Bainbridge lets us eavesdrop on life in Georgian London as seen through the eyes of Queeney Thrale. She is intrigued by the strange relationship between her mother, Hester, and Samuel Johnson. Intimate details are revealed as the circle of people known to the Thrales and Johnson ebb and flow around her. Intricate connections bring alive the gossip of literati, musicians and artists - who all harbour secret fears of rejection, ill-health and death.
On his return, Mrs Thrale noticed a deterioration. She told Queeney that she wondered if he had not suffered a paralytic stroke; there was some drawing down of the mouth on one side and certain words were pronounced strangely.
"That of Italy, perhaps," said the girl coldly, for Mamma was thinking of going there on an extended tour, Mr Piozzi serving as the guide.
Sir Joshua also perceived a change in Johnson, not least in his outbursts of temper ... it was in his studio that Samuel had all but reduced James Boswell to tears.