Boswell’s Bowels

Neal Ascherson

  • James Boswell: The Later Years 1769-1795 by Frank Brady
    Heinemann, 609 pp, £20.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 434 08530 8

James Boswell created the ‘Age of Johnson’, rescuing the late 18th century, above all, for the Victorians. The Boswell industry at Yale University has given an ‘Age of Boswell’ to the 20th century. This second volume of the grand Frederick Pottle-Frank Brady biography marks the climax of that long achievement. Climax, but not end: in some country-house loft or uncleared bank vault, I would bet, lies the huge bundle which is the missing Johnson-Boswell correspondence. But that discovery, if and when it comes, can only ornament what has already been done. We know more about James Boswell than about any other human being who inhabited the earth two hundred years ago.

As Boswell’s journals and letters and papers came to light and were published, in that long treasure-hunt which began in 1927 at Malahide in Ireland, so most of the disparaging myths about him progressively fell away. After his death in 1795, it was said that he was so effectively locked out of good society after the publication of the Life of Johnson (1791) that he fell into solitary, alcoholic decline. This was as untrue as Mrs Thrale’s accusation that he dampened all social occasions by scribbling notes: it has now been shown that he relied mostly on his phenomenal memory. The Victorians, Carlyle in particular, saw him as an egregious little parasite or groupie, a useful but unworthy drainpipe through which the greatness of Dr Johnson had to flow to reach posterity. Today, the Journals allow Boswell’s own mind and perception to stand serious comparison with Montaigne. The reeling Scotch alcoholic has been replaced by a man who drank heavily and desperately, who was frequently very drunk, but who could at any time resign the habit and never suffered serious physical punishment as the result of it. The womaniser, not long ago described on the evidence of the Journals as a ‘satyriatic’ monster of lust, dissolves in the light of new studies of male sexual behaviour; Boswell was highly sexed, but certainly not a sexual athlete. Living in an Edinburgh and a London when pulling an amateur hooker off the street was easier and not much more expensive than buying a drink in a pub, Boswell was only exceptional in the candour with which he records his ‘inconsistencies’, as he liked to call them.

The Victorians were repelled by Boswell’s glorying in his own successes, by his conceit. ‘I had a full relish of life today ... I just sat and hugged myself in my own mind.’ Or ‘I was the great man ... in a suit of imperial blue, lined with rose-coloured silk, and ornamented with rich gold-wrought buttons. What a motley scene is life.’ This sort of thing is attractive in our own age, much impressed by male peacocks ‘in touch with their own feelings’. But one disparagement does stick even now. It is the charge that in the end there is something unpleasantly voyeurish about Boswell, a pathological hankering to goggle at extremes of mental and physical suffering – public executions, mournings, death-beds – and even to poke the fire a little if the flames were not lurid enough for his taste. This, too, is wrong. Boswell’s interest in such scenes sprang not from some unadmitted taste but from a search for something quite specific, which I’ll return to later.

The first volume of the biography, Pottle’s James Boswell: The Earlier Years, took him up to his marriage and the age of 30. The pattern of his life – and its central indecision, which was never to be resolved – had already been laid down. At one end of the still only precariously united kingdom, Boswell played the parts of an Edinburgh advocate and of a ‘young laird’ who was heir to the estates of Auchinleck. He was a reasonably successful lawyer, popular in the Faculty for his eloquence, wit and rakishness; he had figured in the greatest civil trial of his times, the ‘Douglas Cause’ over the rightful inheritance of one of Scotland’s most powerful dynasties. But there remained something amateurish about his approach to the law. Boswell worked hard enough on his briefs, but, as his colleagues felt, he took everything too much to heart; defeat in court, particularly in a murder case, was something he never learned to accept but treated as a personal disaster. As for his relationship with his father, who remarried on the same day that Boswell married Margaret Montgomerie, this was a very Scottish stew of boiling resentment and unrequited filial love. And at the other end of his life was London, opening onto the world itself.

