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’.

The title-page’s years 1785-1789 are also not as tidy as they look. The volume actually runs from 12 November 1785 to 3 July 1789, a grouping which reflects but an editorial hankering for narrative climaxes and closures. The volume ends with an important death, that of Mrs Boswell, as the two preceding volumes reached their climaxes with the deaths of Boswell’s father and of Johnson respectively. Lord Kames, another great man whose biography Boswell was planning to write, died near the beginning of the last volume, so that it has the additional imposed symmetry of beginning and ending with the death of a potential biographee: that volume closes with the Tour to the Hebrides and Boswell’s plan to take his time over the full-scale account of Johnson in the Life.

Although the editors begin or end a volume in mid-year or even in mid-month, they operate differently within the volume, where each year is typographically displayed on a fresh page and as a fresh start, whatever the actual course of events seems to call for. Paradoxically, this works towards the same effect of ‘form’ where none exists, with typography and lay-out suggesting the opening of a chapter or the beginning of a story, whereas what is happening is merely Boswell’s next day. Thus 1788 begins: ‘It was a very wet day. So we only went through the house. When he came into my room, which had once been his own, “Here,” said he ...’ Neither Boswell nor anyone else would ever have begun a journal, or even a fresh section of one, in this way, without for example formally identifying the ‘he’. ‘He’ is here the gracelessly bossy Earl of Lonsdale, with whom Boswell is staying at Whitehaven, and the entry, far from making any sort of start, merely picks up (on the same page of Boswell’s manuscript at Yale) from the previous day’s ‘He dragged me on so slowly along the quays ... We dined tolerably and had tea and supper.’

If the story-like lay-out is editorial, however, the last phrase may remind us more substantively of Pamela or even of Shamela, and critics have before now gone in for comparing Boswell’s style with that of epistolary heroines. Boswell’s diet is frequently reported on with a mixture of Shamelaic gusto and Pamelian solemnity: ‘went ... and had tea and dry toast and butter’. Even Bruce Red-ford, who disclaims any attempt ‘to trace connections between letter-writing in “real life” and the development of epistolary fiction’, likes to speak of Boswell the letter-writer as ‘heir of Richardson and Sterne’ in his ‘writing to the moment’. Piquancies of self-consciousness – as when Boswell, like Pamela, broods fondly over his scribbling or worries about detection, or when he speaks of himself in ways that evoke a heroine in a flutter, or describes the King approaching towards him as a sort of beaming incarnation of Squire Allworthy – are products of his novel-reading only in so far as novels provide a rhetoric or a situational model, only partly unconscious, for dramatising himself to himself: he more than once compared himself explicitly with novel-heroes, or with Aeneas or Macheath. There is no more ‘artistry’ in such things than there is in the fact that the manuscript sometimes breaks off in mid-entry, in a fortuitous resemblance to the Shandean prototype.

Boswell’s ego easily matched Sterne’s or Shandy’s. The fact that they wrote for an audience and he only for himself is less of a difference than it might seem, for he was his own audience and liked to stage himself in framed postures. He was a widely read man and his self-dramatising was thus often literary, whether by instinct or design. But these were modes of self-projection, not means of organisation. The idea was not to exercise technical mastery but to tickle up the display of self. Significantly, his instinct in such cases is to liken himself not to the writer but to the hero or heroine. So little did he think of himself as an artist that even when he could legitimately present himself as one, as in reporting his work on the Life of Johnson, he tended to dwell on the factual or circumstantial aspects (soliciting information, collecting papers, sorting) rather than on processes of composition or considerations of technique. Once or twice writing the life is seen not as an activity of any sort but as the happy cause of social invitations which would not otherwise have been forthcoming (e.g. ‘The occasion of my being at length invited to his house was my being engaged in writing Dr Johnson’s Life’). If writing the Life had any internal dimension, it seems on the evidence of these diaries to have been confined to such satisfactions, or to statements of feeling about rival biographers: Hawkins, with whom he met ‘in perfect good humour’, or Mrs Thrale, whose correspondence with Johnson bruised his self-esteem. Wilkes took ‘a mischievous pleasure’ in pointing out the offending passages, and Malone ‘thought better’ of the Johnson-Thrale letters than Boswell hoped, with the result that eventually ‘they improved upon me.’ He was easily influenced, and his resentments didn’t run very deep (that’s part of what is sometimes described as his charm).

