1902 Encyclopedia > James Boswell

James Boswell
Scottish author and biographer of Samuel Johnson

JAMES BOSWELL, the biographer of Johnson, was born at Edinburgh on the 29th October 1740. His father was one of the lords of Session, or judges of the supreme court in Scotland, and took his title, Lord Auchinleck, from the name of his property in Ayrshire. The family was of old and honourable descent, a fact of which both father and son were not only proud but vain. James, the eldest son, was educated at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, and during his student days contracted a close and lifelong friendship with William Johnson Temple, afterwards vicar of St Gluvias and rector of Mamhead. His unrestrained correspondence with Temple, extending with occasional breaks from 1758 to the last year of his life, affords us the best materials for a knowledge of his career and an estimate of his character. At the age of eighteen he was busily engaged in the study of the law at Edinburgh, not entirely in accordance with his own inclination, but in obedience to the desire of his father. Already, however, he had begun to take a pride in being associated with men of distinction, and tells his friend, with some exultation, that he had accompanied Sir David Dairymple (afterward Lord Hailes) on the Northern Circuit, and had kept a journal of what was said by the great man on the way. Some other peculiarities of his character also became manifest even at this early period of his life. He was evidently unsettled and unstable, " constitutionally unfit," as he afterwards said, " for any employment;" he disliked the Scottish style of life, and longed for the elegance, refinement, and liberality of London society. In 1760 this wish was so far gratified; he tasted some of the delights of the capital, and indulged in magnificent dreams of entering the Guards and spending his time about the court. Such a fancy, however, came to nothing ; for as he has narrated with some pride, the duke of Argyll told his father that " this boy must not be shot at for three and sixpence a day." A military life, indeed, would hardly have suited him, for, as he frankly confesses, his personal courage was but small.

Boswell's tastes were always literary ; he had contributed some slight things to the current magazines; and in 1762 he published a rather humorous little poem, The Cab at Newmarket. In the following year appeared a collection of Letters between the Hon. Andrew Erskine and James Boswell, Esq., which the vanity of the youthful authors induced them to think would be received with pleasure and profit by the world. The only prominent characteristic of these epistles is an overstrained attempt at liveliness and wit.

On Monday, 16th May 1763, Boswell, then on a second visit to London, had the supreme happiness to make the acquaintance of the object of his almost idolatrous admiration,—Dr Johnson. Their first interview in the back parlour of Mr Davies's shop in Bussell Street was characteristic of both ; the calm strength and ponderous wit of the one, the fluttering folly and childish servility of the other, are portrayed to the life in Boswell's own narrative. Few things are more singular than the intimacy which sprang up between two men so differently constituted. Bosweli might indeed congratulate himself that he had something about him that interested most people at first sight in his favour. He was then about to proceed to Utrecht in order to prosecute his studies ; and the great Dr Johnson actually accompanied him to Harwich and saw him off, with many protestations of affection.

At Utrecht Boswell was as unsettled and dissipated as before. He had a fair allowance from his father—£240 a year ; but he was determined " not to be straitened nor to encourage the least narrowness of disposition as to saving money.'' To what extent this virtuous resolution was carried out is unknown; but after leaving the university, he determined, sorely against his father's inclination, to prolong his residence abroad. He travelled through various parts of the Continent, visited Voltaire and Bousseau, and was finally attracted to Corsica, where he speedily attached himself to and became the intimate friend of the patriot Paoli. He did not return to England till 1766, but he had not neglected his notebook, and in 1768 published his Account of Corsica, Journal of a Tour to that Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli. The book had a very considerable success, not on account of the merits of its historical or descriptive passages, but from the liveliness and truth of the journal, and from the numerous anecdotes and sayings, which brought the Corsican patriot vividly before the English imagination. Johnson's estimate of the work was discriminating and just; and other good judges, though they could not avoid noticing and ridiculing Boswell's extravagances and follies, appreciated at its true value his unrivalled power of biographical narration. The book did much for Paoli, and secured for him sympathy and assistance in England when he was compelled to fly from his native island. The author was for a time intoxicated with his success; he pestered every one with Corsica, introduced himself to Pitt in Corsican dress, and not only appeared at the Shakespeare Jubilee arrayed in the costume of an armed Corsican chief, with " Viva la Liberta " inscribed on his hat, but wrote a full description of his appearance to the London Magazine. He certainly gained notoriety, if not fame.

His restless spirit next found occupation in the great Douglas peerage case. He took an intense interest in this affair, acted as an unattached counsel, and published on it a novel and a pamphlet. The often repeated story, that he resented the judgment given by his father in the case to such an extent that he headed the rioters who broke the old judge's windows, is not inconsistent with his character, but as the father's judgment virtually coincided with the son's opinion, it really has no foundation in fact.

In 1769, after numerous love affairs, which are told to his friend Temple with more freedom than decency, he married Miss Montgomerie. Not much is known of this lady, except that she was a relation of the earl of Eglinton, as Boswell took care to inform the people of Scotland in his Letter to them in 1785. Johnson's opinion of her qualities was very low ; but she probably concurred with old Lord Auchinleck in thinking the great lexicographer " a brute." She seems also to have had rather a contempt for some aspects of Mr Boswell's character, whatever that might " comprehend in his own imagination, and in that of a wonderful number of mankind."

