- Gordon Turnbull
James Boswell (1740–1795)
Boswell, James (1740–1795), lawyer, diarist, and biographer of Samuel Johnson, was born in Edinburgh on 29 October 1740, probably at the family's house on the fourth storey of Blair's Land, Parliament Close, the eldest son of Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck (1707–1782), and his first wife, Euphemia, née Erskine (bap. 1718, d. 1766). He was heir to the Auchinleck estate in Ayrshire. His two brothers were Lieutenant John Boswell (1743–1796), who enlisted in the army but, mentally unstable, spent much of his adult life in supervised confinement; and David Boswell (1748–1826), who later took the name Thomas before David, a merchant and business agent who eventually purchased the estate of Crawley Grange in Buckinghamshire. Boswell prized his distinguished Scottish family connections, especially his mother's descent from the earls of Mar, and cherished his position in the sequence of lairds of Auchinleck descended from Thomas Boswell (c.1487–1513), to whom James IV of Scotland awarded the estate in 1504. But the periods of intense depression (usually called 'hypochondria') from which Boswell suffered throughout his life had, as he noted, family precedent; given their generational recurrence modern opinion assigns them a medical basis and deems them hereditary.
In his adult writings about his earliest years, chiefly an 'Ébauche de ma vie' (Sketch of my life, Yale L 1108; trans. as chap. 1 of Pottle, Earlier Years), written in 1764 for Rousseau, and in its drafts and outlines (Yale L 1109–1112), Boswell characterized his boyhood as isolated, lonely, and timid, and described his mother's anxiously loving attentions to him and the simultaneously disturbing effects of her severe Calvinist piety and the Scottish kirk's form of worship. From the age of five to eight he attended James Mundell's academy in Edinburgh's West Bow, where he was unhappy; thereafter a succession of domestic governors tutored him at home. The most influential of them, John Dun (1723/4–1792), taught him from the age of eight to twelve. In later life Boswell deplored the social narrowness of his boyhood governors, holding them in part responsible for feelings of social insecurity and inadequacy, but his confessional 'Ébauche' credited Dun with moderating the effects of his mother's Calvinism, and with delighting him by introducing him to Latin poetry and The Spectator essays. Twice in his adolescence Boswell became seriously ill with nervous distresses and was sent to Moffat spa to recover. He was enrolled in his thirteenth year at the University of Edinburgh, where he attended classes from 1753 to 1759. Here he formed friendships, which remained his closest, with John Johnston of Grange, and William Johnson Temple. With Johnston he shared a warm nostalgia for the Scottish customs, institutions, and buildings whose importance had diminished since the Union of 1707, and an emotional attachment to the Scottish Jacobites. Temple introduced Boswell to the Anglican form of worship, which Boswell continued to prefer to the presbyterianism of his boyhood education. His second bout of nervous distress was at least in part an episode in his continuing adolescent religious crisis, connected with the perplexities into which he was thrown by John Stevenson's course on logic. There he encountered ideas which long disturbed him of divine foreknowledge and the human freedom to choose—the question, as he phrased it, of liberty versus necessity.
During Boswell's second visit to Moffat spa (summer 1757), the sociability—pleasant encounters with new adult acquaintances—helped restore him, and his recovery brought with it a growing rebellion against the strict propriety of his upbringing and his father's expectations that he would follow him into a Scottish legal career. He developed deepened ambitions to be a writer and published author. A restless hunger for literary and social fame and the company of the famous, especially in London, governed much of the conduct of the rest of his life. He began to write and publish verse, and took a delighted interest in the Edinburgh theatre, whose patron, James, Lord Somerville, befriended him and encouraged his writing. Boswell was electrified by the performances of West Digges, leading man of the Edinburgh company, especially as Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, which would remain a lifelong favourite play, and Digges's elegant social deportment served as a model for Boswell's own. In autumn 1758, while travelling with his father on the northern circuit, Boswell began to keep a journal. He sent the journal to his friend the actor–manager James Love, whose suggestion it had originally been. In continuing recoil from his boyhood Calvinism, Boswell became attracted at about this time to the idea of converting to Roman Catholicism. He had begun writing theatrical reviews, and in February 1760 published in London pseudonymously (‘By a Society of Gentlemen’) a pamphlet of fifty pages, A View of the Edinburgh Theatre During the Summer Season, 1759, dedicated to Digges. Now ebulliently convivial, he grew fond of clubs and societies, moved in his parents' circles of eminence, and became popular among the literati and leading figures of the Edinburgh Enlightenment. In August 1759 he was admitted a freemason in the Canongate Kilwinning (St John's) lodge, of which his uncle, Dr John Boswell (1710–1780), later president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, was depute grand master that year, and he remained an enthusiastic freemason: he was master of his lodge from 1773 to 1775, and in 1776 he was chosen depute grand master of the freemasons in Scotland (when the banker Sir William Forbes was grand master), and re-elected in the following year. Lord Auchinleck, greatly displeased by his son's life, abruptly removed him in 1759 to the University of Glasgow (which city had fewer distractions, and little or no theatre). Though impressed by Adam Smith's lectures in rhetoric and belles-lettres and by Smith's social manner, Boswell grew despondent in college life and, on 1 March 1760, fled from the university to London, with a vague plan of becoming a Catholic priest or monk.
