It is easy to blame them now. Everybody can see that a saint in beggar’s rags is intrinsically better than a sinner in gold lace. But the principle is one of those which serves us for judging the dead, much more than for regulating our own conduct. Those, at any rate, may throw the first stone at the Horace Walpoles and Chesterfields, who are quite certain that they would ask a modern Johnson to their houses. The trial would be severe. Poor Mrs. Boswell complained grievously of her husband’s idolatry. “I have seen many a bear led by a man,” she said; “but I never before saw a man led by a bear.” The truth is, as Boswell explains, that the sage’s uncouth habits, such as turning the candles’ heads downwards to make them burn more brightly, and letting the wax drop upon the carpet, “could not but be disagreeable to a lady.”
He had other habits still more annoying to people of delicate perceptions. A hearty despiser of all affectations, he despised especially the affectation of indifference to the pleasures of the table. “For my part,” he said, “I mind my belly very studiously and very carefully, for I look upon it that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.” Avowing this principle he would innocently give himself the airs of a scientific epicure. “I, madam,” he said to the terror of a lady with whom he was about to sup, “who live at a variety of good tables, am a much better judge of cookery than any person who has a very tolerable cook, but lives much at home, for his palate is gradually adapted to the taste of his cook, whereas, madam, in trying by a wider range, I can more exquisitely judge.” But his pretensions to exquisite taste are by no means borne out by independent witnesses. “He laughs,” said Tom Davies, “like a rhinoceros,” and he seems to have eaten like a wolf—savagely, silently, and with undiscriminating fury. He was not a pleasant object during this performance. He was totally absorbed in the business of the moment, a strong perspiration came out, and the veins of his forehead swelled. He liked coarse satisfying dishes—boiled pork and veal-pie stuffed with plums and sugar; and in regard to wine, he seems to have accepted the doctrines of the critic of a certain fluid professing to be port, who asked, “What more can you want? It is black, and it is thick, and it makes you drunk.” Claret, as Johnson put it, “is the liquor for boys, and port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” He could, however, refrain, though he could not be moderate, and for all the latter part of his life, from 1766, he was a total abstainer. Nor, it should be added, does he ever appear to have sought for more than exhilaration from wine. His earliest intimate friend, Hector, said that he had never but once seen him drunk.