Great Portland Street Blues

Karl Miller

Boswell’s life of Boswell has reached its conclusion, this being the 13th in the series of journals brought out by the team responsible for the Yale Editions of his Private Papers. It opens two hundred years ago in London, during the winter of 1789. Frosty weather – the widower is warm against ‘the French insurrection’. Christmas Day takes him to church. Three years go by, and on the same day the same church receives him. ‘It vexed me that even on the festival of Christmas I was melancholy. I went with my son James to St George’s, Hanover Square, and had some elevation of heart in that hallowed dome. Saw Miss Upton at a distance’ – then back to the family turkey in Great Portland Street. The content of this last journal – previewed in the account of Boswell’s later life which was published six years ago by one of the present editors, Frank Brady – is the worse for its author’s frustrations, prostrations and despairs, interesting though he can sometimes make them appear; it conveys what can often seem like a bitter end for the likely lad from Ayrshire; Boswell’s last legs are apt to give way. Nevertheless, he gets up and keeps going, and keeps writing it down. Such states are his old friends, after all. The journal is no discouragement to supposing that Boswell’s life of Boswell is among the crown jewels of confessional literature.

‘Let me guard against imagining that there is an end of felicity upon earth when I grow old or am unhappy.’ This is Boswell in 1777, at the age of 37. In 1789 a letter to the depressing Cornish vicar William Temple reports: ‘I may have many gratifications but the comfort of life is at an end.’ His friend and master, Samuel Johnson, is dead. His ‘valuable spouse’, a spouse much deserted, has just suffered a slow and harrowing death from consumption, and he has to contend with expressions of sorrow and remorse: ‘the sad recollection of my irreparable loss hung at my heart. I had a kind of feeling that it would be unkind should I not still be pained by it.’ The connoisseur of deathbeds, of the fortitude of their occupants, of the composure of the atheist David Hume, the prison visitor who liked to watch executions, and appears to have lacked Johnson’s terror of futurity, was off somewhere on business when his wife stopped living. The journal deals with his five years as the widower formed by that crisis. His own death from uraemia, following a venereal infection, was quiet, almost inadvertent. By now, most of his cronies are gone, or estranged. Of those that remain, Joshua Reynolds, the Shakespearian scholar Malone and the politician John Courtenay are affectionate and supportive.

These were the years, as we occasionally have to remind ourselves, when his Life of Johnson was completed, put to press, published, relished and extolled. This does less for him than might have been expected, however. In 1793, his ‘worthy friend’ Temple ‘kindly said that he found me more wretched than he could have imagined; that he thought if I retired to Scotland, there was danger that I would sink into deep melancholy, or take to hard drinking. He was therefore for my just hanging on here, living with prudent economy, so as not to embarrass my circumstances more, and hoping that something favourable might happen, but that I should every year spend some time at Auchinleck’ – seat of the well-born Boswells. What, in 1790, had his friendships with ‘eminent men’ and his ‘successful books’ made of his life? ‘I was as a board on which fine figures had been painted, but which some corrosive application had reduced to its original nakedness.’ Unaccommodated Boswell descends, though, from the heath to call on the noble and the influential. Deferment of recognition, of his deserts, absence of office, worries him, still. He is still seeking to be the ‘great man’ whom he is now and then able to impersonate in public – as once at a royal levee, resplendent ‘in a suit of imperial blue, lined with rose-coloured silk, and ornamented with rich gold-wrought buttons’. What energy he had, what persistence, what lapses and arrests. By the end of his tumultuous life he had at least become the grey eminence saluted in the title conferred on the last of the journals.

He was the great man who was interested in great men. This could also be said of the modern poet Robert Lowell, a man of ‘tumbles and leaps’ and ‘manic crushes’ who was interested in the ‘great Boswell’ (so called by a Lady Lemon in 1792). At one point in the history of his elations and depressions Lowell was heard to speak of a trip to Scotland in pursuit of his ancestors. And who were they? ‘Oh, you know (looking seriously) – Robert the Bruce and James Boswell.’ Whether or not there was an ancestral connection, there are passages in the two lives, Lowell’s and Boswell’s, which bear a family resemblance.

In the manner of great men, Boswell could be thought mad – by Hume, for instance, and by John Wilkes. And he says here that this ‘is the journal of a diseased mind’. Scholars would no doubt resent glib reference to him as a manic depressive or an alcoholic: but an inspection of this text might persuade them to control their indignation. It offers as high a proportion of words about the pleasures, proprieties and baleful consequences of drinking as Kingsley Amis’s new novel does, The Folks that Live on the Hill – which is saying, and drinking, a great deal. And yet there is even more about his not unconnected glooms – his ‘hypochondria’. His whorings and gonorrhoeas are subject to a terser notation.

On one occasion in the journal he compares his ‘bad spirits’ with those of the poet Cowper, who went in fear of damnation:

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