In London, Boswell sought out a priest, saw mass celebrated for the first time, and received communion. But eager to experience other delights in London, he explored it, as he later wrote, 'in all its variety of departments, both literary and sportive' (Boswell, Life, 1.456) in the company of Samuel Derrick. Lord Auchinleck sought the assistance of Alexander Montgomerie, tenth earl of Eglinton, an Ayrshire neighbour then at his London residence, who diverted Boswell's thoughts from Catholicism and the priesthood by introducing him into the circles of his high-born and rakish friends, including the young duke of York (brother of the future George III). Eglinton's suggestion that he seemed fitted for life as an officer in the guards took a deep hold, as Boswell had long been fascinated by military display, and thought that as a guards officer he could have a permanent base in or near London. He wanted particularly to meet Samuel Johnson, having read his works with awed delight, and having heard descriptions in Scotland of his imposing social presence and conversation. Derrick promised him an introduction, but failed to bring one about. But Boswell met, among other notables, David Garrick, and the actor turned bookseller Thomas Davies, both of whom moved in Johnson’s circles of friendship. Literary London was alive with ‘Shandymania’, the first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy having appeared in late 1759, and Sterne’s style became a heavy influence on Boswell’s own at this time, and long afterwards. Giddily exhilarated, Boswell found himself moving among those he termed 'the great, the gay, and the ingenious' (Memoirs, 234). He consorted for the first time, as habitually in later life, with prostitutes, and as a consequence suffered the first of his many bouts of venereal disease.
Brought back to Edinburgh by Lord Auchinleck, under whose personal instruction he listlessly studied law, Boswell continued his writing and his social escapades and resumed the journal (now private, usually in condensed notes, some in shorthand and some in cipher). He had several clandestine love affairs. He copiously wrote and published poetry, both serious and humorous, and some prose pieces. At about this time he was invited to join the Select Society of Edinburgh, whose members then included Hugh Blair, Sir David Dalrymple, David Hume, Lord Kames, and William Robertson. He had amassed a copious body of juvenilia, most of it, especially the poetry, of little merit, though often biographically revealing. His conduct exasperated his father, and anguished his pious mother. Lord Auchinleck, who was acquiring new lands and having a new mansion house built at Auchinleck, began to talk of disinheriting him and selling the estate, and drew up a document empowering himself to vest the estate after his death in trustees of his choosing. Boswell signed, inaugurating a pattern in which, despite his rebelliousness, he would never fully evade his father's domination, and his father in exchange agreed to provide him with an annual allowance. On 30 July 1762 Boswell passed the private examination in civil law, and earned his father's reluctant consent to return to London to try to pursue a commission (which Lord Auchinleck refused to purchase) in the foot guards through influence. First, he set out from Auchinleck in the autumn for a short tour with Lord and Lady Kames through the border counties of Scotland and England, and he kept a lively and observant 'Journal of My Jaunt, Harvest 1762', his first expansive and fully written journal, for his friends Johnston and William McQuhae.
Boswell left exuberantly for London on 15 November 1762, ostensibly to seek a guards commission, but more actually impelled by his longing for fame and the company of the eminent, and determined to keep a full diary of his sojourn to be sent to Johnston in Edinburgh, and then carefully preserved. He renewed his acquaintance with Eglinton, Garrick, and with the elocution expert Thomas Sheridan, whom he had met in Edinburgh and through whom he hoped now to meet Johnson. As planned, he kept a vivid diary of his activities (supplemented by a series of private daily memoranda, urging himself to a moral programme of discipline and self-improvement) and sent it in weekly packets, with covering letters, to Johnston, reporting his social, literary, and sexual adventures, chief among these last being an affair with a Covent Garden actress, called ‘Louisa’ in the journal. With his Scots companions, Andrew Erskine and George Dempster MP, he concerted to damn their disliked compatriot David Mallet's tragedy Elvira on its opening night, and, though the attempt was unsuccessful, they published Critical Strictures on the New Tragedy of ‘Elvira’ (January 1763).
