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:

with a great deal of genius and even pleasantry, he has at bottom a deep religious melancholy, to divert the shocking thoughts of which he is now translating Homer. He has been woefully deranged – in a strait waistcoat – and now is sometimes so ill that they take away his shoebuckles, that he may have nothing within his reach with which he can hurt himself. It seems he apprehends himself to be in a state of reprobation, being impressed with the most dismal doctrines of Calvinism. I was quite shocked to hear of such a state of mind. My own was good by comparison. Sharp gave me hopes of a great sale for my Life of Johnson. He said there were so many people in both the universities, etc, etc, who expected to see themselves, or those whom they knew, in it that they would be eager to have it. We played whist; I won. We supped, and I felt my gloom much lightened.

The journal’s editorial notes, which tell us what a crayfish is, also tell us that to ‘reprobate’ meant to condemn. It still means that, and at this time could also mean, as for Cowper and for Johnson, something worse.

One of Boswell’s words, and a period word, for afflicted temperaments such as his was ‘inconsistency’, and he was one of the period’s great inconstants. In 1777 he complained ‘of a wretched changefulness’: ‘Time may perhaps strengthen my mind ...’ But the great healer failed to oblige the great biographer. The following year, an excursion into ‘the wilds of Venus’ produced an infection and (in a letter to Malone) a reflection: ‘I am no hypocrite though sadly inconsistent.’

His inconsistency was itself elaborately changeful. His ups and downs encompass ordinary tumbles – passings-out, fallings-down, muggings, bruises, stolen watches – and whole seasons of gloom and lassitude (‘relaxation’), for which the journals supply some marvellous serio-economic objects and images. Here, in 1792, ‘Temple and I had recourse to one of the best modes of relief in rainy weather, which is to do something which occupies without straining or at all fatiguing the mind.’ Ten years before that, he had enquired what there could be that might enable one to get up in the morning without pain: ‘Perhaps there may be something in the stores of Nature which can do this. I have thought of a pulley to raise me gradually; but that would give me pain, as it would counteract my internal inclination. I would have something that can dissipate the vis inertiae, and give elasticity to the body.’ Kingsley Amis’s new novel shares Boswell’s concern with ending up, getting up and drinking up, and contains a character who ‘would readily and regularly have got off his hard little bed that hour or two earlier if he could somehow have come up with a way of doing that without starting the day’.

Boswell’s inconsistency was a conflict between pleasure and virtue, the flamboyant and the respectable, and it was a conflict between Scotland and England: he was never to settle in either country. For the most part, of course, in the matter of nationality, he was the ashamed or reluctant Scot who has added to the gaiety of Scotland while exciting its well-known capacity for disapproval: for ever on the road south, for ever wincing at the sound of a Scots voice, including his daughter’s. A poem by John Courtenay says of Boswell, who had imbibed from his ‘sage’ the ‘sacred love of truth’: ‘Scarce by North Britons now esteem’d a Scot.’ ‘Was decidedly happy that I was not at Edinburgh,’ declares the journal in February 1790. In June, ‘had dreamed disagreeable Edinburgh dreams.’ His London dreams undid him, in one sense. In another, they were indispensable to the Life of Johnson. The city’s literary life, high life and low life were imparted to a huge scholarly labour performed in phantasmagoria, on a voyage to the end of the night. Here is a further aspect of the Boswell paradox, or strange compound.

Those familiar with the journals are unlikely to find it easy to accept that the Life of Johnson is the work of a man who was no hypocrite; it is a work which may cause them to think about Boswell’s changefulness. The journals are in one way continuous with the Life – a way that stands opposed to some part of what the Life affords, to its vein of encomium, its lawyer’s vindications, its displays of piety and decorum. I am thinking here of the liveliness of these parallel texts, of their minute particulars, of the very words that were spoken by the people they evoke, and of the stories they love to tell. This is a writing ‘to the moment’, in Samuel Richardson’s phrase, which corresponds to Richardson’s achievement as an epistolary novelist and to the intimacies and immediacies of Sterne’s practice in Tristram Shandy, and which can seem to contribute to an attempt on the truth. Elsewhere in the Life, in that respect, an economy is apparent – which may be experienced as a loss of the circumstantial and the colloquial, and which places the journals in a very good light. Elsewhere in the Life, in other words, Boswell can write at times as a worthy man in the darkest of suits, briefed to edify and instruct. We have scarcely needed to be shown by subsequent biographers that Johnson’s days as a husband were less benign than Boswell, and the utterances of Johnson’s bereavement, represent them. At one point in the Life, Boswell is afraid that ‘by associating with Savage, who was habituated to the dissipation and licentiousness of the town’, Johnson was ‘imperceptibly led into some indulgencies which occasioned much distress to his virtuous mind’. Boswell’s own habits are hereby dissembled, and Johnson’s indulgences are made to seem like an accident for which Savage was largely to blame. The kind of inconsistency which the comment could suggest was clearly not peculiar to Boswell, let it be said; it may be clear to some that even Johnson’s virtuous mind was not immune.

