The Ghosts of Gough Square


LONDON is a marvelous place. One can turn a sharp corner or pass under an arch, and in an instant find one’s self in the country. Fine old trees are growing on well-kept lawns, the birds are twittering, the noise of the city is distant and forgotten; in an instant one has passed from the turmoil of the twentieth century into the calm of the eighteenth.

Another thing. London is a city of ghosts; the people one sees are not important, they are merely shadows: the actualities are the people one can see only with the help of a little imagination; it does not require much, the settings are so perfect.

Climb Ludgate Hill, for example, and as you approach St. Paul’s, swing round to your left, make a turn or two and get lost, and you will stumble upon the Dean’s Garden. It’s a lovely spot. There, right in the heart of London, only a stone’s throw from the great cathedral of which it is a part, is a quiet old-world garden, and facing it is a row of red-brick houses beautifully tempered with age. In the largest of these houses lives the Dean, in just such rural luxury as a prince of the Church should, who is the head of an immense and costly ecclesiastical establishment, the foundations of which go deep down into history. But Dean Inge—the Gloomy Dean, as he is called — is not, as might be thought, a ‘rural dean’; I am quite sure, for I asked him the question one evening when I sat next to him at a dinner, but in answer to my rather flippant question he merely looked sadly down his nose, seemingly heavily packed with a cold, and replied, ‘No.’ I was tempted to inquire whether a rural dean is the same thing as a common or garden dean, but jesting with a great dignitary of the Church of England is apt to prove a serious business, and I lost the best opportunity I ever had of discovering what a ‘rural dean’ is; I only know that they grow them in London, and probably in out-of-theway places.

Speaking of church dignitaries, I never make much progress with them — I never did. There is a legend in my family that at the age of four I was sent into a parlor to be blessed of a bishop, for I had ecclesiastical bringing-up. After the blessing I turned and, regarding the bishop doubtfully, remarked, ‘I never liked bishops,’ and then added as an afterthought, ‘nor pliecemens.’

So early did I resent any form of authority, and this characteristic has lengthened and strengthened and thickened with years.

But Dean Inge is only one of the inhabitants of his house and garden: Dean Milman is just as real to me, although he died years ago. In life he wrote plays, and good ones too, rather to the scandal of the clergy, and finally when he settled down he devoted himself to the study of history rather than to the duties of deaning — whatever they may be. I wish for his greatness’ sake that I could summon the ghost of Dean Swift in this garden, but he put his money on the wrong horse, politically, and only became Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, a very different matter. There was, of course, Dean Donne, but that was several centuries ago.

The story goes that a letter was once addressed to Mr. Smith, Number 1, London, and that it was delivered at Apsley House, at Hyde Park Corner, the town residence of the Duke of Wellington: that being, in the opinion of the Post Office, the beginning of things, the Number One of London. Now, were I commissioned to deliver a letter so addressed, I think I should look round for a residence in a corner of the circle — or, more properly, the oval — surrounding St. Paul’s Cathedral, and if finally I gave up looking for a corner in a circle I should ask to be directed to the Dean of St. Paul’s, he certainly being Number One at this end of London. And having delivered my letter and being told, as I should be, that there was no answer, I should walk westward, loiteringly, looking for other equally charming backwaters, for one of the intoxicating joys of London is the unexpectedness of one’s linds; and if I failed to stumble upon another Dean’s Garden I might come upon another fine old house, also in its garden, the house of the Master of the Temple. Who the present Master is I do not know; but if the old Master were alive, Ainger, I should certainly go in and have a chat with him, for I had a pleasant correspondence years ago with him about Charles Lamb. Before E. V. Lucas came along with his learning, Canon Ainger was the accepted authority upon everything relating to the greatest of English essayists. And threading my way back to the Strand I should certainly pause for a moment, on the other side of the Temple Church, at the grave of Oliver Goldsmith. He died in debt and was buried here, rather in a hurry one night, in order that his body might not be seized by his creditors, and the grave was not marked for some time, for the same reason. Poor Goldy! I am afraid John Filby, your tailor, from whom you had your famous bloom-colored suit, was among them. Every little court and alley in this part of London has its colony of ghosts, and wandering among them I should certainly, sooner or later, stumble upon Gough Square.

Gough Square is not too easy to find. I usually enter it by Wine Office Court — in which is located the Cheshire Cheese, that famous eating-place which became firmly identified with Dr. Johnson only after his death — because I like to pass, and frequently enter, the one quaint old tavern which remains exactly as most London taverns were a century or two ago, and because tradition says that Goldsmith lived in this court when he wrote The Vicar of Wakefield.

