The Prince of Abissinia: Introduction

This short work of fiction has been one of Johnson’s most popular and widely-read since its first, anonymous publication in 1759. It has been reprinted again and again over the last two and a half centuries. It seems a fair guess that over that time more people have read this book than have read any of Johnson’s other works, with the possible exception of the Dictionary of the English Language (1755); even there, very few will have read the Dictionary from cover to cover in the way that readers are invited to enjoy this short and very readable work. Originally called by Johnson “The Choice of Life,” it was first published as The Prince of Abissinia. Today, this book is better known as Rasselas; the evolution of the title is a story of its own, which will be discussed later in this introduction.

Johnson wrote the story in January 1759, in the span of about a week. The first reference to it that has survived is in a letter from Johnson on 20 January of that year to William Strahan, a bookseller in London with whom Johnson had worked many times. “When I was with you last night,” Johnson writes, “I told you of a thing which I was preparing for the press. The title will be The choice of Life or The History of — Prince of Abissinia.” Johnson wrote this book quickly because he needed money with particular urgency. His mother, Sarah Johnson, was 90 years old, and he had gotten word from Litchfield, his hometown and the place where his mother still lived, that she was dying. He hoped to see her before she died; he also knew that she had debts to square away, and also that he would have to pay for her funeral. He did not make it back to Litchfield in time; although he managed to send her some of money from the advance he got for “The Choice of Life,” Sarah Johnson died on January 22, 1759, before her son was able to get back to her.

If the story as it was eventually published seems a little pessimistic, that may have something to do with the circumstances of its composition and Johnson’s grief at the prospect of losing his mother. Johnson’s letters to his step-daughter Lucy Porter, who lived with Sarah Johnson, make clear that he was deeply saddened by his mother’s death, and that he also felt guilty for not being able to help her more. But The Prince of Abissinia also develops ideas and themes that Johnson had long meditated upon: the futility of most human desires, the danger of an unchecked imagination, the difficulty of finding one’s way in the world. Imlac’s arguments about art closely track arguments made by Johnson himself in his periodical series such as the Rambler and the Idler. At the same time, by writing a work of fiction, Johnson also gets a chance to put his ideas about how fiction ought to be written into practice; many readers have held up this work against Johnson’s essay Rambler #4, which draws a distinction between the “heroic romances” of the past, and the writings of “the present age,” which he praises for their realism and ability to convey moral truths. But The Prince of Abissinia is not really a novel but a thing apart, and critics have long struggled with exactly what genre to categorize it: a romance? an apologue? an Oriental tale? The original title page calls this simply a “tale,” and that seems significant itself; at a time when most works that we now call novels (Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Tom Jones, etc.) took pains to claim that they were actually true accounts of the experiences of real people, The Prince of Abissinia makes no attempt to hide its artificiality. None of the characters come across as realistic in the ways that readers of nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels would come to expect, and that is not a flaw; Johnson has little interest in creating characters like that. The setting, in the north African region then called Abissinia and now known as Ethiopia, and then Cairo, is vaguely imagined at best. Rasselas, Imlac, Pekuah, and Nekayah are all mouthpieces for Johnson himself, vehicles for him to explore important moral, philosophical, and aesthetic questions.

On the title

How did Johnson’s original title “The Choice of Life” become The Prince of Abissinia? and how did it then become Rasselas, the name by which almost all readers and critics refer to it today? We cannot know the answer to the first question; titling the published book The Prince of Abissinia may have been Johnson’s decision, or perhaps it was the decision of the bookseller. In any case, there is an interesting discrepancy between the title page of the first edition and the half-title page. In the former, the book is called The Prince of Abissinia; in the latter, it is called The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Such a discrepancy would never pass a copy-editor today, but it reflects the comparative casualness with which eighteenth-century books were titled. All of the following London printings in the eighteenth century follow this pattern; the book was sold in England as The Prince of Abissinia for decades.

Title page of the first edition, published in April 1759.
Title page of the first edition, published in April 1759.
Prince of Abissinia half title
First page of text in the first, 1759 edition.

The first edition of this book to go by the title Rasselas was published in Philadelphia in 1766 by the bookseller Robert Bell, who had recently moved to the American colonies from his native Dublin. In the early nineteenth century, that title had become the norm, as this book found its place on the short shelf of classic works of fiction in English, most of them referred to by the name of their central character, whatever their full original title had been: Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Tom Jones, Evelina, Emma, David Copperfield. This edition returns to the original 1759 title of The Prince of Abissinia, as the one that eighteenth-century readers would have been most familiar with. The original title, more than Rasselas, emphasizes the setting of the tale in Abissinia and Cairo. Like many eighteenth-century European writers, Johnson is using the East as a surface on which he can project a schematized and simplified version of his own culture. Johnson had long been interested in Abissinia as a real place; his first published book was a loose translation of the Portuguese Jesuit Jerome Lobo’s  A Voyage to Abissinia in 1735. Here, though, the “Oriental” setting is as imaginary as the characters, and while we have every reason to resist Johnson’s negation of the actual living cultures of the region, it seems worth preserving the fact that, for better or worse, the original title was designed to invoke that setting in the minds of its first readers.

On the text

This text was edited by students in ENEC 4500/8500, Samuel Johnson, From Print to Digital Media, at the University of Virginia in Spring 2015. Our text has been edited from the second edition, published in June 1759, three months after the first edition, printed in April of that year. The second edition contains a number of small corrections that most scholarly editors agree were probably made by Johnson himself, and most of the many editions that have come in the two and a half centuries since the book was originally published generally follow the second edition. We have corrected a small number of lingering typographical errors on our own, and have dropped the long “s.” Otherwise, we have stayed true to the original spelling and punctuation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A Digital Anthology of Writing in English, 1660-1783