Strange Bodies(7)
Author:Marcel Theroux


    Caspar brought the unfamiliar smell of money into our house. With him around – leaving aside for the moment the fact that he’d fucked my wife – you were always reminded that we were living through a potlatch of financial excess. Yet instead of feeling that there was something rather disgusting about the amounts Caspar was earning, I always felt that I was at fault. At that moment in history, to be earning as little as I did, after the education I’d had, seemed like a culpable incompetence.

    Hilary said banal things all through the meal, which she barely touched. I think the striking flatness of her personality may simply be the lassitude of someone dwelling constantly in the early stages of starvation. Flushed away by so much colonic hydrotherapy, so etiolated by Bikram yoga that she looked like gristle, she had negated the very plumpness that once made her so attractive. And always the slightly amused glances between them at our unfashionable house and the mess.

    ‘Interior design is not our strong suit,’ I said, cringingly, after dinner as we went through to our front room to drink dessert wine.

    ‘One would never have guessed,’ Caspar said with failed and mechanical irony, raising an amused eyebrow at our bowing MDF shelves and stained sofa.

    Somehow we got onto the subject of education. Caspar and I ended up arguing about grammar schools and the old canard of academic selection. I found myself attacking it in a way that left me shrill and shaky. Caspar was surprised by my vehemence, but then he was probably unaware of the subtext.

    Leonora stayed up after they left listening to music and slipped into bed beside me while I was half asleep. She reached across to me, over the two feet of cold sheets that were made colder by our forlorn matrimonial acceptance that that side of things was just not happening at the moment. She touched my shoulder.

    ‘You’re grinding your teeth again,’ she said.

    I grunted an apology and pretended to sleep.

    ‘What is the matter with you?’ said Leonora. ‘You hardly spoke all evening and then you tear a strip off Caspar for saying something perfectly inoffensive. Behaving weirdly. Sending off for beauty products. Do I have to draw the obvious conclusion?’

    ‘What beauty products?’

    ‘That fancy French face cream on your desk. I thought with your hatred of cliché you would have wanted to avoid anything that smacked of mid-life crisis.’


    from: [email protected]

    to: [email protected]

    subject: Johnsoniana

    date: 25 April 2009 18.06 BST

    Dear Hunter,

    I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you, but soon after our lunch, I fell ill with a mysterious ailment that baffled my doctor but which my dentist says is trench mouth. I’ve finally felt well enough to assess the letters and am attaching a brief report on them. It’s a fairly dry biscuit, I’m afraid, as I’ve used quite a lot of computer analysis to back up some of my assertions, but the results are pretty categorical and I thought I would give you a rough sense of them here.

    Of the letters I examined, four are entirely new. Of those four letters, both stylistic and computer analysis strongly suggest that Johnson is the author. But, as your adviser, I have to say that it would be foolish to part with any money unless there’s an opportunity to carry out a more detailed examination of the letters themselves. It would enable us to clinch the case either way. There are lots of things that would either support or refute J’s authorship – not just the handwriting, but the kind of paper, the postmarks, even whether the letters conform to the conventions of the period which were pretty exacting, partly because of the cost of paper and the expense of postage. I’d be more than happy to do this if you wanted to and were able to arrange it.

    There’s a further wrinkle to this, which I have only glanced at in my formal report, but which I wanted to share with you. As I said, only four of the letters are genuinely new to me, and the contents of three of them are hardly earth-shattering, but the fourth one has – I don’t know exactly how to put it – let’s just say there’s something potentially exciting about it. Here’s the text of it in full. It’s undated, which adds to the mystery in my view.


    You were once so kind as to incourage my hope that you would offer me succour in my hour of dolorous imaginings. I pray that the gulf between us is not so irremeable that you would neglect a promised kindness. The black dog has come upon me. I find myself disordered in my wits. I am deprived of liberty and those who hold me insist that it is for my own good. The bearer of this shall give you directions to try what comfort you may to your most humble servant.

    As I mention in the report, the spelling incourage and the reference to the ‘black dog’ both have precedent in other letters of Johnson, but what’s interesting about this letter is that Johnson seems to have written it in the middle of a mental breakdown. That’s intriguing enough, I think, to make the letter important to his biographers.

    What makes it even more interesting is what I take to be its intended recipient and its likely date of composition. Now forgive me if this is all old hat to you. I know you have read widely in the period, but I’m not sure how much you know of Johnson’s personal life.

    The bulk of Johnson’s extant letters were written in the last twenty or so years of his life when he was corresponding frequently with a woman called Hester Lynch Thrale. Hester Thrale was more than twenty years younger than Johnson. She was in her thirties when she met him and by all accounts very charming, and from what we have of her letters to Johnson, very smart. Johnson clearly loved her – whatever you take the word to mean. And when her husband died, there was a rumour that she and Johnson might marry. Now Johnson, as you know, was a deeply troubled fellow, probably suffered from Tourette’s, definitely struggled with depression, was scarred from childhood scrofula etc. etc. – however much of a literary lion he was, he was hardly a catch for a pretty and wealthy young, or youngish, widow. But what happened next scandalised the whole of London society. Thrale took up with an Italian music teacher called Piozzi and eventually married him. Johnson wrote her a thunderous letter when he heard the news and, to her credit, she fought back with a very dignified letter of her own. They were reconciled eventually, but never recovered the friendship which had clearly been one of the things that brightened Johnson’s life. Johnson died in 1784. It’s arguable, I think, that the loss of Hester Thrale’s friendship hastened his death.

    Again, I apologise if all this is familiar to you, but I repeat it because it seems to me that the letter fits into that late period of Johnson’s life, some time after that rift had opened up between himself and Hester Thrale.

    The potential importance of this letter makes me, however, suspicious. I’d like to know more about its provenance – are there more?! – and if possible see the original before I give it a clean bill of health.




    My eagerness to establish the authenticity of Hunter’s letters wasn’t entirely motivated by concern for Hunter. That parenthesis – are there more?! – with its jovial and uncharacteristic punctuation concealed a hope so profound that I almost couldn’t admit it to myself. It was a silver cord tying me to the ethereal forms of my childhood dreams.

    For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an academic – even before I knew such a word existed. Something with the flavour of old books and libraries, ink, index cards and the silent ingestion of pure knowledge must have been marked on my consciousness at birth, the way a green sea turtle is imprinted with the topographical sense of the beach where it hatched and returns there to lay eggs as an adult.

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