Reaching the top of this narrow channel, and turning sharply to the left, one faces the famous house, Number 17 — the house in which Dr. Johnson lived for ten years, from 1748 to 1759, during which he compiled the greater part of the Dictionary, wrote innumerable Ramblers and The Vanity of Human Wishes; from which he dispatched his smashing letter to Lord Chesterfield, and to which he returned, ‘unshaken as the monument,’ after the failure of his play, Irene. This is the house, too, in which his wife died and in which, in all likelihood, he wrote Rasselas. It is not an amusing fiction, but I quite agree with the judgment of Christopher North that it ‘is a noble performance, in design and in execution,’ and that ‘never were the expenses of a mother’s funeral more gloriously defrayed by a son than the funeral of Samuel Johnson’s mother by the price of Rasselas, written for the pious purpose of laying her head decently and honorably in the dust.’ Get someone with a good voice to read to you the opening paragraph.

Thomas Carlyle, who when he died was likened to Dr. Johnson, — though this, to me, seems profanation, — was one of the first to make a pious pilgrimage to the Gough Square house, which he discovered, he says, ‘not without labor and risque.’ This was in 1832, and ever since that time it has been more sought and visited than any similar place in London, though when its present owner bought it some years ago it had fallen on very evil days indeed. It is no small honor to have secured and restored, and for many years maintained at his own expense, so delightfully haunted a house as 17 Gough Square: that distinction belongs to my friend Cecil Harmsworth.

In Dr. Johnson’s day Gough Square was a genteel, indeed one authority says it was a fashionable, neighborhood; certainly it was the most dignified residence the Doctor ever had, and of all the many houses in which he lived it is the only one which is known and spared to us. He took it, it may be remembered, when the publishers had agreed to pay him fifteen hundred and odd pounds for compiling his Dictionary, which he thought a generous sum, and lie used it as his residence and workshop. lie was probably fixed in his determination to become a householder in this particular location by the convenience of being near his printer, William Strahan, who was one of the first partners in the firm of Messrs. Eyre and Spottiswoode, which eminent firm still continues to flourish in premises not far off. The house dominates the square, which is not in itself imposing — a small paved parallelogram not much frequented now except by members of the printing-trade who work in the neighborhood.

But let us pause for a moment, and see if we are as alone in the square as we seem to be. Is t here not a shabby man walking toward the door from under a near-by arch ? Yes, and it must be Robert Lovett, the ‘humble practitioner of physic’ who lived with Johnson and whose patients were recruited from among the very poor. He married a streetwalker, it will be remembered, much to Johnson’s amazement, who said, ‘The marvels of that alliance make commonplace the occurrences in the Arabian Nights.’ And the old lady with him, who moves a little uncertainly — that would be blind Mrs. Williams, another pensioner. And that courtly gentleman who enters the square from the northeast corner, who carries an ear trumpet into which talks, excitedly, a small man with never-tobe-forgotten eyes. What! you don’t know who they are? That, sir, is Sir Joshua Reynolds, and with him is David Garrick; and that curious-looking man who has just entered the square by the way we came, can that be Oliver Goldsmith? No doubt of it, for Dr. Johnson is giving a party tonight and if we wait long enough we shall see probably Mr. Cave and Dr. Hawkesworth, and perhaps Lord Southwell and the Earl of Orrery. And after the Dictionary has been published and the money spent, and the Doctor is poorer than ever, — what were 1575 pounds spread over eight years and paying for the hire of six amanuenses? came, too, to this same door one evening two scoundrelly-looking men, and arrested the Doctor for debt, so that he was obliged to send a note by his black servant, Frank, to Mr. Richardson, the author of Clarissa, who lived hard by, saying: —

I am obliged to entreat your assistance. I am now under arrest for five pounds eighteen shillings. Mr. Strahan from whom I should have received the necessary help in this case, is not at home and I am afraid of not finding Mr. Millar. If you will be so good as to send me this sum, I will very gratefully repay you, and add it to all former obligations.

I am, Sir,
Your most obedient
and most humble servant
Gough Square, 16 March (1756)

What has become of that letter ? How one would like to own it! How many times more than the debt itself would the letter fetch if it were put up at auction with the Johnsonians of the world bidding? If old Samuel Richardson had no other fame, he deserves to be remembered for having come to the rescue of Dr. Johnson when he was arrested for debt. Well might the Doctor have written in that house those two famous lines in The Vanity of Human Wishes:

There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail —
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.


