cannot read ten lines without feeling somehow such disgust so: one is tempted to lay down a work, where one meets with so many inelegancies, such colloquial barbarisms, which one must always feel somehow unpleasant. … these little errors, these little offences against what ought to distinguish even the conversation of every elegant and well-educated woman. (Anon. 1789b: 104)
Moreover, Piozzi’s Johnson has subject matter and style that are much more informal than Boswell’s Johnson, despite Wollstonecraft’s later accusation that Piozzi aped Johnson’s high style (McCarthy 1985: 197-198). Korshin’s essay on “Johnson’s conversation” compares the extent to which Boswell and Piozzi “craft” the raw material of Johnson’s speech (1991: 182).
Colloquial, familiar language might be exempt from certain grammar rules: for instance, in a now well-known passage, Lowth asserts that preposition stranding, though inappropriate to “the solemn and elevated style”, “suits very well with the familiar style in writing” (Lowth 1762: 127-128; see Percy 1997b: 134; Tieken forthcoming). Contemporary book reviewers’ comments, positive and negative, remind us of how easily familiar or informal language could be deemed incorrect, undignified, or vulgar: not every writer succeeded in combining the colloquial and the correct. James Ferguson, a popular science and astronomy writer from the late 1750s onward, exemplifies the perceived link between familiar language and incorrect language. Ferguson’s popularizations of science were uniformly praised for their “easy and familiar manner” and “easy and perspicuous language” (Rose 1756: 236), but in his will, drawn up in 1776, he ‘absolutely prohibit[ed] my said sons from selling or giving away or printing any of my manuscripts, because they are not sufficiently correct to bear printing” (Millburn 1988: 251-252). Although Ferguson’s published texts might have been corrected, his anxiety suggests a link between writing that was “familiar” and writing that was subject to linguistic or stylistic criticism. This was certainly the case in the 1780s. A survey of my database of book reviews (see Percy 1997a) ascertains that in the 1780s, the adjective “colloquial” collocated with terms denoting both inaccuracy and vulgarity. There are at least six co-occurrences of “colloquial” with forms of “inaccurate” (Anon. 1785b; Anon. 1787; Gillies 1788b), “incorrect” (Anon. 1785e), or “inelegant” (Anon. 1788f; Anon. 1789); two with forms of “low” (Anon. 1780a; Anon. 1785c), three instances (one applied to Piozzi, Anon. 1786a) of the phrase “colloquial barbarism” (Gillies 1785, 1788), and at least four co-occurrences with forms of “vulgar” (Anon. 1782; Anon. 1783; Anon. 1785d; Gillies 1788b). The description of William Lothian’s style as “low, colloquial, and inaccurate” (Anon. 1780a: 377-378) epitomizes these commonly-held attitudes to colloquial style.
