First Published: 2001 by Little, Brown & Company
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: The reality of Johnson…his shabby clothing and too small wig with its charred top-piece, his tics and mutterings, his propensity to behave as though no one else was present, was at variance with the elegant demeanour imagined to be proper to a man of genius.
I’m a huge admirer of Beryl Bainbridge’s work, I usually enjoy historical fiction, and I am interested in the period (18th Century) and the main character (Samuel Johnson) re-imagined here. All the signs for this novel were extremely promising, so I was really surprised by just how much of a slog I found it to get through! It just didn’t engage me at all. Here, Bainbridge sets out to recapture the more passionate side to Johnson that is too often eclipsed by scholarship. The book explores his interactions with his friend and benefactor, Mrs Thrale, and her family. The Queeney of the title is Mrs Thrale’s eldest daughter whose blunt perspective – at once childish and wise beyond her years – offers an interesting counterpoint to the elaborate social rituals, flirtations and veiled mockeries of the adults in her life. Each chapter is then separated by a letter from the adult Queeney reflecting back on her memories of the great scholar. I liked this device of focusing on a child rather than directly on the well known historical figure, but the overall narrative still felt disjointed and I struggled to particularly care about any of the characters.
I think what was really lacking from this for me was a sense of menace. Not a lot happens in most of Bainbridge’s work. She deals in atmosphere rather than intrigue but usually the setting is enough: it doesn’t matter if there’s little in the way of immediate plot if the characters happen to be on the Titanic, or on a doomed expedition to the South Pole, because there’s a wider sense of fatalism that keeps you reading. According to Queeney is punctuated by little tragedies, feuds and upsets and is clearly meticulously researched but overall it felt hollow and didn’t really bring the period to life for me. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.