The house in Gough Square is a substantial brick building of three stories, a basement, and an attic, and seems to date from the time of Queen Anne: it suggests comfort, if not luxury; indeed I think if I were offered a house in the ‘city’ to live in, and could not persuade either the Gloomy Dean or the Master of the Temple to vacate his mansion in my favor, that my next choice would be the Johnson house in Gough Square, especially if I could turn the square into a garden and transplant a few trees. At night not a sound is to be heard, for London is the quietest city in the world; occasionally a strayed reveler from the Johnson Club, who has been dining in the attic, lets out an uproarious laugh: I know, for I have often joined in these parties, but more frequently I have entered the seemingly deserted square during my midnight rambles. Then it is that the ghosts of Gough Square walk.

Let us enter the house. Raise the knocker and wake the dead. Perhaps the Doctor will come to the door, poker in hand, ready to defend himself, as he did one night when his friends Topham Beauclerk and Bennet Langton, out on a frisk, knocked him up in the middle of the night, when, discovering who it was, he joined them and they rambled about until morning — and London mornings do not come with the sun, it will be remembered. But more likely we shall knock on that door about tea-time and the chain will be drawn, and a lady, either an old one, Mrs. Dyble, or her daughter, Mrs. Rowell, will open the door and bid you welcome. I urge you to be on your best intellectual behavior, for these ladies are not the mere parrots that one too frequently meets in old houses and museums, but excellent Johnsonians, as several members of the Johnson Club have reason to know. Perhaps if you are very nice to them, and can pass your Johnson examination creditably, they will secure Mr. Harmsworth’s permission for you to give a little tea to some of your friends in one of the rooms, and will attend to the details for you, and very charmingly, too. It was Mr. Harmsworth’s idea that there was to be as little as possible of the museum about this house. As he once said to me: ‘In a year I could fill it full to overflowing with trash. I don’t want to do that. A few prints, a few pictures, a few books, a few autographs, and as few show-cases as possible.’ It is a good resolution; I hope his successors will stick to it.

But to return to the front door: as it closes, your attention will be drawn to the curious bolt and the reason for it explained to you, and then perhaps you will be permitted to descend the winding stairs into the kitchen with its great beams and roomy fireplaces. It stretches under the entire house, and one may ‘presume’ a jack, a spit, or whatever gear may be required for the preparation of food on the generous scale of Dr. Johnson’s hospitality.

Returning to the first floor, you will observe a small room on either side of the hall, but before entering either of them note the winding staircase which leads above and below. The substantial balustrades are quite a feature of the house; the guidebooks say they are of oak, but actually they are of pine, and have been preserved, I suppose, — for they are original and in good condition, — by countless coats of paint. Think how many and what hands have rested upon them. Think how often these stairs must have creaked with the weight of the great Doctor. Perhaps before you go to the second floor you will care to enter the ‘powderingcloset’ in the north room to have your wig powdered and made presentable — that’s what that closet in the corner was used for; and gradually you will work your way to the attic. I never enter it without thinking of Le Gallienne’s lines: ‘To see a place where something was really written, a place where the fire once came down, is a good deal — or nothing at all, as one happens to be constituted.’ And Carlyle was right when he said: ‘Had Johnson left nothing but his Dictionary, one might have traced there a great intellect, a genuine man. There is in it a kind of architectural nobleness; it stands there like a great, solid, squarebuilt edifice, finished symmetrically, complete. You judge that a true builder did it.’

And the Dictionary was born in this room! After great labor! Here the definitions were coined that have given the world so much amusement. ‘Windward’ and ‘Leeward’ and ‘Tory’ and ‘Oats’ and ‘Pension’ and ‘Pastern,’which Johnson defined as the knee of a horse. You remember, of course, his reply to the lady who taxed him with the blunder and asked him how he came to make it: ‘Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.’ What a wonderful book it is! As the little boy said, ‘full of words and all of ‘em different.’

