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Historical Fiction
A Doctor in the House
'According to Queeney' by Beryl Bainbridge

_____Online Extra: Chapter 1_____
This feature allows you to read the first chapter of a new book. This week's selections are "According to Queeney" by Beryl Bainbridge, "Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson" by Adam Sisman and "Yonder Stands Your Orphan" by Barry Hannah.

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Reviewed by Gary Krist
Sunday, August 19, 2001; Page BW07

ACCORDING TO QUEENEY
By Beryl Bainbridge
Carroll & Graf. 216 pp. $22

I haven't always been the most enthusiastic reader of historical novels. Too many examples of the genre are hobbled by a certain dutifulness. Conscientious efforts to provide edifying historical background and impeccable period accuracy can leave little room for the chaotic and contradictory energies of life as it is really lived. Novels, to my mind, should never be about the typical (a dubious concept to begin with). It's not that I deny the existence of the Zeitgeist, but such matters are better left to pop historians and party propagandists. (Remember the Reagan 1980s, when we Americans started feeling good about ourselves again? I don't.) The best historical novels acknowledge that individual people and events rarely oblige us by being illustrative of general trends. Real life, after all, is anything but tidy.

All of this is a roundabout way of explaining why I love the historical novels of Beryl Bainbridge. Several years ago, the British actor-turned-novelist began publishing a series of books dramatically different from the neatly wrapped product I dislike. Beginning with The Birthday Boys, her fictionalized account of the disastrous Scott expedition to Antarctica, and continuing with Every Man for Himself (her Titanic novel) and Master Georgie (about the Crimean War), she has pursued her own eccentric version of the genre, producing fleet, elliptical narratives that make no pretense of giving a complete view of anything, let alone an entire era. They even resemble real life in that, unlike many historical novels, they always seem to end a little too soon.

According to Queeney is Bainbridge's latest effort, and it is in some ways her most accomplished novel so far. Here she turns her attention to the 18th-century lexicographer and poet Samuel Johnson -- specifically to Johnson's 20-year intimacy with Hester Lynch Thrale, wife of the rich brewer who was Johnson's patron in later life. The subject proves fortuitous, since the relationship between the Great Cham of Literature and his often prickly hostess was just the kind of ambiguous, intense and occasionally hilarious affair for which Bainbridge seems perfectly suited. "She needed an audience, and he a home" is how Queeney, Mrs. Thrale's daughter, describes the pair's mutual attraction, but that doesn't even begin to explain the complexities of what a modern psychologist might call their co-dependence.

Certainly Johnson was no easy houseguest. Peevish and demanding, he was often regarded by those who didn't know him with amused horror: "The reality of Johnson, in appearance and behaviour, the scarred skin of his cheeks and neck, his large lips forever champing, 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." But Bainbridge also captures Johnson's more sympathetic qualities -- his extraordinary, if sporadic, kindness, his wit (of course), his courage in facing down a lifelong tendency toward morbidity and depression, and even his sometimes stunning obtuseness (in one memorable scene, Johnson is so preoccupied with his own tortuous thought processes that he fails to realize he's been involved in a near-fatal carriage accident).

What there is in the way of plot follows the wayward progress of this two-decade friendship. Johnson first met the Thrales at a moment of crisis, when, in his mid-fifties, he seemed on the brink of succumbing finally to the Black Dog of depression. The Thrale household, of which he became an honorary member, proved to be an important refuge for him, offering much-needed stimulation of every sort -- intellectual, emotional, gastronomic. And Hester herself was fascinating enough to keep any lively mind engaged. Thirty years Johnson's junior, and sufficiently intelligent not to be intimidated by him, she had her own psychological battles to wage. She was torn between bluestocking desires for independence and her obligations to a husband she didn't love -- and to children who, when they survived, often proved quarrelsome and constraining.

It's from the perspective of one of these children -- Queeney, her eldest daughter -- that we see much of the novel's action. Since she is a child (and therefore negligible enough to sometimes go unnoticed), Queeney is in an excellent position to observe her elders in their most unguarded moments. And being free of the psychological agendas of adulthood, she can see them plain, without the prejudice of expectation that might edit out the pettiness from their nobility, the vanity from their ambitions, the comedy from their tragedies.

Toward the end of the novel, one of Johnson's friends muses: "It was curious, was it not, that great men who compiled dictionaries, whose intellect enabled them to expound upon the state of nations, had not the words or the understanding to define the small business of love." It's just this kind of "small business" -- the stuff that doesn't make it into the official histories -- that Beryl Bainbridge explores so well in her historical fiction. Without trivializing the spirit behind the oversized manly gestures of history, she manages to undercut their pomposity, never losing sight of the fact that the major players of any age are human beings like the rest of us -- flawed, earthbound and always just a little bit ridiculous.

Gary Krist's most recent book is the novel "Chaos Theory."

2001 The Washington Post Company