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Boswell, Margaret Montgomerie [Peggie]free

(1738?–1789)
  • Irma S. Lustig

Margaret Montgomerie Boswell (1738?–1789)

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Boswell, Margaret Montgomerie [Peggie] (1738?–1789), wife of James Boswell, was born at Lainshaw, Ayrshire, the fourth of five children of David Montgomerie, formerly Laing (d. 1752), of co. Down, and Veronica Boswell (b. 1704, d. before 1753), daughter of James Boswell, seventh laird of Auchinleck, and Lady Elizabeth Bruce. Both parents died when Margaret was young; her inheritance was an annuity of £1000 with an annual income of £100. On 25 November 1769 she married James Boswell (1740–1795), author, advocate, and her first cousin (the eldest son of Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck), at Lainshaw. Samuel Johnson and Pasquale Paoli signed the marriage contract in London and were among the notable visitors to the Boswells' home in James's Court, Edinburgh. Two of their seven children died in infancy; their sons Alexander Boswell (1775–1822), antiquary and poet, and James Boswell (1778–1822), editor and author, achieved some prominence.

In the noble letter accepting Boswell's proposal of marriage, Margaret had written 'My heart determines my choice … wherever you go I shall willingly accompany you and hope to be happy' (Boswell MS C423). In 1786, though she was ill with consumption, she loyally moved family and furniture to 56 Great Queen Street, London, to satisfy her husband's fruitless ambition to practise at the English bar. By 1788 the gravity of her condition forced her return, with three of the children, to Auchinleck, the Ayrshire estate Boswell had inherited in 1782. She died there on the morning of 4 June 1789; Boswell, despite a frantic journey from London, arrived home that evening. Overcome with grief and guilt, he violated custom by attending the funeral on 11 June 1789. Margaret was entombed in the catacombs of the family church at Auchinleck and was moved, with Boswell and their daughter Veronica, to the vault added to the church after 1864.

Margaret Boswell emerged from obscurity through her husband's biography of Johnson in the eighteenth century and the publication of his journal and other private papers in the twentieth. Her only known portrait, an oil, anonymous and undated, represents a handsome, full-bodied woman—'a heathen goddess', Boswell wrote in June 1769 (Boswell MS L422)—with a heart-shaped face, strong nose, direct gaze, and crown of dark hair.

In mien and manner a gentlewoman (Johnson said), Margaret Boswell was deferential yet spirited. She was nettled but contrite when Boswell charged her with conversing too freely with men. Capable and informed, though not learned, she catalogued the valuable library at Auchinleck in 1783. Perspicacious and outspoken, even tart, she advised Boswell shrewdly, rebuked him for his compulsive licentiousness, and several times ‘divorced’ him by forswearing conjugal relations, but yielded to his penitence. His long and frequent absences from home burdened her exceptionally with supervision of the children, their education, and even the estate. An 'abbess' at Auchinleck for the six months in 1785 that Boswell prepared Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in London, she longed for an intimate woman friend, yet professed herself content. The Life of Johnson is likewise owed in large part to the endurance of Margaret Montgomerie Boswell.

Sources

  • Boswell in search of a wife, 1766–1769, ed. F. Brady and F. A. Pottle (1957), vol. 6 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • Boswell for the defence, 1769–1774, ed. W. K. Wimsatt and F. A. Pottle (1960), vol. 7 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • Boswell’s journal of a tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, ed. F. A. Pottle and C. H. Bennett (1963), vol. 9 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • Boswell: the ominous years, 1774–1776, ed. C. Ryskamp and F. A. Pottle (1963), vol. 8 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • Boswell in extremes, 1776–1778, ed. C. M. Weis and F. A. Pottle (1971), vol. 10 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell, trade edn (1950–89)
  • Boswell: the applause of the jury, 1782–1785, ed. I. S. Lustig and F. A. Pottle (1982), vol. 12 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • Boswell: the English experiment, 1785–1789, ed. I. S. Lustig and F. A. Pottle (1986), vol. 13 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • Boswell: the great biographer, 1789–1795, ed. M. K. Danziger and F. Brady (1989), vol. 14 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • Catalogue of the papers of James Boswell at Yale University, ed. M. S. Pottle, C. C. Abbott, and F. A. Pottle, 3 vols. (1993), vols. 1–2 [incl. Margaret Boswell's letters]
  • F. A. Pottle, James Boswell: the earlier years, 1740–1769 (1966)
  • F. Brady, James Boswell: the later years, 1769–1795 (1984)
  • I. S. Lustig, ‘“My dear enemy”: Margaret Montgomerie Boswell in the Life of Johnson’, Boswell: citizen of the world, man of letters, ed. I. S. Lustig (1995)
  • Yale U., Boswell papers

Archives

  • Fondazione Sella, San Gerolamo, Biella, Italy, letters
  • Morgan L., letters
  • NL Scot., letters
  • Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, letters
  • Yale U., Beinecke L.

Likenesses

Wealth at Death

at marriage, only £100 p.a. from £1000 annuity; husband in debt during her lifetime and at her death: Pottle, James Boswell: the earlier years; Brady, James Boswell: the later years; Brady and Pottle, Boswell in search of a wife

J. Boswell , ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (1934–50); 2nd edn (1964); repr. (1971)
Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library