At 27, Boswell had made himself famous with his Account of Corsica, after his visit to the island, and by his passionate support for Paoli’s vain struggle for independence: ‘I had got upon a rock in Corsica and jumped into the middle of life.’ That life was London, where Boswell felt free, appreciated, an accepted member of a brilliant society in which he could expand to his proper intellectual stature. He longed for what he called ‘the juiciness of the English mind’. He was already a close friend of Johnson and his circle. The seasonal character of his life – the depression and self-doubt which settled on him when he returned to Edinburgh and ‘duty’, the joyous sense of liberation when he set off on his annual journeys to the south – was now set.

This volume begins with Boswell taking pious resolutions: he was happy in his new marriage, he would be a good son, a reformed character, a diligent lawyer. Soon, however, envoys of excitement arrived from the south. Paoli came to stay, and then, in 1773, Samuel Johnson arrived to undertake the ‘Tour to the Hebrides’, the ‘transit of Johnson over the Caledonian hemisphere’. Brady cleverly discusses the journey itself, both as a pre-Romantic voyage to seek man in a state of nature (‘This is truly the patriarchal life; this is what we came to find,’ cried Johnson on Raasay), and as the material for the first non-sententious work of travel literature, written as much to entertain as to instruct. The lightweight naivety which Boswell assigns to himself in the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, taken literally by its readers, was an artifice. In the same way Boswell concealed his own complex feelings about his native land in order to appear in the Journal as a mediator between the Great Bear and a misunderstood Scotland, a mild patriot who could even regret the loss of national independence.

Boswell’s moral reform did not last long. Margaret emerges in this book as a steady, witty woman of strong independence whom he always loved and who remained generally tolerant of his furies and excesses (it was she who observed that in his diaries he was ‘embowelling himself’ for the future). But old habits soon revived: ‘You drank too much port. Night, sallied forth to New Bridge &c’; or ‘In my way – complete – for the first and I fancy last time – trial a few minutes’ – which means that Bozzy picked up a prostitute in the few yards which separated his home on the Lawn-market from the law courts in Parliament House. He began to drink again, sometimes throwing things about the house when he returned; he tried to control himself (never more than six glasses of wine at a time, he promised his friend Temple), but as Brady observes, he mistook the symptom for the cause. Boswell’s terrible depressions (‘hypochondria’) were not the consequence of drinking but its originator.

Old Lord Auchinleck grew even more insufferable, and there began the intricate and agonising dispute over the ‘Auchinleck Entail’. His father wanted to entail the Ayrshire estate on heirs male or female; Boswell, as eldest son, wanted it to be entailed upon heirs male descending from the founder of the family. But the question of property was not the real issue. As father and son well understood, old Auchinleck was telling his son that he did not trust him, while Boswell was frantically defending a masculine identity that he felt his father was trying to castrate. At one moment, Boswell threatened to cut his throat if the estate was left to ‘heirs whatsoever’; at another, he knelt alone on the ruins of the old Auchinleck castle, held a stone in his hands and swore that if the place passed to the wrongful heir, ‘this stone should swim in his heart’s blood.’ One doesn’t usually associate the suave Bozzy with the language of the Border ballads, or with the attitudes he recorded with civilised amusement when he encountered them among Hebridean chiefs. But Auchinleck’s Scotland, for all the David Humes and Adam Smiths and Hugh Blairs, still had one foot in times when family feuds were settled by the spear and the firing of houses. To the old taunt, Boswell’s guts responded in the old way.

Meanwhile Boswell went on wrestling vainly with his own choices in life. He wanted to be a Member of Parliament, but was altogether too independent and alarming to win the support of enough of the Ayrshire gentry. He courted a variety of patrons, ending up late in his life with the ogreish Lord Lonsdale, but Boswell was simply incapable of maintaining the required servility for long enough. The tension between London and Edinburgh, duty and delight, became increasingly hard to bear, and the culture shock of Scotland was more upsetting at each return. The vernacular directness of the old Edinburgh establishment, now so attractive in retrospect, disgusted him. He complained in his journal of ‘the coarse vulgarity around me ... Dr Blair accosted me with a vile tone: “Hoo did you leave Sawmuel?” ’

