There is a sinister painting by the 18th-century artist Francis Hayman of a couple frolicking on a seesaw. A youth soars triumphantly into the air, but his hold seems precarious. His female companion descends smilingly to the ground, only to tumble back into the lascivious arms of another man. Altogether an appropriately ambivalent emblem, one might think, for the vicissitudes that James Boswell would experience throughout his life, and the turbulence of his reputation since his death.
It was not just a case of the man’s temperament being volatile and manic, his daily memoranda to himself shifting suddenly from ‘You got up dreary as a dromedary’ or ‘What am I?’ to: ‘Mr Boswell! Why, how fine you are!’ Nor was it just that his career rose only to fall and – falling – often promptly rebounded. Born in 1740, the heir of a cool, clever Lowland laird and lawyer, he became very rapidly a young literary lion, an acquaintance of Rousseau and Voltaire, the close friend, not just of Samuel Johnson, but of a broad sample of London’s cultural and fashionable élite, the celebrated biographer of the Corsican nationalist, Pasquale Paoli, a man, or so it seemed, to watch. Yet Boswell repeatedly failed. He failed to get into the Guards. He failed at both the Scottish and the English Bar. He failed, for a long time, to follow up his first book with anything more substantial. He failed to become a Member of Parliament or to obtain a government post. It was only the death of his father in 1782, followed two years later by that of his father-figure, Johnson, which seems to have freed him to write himself into fame. His Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was published in October 1785. The first edition of his Life of Johnson, ‘one of the best books in the world’, as the Edinburgh Review promptly hailed it, appeared less than six years later.
Yet even this belated success proved insufficient to secure for him either a happy old age or a stable reputation. Boswell died two hundred years ago in 1795, leaving behind a massive cache of highly personal manuscripts in the hope that their publication would pay his debts, finance his children and perpetuate his name. Instead, the frankness of some of their content caused them to be hidden away for more than a century, Boswell’s Victorian descendants even allowing it to be thought that all of the papers had perished in a fire. Boswell himself came increasingly to be remembered only as a foolish parasite on Johnson’s greatness, a ‘tomtit twittering on an eagle’s back’, as Peter Pindar had called him.
Then, in 1925, the seesaw that had always been Boswell’s fate tilted once again. That year saw the beginning of one of three remarkable American initiatives, all linked in some way to Yale University, that would considerably enrich understanding of and interest in 18th-century Britain. At much the same time as Paul Mellon was avidly seeking out the sort of Georgian art that many British collectors ignored, and Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis was buying up the letters and ephemera of the then neglected figure, Horace Walpole, a Yale historian whose very name trumpeted Anglophilic Waspdom, Chauncey B. Tinker, tracked down Boswell’s papers to Malahide Castle in Ireland. Initially, his pleas to be allowed access to them were turned down. But other, equally determined Yalies followed, and Boswell’s long-lost papers began fitfully to emerge, in an ebony cabinet, a croquet box, a stable loft. By 1949, some ten thousand items relating to the Boswell family had been purchased by Yale University Library, where teams of scholarly editors have been working on them ever since. The first publication based on them, Boswell’s London Journal, caught the media’s attention when it was published in 1950 and sold more than a million copies.
It is easy to see why. The book’s sexual episodes, which seemed naughtier then than they do now, clearly helped. But even more important was the picaresque image it conveyed of 18th-century London, its bustle, colour and easy violence: taverns and clubs seething with wit and brilliance from the likes of Johnson, David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke, courtly politicians, cheerful whores, fine lords and ladies, down-at-heel actresses, a time of ‘free-flowing claret and sexual anarchy’, as Roger Hutchinson puts it. Strutting and tumbling through it all – and, of course concocting this vision, which was scarcely a comprehensive one – was James Boswell himself, with whom the editors were evidently entranced.
The London Journal is no longer in print, perhaps because this particular version of the 18th century has ceased to compel as it once did. Moreover, now that the excitement attached to the treasure hunt for his papers and their triumphant rediscovery has ebbed, approaches to Boswell have altered and deepened. I myself have never found him a particularly attractive figure, though this may be a function of my gender. Contrary to what is often supposed, Boswell was never very interested in, as distinct from obsessed with, women. His journals and letters rarely recorded female conversations for their own sake. With the exception of Belle de Zuylen, who kept him carefully at arm’s length, he tended to ridicule clever women (like Hester Thrale), or put them down with an unreliable anecdote or two (as with Mrs Macaulay). His sexual partners were generally his social inferiors and suitably deferential, women to whom he did not need to write or even talk. Even his wife, whom he loved and naturally selected from his own social class, was sufficiently old and sufficiently un-portioned to remain always grateful and undemanding. As Hutchinson recognises in his pleasantly-written and often perceptive interpretation of Boswell’s life, it was men – not women – on whom Boswell chose to lavish his time and full seductive power. Just as it has almost always been men who (as here) have chosen to write about him and scrutinise his words.