5. Mrs. Piozzi’s style in context
Piozzi’s particular style must have been distinctive, and indeed unique: “Jane Austen refers to it offhand in a passage in which she sees herself as parodying Piozzi’s style and mindset” (Moody 2000) and twice epitomizes it, once with the adverb somehow and once with the antithesis of her “little” concerns with her husband’s “great” ones (Austen 1995:44, 156). McCarthy relates similar observations and objections to Piozzi’s style by Hannah More and Horace Walpole (1985: 61, 197). Yet it is also essential to contextualize Piozzi’s familiar style: Biber and Finegan remind us that although the period’s polite ideal did not embrace orality, “markedly colloquial” styles were widely deployed for a variety of purposes (1989: 513). A “familiar”, “easy” style had its place, and was seemingly not easy to achieve. In 1786, the reviewer of Hannah More’s poems Florio and The bas bleu, or conversation, claims that its style has “a languid flatness” rather than “the easy familiarity requisite in such performances” (Anon 1786d: 263-268). My survey of book reviews in two periodicals of the second half of the eighteenth century, the Monthly and the Critical Review, identifies language described as “colloquial” or “familiar” in a variety of genres. Reviewers often observed colloquial language in genres with oral origins. Colloquialisms were noted in collections of sermons, for instance. One reviewer acknowledges that the “phrases not wholly suited to printed discourses” in Thomas Gordon’s Plain sermons on practical subjects were appropriate for reaching their intended audience of common people (Hirons 1788: 561-562), but this generous rationalization might reflect the fact that the publication was posthumous—its language already archaic and its author beyond criticism. Book reviewers’ praise of “familiar” styles allow us to identify genres where such a style was desirable—these include works of simple religious instruction and the hot new field of children’s textbooks, where authors (male and female) were criticized for being too formal. In these genres, familiar language indicated the author’s accommodation to his or her audience. In 1776, William Enfield criticizes A father’s instructions to his children for having language “raised above the familiar style of conversation” (184-187). In 1784, Enfield feels that the good advice in School dialogues for boys “is delivered with somewhat too much sententious formality to suit the characters of the piece” (1784:78). School dialogues was written by one of the publisher John Marshall’s lady authors: Marshall obviously felt that the familiar style came naturally to women: the Kilner sisters and Lady Eleanor Fenn wrote many books for him (O’Malley 2000: 27, 40-41).
An informal style was more marked when it conveyed more “learned” content to adults. We have seem that McCarthy persuasively contextualizes the conversational style of Piozzi’s publications in the bluestocking salons, where “women’s language” was an appropriate medium for learned topics and “stood on its strongest ground” (1985: 204). Indeed, Mrs Montagu’s circle does seem to have been associated with the colloquial mode, in print as well as in conversation. In 1760, George Lyttelton, a friend of Montagu, had published Dialogues of the dead, in which political and philosophical issues were discussed in dialogue format; by 1765 a fourth edition with four further dialogues had appeared. Elizabeth Montagu herself had written three of the dialogues, which were published anonymously (Drabble 1985, s.v. Montagu). Owen Ruffhead reviewed both editions in the Monthly Review, where he considered the style and content of the dialogue genre generally and of those in the collection specifically. Although Ruffhead’s reviews of the collections were favourable, the “additional dialogues” being “in no degree inferior to those which precede them”, he doubted “whether the method of dialogue is well adapted to such subjects as require deep investigation” (1765: 366). In 1760 he had discussed the difficulty of excelling in the colloquial style, the latter of which he characterized as more French than English. Ruffhead claimed that “the freedom of [the English] constitution” permitted the English to display their “strength of reasoning, and bold energy of expression”; the French were restricted to “loose, desultory, chit-chat method of writing” (1760: 409-422). By 1765, he was reiterating his previous doubts about desultory didacticism; chatty writing is “better calculated to ridicule error, than to illustrate truth” (1765:366).
Some writers of history also trod a perilous path between the colloquial and the “low”: Piozzi’s Retrospection in 1801 was not the first historical work to be criticized for its tone. Some historians were, however, more successful. In 1788, A short account of the doctrines and practices of the church of Rome is praised for its “clear and familiar style” (Anon. 1788: 580). In 1780, a response to Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman empire is criticized for not being written in a “more easy, close, and familiar manner” (Anon. 1780c: 152-153). The Critical Review describes the “easy, familiar style” of a biography of Pope Clement XIV (Anon. 1776: 79-80). But other historians are taken to task for excessive familiarity. Also in 1780, William Lothian’s History of the United Provinces of the Netherlands is described as having a “low, colloquial, and inaccurate” “style” that does not “aspire at the dignity of historical composition” (Anon. 1780a: 372-378). And William Gordon’s 1788 epistolary history of the United States receives similar condemnation:
(20) The epistolary mode of writing, which is far from being congenial to history, may
perhaps, justify Dr. Gordon in the extreme familiarity of his style, but he sometimes endeavours to embellish it with such ornaments as are utterly incongruous to historical composition …(Anon. 1788b 477-480).
