James Boswell, a wonderful failure

Poor old James Boswell, what a sorry life he led. He was such a distracting combination of disappointment, dipsomania, and sycophancy, with an untameable interest in visiting whores, that for a hundred and fifty years after his death his abilities as an author were completely overlooked. The Victorians thought he was an idiot who happened to have produced one of the best books ever written. That, of course, was Carlyle’s opinion, and listening to Carlyle was one of the silliest things (in a long list) the Victorians did.

Boswell’s life without the writing requires a lot of sympathy. It’s easy to laugh or roll your eyes: he was never far away from the next drunken embarrassment, like falling off his horse and bruising his shoulder so badly he spends a week in bed, or hitting on his daughter’s school friend and then not remembering the next morning.

And his treatment of his wife isn’t exactly top drawer. For many years they lived in London which was terrible for her health and contributed to her early death. The ostensible reason was that only in London could Boswell work on The Life of Johnson, but it was also a result of his incredible desperation to be English, not Scottish.

The Act of Union wasn’t even a hundred years old, and there was a great deal of bad feeling about the number of Scotsmen who came to London. Scottish manners and language were thought to be uncouth and many lairds like Boswell wanted to be sophisticated and English. Going back to Scotland from London would have confirmed Boswell to himself as the vulgar Scottish mediocrity he was always trying to outpace.

He was also astonishingly unfaithful. The amount of time he spends attending to his syphilitic blisters would have been enough to learn a new language. They were often so uncomfortable it was difficult for him to walk. One weekend when he was travelling and couldn’t get to a doctor, he had to visit a surgeon barber to have a blister split open to provide enough relief for him to be able to move around. He had venereal disease at least seventeen times in his life.

But there’s something to be pitied about him, as well. His father made it obvious, right from a young age, that Boswell was a disappointment and a failure. He was, as a good old fashioned parochial Scot, especially disappointed in his frivolous son’s interest in being sophisticated and English.

Boswell’s career at the bar was mediocre — he was terrible at networking, with no real nous about how preferment worked. His obsequious flattery to noblemen was so embarrassing he even made a twit of himself in front of King George III on a number of occasions.

So desperate was he for preferment that he repeatedly supplicated himself to Lord Lonsdale, allowing that bullying moron to embarrass him and waste his time. Lonsdale had a constant entourage of people who wanted his preferment (he controlled a number of seats in Parliament and offices like the judgeship Boswell eventually got). These purgatorial souls were summoned to Lonsdale’s house for nine in the morning and left waiting in the hall until the evening before starting on a long journey.

Lonsdale didn’t serve his guests wine, gave them sub-standard lodgings, and insisted on everyone staying up until the small hours to listen to him ranting. He was a formidable lunatic and Boswell allowed himself to be pushed around like this despite being a grown man with an ill wife he ought to have been looking after because his legal career in Scotland was only ever half baked, and his attempt to start a practice in England was a crashing disaster.

He once stayed with Lonsdale and endured the humiliation of having his wig stolen from his room so that he wouldn’t be able to go anywhere in the house: it was unthinkable for a gentleman to appear without a wig. On another visit he got up early one morning, hopped on a passing cart which took him to a nearby crossroads. From there he walked to the local town. He ran into another one of Lonsdale’s cronies who warned him not to escape back to London like this: the consequences would be severe. And so Boswell returned to the house to endure more ranting and raving. He was, at least, given some decent coffee when he got there.

As you can see, he didn’t make it difficult for his Victorian detractors to run him down. For over a hundred years after he died, his family was so embarrassed by him that all of his papers were kept hidden. All that fawning and whoring was unseemly for a laird. And he was an embarrassment merely as a person. Like many badly treated, lonely and unhappy children, Boswell grew up unable to properly adjust himself to other people. He spent his whole life is search of a father. And it showed. He was constantly writing to eminent men sidling up to them like a child collecting autographs.

All of this, of course, makes him perfect to be a biographer. Johnson was the biggest man of his time, and Boswell was the right combination of persistent researcher and low-confidence failure to be dedicated enough to follow Johnson around and record his sayings. And here the paradox begins.

Perhaps the most important thing we know about Boswell is that Samuel Johnson respected him. If the facts given above were the whole picture, why would Johnson have sat outside with Boswell on Good Friday and passed the time speculating about growing fruit trees? Or gone on a tour of the Hebrides with him?

