The Fortunes of Francis Barber


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The Story of the Enslaved Jamaican Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir

Michael Bundock

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The story of the extraordinary relationship between Francis Barber, a former slave, and Samuel Johnson, England’s most distinguished man of letters

“A remarkable work of detection, a biography of a black Briton from the eighteenth century that brings to life a rich and vital aspect of our shared history.”—David Olusoga

Born into slavery in Jamaica about 1742, Francis Barber was brought to London as a young boy, becoming a servant in the household of the renowned Dr. Samuel Johnson. He joined the British navy for a time but returned to Johnson’s service, eventually becoming his friend and heir. Barber was one of thousands of black Britons in the period. This is the story of his life, the hostility and support he encountered, and his extraordinary friendship with England’s most distinguished man of letters.

Michael Bundock is a barrister, a director of Dr. Johnson’s House Trust and an Honorary Research Associate in the English Department at University College London.

“A remarkable work of detection, a biography of a black Briton from the eighteenth century that brings to life a rich and vital aspect of our shared history.”—David Olusoga

“No longer a footnote to Johnson’s story, Barber emerges as a man whose complicated story gives an inside view of what it was like to be a black man in 18th-century Britain.”—Gretchen Gerzina, author of Black London

“Commendable not only for its careful research, but also for harnessing the considerable power of Barber's untold story. It will appeal to those who care about history, but it should appeal to those who care about humanity as well.”—Sara Collins, author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton

“Elegant, precise, formidably informed. Bundock clears away a fog of falsehoods and rebalances the story.”—John Carey, Sunday Times

“Bundock weaves into the absorbing tale of Barber’s life a wealth of material relating to black people in England, especially in London, throughout the 18th century… He writes with clarity, sympathy and tact.”—Freya Johnston, Literary Review

“A supremely skilled biography … Barber’s extraordinary and varied career allows Bundock to explore what life felt like for a black man in Georgian England.”Kathryn Hughes, Guardian

“Bundock’s lively biography offers a fresh perspective on Johnson and locates Barber both in Johnson’s household and in the context of an empire beginning to debate the political and moral legitimacy of slavery.”—Publishers Weekly

‘[Bundock] imaginatively recreates the textures of life in 18th-century England and shows an admirable determination to question received wisdom’—Henry Hitchings, the Guardian.

‘Michael Bundock’s accomplished biography tells the story of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s black servant and friend, Francis Barber, giving a much needed biography to a man who has hitherto been relegated to footnote status… Bundock’s scrupulous research finally puts the record straight.’—Paula Bryne, author of Belle: the True Story of Dido Belle, the Times.

‘Bundock’s tale of [the Georgian period], written with a Johnsonian clarity and verve, absorbs from start to finish.’—Ian Thomson, New Statesman.

“In The Fortunes of Francis Barber, there are indeed plenty of rivalries, along with burned diary entries, tossed-off insults, and spiky descriptions that would likely get a stamp of approval from Johnson’s satiric contemporaries. Yet what distinguishes Michael Bundock’s book is not its hijinks but its illuminating scholarship . . . Pick up The Fortunes of Francis Barber for its promise of lexicographical and 18th-century antics; read it for the engrossing history it reveals.”—Santa Fe New Mexican

‘Barber’s story receives expert, sensitive treatment in Bundock’s biography.’—Tony Barber, Financial Times.

‘This magnificent biography of Dr. Johnson’s servant Francis Barber is almost fit to stand beside James Boswell’s Life.’—The Sunday Times.

The Fortunes of Francis Barber is concise, clear-headed, sympathetic and scholarly…’—Charles Nicholl, London Review of Books.

‘[A] fine biography.’—Kathryn Sutherland, TLS

‘…the most thorough account yet of the child slave who ended up living with Johnson as a father figure.’—Andre Paine, Clerkenwell Post.

“Michael Bundock has produced a splendidly researched book that valiantly attempts to wrest its subject from the shadows.”—Juliette Foster, Surrey Life

“At last, the biography that Francis Barber deserves. A meticulous yet imaginative book which teases out the full humanity of Dr. Johnson’s servant—and of the affection and hostility he generated among contemporaries.”—James Walvin, author of The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery

“Michael Bundock has written the first biography in over one hundred years of Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s black servant and heir. Acknowledging the groundwork laid over a century ago, Bundock goes well beyond earlier commentators in exploring the evolving relationship between Johnson and Barber.”—Vincent Carretta, University of Maryland

“Like James Boswell before him, Michael Bundock is a lawyer, and in his biography of Samuel Johnson’s servant that background serves him well. Reading the evidence, some newly discovered, he brings Francis Barber to life, deepens our understanding of Johnson, enriches our sense of quotidian eighteenth-century London, and provides an unusual contribution to black history in England.”—Robert Folkenflik, University of California, Irvine

The Fortunes of Francis Barber is the most complete and accurate account of the life of Francis Barber that has ever been produced or is ever likely to be produced. This book far outstrips all earlier accounts.”—Robert DeMaria, Jr., Vassar College

“This is an indispensable volume, by far the most readable and comprehensive and authoritative account of Francis Barber’s life that’s ever been written – or that ever could be written, at least with the source materials we currently have.”—Open Letters Monthly

“Bundock is elegant and precise in this detailed account of the life of Samuel Johnson’s black servant and eventual heir.”—The Sunday Times ‘Best Paperbacks of 2021’

ISBN: 9780300260960
Publication Date: October 26, 2021
296 pages, 5 x 7 3/4
30 b/w illus.