Boswell did not know the Doctor at the time the Dictionary was published; we are therefore forced to fall back upon Sir John Hawkins’s account of his life at this time: —

‘Johnson, who before this time, together with his wife, had lived in obscurity, lodging at different houses in the courts and alleys in and about the Strand and Fleet Street, had, for the purpose of carrying on this arduous work . . . taken a handsome house in Gough Square, and fitted up a room in it with desks and other accommodations for amanuenses, who, to the number of five or six, he kept constantly under his eye. An interleaved copy of Bailey’s dictionary in folio he made the repository of the several articles, and these he collected by incessant reading of the best authors in our language, in the practice whereof his method was to score with a black-lead pencil the words by him selected, and to give them over to his assistants to insert in their places. The books he used for this purpose were what he had in his own collection, a copious but a miserably ragged one, and all such as he could borrow; which latter, if ever they came back to those who lent them, were so defaced as to be scarce worth owning, and yet, some of his friends were glad to receive them and entertain them as curiosities.’

‘Scarce worth owning’! . . . How amazed Sir John — ‘the unclubable Knight,’ Johnson once called him — would be if he could know that to-day any scrap of Johnson or Boswell interest is worth owning and much of it is practically priceless. Yet he only expressed the common opinion of his time.

Johnson died in a house in Bolt Court, only a few yards away, on December 13, 1784; a few months later his books — his literary property, we should now call it— were ‘sold at auction by Mr. Christy in his great room in Pall Mall,’ with this result: ‘In all, six hundred and fifty lots were disposed of, not including one hundred and forty-six engraved portraits, of which fifty were framed and glazed, which sold in lots of four, or eight, or even ten together. . . . The sale was largely attended, many people desiring to buy a book which had once belonged to the great lexicographer. . . . The total obtained was two hundred and forty-seven pounds and a few odd shillings.’ To-day the proceeds of such a sale would make a man rich. What was Johnson’s phrase? He would be in the possession of wealth ‘ beyond the dreams of avarice.’


I have often fancied how I should furnish the house if I were going to live in it. Let us return to the square hall on the first floor. The little room on the right-hand side, with a door going out into a garden about the size of a pocket handkerchief, should be the drawingroom. It should be formal in character, simply but elegantly furnished in mahogany. To this end, if I were living in Dr. Johnson’s time I should go to Thomas Chippendale’s, his shop in St. Martin’s Lane, and tell him to take his time and to do his best; otherwise I should haunt the auction-rooms where alone to-day good furniture is to be had, until I had secured the finest specimens of this famous cabinetmaker’s work that were available. The fact that the chairs would probably be uncomfortable would not disturb me, for I should not much encourage visitors who would spend much time in the drawing-room. On the walls would be all the fine mezzotints I could collect of Johnson and his circle, and I should have a few fine books in carefully glazed and locked cases.

The room across the hall would be my dining-room — a bright, cheerful room, as a dining-room should be. The powdering-closet I think I should not use for its original purpose; I should go to Mr. Chubb and tell him I wanted a good stout lock put on that closet door and I should keep it stocked with wellfilled bottles. The furniture in this room should likewise be mahogany, and the chairs should be stout and comfortable, and the table, when the cloth was drawn and the walnuts and wine placed thereon, should shine like a mirror. On the wall over the fireplace should hang my Johnson portrait by Reynolds, and I should endeavor to get a portrait of Boswell, with no meaner objects in sight. The walls of a diningroom should not be too completely pictured: there should be nothing to distract one’s attention from the pleasures of the table; every fish and roast should come on ‘a picture ‘ and be removed a total ruin.

The furnishing of the rooms above gave me much concern; I long considered taking a leaf out of the book of Sir John Soane, whose house, now a museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, is not far away, but on mature consideration I found that it would n’t do. He, it will be remembered, in order to get space for his pictures, put several walls on hinges in order that he might swing them out — a wall, on being drawn out, revealed another within. In like manner. I thought, by swinging the hall partitions on’ the second floor back against the windows I should be able to throw the rooms together so that I might entertain large parties upon occasion. But the question arose as to what was to be done with the bookshelves — and then I remembered that large parties are not so nice as small ones, and I decided to leave the partitions as they are and use one room for my collection of first editions and the other for my reading-library. Johnsonians well remember that the Doctor has given his ideas upon the spacing of bookshelves, and I am not sure they can be improved upon; the modern collector, however, eschews big books, so far as possible, fully agreeing with the Doctor that ‘a small book that can be carried to the fire and held readily in the hand is the most useful, after all.’

