Linda Colley

  • All the Sweets of Being: The Life of James Boswell by Roger Hutchinson
    Mainstream, 238 pp, £17.50, May 1995, ISBN 1 85158 702 0
  • James Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ edited by Marshall Waingrow
    Edinburgh, 518 pp, £75.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 7486 0471 5
  • Johnson and Boswell: The Transit of Caledonia by Pat Rogers
    Oxford, 245 pp, £30.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 19 818259 7

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in