But on the whole, with his Johnsonian labours, we learn more of the facts than of the feelings, and the facts often belong to the same order of banality as his shorthand reports of ‘conjugal intercourse’ or drinking bouts. He worked on the Life some days, and on others didn’t. If you’re lucky, you might be given a reason: ‘I grew so much hipped that I could not write any Life.’ A lot of energy went into recording non-events: ‘Did not get drunk’ is a typical entry. One day at Lancaster Assizes some legal wags tricked Boswell by leaving a ‘feigned brief’ at his lodgings. Boswell records the humiliation, though briefly (perhaps, the editors surmise, from shame). A later account by a participant reports that the prank was executed after Boswell had been found lying drunk on the pavement. The editors doubt this partly because the journal had not specifically recorded drunkenness on the night in question. This might suggest a naive conception of the nature of evidence, except that in Boswell’s case the inference seems right. And anyway he virtually did say he was sober: ‘Dined at the mess moderately,’ an elegant variation on ‘not drunk’. Even not making journal entries called for journal entries, as in the section headed ‘View of My Life till 1 November 1786 When No Diary’.

In the journals, as in the published writings, including the Life, Boswell’s gift was for the situational mise-en-scène: he created happenings, triggered confrontations, engineered conversations. It’s the event and not primarily the writing-up that brought ‘artistry’ into play. He could do it brilliantly, as in an earlier volume, where an opportunity is seized of eliciting an account of Johnson’s sexuality from Mrs Desmoulins. If the account reads stylishly, this seems to be because the event was stylishly manufactured. The episode was marked Tacenda – ‘to be kept silent’ – and was almost wholly edited out of the Life of Johnson. A good deal of editing and even of crafting went into the transmission of an episode from private journal to published biography, so that it’s possible to talk of the artistry of the Life without seeming to have abandoned one’s sense of reality, though many of the episodes in the Life were themselves first created by Boswell as happenings, in the manner of the unpublished Tacenda.

There was a variant and seemingly opposite process in which Boswell might re-imagine an event so as to bring Johnson out in a more central or impressive role. In an interesting new book, Printing Technology, Letters and Samuel Johnson, Alvin Kernan compares two treatments, familiar to specialists, of the scene in the King’s Library where, according to Boswell’s Life, George III went up to Johnson and, after hearing his opinions on various matters, pressed him to write ‘the literary biography of this country’. The other account, known as the Caldwell Minute, ‘probably dictated by Johnson to a copyist shortly after the event’, offers a less spectacular version. Instead of going straight to Johnson, the King first ‘talked for some time to other persons’: ‘And instead of Boswell’s magnificent conclusion in which the King withdraws leaving the great cham in serene possession of the library and of English letters, the Minute tells us that “a visit from the Princess Dowager put at end to the Conversation.” ’ Boswell used this account, rewriting the record not with a view to making the narrative clearer, tidier or more vivid, but in order to convert the event itself into what he would have wished it to be, had he had the planning and management of the situation. It is, if you like, a ‘true’ report of that.

Kernan goes too far in insisting that Boswell ‘created’ Johnson out of his own ‘needs and art’, though he builds on a fine observation by Hugo Reichard in an article of 1980 about Johnson’s need to be ‘started’: ‘in conversation, on journeys, to dinners and on writing’. Towering personality though Johnson was, there was in him a strain of indolence and passivity that made him strangely manipulable by his friends, and especially adaptable to the inspired productions of a gadfly social impresario like Boswell. The force and individuality of his character could be relied on to generate a good show, and Boswellian ‘veracity’ was presumably assisted by the fact that Johnson’s ‘language was so accurate, and his sentences so neatly constructed, that his conversation might have been all printed without any correction’. This wasn’t said by Boswell, as Kernan thinks, but by one of his informants. But it was a widely held view, shared by Fanny Burney.