Boswell persuaded Erskine to join him in a lively and irreverent volume of correspondence, Letters between the Honourable Andrew Erskine and James Boswell, Esq. (1763), the first of his publications to bear his name, and one which, in its deliberate violation of norms of public decorum (with the insertion of private and personal material into the domain of publication) is an important early anticipation of Boswell's innovative approach to biography in his later Johnsonian works. Boswell's hopes to meet Johnson through Sheridan came to nothing, as Johnson and Sheridan had become estranged, and the eventual famous first meeting came unexpectedly, when Johnson suddenly entered as Boswell was drinking tea in Davies's back parlour (16 May 1763). Despite Johnson's memorably amusing snub, Boswell began recording in his diaries the distinctive conversational style and opinions that would form a defining part of the Life of Johnson, shook off Johnson's initial rudeness, and persisted in his resolve for acquaintance. At later meetings Boswell poured out his soul, described his religious and spiritual perplexities, his restless ambitiousness, and his feelings of being thwarted by his father's will, and listened intently to (and recorded) Johnson's authoritative but sympathetic precepts. Johnson warmed to the charm of Boswell's openly sincere admiration and earnest wish for guidance, and Boswell found a formidable stability and wisdom in one who, unlike his father, remained capaciously tolerant of human waywardness and frailty, despite a tone of moral asperity. Unlike Lord Auchinleck, Johnson valued diary-keeping, and warmly encouraged Boswell in the practice. The diary Boswell kept at this time, unexpectedly recovered among other private papers in the early twentieth century, became an international best-seller on its publication in 1950 as Boswell's London Journal, 1762–1763, and has remained the most popular portion of the journal.
The grand tour, and Corsica
By mid-1763 Boswell had abandoned his guards scheme and again capitulated to his father, who agreed that if he would study civil law at Utrecht, he might make a European tour before returning to practise at the Scots bar. Once in Utrecht, Boswell suffered an attack of melancholy so severe that he feared for his sanity, and wrote anguished cries for help in letters to his friends. But he recovered, roused and comforted in part by reading several of Johnson's Rambler essays, and took a formal course in civil law, studied languages, and conceived a plan of compiling a Scots dictionary (which project he never completed). Late in 1763 he first took notice of Belle de Zuylen (later, as Mme de Charrière, famous as a novelist). The pair met frequently, and afterwards exchanged letters exploring their feelings for one another, and debating gender and marital roles. Boswell, both attracted and disconcerted by her intellect and unconventional moral outlook, considered her a marital prospect, until the correspondence lapsed in 1768. He left Utrecht in June 1764. In the company of George Keith, tenth Earl Marischal, he set off to visit the court of Brunswick, and then see Potsdam. He hoped, vainly, to add Frederick the Great to the list of the many eminences he met, whose characters and conversations he recorded in his journal. At various moments of despondency in Europe, thoughts of Johnson would sometimes restore him, and he urged himself to be 'firm and stable' in imitation of him (Boswell, memorandum, 16 Aug 1764). He wrote from Wittenberg and 'vowed to Mr Johnson an eternal attachment' (30 Sept 1764). After parting company with Lord Marischal, he visited numerous other courts, towns, and cities in the German territories, and, having determined to visit Rousseau and Voltaire, he travelled to Neuchâtel and then to the nearby village of Môtiers. Rousseau—at this time ill and reclusive—was charmed by Boswell's approach, and Boswell visited him, seeking advice on the conduct of his life, four times in December. He wrote and left his 'Ébauche' for Rousseau to read, and recorded in detail in his journals his lively and at times bantering exchanges with the philosopher. From Môtiers he journeyed to Ferney, saw Voltaire later that month, had himself invited to spend two nights under his roof, and conducted a spirited debate with him on the truth of the Christian religion.