In 1773, though against his father's will, Boswell came to London. He was admitted a member of the Literary Club, and soon after set out with his great friend on the immortal tour to the Hebrides. It was not till many years afterwards that the famous Journal was given to the world,—not till after the death of Johnson. Some years after the death of his father in 1782 he had joined the English bar, but he never succeeded in gaining any practice. In 1785 the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was published, and preparations set on foot for an extended Life of Johnson. The collection of materials and careful revision occupied several years, and though Boswell sometimes was despondent, yet on the whole he looked with well-grounded confidence for success. He was absolutely certain that his " mode of biography, which gives not only a history of Johnson's visible progress through the world, and of his publications, but a view of his mind in his letters and conversations, is the most perfect that can be conceived, and will be more of a life than any work that has ever yet appeared." His expectations were not deceived. The book, which appeared in 1791, was received with the greatest eagerness and delight; and in 1793 a second edition was published. The author's triumph and self-satisfaction were complete ; but meantime the evil habits he had contracted during a dissipated life were ruining his health, both of mind and body. He was in his later years an habitual drunkard, and the hypochondria, from which he had always suffered at intervals, terribly increased. He died after a short illness on the 19th May 1795, at the age of 55.

Boswell's character is curious and somewhat contradictory. He was vain of his birth, and of his own talents, sensual and self-indulgent, inquisitive and undignified ; and all these faults he parades with a perfectly childish naïveté ;—not certainly without consciousness that they were faults, for he is constantly repenting of his sins and framing the best of resolutions, swearing "like an ancient Pythagorean to observe silence, to be grave and reserved though cheerful and communicative." " One great fault of mine," he says, " is talking at random. I will guard against it." But he was, as he has himself admitted, "utterly wanting in solidity and force of mind." His egotism and vanity were excessive, and he exposes these qualities with the greatest frankness to his friend Temple. "I, James Boswell, Esq.," he writes on one occasion,—" you know what vanity that name includes.''' And again with reference to one of his rivals in Johnsonian literature, he writes ; " Hawkins is, no doubt, very malevolent ; observe how he talks of me as quite unknown." The peculiar weakness of hi? 'ntellect and exuberance of his spirits hurried him into absurdities and follies, and made him the butt of the society in which he moved. Yet ho was far from having no redeeming qualities. He was genial and friendly, of cultured literary taste, and of no mean powers of mind. It was not a mere frivolous, foolish, prating sot who could appreciate the great qualities of Johnson, and devote himself to a friendship from which he derived no profit and little praise. And assuredly it was not by his unrivalled powers as a fool that Boswell has produced the best biography the world has yet seen. He was not only, as Macaulay admits, a man of quick observation and retentive memory, but he had also grasped with complete consciousness the true idea of biography, which he had learned from his great teacher. Johnson valued biography, because it gives us what comes home to ourselves ; he thought that no one could write a real life unless he had lived in social intercourse with the man of whom he wrote, and laid it down as the duty of a biographer to give a full account of the person whose life he is writing, and to discriminate him from all other persons, by any peculiarities of character or sentiment he may happen to have. All these hints were taken hold of and assimilated by Boswell, and the result was a biography which has no equal in our own or in any other literature, which, so far from losing its popularity, is as much esteemed now as when first given to the world, and on which it seems superfluous even to bestow laudation. Johnson was undoubtedly a great man, but he would never have been to us more than a mere name had it not been for Boswell's life. Through that life he is known to us as no other English writer is ; his faults and weaknesses, his grand powers of mind and rugged moral strength,—his whole personality is revised for us, We know him as he actually lived and moved among his fellow-men. The very lights and shades thrown on his character by the narrative give it additional force, for they convince us of its intense truth and reality. Nor is it only as a life of Johnson that Boswell's book has value for us ; it is the most important contribution yet made to a knowledge of actual living and thinking in the 18th century. "It is not speaking with exaggeration," says Carlyle, " but with strict measured sobriety, to say that this book of Boswell's will give us more real insight into the history of England, during those days, than twenty other books, falsely entitled ' Histories,' which take to themselves that special aim."

A short memoir of Boswell was written by Malone and will be found in Nichols Literary Anecdotes. It is also reprinted, with some extracts from Boswell's letters to Malone, in the edition of the Life published by Bohn, 1859. The Letters to W. J. Temple and Andrew Erskine were printed in 1857 ; in the introduction will be found a pretty complete notice of Boswell's minor writings. Boswelliana have been published in the second volume of the Philobiblon Society Miscellanies, 1855-6, and by Dr Charles Rogers, 1874. Editions of Boswell's great work are very numerous; perhaps the amended form of Croker's first edition, by Wright (Bohn, 10 vols., 1859), is the most helpful. The famous essays on Boswell by Macaulay and Carlyle may be taken as mutually corrective and supplementary.

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