‘Open your door ... Sir, to a man that dares to tell you that he deserves to enter it’: thus Boswell’s successful pass at Rousseau. With Johnson, the famous initial come-on in 1763 took the form of a childlike ingenuousness, melting the childless widower while simultaneously holding out to him the promise of endless opportunities for bullying and repartee: ‘Mr Johnson ... I do indeed come from Scotland; but I cannot help it.’ It is not cynical thus to analyse exactly how Boswell selected and deployed words or, rather, how he recorded that he used them: it is essential. Here, after all, was a man who firmly believed that he could have no existence outside of the text: ‘I should live no more than I can record.’ Everything he wrote, perhaps everything he did, was performed with future readers firmly in mind. And he expected them to appreciate the double-bluff with which he beguiled so many brilliant men: the fact that his charm and apparent artlessness were camouflage for an unusually intuitive intelligence, and that this fairly obvious concealment of his cleverness was itself another aspect of his powerful charm. He would repeatedly clown, and record his clowning unblushingly for posterity, but as he wrote in the dedication to the Life of Johnson, he trusted that ‘I should be liberally understood as knowing very well what I was about.’
Marshall Waingrow’s remarkable new research edition of the Life, which follows on from his earlier edition of Boswell’s correspondence in connection with the Life, allows us to unpick as never before this writer’s use and exploitation of language. The original manuscript, as Waingrow writes, was a ‘concatenation of segments’, more than one thousand frequently altered pages, plus additional material which sometimes the printer absorbed, and sometimes not. This edition shows us the permutations, the sections inserted and left out, the alternative version (often versions) of particular sentences, the choice of words Boswell agonised over, the sources of his information. There are hundreds of learned notes on the text, and notes on Boswell’s own notes. But it is ‘the process of the composition’ that is almost exclusively concentrated on in this volume (three more are promised). Readers who want full elucidation of the places, names and historical events cited in the book will have to turn to other editions. Given the extent and detail of what Professor Waingrow has achieved, the omission of such workaday information is understandable. But one still regrets it, because reading the Life in this form, once one gets used to the intricate typography, is absorbing.
The familiar problems and peculiarities of the biography emerge yet again in this edition. Boswell did not seek to show Johnson developing over time, but as brilliant and special from his childhood, carried home from school on the shoulders of admiring fellow pupils. The balance of the work is tilted alarmingly in favour of that period of Johnson’s life in which Boswell knew him, which was after the Dictionary and his reputation had already been made. And while the great man’s famous conversations and retorts undoubtedly made and still make the book, they arguably over-dominate it. Boswell chose not to explore in any depth or detail either the roots of his subject’s creativity, or the darker sides of his personality. He could endorse Plutarch’s principle that the biographer should include less than dignified details about his subject to the extent of recording Johnson’s repellent table manners, the sweat that poured down his face as he ate, the noise of his tongue clicking against his teeth. But analysing his sexual frustrations, or his lurking fear of death, or his possible insanity – the kind of issues, in other words, that dominate most late 20th-century literary biography – this was not Boswell’s way.
Instead, and entirely characteristically, he chose to tell his subject largely through his own words, or rather through his own and others’ accounts of those words. If only for this reason, an edition of the Life which concentrates on the text and its permutations is invaluable for reconstructing just how Boswell constructed Johnson. It naturally also reveals a great deal about the mind of his biographer. We can see, for example, how class-bound Boswell always remained, the massive importance to him of belonging to a landed dynasty. There is his diatribe against Johnson’s friends, Henry Thrale, a successful brewer and MP, and his wife Hester, which was even fiercer in an earlier draft than in the printed version. ‘The too rapid advance of men of low extraction,’ wrote Boswell enviously, ‘tends to lessen the value of ... birth and gentility.’ Still: ‘the general and established feelings of human nature cry out “un gentilhomme est toujours gentilhomme.”’ As for Johnson himself, the final version of the biography would describe his ancestry as ‘obscure’. But, as this edition shows, what Boswell initially wanted to write was ‘low’. By the same token, the finished biography had Johnson being not ‘well-dressed’. But, in an earlier draft, he was not ‘well-bred’. Why Boswell felt obliged to soften his snobbery when he came to publish in this fashion is an interesting piece of social history.