Samuel Johnson died in 1784, and Boswell’s next trip to London was a more feverish snatching at social and sensual experience than ever before. On the famous day of Friday 13 May, 1785, he made love to a whore twice before breakfasting with the Quakeress Mary Knowles, went to a Quaker meeting, watched Lunardi go up in a balloon, visited the Bedlam hospital, dined with a famous lawyer, found himself dead drunk singing songs in St Paul’s Churchyard with two girls in red cloaks, had his pocket picked, fell over in the street and was helped home by two gentlemen whose names he forgot. These overflows of ‘strong spirits’, as he called them, and constant – eventually chronic – venereal infections, never stopped him writing. Only depression, usually in Edinburgh, could do that. He kept up his private journals, wrote for five years an indifferent magazine column called ‘The Hypochondriack’, produced several open letters and pamphlets and wads of occasional verse whose badness he could never recognise. And out of all this, the two great books came. The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was published in 1785, the Life of Samuel Johnson LL D in 1791.

They were immediately successful. But Boswell’s own life was not transformed. Those who knew him continued to love him as a wonderful, slightly mad raconteur, and his impact on strangers did not diminish: ‘a kind of jovial bluntness in his manner which threw off all restraint’. But those who knew only the books went on thinking of him as a trifler and butterfly; the ponderous critics dismissed his fascination with physical detail as a token of inferior intellect. His personal life did not grow easier, even after inheriting Auchinleck. He transferred to the English Bar, but was not a great success there, and a solid ‘place’ continued to elude him. Margaret died in 1789, and Boswell’s children found it hard to acclimatise to London, where the daughters, especially, were despised as uncouth Scotch hobbledehoys. Always a Tory, his views grew crustier and more erratic. The French Revolution he regarded as ‘diablacy ... horrible anarchy’, and in 1791 he wrote a very silly poem called ‘No Abolition of Slavery’, arguing that slaves were grateful for their rescue from Africa, and getting hopelessly muddled in a figure about the analogy between love and enslavement. Yet Boswell did not end in the proverbial embitterment. When he died at 55, from uraemia brought on by venereal disease, death took him by surprise at the outset of a delightful London season. In his last letter to his son Sandy, he wrote:

In truth I am wonderfully happy at present. What a varied life do I lead! ... I am caressed without any interested view in this liberal metropolis. I have had one or two capital dinners at my house. I shall have some when you come.

From the Journals, there rushes to meet the reader this wonderfully happy Boswell, all candour and curiosity and delight in the passing moment. ‘When Boswell gets wine, his conversation consists all of questions,’ said Johnson affectionately, and at another time ranged Bozzy with ‘unaccountable volunteers in sincerity’. But a book like this, drawing on all the sources and filling in the unrecorded background, also brings into view something much less explicit and buried at a depth which Boswell’s short-wave self-analysis could not reach: his ‘hypochondria’ or unhappiness.

Down there, it is all Scotland. Boswell was nearly the first but very far from the last Scot to admit that he associated his native land with harshness, unkindness, the withholding of love. (Can one imagine a Czech or a Hungarian settled by choice in Habsburg Vienna who would feel in this way?) The ‘hypochondria’ is a sticky mass of interrelated factors fused together: his father, his sexuality, his fear of death and horror of predestination, the underlying significance of his journal. Auchinleck’s cruel, harrying attitude towards his own heir and the son’s desperate struggle to defend his own maleness form a recurrent Scottish script of which Weir of Hermiston offers only one of many versions. If Edinburgh was the citadel of grim, unforgiving fathers – Auchinleck glowering on the bench, while his son pleaded in vain for a client’s life – London came to offer a loving, understanding ‘female’ principle to James Boswell. Against such a background, the drives of Boswell’s sexuality become clearer, both the incessant chasing after sex, with his marked preference for women classifiable as inferiors or ‘degraded’, and the stormy, infantile dependence upon Margaret. These were power games as much as sensual relaxations. Boswell became wary and emitted smoke-screens of false sentiment when confronted with a genuinely independent woman of his own social level. Nor do we really know, in spite of all the lubricious epithets, what Boswell was like in bed. The only missing pages of the journal which might matter are those about his affair with Thérèse Le Vasseur, Rousseau’s mistress. The late Colonel Ingham, the greatest collector of Boswelliana, used to say that Lady Talbot of Malahide threw them on the fire in 1927 because they were too disgusting, but that he had read them first: they disclosed that Thérèse told Boswell he was a rotten, inconsiderate lover and, much to his discomfort, tried to teach him better practice. Other scholars adduce evidence to suggest that Colonel Ingham was just taking his imagination for a gallop: Lady Talbot swore she had never set eyes on the missing pages, let alone burned them. One would like to know, all the same.