Boswell’s belief in his own scrupulous and carefully researched truthfulness contained an element of wishful thinking, as well as obscuring the fact, which scholars have since uncovered, that the Life was as much a work of shaping and interpretation as of reportage. He took trouble to check out his facts, but he had a point of view and also a large capacity for self-deception. If an episode did not wholly conform to what he might more or less consciously have planned for it, his ‘veracity’ might take the form of a precise imagining of what was meant to have happened. The Johnson of the Life is partly the product of situations he had created and partly of other situations as he would have created them if he could.

Boswell planned his scenes, whether or not they might enter into his literary projects. His whole life was a continuous stage-management. As in earlier diaries, for example, we see him here resolving ‘to be seen well received at Court’. Like Johnson, he gets spoken to by the King, though this time Boswell doesn’t say he’s ‘in a flutter’. Not all the stagings went according to plan or were fully worked out in advance. But there was a continuous feeling for situations likely to eventuate as set-pieces, and ‘literary’ stylisation in the writing-up was a more or less instinctive formalisation of the arranged quality of the event or of an expost facto view of it.

His amour with M.C. was as likely to have its stage-managed aspects as were his dealings with more noble persons. His social voyeurism was easily converted into self-voyeurism, and he took a prurient interest in submitting the underworld of his own love-life to the witting or unwitting gaze of others, turning it into a spectacle of which he formed part of the audience. He engineered an elaborate conversational manoeuvre designed to trick Lord Raw-don, an aristocratic kinsman of the lady, into acknowledging a family connection with her. He was very pleased with his ‘great address’ and the fact that it ‘had a fine effect’ when he told her about it. A day or two later, however, he was less successful, ‘raving’ about M.C. to a Mrs Stuart, whose husband ‘said he would think of her only as a w – re. I was shocked by his hardness.’

Perhaps in this, too, he was losing his touch. Or perhaps being embarrassed was merely an inverse way of creating a ‘fine effect’. Entries like ‘It was observed I was quite dull,’ or ‘unable to make a good figure’, or simply ‘Was awkward’, are not rare. Discomfitures may be just as much of a spectacle as social triumphs, and have the same power to make a person feel centre-stage. Exposure to embarrassment is a natural consequence of Boswell’s search for éclat and the frequency of the experience suggests that he may not have been above courting it. He would go to almost any lengths to be the centre of attention, even if this entailed the opposite of ‘being seen’: he once left a room in which he sensed that people were talking about him, merely in order that they might not stop.

His guileless effrontery and his vast capacity for gaucherie seem related to this. When all his other efforts to ingratiate himself with Lord Chancellor Thurlow were met with sardonic gruffness, Boswell resorted to retailing a Johnsonian compliment to the senior judge, in case ‘I may die or your Lordship may die before my Life of Dr Johnson is published.’ He seemed surprised that Lord Monboddo, the anthropological writer, did not return his greeting, although Boswell had recently described him in print as a ‘grotesque philosopher, whom ludicrous fable represents as going about avowing his hunger, and wagging his tail, fain to become cannibal, and eat his deceased brethren’. Such obtuseness must have been sustained by a positive appetite for rebuff. Common self-esteem might blunt a normal awareness of the oddity of his own reactions, but there seems to have been a connoisseurship in the courting of ridicule which reflects a schizoid detachment from himself.

