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Samuel Johnson knew the definition of 'peccadillo'

A historical novel that traces the good doctor's affair in a friend's house

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Sometime before 1765, Samuel Johnson - inventor, author, philosopher, and philanthropist - met Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer, and his wife. In the ensuing years, Johnson came first to dine and then to reside frequently with the Thrales.

His presence in their home acted as a magnet to those of the London literary world, transforming Mrs. Thrale's drawing room into one of the great literary salons of the age. Johnson also oversaw the education of the Thrales' eldest daughter, Queeney, and may have been Mrs. Thrale's lover.

In "According to Queeney," Beryl Bainbridge presents this disquieting tale of Johnson's infatuation with Mrs. Thrale and the unfolding drama of these interwoven lives from the viewpoint of her daughter.

Bainbridge relates the irony and tragedy of this 12-year relationship in a sequence ofvignettes packed so tightly that they resemble a plot, with a shifting narrative voice, punctuated by letters from the adult Queeney. It is a warts-and-all portrait of Johnson and mid-18th century London, with an emphasis on the warts.

Bainbridge's approach to her characters is cold and clinical.Even if one discounts as gross exaggeration half of James Boswell's three-volume "Life of Samuel Johnson," Johnson was still a much-loved and generous man. Certainly, he was a difficult man, decidedly prone to melancholy and depression.

But Bainbridge's Johnson is a deeply flawed, unlovable, bumbling fool of a man, and she writes of him, indeed of all the characters, with little compassion, empathy, or humor.

Her Mrs. Thrale is a peevish, clever, mean-spirited coquette who uses Johnson to attract his artistic friends to her home.Seen in this light, it's virtually impossible to understand what tied the philosophical Johnson to her.

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