Again, it is important to emphasize the subjectivity of reviewers’ judgements: what the Monthly Review describes as “low and colloquial” in Lothian’s style, is for the Critical “dry and inelegant” (Anon. 1780d 161-166).
Published accounts of travels, perhaps especially epistolary travels (see Smith 1998), often had a familiar style that some reviewers lamented. Dr. Burney related international information skillfully. His Present state of music in Germany, the Netherlands, and United Provinces (1771) has “so pleasing and familiar a manner as to be interesting and intelligible, even to those who do not profess or cultivate music” (Bewley 1773: 212-224). But other writers were apparently less successful. William Sharp’s Rumble from Newport to Cowes in the Isle of Wight (1784) “is written in that familiar style which is composed without much trouble, and read with little pleasure” (Anon. 1784: 312-313). Two competing accounts of an expedition use contrasting styles. In 1789, a reviewer describes the “lofty” style of Nathaniel Portlock’s Voyage round the world as written in reaction to Captain Dixon’s account, “an illustrious specimen of the familiar style” that was “universally disapproved” (Anon. 1789a: 319-324). Also in 1789, the style of Baroness Elizabeth Craven’s Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople (1789) is described by the Critical Review as “sinking to familiar ease, … sometimes colloquial and inelegant” (Anon. 1789: 281). It goes without saying that these judgements are highly subjective: the Monthly described the Baroness’s style as “natural and easy” (Colman 1789: 200-212).
Surveying contemporary reviews of eighteenth-century travel letters, Smith observes that “the most disagreement among reviewers” was generated by the publication of what had been “private … intimate detail[s]” (1998: 91). Indeed, familiar language implicitly intimated the author’s often privileged knowledge of highly private subject matter. Piozzi’s chatty tone reflected not only the orality of much of Johnson’s contact with her, but also her intimacy with him. In the latter respect she was not writing within a specifically female tradition. Women could of course chat about matters genteel: the Critical Review complains about the “easy, often colloquial and vulgar” language of An interesting sketch of genteel life, written in 1782 by “A lady” (Anon. 1782: 234). It is obviously beyond the scope of this paper to survey the styles of earlier collections of anecdotes: one might recall that in the 1760s, the Monthly Review’s William Kenrick had enumerated the linguistic “negligence”, “peculiarities” and “incorrectness” of Horace Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting in England (Kenrick 1764:311-315). But it is important to stress that in the 1780s, a few reviewers complain about the “familiar” or even “gossipy” style of male writers on biographical or political matters. It is debatable whether the contractions like mayn’t and don’t in the 1780 poem Private thoughts on public affairs fall into this category (Anon. 1780b 395-396). The “air of familiarity”, indeed “vulgarity of diction” in Richard Cumberland’s The observer strikes Joseph White in the Monthly Review of 1785 (297-299); the Critical Review notes only the incorrect language concomitant with colloquialism (Anon. 1785: 297-299). Instructions to a statesman, written anonymously in 1784, have an “easy and rather saucy familiarity” for Burney (1784: 70-71) in the Monthly Review. Perhaps more relevant to Piozzi’s style is Joseph Warton’s Essay on the genius and writings of Pope, a work which “abounds … with … literary anecdotes”. The Monthly Review’s Cartwright (1782: 265-271) complains that Warton’s style is “too familiar and gossiping”. Obviously words like “gossiping” blur the distinction between content and style, and there is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence between reviewers’ adjectives (e.g. “familiar”, “colloquial”) and the linguistic features of specific text types. I merely wish to stress that Piozzi was not alone in publicizing biographical information in a style that was deemed to be too “colloquial”.