There is no period furniture here. Comfort only is considered; the tables are conveniently placed, the chairs are easy, the light falls over the left shoulder, the couches invite repose, the walls are covered with books — what wall-covering is as fine? Certainly not the leather of Cordova, no, nor prints, nor paintings however costly — no, nothing is so beautiful as the backs of substantially bound books ranging row upon row from floor to ceiling. I have often wondered why this is. Is it the mellow leather in its rich diversity of color and its bright or tarnished gold, or is it, perhaps, because even the back of a book calls up before the inward eye some scene which the book contains ? I know no greater pleasure than to light a good cigar, throw myself in an easychair, and let my eyes range over a wall covered with books. I love to try to recall the names of all the books in a row, or of as many as I can. Over there is my Trollope, complete in every item. What novelist has given me greater pleasure? His characters are old friends. And there is my Sterne, and my Fielding, and Dickens, and Dumas — and not a Russian among ‘em, thank God. That entire case is devoted to Johnson and his Boswell. And all the books on that side of the room are essays, with Lamb in the place of honor; that set of small well-worn volumes is Augustine Birrell, whose essays I adored as a young man (and still do), little thinking that I should be able to call him friend as an old one; and that entire wall over there is covered with books about London, the microcosm, the world in miniature. It was a stroke of genius in Lucas to call London ‘the Friendly Town.’ Who would think of applying that epithet to New York, the most brutal of cities?

You want to see my bedrooms? They are furnished as bedrooms usually are, except that on the walls you will observe only portraits of women; the Doctor was a great admirer of the fair sex, and we are apt to forget that no man of his day, and it was a great day, could turn a compliment more neatly than he. The place of honor, of course, goes to Mrs. Thrale, who, as he said in one of his last letters to her, had soothed twenty years of his life — ‘radically wretched.’ Yonder is Fanny Burney; as Fanny, I adore her, but as Madame d’Arblay she bores me to tears. In that group are the Bluestockings, Mrs. Chapone, Mrs. Montagu, Mrs. Lenox, and the rest. Mrs. Carter is my favorite: she translated Epictetus, and is said to have had, in addition to Greek and Latin, half a dozen modern languages at her fingers’ ends, ‘and a working knowledge of Arabic,’ whatever that means. But it was not alone for her scholarship that Johnson admired her; with the penetration and lack of cant which is his distinguishing characteristic, he one day remarked, ‘A man is, in general, better pleased when he has a good dinner on his plate than when his wife talks Greek: my old friend Mrs. Carter could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus.’ I know as little of her translations as I do of her pudding, but the beauty of her face is not easily forgotten. Although she was always addressed as Mrs. Carter, she lived and died an old maid.

On that wall are the actresses — and worst — of the Doctor’s acquaintances; Peg Woffington, Garrick’s friend, and Kitty Clive, and Frances Abington, whose morals were doubtful, if her jellies were, as the Doctor said — and he was a judge — better than Mrs. Thrale’s. That is Mrs. Siddons, whose character was without flaw, and that is Kitty Fisher, who had no character at all, but whose lovely portrait by Reynolds now smiles at us from the walls of the Wallace Collection. That vacant space I am keeping for the picture, when I can find it, of the Scotch hussy who climbed on the Doctor’s knee one evening in a tavern and surprised him with a kiss. Surprised, and pleased him, too, for he said, ‘Do it again, my dear, let us see who gets tired first.’

Observe my bathroom, how conveniently placed it is. It is a concession England has reluctantly agreed to make to America. Guestrooms? No, unluckily, we are in rather close quarters here, but I have taken rooms for you at Anderton’s Hotel, near by, in Fleet Street, and there is excellent authority for the statement that ‘ there is no private house in which people can enjoy themselves so well as in a capital tavern. . . . The more noise you make . . . the more trouble you give, the welcomer you are. . . . You will find the master courteous, and the servants obsequious to your call. . . . Sir, a tavern chair is the throne of human felicity.’ Such is the hospitality I offer you.

Before you go, peep into the attic: you may see nothing in it but one old chair with three legs. It was Dr. Johnson’s, and I have left it there in case the ghost of Old Sam himself should not wish to stand — upon ceremony —in his own house. I am not up in the requirements of ghosts. Hamlet’s walked a good deal in cold weather, I remember; whereas Marley’s not only could but did take a chair as if he were quite used to it. But this room is not deserted, as it seems — it is in fact overcrowded; be careful how you move about — you may disturb a shade.

I am dreaming, of course. Am I actually in London or in the strong room of ‘Oak Knoll,’ in Daylesford, Pennsylvania? No difference: when this mortal shall have put on immortality, who shall say that he may not join the choir invisible that made the world the better, and the merrier, for their presence — the ghosts of Gough Square.