Boswell was a man of impressive gifts and abilities who can almost appear to implore you to discount them – and to think him a driven man, eager as a child for gratifications, who behaved rashly and brutally. The felon’s friend, who was to busy himself with sponsorship of a group of refugees from Botany Bay, could be crucially unfeeling. Severe, for instance, about bastards: ‘I have always disapproved of putting them on a level with those lawfully born, and besides, whatever ladies of great weight and consequence might do, I could not think of my daughters forming such an acquaintance.’ Two pages later he is relentingly severe about a merry widow: ‘I could not share in the merriment, for I thought of the loss of my gallant kinsman, and felt with wonder and some disapprobation the seeming indifference of his widow, to whom however I resolved to pay attention.’ What did he have in mind? Her – or her mite? Her welfare? The journal dwells on the idea of an advantageous remarriage, but not all that hopefully.

He was severe, too, on the idea that slavery might be ended. He served as counsel for a Negro slave who had petitioned the Court of Session in Scotland for his freedom: but was prepared to argue against the plan ‘to abolish so very important and necessary a branch of commercial interest’. Slaves were property, and slavery belonged to ‘God’s system’. It resembled the submission granted to a mistress by a lover. Like Blake, he was able to imagine the institution in sexual terms. Unlike Blake, he approved of it. And unlike Johnson – for all that Johnson, with his companionate black servant, was ‘a friend to subordination’, who held that ‘there is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed.’

The principal set-piece episode in this journal has to do with humiliations at the hands of the Earl of Lonsdale which were to recall what Boswell had once endured at the hands of Lord Mountstuart. Boswell and Mountstuart were blood brothers of the royal House of Stuart. This great man was the son of a mid-century prime minister, Lord Bute, and a brother of Louisa Stuart, a chronicler of the patriciate and, in my view, an excellent writer. Boswell joined his entourage during a sometimes dishevelled grand tour. The ogre Earl of Lonsdale was married to another sister of Mountstuart’s – while admiring a tenant’s daughter so much that he kept her corpse about him in a glass-lidded coffin. Boswell, fitful lawyer and failed political appointee, had applied to Lonsdale to be made Recorder of Carlisle, and he is now dragged to that town to assist with the lord’s electoral scams. Lonsdale was an expert in the creation of fictitious or honorary voters, Boswell an erstwhile reprobator of such customs. Carlisle turns out a nightmare, and worse is to come: his patron demands that he go off to London as, at Auchinleck, his wife’s death approaches. In this sphere as in others, his career can look like a Hogarthian suitor’s progress.

His son James is the hero of his last lap. He fought and fretted with his children, his daughters especially, and dispersed them at academies throughout the kingdom. James exhibits an understanding sweetness of nature, retrieving his father from his mires, bringing him back to the house when he staggers out drunk in search of a woman, and in 1793 he graces one of the journal’s happiest passages. Boswell’s charm was quite as evident to contemporaries as were his egotism and absurdity, and it is evident in this passage (where it is agreeable to discover that he had omitted to read the celebrated work in question). But it is exceeded here by that of his son:

My son James and I passed the day by ourselves very well. We were both morning and evening at Portland Chapel, and he read and explained to me a chapter in the Greek New Testament. I began today to read what it is strange I should not have read before, Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, the book which I have mentioned as having made Dr Johnson first think earnestly of religion after his childhood. I wondered at his approbation of it; for though there is not a little vivacity in it, and many characters very well imagined, the scope of it is to make a religious life inconsistent with all the feelings and views which animate this state of being, and in short to make us ascetics upon the monastic plan. It had a dreary influence on my mind, at present disposed to be gloomy. My son James, to whom I read some of it, very sensibly observed, ‘Such books do a great deal of harm.’ I resolved however to read it through.

The inconsistency perceived here is like that between Boswell in his capacity of virtuous or ascetic biographer and the Boswell who was an artist of ‘the feelings and views which animate this state of being’ – the life before death, that is to say. He was someone who was always to wander in and out of the monastery.

‘I am in great spirits’ – the autumn of 1790 was one of his good times, attested to in a number of piquant entries. At the dinners he attended then, the editors explain, ‘he had kept the promise he had made to Courtenay that until the first of March – that is, when the Life of Johnson would be completed – he would not drink more wine than “four good glasses at dinner, and a pint after it”.’ This abstemious Boswell attends church in Hanover Square, and writes a poem which addresses a topos of the age: stolen looks in chapel, spouse-hunting under God. Forty years before, a piece was published on the subject in Johnson’s Rambler by Samuel Richardson, for whom women who went in for this sort of thing were ‘Seekers’: the great seeker Boswell would have known the piece.