Piozzi was also not the only prose stylist with an idiosyncratic style; indeed, an early article by Mann considers critical awareness and increasingly “favorable attention” to “singularity in style” in this period (1939: 113-116). Piozzi’s prolific contemporary Philip Thicknesse seems also to have written in a style that was similarly singular and informal, for instance. His Sketch of the Life and Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, Esq. provoked the observation that “Mr. T.’s peculiar, easy, style of writing is too well known to require particular animadversion” (Anon. 1788e), and his Memoirs and Anecdotes of Philip Thicknesse the comment that “Everything from the pen of Captain Thicknesse, is peculiarly his own: free, animated, and singular” (Anon. 1789c). Any attempt to assess the originality of Piozzi’s idiosyncratic style would require a systematic study of the styles of eighteenth-century English Anecdotes. However, it is interesting to contrast these reviewers’ admittedly grudging descriptions of Thicknesse’s style with other reviewers’ enumeration of Piozzi’s “vulgarisms” and “barbarisms”. One might also recall the reception of the stylistically idiosyncractic Tristram Shandy in the 1760s and – despite some negative reviews (e.g. Smollett 1761: 314-317) -- some subsequent imitations of the Shandean style (e.g. by George Keate, described by Griffiths 1779: 111-117). Under what circumstances might a female author write in her very own voice and be favourably reviewed?
In conclusion, reviewers’ deployment of adjectives like “colloquial” and of recurring collocations between the “colloquial”, the “low” and “vulgar”, and the “inaccurate” cannot be taken as representative of any fixed linguistic or stylistic reality, but they do suggest that there were some trends in progress that corpus studies might fruitfully illuminate. For instance, a corpus study might investigate whether genres like history and biography were, as reviewers suggest, incorporating more oral elements or even drifting towards more oral norms by the 1780s, thereby further refining what Biber and Finegan have described as an overall pattern of drift towards more oral styles in works intended for “a broad popular audience” (1989: 512-514). A corpus study might also attempt to determine whether there were specific linguistic features in a text that correlated with its being described as “familiar”.
However, even a “micro’ study of specific authors and texts can complement what corpus studies might illuminate about causes and contexts of stylistic variation. This paper has shown how two authors exploited the not always positive connotations of contractions and colloquial language in order to cast more favourable light upon their subject, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and upon themselves as authors and authorities. Johnson’s rudeness was well known to his contemporaries. Contracted names like Queeney attest to “surly Sam’s” capacity for warmth and intimacy, at least with Piozzi in the domestic setting of her first husband’s household. And just as the name of Bozzy testifies to the Scottish writer’s intimacy with Johnson, so too does Piozzi’s familiar style—a not specifically female strategy for signalling authority derived from intimacy with her subject.
Anon. 1770. Review of The whole proceedings at large, in a cause on an action brought by the Right Hon. Richard Lord Grosvenor against his Royal Highness Henry Frederick Duke of Cumberland, for criminal conversation with Lady Grosvenor Tried before the Right Hon. William Lord Mansfield, in the Court of King’s Bench, on the 5th of July, 1770. Containing the evidence verbatim as delivered by the witnesses; with all the speeches and arguments of the counsel and of the court faithfully taken in short hand by a barrister, by Henry Frederick Duke of Cumberland, and Richard Lord Grosvenor. . Monthly Review, 43.321‑322.
Anon. 1776. Review of The life of Pope Clement XIV, by Louis‑Antoine Caraccioli. Critical Review, 42.79‑80.
Anon. 1780a. Review of The history of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, by William Lothian. Monthly Review, 62.372‑378.
Anon. 1780b. Review of Private thoughts on public affairs. Critical Review, 49.395‑396.
Anon. 1780c. Review of The progress and establishment of Christianity, in reply to the fifteenth chapter of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, by George Laughton. Critical Review, 50.152‑153.
Anon. 1780d. Review of The history of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, by William Lothian. Critical Review, 49.161‑166.
Anon. 1782. Review of An interesting sketch of genteel life, by A lady. Critical Review, 53.234.
Anon. 1783. Review of Lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres, by Hugh Blair. Critical
Anon. 1784. Review of A rumble from Cowes to Newport in the Isle of Wight, by William Sharp. Critical Review, 57.312‑313.