Brady insists on the literalness of 18th-century belief in the after-life, judgment, damnation; in Scotland especially, to think of the period as one of Augustan agnosticism is utterly misleading. One of the consequences of Boswell’s humiliation by his father was to exaggerate his terror of extinction: this is the true explanation for his attendance at executions, for his habit of hanging around his clients in the last hours before their hanging, for his extraordinary visits to Hume and Kames to cross-question and provoke them about the sensation of facing imminent death. He knew exactly what he was looking for. He wanted repentings, deathbed returns to the Christian fold, eyes glowing with assurance of hope even on the scaffold. What he most dreaded was what he got from David Hume: placid, apparently good-humoured acceptance that identity – physical and spiritual – ended with death. In his book The Needs of Strangers, Michael Ignatieff turns to this episode and comments: ‘to the extent that most of us die now without religious consolation, we may fail to understand Boswell’s terror when he watched a man die in this new way. For terror it genuinely was, and not just a voyeur’s shiver of pleasure.’ Ignatieff emphasises the way Boswell reacted, spending a fierce night with whores before going to watch Hume’s funeral, making love to another woman in a shed behind Hume’s house off St Andrews Square, dreaming, finally, that Hume had left a paper recanting all his atheism and recognising the truth of religion.

Closely related to this was Boswell’s panic about the problem of free will and determinism, or ‘Liberty and Necessity’. He could not either admit or escape the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination and election, and he identified his moods of horror about the possibility that he might be ‘a mere machine or a reprobate from all eternity’ as the true source of his ‘hypochondria’. Even the spectacle of resignation frightened him. John Reid, one of his clients condemned to death for sheep-stealing, proved so passive and indifferent when Boswell went to see him in the Tolbooth condemned cell that he tried to hire a ‘resurrection’ gang to take Reid’s body from the gallows and attempt its revival.

Like many great diarists, Boswell never quite worked out what his journals were for. At one level, he could write of them as a sort of moral logbook, very much in the 17th-century Puritan tradition: ‘As a lady adjusts her dress before a mirror, a man adjusts his character by looking at his journal.’ Some hope! Going a little deeper, he sometimes considered the journals as a means to immortality (remember how scared he was that there might be no other). It was what Margaret wittily called ‘embowelling himself’, but Boswell preferred to name ‘leaving myself embalmed. It is certainly preserving myself.’ And there were moments when he asked the most startling question of all: was his journal for his life, or his life for the journal? Once he wrote:

I should live no more than I can record, as one should not have more corn growing than one can get in. There is a waste of good if it be not preserved. And yet perhaps if it serve the purpose of immediate felicity, that is enough. The world would not hold pictures of all the pretty women who have lived in it and gladdened mankind; nor would it hold a register of all the agreeable conversations which have passed. But I mean to record only what is excellent.

The question was put, but not answered.

If there could be an answer, it would be found in the startling prominence of the journal in Boswell’s very Protestant fantasies about rebirth, about an escape from his own soiled identity. A man who achieved this, Boswell reflected, would have to throw away ‘all the accessories of his identity, all his books, all his connections with a particular place ... and retaining only his consciousness and reminiscence start into a state of existing quite new’. But what was the essential dog-tag, the most important ‘accessory of identity’? In 1777, he wrote: ‘I had lately a thought that appeared new to me: that by burning all my journal and all my written traces of former life, I should be like a new being.’ Journalising as the original sin? Looking back at Auchinleck’s lost Garden, Boswell heard his journal telling him that he was naked.