Magazine article The Spectator

'The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson's Heir', by Michael Bundock - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson's Heir', by Michael Bundock - Review

Article excerpt

The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson's Heir Michael Bundock

Yale, pp.296, £20, ISBN: 9780300207101

We know a great deal about Samuel Johnson and virtually nothing about his Jamaican servant, Francis Barber. The few facts of which we can be certain are these: born into slavery, Barber was aged about seven when his owner, Colonel Richard Bathhurst -- who may, Michael Bundock suggests here, have been his father -- brought him to England in 1750 and placed him in a Yorkshire school. Five years later, on his deathbed, Bathurst bequeathed Barber £12 and his freedom. It was Bathurst's son who introduced Francis, now 12 years old, to Dr Johnson, whose wife had died two weeks earlier. Thus Barber spent his next 30 years in Gough Square, Bolt Court, and Johnson's Court. In 1773 he was joined by his wife, a white woman called Elizabeth Ball who gave birth to four children, two of whom were apparently white themselves, and in 1784, when Johnson died, Barber inherited the bulk of his estate.

Opinions vary as to Barber's character. Mrs Thrale and John Hawkins wrote nastily about his being an undeserving servant and a jealous husband (for which he probably had good reason), but Boswell, like Bundock himself, has only nice things to say about 'good Mr Francis'. While Johnson described black men in general as coming low on the 'human Chain of Beings', he too expressed the highest opinion of Barber, on whom he came increasingly to depend.

Built on this handful of facts and smattering of opinions, The Fortunes of Francis Barber is less a biography than a search for a missing person in which the cavernous gaps are filled with social history. Barber's disappearance is so complete, Bundock suggests, that we cannot even be certain that the Reynolds portrait which graces the cover of the book (reproduced left) is either by Reynolds or of Barber.

Black servants were an 18th-century fashion accessory -- Reynolds had one, too -- but Samuel Johnson cared little for fashion, and nor did he require a man-servant. His house was run by the blind poet, Anna Williams, for whom Barber was an unnecessary irritant. Apart from Miss Williams, the household consisted of Mrs Desmoulins, the widowed daughter of Johnson's godfather, a former prostitute called Poll Carmichael, the destitute quack Dr Levet, and the cat, Hodge.

Johnson himself escaped each week to the sumptuous Streatham home of Mrs Thrale, returning to the menagerie only on Saturday nights. …

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