Wednesday, 16 September 2009

When Benny met Harry

Ben Jonson, so often portrayed as the haughtiest of English playwrights, emerges as a joyous bon vivant, frolicking with shepherds, fleeing crowds of hysterical admirers and even seducing an older man, “fat Harry Ogle”, in a newly-discovered account of his epic trek on foot from London to Edinburgh.

The 400-year-old travelogue, written by an unknown accomplice of the playwright, depicts the 46-year-old Jonson reveling in his life on the road and embracing Scotland – in marked contrast to his near namesake, the curmudgeonly Dr Samuel Johnson, who made a similar journey 160 years later, but found only “a worse England” north of the border.

The manuscript was discovered by Dr James Loxley and will be included in the new Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. Entitled My Gossip Joh[n]son his foot voyage and myne into Scotland, the 7,500-word account details Jonson’s travels as far as his investiture as an Edinburgh burgess.

It reveals the playwright as “a good fellow, someone who likes to entertain people and who is attractive to all members of society,” said Dr Loxley, the head of English at Edinburgh University. “There is a sense of a man who is a literary celebrity, indulging and really enjoying his popularity. He sometimes comes through as a carnival king. It is a rather more mixed and generous picture than has emerged before.”

Until now, accounts of Jonson’s remarkable footslog to Edinburgh in the late summer of 1618, have been based largely on the “Informations” of the Scottish poet William Drummond, who met the playwright when he arrived at Edinburgh on 17th September. The newly-found manuscript, by a previously unsuspected travelling companion, was probably written by a younger man of similar social standing to Jonson and was discovered among the papers of the Aldersey family of Aldersey Hall, near Chester.

The document recounts a kind of journey which had become surprisingly fashionable in the early 17th century. In 1600, Will Kemp, the actor, had danced all the way from London to Norwich, while Gervase Markham, a writer, undertook to walk to Berwick from London, without crossing any rivers by bridge or boat. Jonson himself mentions an unnamed traveler who “backward went to Berwick”.

If Jonson’s 71-day trek seems mundane by comparison to some of these travelers, it sheds new light over the playwright’s reputation. Over the centuries, he has been seen as self-obsessed, a contemporary of Shakespeare who, some critics suggested, might have been the model for Malvolio, the sullen steward in Twelfth Night.

Not according to this account. At towns and villages along his 450 mile route, Jonson was feted by his fans, and always indulged them – at least until the crush became too great.

At Royston in Hertfordshire, “the Maydes and young men came out of Towne to meet us’. On his arrival in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, Jonson and his accomplice “cam[e] the backe way because all the towne was vp in thronges to see vs.”

The account goes on: “There was dancing of Giantes (stilt walkers); and musick prepard to meete vs(.) … a swarme of boyes and others crosse[d] over to overtake vs, and pressed so vpon vs, that wee were fayne to present our pistols vpon them to keepe them backe ...”

The manuscript also includes what Dr Loxley called a fascinating detail about Jonson’s sex life. His arrival at Sir William Cavendish ‘s estate is introduced with the arresting sentence. “From thence to Wellbeck where my Gossip made fat harry Ogle his mistress”.

It is, said Dr Loxley, the only suggestion of bed-hopping in the entire account, and the most obvious reading suggests that Jonson seduced an older man. “Some have suggested that Jonson was not averse to sexual relationships with men, but there is no direct biographical information. People have read into the author’s work to come to conclusions about his behaviour, but this is written as a purely factual record,” said Dr Loxley.

By the time he approached Edinburgh, there is a sense of celebration about the playwright’s progress. Near North Berwick, “Sir John Humes told my gossip that his sheerers (shepherds) hadd made a great sute to him to haue a sight of him. So wee walked vp into the fieldes where was a number of them with a bagpipe, who no sooner saw my gossip, but they circled him and daunc’d round about him[.]”

Finally, when Jonson and his companion reached Edinburgh, “the women in thronges ran to see vs.” The following day, a huge crowd gathered to witness the formal end of an extraordinary journey, and Jonson entered the city.

“People … being so thicke in the street, .., wee could scarce passe by them that ran in thronges to have a sight of my gossip. The wyndowes also being full every one peeping out of a round hole lyke a head out of a pillory,” reads the account.

“All these gentlemen with others of the town brought my gossip to the heigh cross, and there on their knees drancke the kings health, testifying in that place that he hadd performed his iorney.”

Jonson remained in Scotland to the following January, and was not sighted in London until May. How did he return? “It is usually assumed he walked,” said Dr Loxley.

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