Anon. 1785. Review of The observer, by Richard Cumberland. Critical Review, 59.297‑299.
Anon. 1785a. "An Admirer At Mr Boswell...". December 14, 1785. Public Advertiser.
Anon. 1785b. Review of Sermons, by Rev. Henry Downes. Critical Review, 59.62-65.
Anon. 1785c. Review of Dialogues concerning the ladies, by Joseph Towers. Critical Review,
Anon. 1785d. Review of The favourites of Felicity, by John Potter. Critical Review, 60.233.
Anon. 1785e. Review of The village school, by Dorothy Kilner. Critical Review, 60.240.
Anon. 1786a. Review of Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., during the last twenty years of his life, by Hester Lynch Piozzi. Critical Review, 61.273‑279.
Anon. 1786b. Review of Anecdotes of the late Dr. Johnson, during the last twenty years of his life, by Hesther Lynch Piozzi, by Hester Lynch Piozzi. English Review, 7.254‑259.
Anon. 1786c. Review of Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, during the last twenty years of his life, by Hesther Lynch Piozzi, by Hester Lynch Piozzi. Edinburgh Magazine, 3.213‑218.
Anon. 1786d. Review of Florio, a tale for fine gentlemen and fine ladies; and the bas bleu, or conversation, by Hannah More. Critical Review, 61.263‑268.
Anon. 1786e. Review of The character of Jesus Christ: a sermon. Critical Review, 61.151.
Anon. 1787. Review of May day, or anecdotes of Miss Lydia Lively. Critical Review, 64.396.
Anon. 1788. Review of A short account of the doctrines and practices of the Church of Rome, by Rev. Daniel de Beaufort. Critical Review, 66.580.
Anon. 1788a. Review of Letters to and from the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. ... published from the original MSS in her possession, by Hester Lynch Piozzi, by Hester Lynch Piozzi. Critical Review, 65.260.
Anon. 1788b. Review of The history of the rise, progress, and establishment of the independence of the United States of America, by William Gordon. Critical Review, 66.477‑480.
Anon. 1788c. Review of Letters to and from the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. ... published from the original MSS in her possession, by Hester Lynch Piozzi. Monthly Review, 78.324‑331.
Anon. 1788d. Review of Sermons and discourses on several occasions. Critical Review, 66.390‑393.
Anon. 1788e. Review of A sketch of the life and paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, Esq., by Philip Thicknesse. Monthly Review, 79.546.
Anon. 1788f. Review of A free translation of the preface to Bellendenus, by Samuel Parr.
Critical Review, 65.76.
Anon. 1789. Review of A journey through the Crimea to Constantinople, by Elizabeth Craven, Baroness. Critical Review, 67.281.
Anon. 1789a. Review of A voyage round the world, but more particularly to the north west coast of America, by Nathaniel Portlock. Monthly Review, 81.319‑324.
Anon. 1789b. Review of Observations and reflections made in the course of a journey through France, Italy, and Germany, by Hester Lynch Piozzi. Critical Review, 68.104.
Anon. 1789c. Review of Memoirs and anecdotes of Philip Thicknesse, by Philip Thicknesse. Monthly Review, 81.374.
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0 I am most grateful for the research support that this project has received from the SSHRC of Canada, the Work-Study Plan (University of Toronto), and the Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Toronto. I would like to thank the many students who worked on this project, indexing reviews, entering records into the database, and doing biographical research on authors and reviewers: they are listed on my web site at http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy. I would also like to thank Steven Lee and Dana Snell for their contributions.
 The italics are in the source. The OED (s.v. “admire”, v., sense 1b) has examples of admire at through the nineteenth century.
 I would like to thank Steven Lee for alerting me to the content and structure of the entry for 14 October 1773, in both the manuscript and the published version.
 This and all subsequent attributions from the Monthly Review are from Nangle (1934).
 I would like to thank Dana Snell for bringing this article to my attention.
 This attribution is from Basker (1998: 263).