The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir
by Michael Bundock, Yale University Press, 282 pages
Despite what the word “lexicography” may bring to mind — isolated turrets, endless days spent collecting and collating — dictionary-making has a fascinating history. There have been professors and madmen, feuds (descriptivists versus prescriptivists), and countless scandals (Webster’s Third New International
Dictionary defined “ain’t”). Even today, when headlines announce words newly added to the dictionary, a healthy number of commenters giddily bemoan the state of English — a sure indication that lexicography is anything but an antiquated art.
So when a new biography emerges that features the Godfather of Lexicography himself, 18th-century genius Samuel Johnson — whose definition of a lexicographer as a “harmless drudge” remains a standard of brilliant humility — readers have good reason to expect a wild ride. In The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir, there are indeed plenty of rivalries, along with burned diary entries, tossedoff insults, and spiky descriptions that would likely get a stamp of approval from Johnson’s satiric contemporaries.
Yet what distinguishes Michael Bundock’s book is not its hijinks but its illuminating scholarship. The research that Bundock, a director of Dr. Johnson’s House Trust, has done provides insight into Johnson’s nature, certainly, but more crucially, it offers a close study of a man who has long been a supporting character in depictions of Johnson’s world.
For more than three decades, Francis Barber was a member of Johnson’s household. He had spent his early years in Jamaica, where he was a slave — then named Quashey — on a sprawling sugar plantation. In 1750, when he was about seven or eight, Barber came to London, a city where less than 1 percent of the population was black in the late 18th century. In Jamaica, by contrast, the young boy had been one of 110,000 slaves on the island. The entire population of Jamaica was 120,000. “Quashey was now,” for the first time, “a black person in a white society,” Bundock writes.
Barber had accompanied his owner, Col. Bathurst, to England. The colonel’s son, a friend of Johnson’s, eventually determined that Barber should be the lexicographer’s servant. Barber became Johnson’s assistant, sometime-nurse, and attendant. Johnson provided for Barber’s education, even when Barber was in his late twenties, and the two developed a relationship characterized by mentorship and affection.
Whereas Johnson left volumes of writings for researchers to pore over, primary sources on Barber are comparably sparse and often riddled with hearsay and thinly veiled resentment. (After Johnson left Barber a generous legacy, Barber became a target of jokes, criticism, and coattail rides in the press and even among some of Johnson’s friends. He once had to defend himself against assumptions that he had written a scatology-heavy book about Johnson; the author was, or claimed on the title page to be, “Francis, Barber,” Johnson’s wig-dresser.) Bundock has done an admirable job of using those few writings to create a nuanced portrait.
The Francis Barber we come to know in this biography was smart, dedicated, and resolute. He did not retreat from the action that kept Johnson’s house and city so boisterous. When, for instance, the illtempered head of the household, Anna Williams, ordered Barber around, the “high-spirited young boy” fought back, leading to regular domestic showdowns. One day, either because he was fed up with Mrs. Williams or for some other reason, Barber did something astonishing: He walked out the door.
Bundock speculates that Barber “ceased to think of himself as a slave, and this transformation in his self-understanding” is what prompted him to pick up and head out — first to an apothecary’s household, and then to the navy, where he was a sailor for two years. He came back to work for Johnson after his discharge from the navy, but his adventurous spirit had hardly been curtailed. Throughout his life, he did what may not have been expected of him, whether that meant marrying a white woman or choosing a side in the battle of the Johnson biographers. (Thomas Boswell, author of the pioneering Life of Johnson, crushed the competition.)
As a black servant to a white man who opposed slavery, in a country where the legality of slavery was starting to be challenged but assumptions of European superiority were still commonplace, Barber is a compelling figure as much for his place in 18th-century England as for his character. Bundock also explores the larger context of Barber’s world, discussing the court trials that would end slavery in England and the social world of London’s black community.
Pick up The Fortunes of Francis Barber for its promise of lexicographical and 18th-century antics; read it for the engrossing history it reveals.
— Grace Labatt