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A fascinating account of the fortunes of Francis Barber, a young child born into slavery in Jamaica, who finds himself serving in the household of Dr Samuel Johnson in London, circa 1752.

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Den scores




296 pages

‘The Fortunes of Francis Barber’ tells the story of a young child born into slavery in Jamaica who arrives in London circa 1752 to find himself serving in the household of the literary critic, playwright and man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson.

Written by commercial city lawyer, Michael Bundock, the author originally stumbled upon Dr Johnson’s historic home in Gough Square in his lunch hour and it wasn’t long before he found his own curiosity getting the better of him and leading to this fascinating story. Was Barber employed as a slave or a servant by Johnson and how and why did Barber became Johnson’s chief beneficiary?

‘The Fortunes of Francis Barber’ lures the reader into the author’s own journey of discovery by re-imagining the scene of Johnson’s home in the heart of bustling London, 1752. Having captured our attention the author shares and examines extracts from the biographies and letters of Samuel Johnson, which provide plenty of material for us to piece together Barber’s story and appreciate the close relationship between Johnson and Barber.

The author chronicles Barber’s life in Gough Square and his work thereafter as an apothecary assistant and joining the British navy during the Seven Years’ War. Johnson however was clearly alarmed by the reports of the war and assisted with Barber’s early release and return to his household.

Bundock’s forensic and measured approach to the resources make this book a credible account of the life for Barber and the black community in London. There are also plenty of stories of London life sourced from Johnson’s friends through their letters to him, backed up by illustrations and paintings by artists of the time including ‘A Young Black’ by Joshua Reynolds which is thought to be a portrait of Francis Barber.

As well as presenting the strong bond between Johnson and Barber, the reader is able to appreciate Dr Johnson’s charitable nature and his own story of eclectic friends and characters who he attracted to help him with his work, specifically compiling his great Dictionary of the English Language which took some years to complete.

Recommended by a Den reader, this is a fascinating account and one that gave book club plenty to discuss. It was very informative making us all curious to discover more, maybe in the form of a visit to Dr Johnson’s House in London.

First published in 2015, this paperback edition was commissioned in 2021.

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