An anaesthetised penchant for self-scrutiny extends to his most intimate and tenderest feelings. Twice in less than a week he reports: ‘found a ... letter from my dear wife. I adored her’; ‘I came home and found two ... letters from her. I worshipped her.’ The past tense of ‘adored’ and ‘worshipped’ is striking, as if he had momentarily activated a continuous state which at other times maintained its existence in some kind of suspension from himself. He cannot mean that he no longer ‘adores’ her, or didn’t previously, or that these feelings are discrete events like finding the letters. But he writes as though he can call them up whenever appropriate, framed in a tableau which abstracts them from their own hidden continuity, rather like scenes described in some modern photograph poems. Genuine and durable and loving though these feelings are, they come up on almost equal terms with any other state that happened to be in play and are instantly relinquishable. Thus the second passage goes on: ‘The General being to dine abroad, I was unsettled and uneasy where to dine.’

To move around one’s own emotional life with such unselective freedom presupposes, as I’ve suggested, a certain cool detachment from one’s strongest and one’s most trivial sentiments alike. Many of Boswell’s ‘novelistic’ self-portrayals are extensions on another plane of the same predisposition to observe himself from the outside. It seemed necessary in various ways for him to think of himself as an outsider, even where (in some cases especially where) this entailed a sense of rejection or incomplete acceptance. His social climbing appears to be aimed at being treated less as an equal than as a sort of accredited upstart, so that he might retain an outsider’s role even when received as an insider. When Burke was ‘quite easy and polite’ to him, Boswell ‘felt that I was now wonderfully up in the scale of literary and intellectual society’: as late as 1788, after years of association with the entire Johnson circle, Boswell clearly still thinks of himself not as belonging but as having arrived. One gets the same impression when he records his social rather than his literary progress: though ‘fluttered somewhat’, he proudly announces to his wife that his guests include ‘an earl and a bishop’ as well as literary and artistic luminaries, but he reflects that he ‘must have an English [servant]’.

Being a Scotsman in England provided the most effective and continuous framework for feeling simultaneously outside and in. ‘My English connection must be jealously cultivated.’ He meant this at every level, professional, social and personal, and was prepared to sacrifice his private affections in the cause. He never got over the wonder of being accepted. ‘I ... could not but think within myself how wonderful it was that I was now so easy and even confidential in an English town,’ he says in this volume, just as several years earlier he had reported feeling ‘quite as I could wish: an agreeable Scotch gentleman creditably received by an English judge’.

English accents were an obsession with him. From friendly voices, they usually made him feel that he was accepted, but also that he could never pass, and he sometimes even ‘felt as if I could not contend [professionally] with those whom I heard speaking with a perfect English accent’. He resented it when the Recorder of Durham, ‘by way of being on Johnsonian familiarity ... called me (in northern broad dialect) Bozzy’, but when talking with a pretty girl in Whitehaven he ‘took a fancy to the Coomberland pronunciation’. In Kent, ‘I liked to catch the smart pronunciation Medstone, and was in good spirits.’ There were particular factors in each episode, but each shows him mesmerised by English speech, whose charm included a persistently delicious reminder of his own otherness.

The editing of this volume is almost exemplary. That a self-intoxicated ninny like Boswell should share with Pope the distinction of being, on the largest possible scale, the best-edited English writer of the 18th century is by now a familiar irony. The introduction, link-notes and footnotes are a mine of information – literary, biographical, historical, topographical, legal. A few additions or adjustments might be proposed. Boswell’s ‘Was not quails eram’ (p. 9) is from Horace’s ode to Venus (IV.i.3); the sentence without a main verb puzzled over at p.23 n.3 is probably normal diary shorthand; Italian gender is violated in cara sposa, which should be masculine, and if the transcription is accurate the fact warrants a sic (p.62 n.3); Lord Lonsdale’s Cambridge recollections of Gray (p.107), whom he ‘abused ... for effeminate priggery and bringing a dirty napkin to commons’, might be set beside the mot attributed to Smart that ‘Gray walks as if he had fouled his small-clothes, and looks as if he smelt it’; Peterhouse should not be called Peterhouse College (p. 107 n.2); p. 138 lacks n.7; the reference to Tertullian at p.209 n.9 is incomplete. Boswell sometimes wrote entries in a medley of English and Italian macaronic, a jokey cipher which the editors regrettably replace with their own idiomatic English. But the edition as a whole is as usual a scholarly triumph.