When in St George’s hallowed dome,
Upton, thy pleasing form I see,
My fluttering thoughts, too apt to roam,
Are wholly fixed on heaven and thee.

And let not cold, censorious age
Call me irreverent and light;
Read we not in the sacred page
That duty should with joy unite?

‘Love at Church’ might read like a satire on Sunday observance: it is nonetheless the work of a man who seems to have gone to church, fairly often, in order to worship, as well as to squint (without avail) at Miss Upton’s pleasing form.

He wrote several poems, some of them ripe for delivery at dinners and parties. And he was capable in his inconsistency of Scots verse which would have appealed to Robert Burns, ploughing away a few miles off over the lea in Ayrshire. In one of his ‘manly’ letters Burns mentioned the honour of a possible meeting with the laird, a ‘hero of wit and literature’, while also mentioning that he disdained, except in the interests of commerce, to ‘crouch in the train of mere stupid wealth and greatness’. Boswell was gratified to hear that the poet had ‘expressed very high sentiments of me’. Burns died, at 37, the year after Boswell, who died at 55: spans that answer to the life-expectancies of a hierarchical society. They never met, and were in one sense no less inconsistent with one another than monasteries were with Charing Cross or than pious hopes and professions were with the way people mostly went on.

Three years before this journal begins, Boswell wrote a love poem which refers to a betrayal while celebrating a romantic return to childhood. The first two of its four verses are supplied in Brady’s biography:

O Larghan Clanbrassil, how sweet is thy sound!
To my tender remembrance as Love’s sacred ground!
For there Marg’ret Caroline first charmed my sight,
And filled my young heart with a flutt’ring delight.

When I thought her my own, ah! too short seemed the day
For a jaunt to Downpatrick, or a trip on the sea;
To express what I felt then, all language were vain,
‘Twas in truth what the poets have studied to feign.

Some years ago I failed to identify the poem when writing about a commonplace book, a manuscript anthology of favourite verse, compiled by a circle of Whig romantics in Edinburgh around 1807. A version of the poem appears there, with the name Margaret Caroline replaced by that of Fannila. In this version the last verses are given as

But too late I found that even she could deceive
And nothing was left but to sigh, weep and rave.
Distracted I flew from my dear native shore,
Resolv’d to see Lurginclanbrazil no more.

Yet still in some moments enchanted I find
A warm ray of her fondness beam soft on my mind.
While thus in blest Fancy my charmer I see,
All the world’s a Lurginclanbrazil to me.

The unspellable mouthful of its place name can be located in Armagh: but I was ‘able to say of its authorship only that Scott has a poem which is in certain respects a replica’ – ‘The Return to Ulster’. I thought it an absurd fluttering poem at the time: but it gains in interest when one learns who Margaret Caroline was. Brady’s book says that she was the adventuress Mrs Rudd, a woman of pleasure and a blackmailer, of Irish origin, who was interviewed by Boswell, in his capacity of prison visitor, at the time of her acquittal on forgery charges in 1776. She gave evidence for the Crown against her lover, whose accomplice she seems to have been, and who was hanged. Small and frail, she touched the public heart, and her acquittal was applauded.

Mrs Rudd inspired in Boswell a poem entitled ‘The Snake’, and in 1778, when his visits to her were under discussion, she inspired in Johnson the remark that ‘fifteen years ago’ – when it was less likely to have got into the newspapers – ‘I should have gone to see her.’ Boswell was to speak of ‘gross folly’ in this quarter; the affair ran on. In 1786 he paid tribute to her fascination:

If the Roman Emperor who had exhausted delight offered a reward for the inventor of a new pleasure, how much do I owe to thee, who hast made the greatest pleasure of human life new to me. I used to look on love with feverish joy or childish fondness. All madness or folly, though delight. Thou hast shown me it rational, pure from evil. How keen the fire that thus clears the dross from the most precious ore.

Perhaps this could be seen as a new prose of Boswell’s. At all events, it reveals that his gross folly moved him and mattered to him. He is due to go north, as a circuit lawyer, at this time, and she appears to him dressed in ‘satin couleur de rose; her hair in perfect taste – not to be discomposed. A kind wish to give me felicity before a separation.’ And it was at this time, too, that he said he was no hypocrite though sadly inconsistent. Later in the year, in London, the two of them go on a jaunt to the Magdalen Hospital for penitent prostitutes – ‘To leave her there?’ asked Courtenay – and she talks tenderly of her old lover. A ‘low association’, said Boswell, at the close, of his dealings with his fiery serpent, his Lamia.

The Lurginclanbrazil poem hardly seems equal to the association. Lamia is translated into a childhood sweetheart who proved a deceiver. But there is no sign that Mrs Rudd ever cheated Boswell. Where was her sting?