Although so different in their social origins, Boswell and Johnson were united – and their friendship, I suspect, cemented – by a joint sense of being on the run from marginality and narrowness. In Johnson’s case, the spur was the memory of small-town, Midland society and poverty, while for Boswell there was the compulsive need to flee from a small northern country, a stern Presbyterian father, and Edinburgh’s legal establishment. Travel, for both men, was delectable because it was a means of escape, but also because it provided ultimate reassurance that escape had indeed been successfully accomplished. One of Hutchinson’s shrewdest observations is that Boswell’s London Journal needs to be read at one level as a travel book, as the euphoric account of a less-than-innocent finally and joyously abroad. As he points out, much of Boswell’s subsequent writing would be about journeys, to Holland, to Italy, to Corsica, and finally to the Highlands. As for Johnson, so often and erroneously viewed only in terms of London, Boswell claimed in the Life that ‘an enquiry into the state of foreign countries’ always deeply interested him. Certainly, Johnson desperately craved Continental travel, partly as an emblem of those social and cultural privileges from which his background had excluded him. Near his death, there is evidence that he was even allowing himself to think of a journey to India, one very last chance to escape.
In his clever and original study, The Transit of Caledonia, Pat Rogers examines not just these personal compulsions, but also the more intellectual roots of the two men’s shared cult of travel. He gives us a series of essays, written at different times and just occasionally duplicating material, but together drawing out the broader significance of the famous tour of the Highlands and Islands in 1773. He suggests that, in Johnson’s case, this was ‘an autumn journey’, a conscious response on his part to the fact that he had reached the climacteric of his 63rd year. But he also places the journey in the context of the great Pacific explorations of Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks, and not just because they were personally known to Boswell and Johnson on the London celebrity circuit. Just as Cook and his crew scoured the Pacific islands with scientific and anthropological as well as colonial intent so, Rogers argues, Johnson deliberately uprooted himself from metropolitan culture, and ‘went north to see savage culture in its clearest expression’.
Rogers’s discussion of these connections is a sophisticated and rewarding one. And he is certainly right to argue that Johnson, like so many other Enlightenment figures, was fascinated by ‘exotic’ cultures, their customs and language-patterns. But while Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles, together with Boswell’s subsequent Tour, can be profitably read against this period’s plethora of other travel and exploration narratives, any comparisons between 18th-century responses to the Pacific and to the Highlands obviously need to be made with great care. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Highland Scots, like Gaelic Irishmen, were sometimes likened to Native Americans and other ‘primitive’ and tribal peoples by Lowland Scottish and English observers alike. But only up to a point. As the revisionist Irish historian Sean Connolly has remarked, drawing too many analogies between the so-called Celtic fringe and subject, colonial peoples fell and falls down on the fact that the inhabitants of the former had white skins. Because of this, even the most bigoted spectator in the past was usually sensitive to the claims of the different social gradations in these lands, as distinct from dismissing them as uniformly and racially retrograde. Thus while Boswell (not Johnson, note) compared some boatmen off the Isle of Skye to ‘wild Indians’, this was in large part because they were only boatmen. Confronted with Highland chieftains, by contrast, or Flora MacDonald of Jacobite fame, both men turned into uncritically admiring pussy-cats.
Indeed, Rogers’s two last substantial chapters suggest that the Highland tour of 1773 needs most to be interpreted in the context of the marked growth of internal tourism in the British Isles in the second half of the 18th century, the rediscovery and, some would say, the re-invention of Wales (which Johnson would visit in 1774) and Northern Scotland. Coming to terms with the Highlands was vital as far as Boswell especially was concerned. As Rogers astutely points out, it was he who planned the itinerary, and ensured that it shadowed much of the Young Pretender’s retreat in 1746. Following in the steps of Stuart adventure, sleeping where Charles Edward Stuart had slept, dressing Johnson up in bonnet and broadsword, was not just self-indulgence on Boswell’s part, but a way of proving to himself and to his absent but always censorious father that he, Boswell, remained a true Scot, that London had not seduced him quite from his original identity. Away from the capital and sophisticated eyes, Johnson and Boswell put on their holiday selves, played games of self-revelation, betrayed to each other the ways in which they were, after a fashion, Jacobite. Knowing all the while that Jacobitism was dead, and that it did not matter.
Once he sat down to write for the market, Boswell naturally tilted back towards orthodox Unionism. Great Britain, he would declare in the Tour, was ‘our great native island’; ‘we are one people’ he would insist in the Life. But it was acutely difficult thus to solidify and simplify his turbulent self. When one looks at how he recorded in his later journals the daily slog of churning out the pages, his straight-forward descriptions seem more like honest affirmations of pain: ‘Laboured at Life all day,’ he wrote in 1787. And, again, ‘Some Life, but still hyp’d.’