Johnson may well have been the only real friend Boswell ever had. His father ridiculed Boswell for scampering around after Johnson, but the great doctor was always kind about Boswell, cherished his company, and insisted that he be elected to join The Club, where members like Burke, Goldsmith, and Reynolds debated topics of the day. Burke was seriously opposed to Boswell joining, but Johnson prevailed.

The obvious question then: how on earth did this frivolous, drunken man produce that massive, impressive book? After Johnson died, the answer was: slowly. There were periods of depression, or impressive hangovers, that left him unable to work. It was a slow, persistent, job. But Boswell had been writing the book for years and years before that. He had been working on it ever since he met Johnson, twenty one years before the old lexicographer died.

The secret was his diary. Boswell had an astonishing memory, able to recreate accurately any events that he made basic notes about. He had his own perfunctory style of shorthand, noting down abbreviated words and phrases, which, to anyone else, would mean almost nothing. It was like a shopping list summary of what had happened. To Boswell, these notes were memory triggers, which he could use to write up full journal entries. We can take them as fairly accurate because whenever someone else records what Johnson said, Boswell is vindicated. No two accounts are ever word perfect, obviously, but they show us that Boswell was accurate.

It was Johnson who encouraged Boswell to keep a journal, where his father had been derisive of the idea. The journal is famous for its frankness — he once slept with an actress five times in a single night, and she called him, he notes with pride, a prodigy; there are plenty of other entries like this. You can see why the family wanted it hidden. Of course, when the London Journal was first published it sold and sold and sold and sold. Much against the spirit of the times, Boswell turned his extraordinary willingness to open himself up to scorn, embarrassment, and mockery into an art form.

It is this same frankness that makes The Life of Johnson the seminal work in English biography. Let’s not forgot, the debate isn’t how did Boswell write a good book — but how did he create a new genre. No-one had written a book like this before. Fourteen hundred pages of letters, anecdotes, and recorded speech, with a solid structure that followed the annual pattern of activity which defined the year in London. He recorded as much as he could about Johnson’s work, tracked down old acquaintances, verified information by visiting churches to review records, assessed evidence and discounted spurious claims.

But he also showed us all of Johnson. You can quibble about the details left out, especially when it comes to sex. There are some things that simply couldn’t be revealed in 1791. But Boswell reveals so much about Johnson: his moods, his habits, his oddities. This isn’t just curios like Johnson keeping his orange peel (we still don’t know why he did it, but there was a wonderful exchange of letters about it in the TLS a few years ago: it may have been to put in his shoes to keep them fresh).

We see Johnson in the 1780s, well into the reign of George III, fly off the handle and deliver a page long rant about the Hanoverian monarchy and how it would not win the support of the people in a referendum. We read his letters to Frank Barber, his servant who was a freed slave, telling him: ‘You can never be wise until you learn to love reading.’

We know about Johnson’s favourite books like Walton’s Lives, and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, but also his love of romances; we know that if he had been as rich as David Garrick (celebrity rich) he would have hired two men to walk ahead of him in the street with sticks pushing people out of his way; and we know that as a young man Johnson lost religion and drank and swore enough to shock the doting Boswell.

This is not comparable to other Lives written before it. It’s a unique, weird, epic preservation of a man who would otherwise be the somewhat anonymous genius behind the first real Dictionary of English. Where else can you find something like this:

JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; a man would never undertake great things, could he be amused with small. I once tried knotting. Dempster's sister undertook to teach me; but I could not learn it.' BOSWELL. 'So, Sir; it will be related in pompous narrative, "Once for his amusement he tried knotting; nor did this Hercules disdain the distaff."' JOHNSON. 'Knitting of stockings is a good amusement. As a freeman of Aberdeen I should be a knitter of stockings.' 

Far from a boozy stenographer, Boswell was, like many other writers of his time, a lost soul, who couldn’t properly fit into a professional or social structure, and whose work is so astonishing it is difficult for us to reconcile it with the leering kaleidoscopic mess of his life. After his wife died, he lived in a terrible bazar of dissipation: drink nearly stopped him writing the book at all, and he died early having written no other biographies. But what he did produce was astonishing.

He was louche, debauched, and pretentious, but he was also remarkable. He was a paradox: a wonderful failure.

Life of Johnson (US link) Boswell’s book — one of the best books ever written.

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, Adam Sisman (US link) A lovely book about Boswell and how he wrote the Life of Johnson. Highly recommended.

Boswell's "Life of Johnson": A Collection of Critical Essays (US link) Excellent detailed essays about Boswell’s papers, his memory, how he edited the Life.

Samuel Johnson: Opsimath — my earlier post on Johnson

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