The night that I didn’t get drunk

Claude Rawson

  • Boswell: The English Experiment 1785-1789 edited by Irma Lustig and Frederick Pottle
    Heinemann, 332 pp, £30.00, February 1987, ISBN 0 434 08130 2
  • The Converse of the Pen: Acts of Intimacy in the 18th-Century Familiar Letter by Bruce Redford
    Chicago, 252 pp, £21.25, January 1987, ISBN 0 226 70678 8
  • Printing Technology, Letters and Samuel Johnson by Alvin Kernan
    Princeton, 357 pp, £19.70, February 1987, ISBN 0 691 06692 2

Boswell struts on. The English Experiment is the twelfth volume of his private papers to appear in the Yale Edition in the 37 years since the so-called London Journal 1762-1763 created its naughty little sensation. Only one more is due in the present series (there is a Research Edition too, but that is another and longer story), which will take us to his death, aged 54, in 1795. Perhaps the strut is becoming a waddle. The self-absorption and mediocrity of mind remain unabated, but he says that he’s ‘not so greedy of great people as I used to be’. This didn’t mean passing up the particular social opportunity then on offer, and later, when Mr Ramus the King’s page invited him to St James’s, he noted: ‘Formerly I should have jumped at such an opening. I am now too far advanced. Yet I may go.’ It’s like Crusoe feeling he can’t use the ship-wrecked money but then deciding to keep it, accelerated to the tempo of farce. One isn’t sure whether the social climbing has abated or whether a need to say so has developed: the distinction may be a fine one. Sometimes flagging energies merely take the form of talking about flagging energies.

Another change which has been coming over him in these later years is that his acts of ‘conjugal intercourse’ are now usually signalled by a dash, which began to replace the Greek letter π after May 1780. In this volume he also obtains solace of a less π-ious kind with ‘M.C.’, an adventuress called Margaret Caroline Rudd, whom he had sought out nine years earlier – at which time ‘she had been acquitted of a charge of forgery when she turned King’s evidence’, while her accomplices were sent to the gallows. Boswell’s sexuality was frequently roused by the scabrous situations to which his legal interests, as well as his insatiable quasi-voyeuristic curiosity, drew him. He was an assiduous attender at public executions, and earlier diaries record his need for a sexual outlet to the emotions aroused there.

Boswell’s habit of frequenting the gallows seems to have declined in the present volume, perhaps another index of flagging powers, and the febrile priapism that used to accompany the deaths of others seems also to have receded. But the affair with M.C., which had been triggered by the forensic frisson of a criminal trial, ended in a deliciously morbid amalgam of guilty nightmare (for him) and legal imprisonment (for her). On 29 May 1787 Boswell reports having ‘dreamt of M. M. [Mrs Boswell] and M.C. contending for me’. ‘This heated my fancy, and the flame being increased by wine’, he guiltily went to M.C.’s residence, where he ‘fortunately’ did not find her, for she was ‘now in the Fleet Prison’. He left word ‘(absurdly enough) ... that Mr Parr had called,’ an odd subconscious aggression, perhaps, against Samuel Parr, ‘the Whig Dr Johnson’, with whom as it happens he dined later in the volume, and who himself spoke of writing a life of Johnson. Boswell apparently never saw M.C. again and the callous frivolity both of his behaviour and of his report is capped with brutal economy in an editorial note: ‘this is the last mention of Mrs Rudd in the journal. She lived until 1797.’ Another footnote intended for this passage is missing, signalling an unusual loss of editorial cool. But Boswell, reporting nightmare, guilt, inebriation, arousal, relief and disappointment, loses no cool, his prose, at such times, freezing to a kind of morbid anaesthesia.

The self-absorption, the proneness to erotomanic bizarrerie, the display of young doggishness demanding to be loved, the simultaneous apathy towards the feelings of others, are reminiscent of Dylan Thomas, that other priapic show-off descending on London from an Anglo-Celtic metropolis, except that the earlier incarnation seems to have consummated his amours more often than the later, and didn’t to his credit go in very much for ‘portraying’ himself as an ‘artist’. But his critics and editors do it for him, though the editors of the present volume seem prepared to confine the claim to his published writings (in particular the Life of Johnson, on which Boswell was working in these years), where it belongs if at all. The tendency of some earlier volumes, as well as of some other critical discussions (the most recent being Bruce Redford’s), to assimilate Boswell’s personal writings to the art of the novelist or playwright, or to the conventions of formally crafted rhetoric, is here subdued. But the volume shares with the rest of the series a straining to impose a quasi-novelistic ‘artistry’ on what Boswell mainly rendered as a daily flow of circumstance. The titles repeatedly enforce the impression: Boswell in Search of a Wife, The Ominous Years, Boswell in Extremis. The latest book is called The English Experiment because Boswell was in these years ‘committing himself in mid-life to the most significant decision of his career: a permanent removal from the Scottish to the English bar’. But in fact the ‘commitment’ is throughout this period blurred by almost daily vacillations, and London was in any case ‘where since early manhood he had wished to centre his existence, preferably as a Member of Parliament’, so that he can be thought to have been engaged for most of his adult life on his ‘English experiment’.

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