His meetings with Rousseau inspired Boswell to make a bold journey to Corsica to meet General Pasquale Paoli, leader of the insurgents seeking the island's independence from the Genoese. In January 1765 Boswell crossed the Alps into Italy, making his way to Naples, where he stayed three weeks with the outlawed John Wilkes, whose wit, gaiety, and knowledge of the classics delighted him in spite of his qualms about Wilkes's political views, disrespect for religion, and libertine conduct. He stayed in Rome until the middle of June, during which time he commissioned a portrait of himself from George Willison. He was much with Andrew Lumisden, and others in the exiled Jacobite circle, and commissioned from Gavin Hamilton a painting, 'Mary Queen of Scots resigning her Crown', a scene chosen from William Robertson's History of Scotland. In the company of John Stuart, styled Lord Mountstuart, Bute's eldest son, he travelled to Venice and several other cities. While in Siena (one of his motives in visiting Italy was the hope of amorous intrigues) he won the passionate love of Girolama Piccolomini (1728–1792), wife of the city's capitano di popolo (equivalent to mayor), with whom he had an affair, and from whom he continued to receive affectionate correspondence until 1767. He sailed from Leghorn for Corsica in October. After a difficult inland journey he met and had conversations (22 to 27 October) in Sollacarò with Paoli, who at first suspected he was a spy, but who quickly came to like his improbable young visitor, saw an opportunity for promotion of the Corsican cause in Britain, and consented to a series of interviews. Boswell's trip was both arduous and dangerous. He suffered painfully from ingrowing toenails, the result of trudging long distances in inadequate boots, and he contracted malaria, but the experience none the less exhilarated him. He remarked in 1783: 'I had got upon a rock in Corsica and jumped into the middle of life' (Boswelliana, 328).
While in Paris on his way homeward in January 1766, Boswell learned from a newspaper notice of his mother's death. He then gave up a scheme he had formed to travel again to Utrecht to propose formally to Belle de Zuylen, and began preparations to return to Scotland. Rousseau, whom he had hoped to see again in Paris, had already left for England. Thérèse le Vasseur, Rousseau's companion, accepted an offer from Boswell to serve as her escort across the channel, and she and Boswell had a shipboard sexual affair. On arrival in London he delivered her to David Hume, then next day took her to Rousseau at Chiswick. Boswell's ardour for Rousseau and Voltaire cooled quickly. He hurried to London, and to Johnson, who received him affectionately. Boswell lingered in London, saw much of Johnson, whose conversation he now carefully recorded, as well as Oliver Goldsmith and William Johnson Temple, and discussed Corsica in an interview, which he wrote up in detail afterwards, with William Pitt. He left for Edinburgh early in March, travelling almost immediately to the new mansion at Auchinleck with his bereaved father, who began coaching him for the private examination in Scots law, which Boswell passed on 11 July. On 26 July he passed advocate. He continued work, already begun, on his Account of Corsica, and set about establishing his legal practice. For much of 1767 he worked as a passionate volunteer in the Douglas interest in the great Douglas cause, and published several pieces in connection with it: The Douglas Cause (a short poem) and a companion piece, The Hamilton Cause; also Dorando: a Spanish Tale; The Essence of the Douglas Cause; and Letters of … Lady Jane Douglas.
The Account of Corsica, marriage, early legal career, Paoli, and Johnson in Scotland
His interest in theatre still active, Boswell supported David Ross in his bid to become patentee and manager of Edinburgh's new Theatre Royal, and wrote a prologue for the opening of the theatre on 9 December 1767. His first important work, An Account of Corsica, the Journal of a Tour to that Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, appeared on 18 February 1768. With its reports of the gallant islanders and a Plutarchan depiction of Paoli paralleled with several classical heroes, it was an immediate success. The work was widely read and translated, stimulated great interest in Paoli and the Corsican cause, brought its author wide fame in Britain and Europe, and found an interested readership among the Americans. It attracted the notice of the French government (which had a translation made), and though Boswell's ambition for British intervention was not to be fulfilled, he probably influenced Britain's decision to send secret supplies of arms to the Corsicans. To enjoy his new authorial fame, he set out in March for a three months' jaunt to London, and visited Johnson in Oxford where (though Boswell seems not to have known it, as the matter was long kept secret) he was helping Robert Chambers to prepare his Vinerian lectures. Boswell now wished specifically, among other topics of concern, to consult Johnson on his moral scruples about the profession of law in the Scottish courts (Boswell, journal, 26 March 1768). In London, much acclaimed as the author of the Account of Corsica, he received many calls, while confined with another attack of venereal disease (a result of his again consorting with prostitutes), from friends as well as new acquaintances his book had brought him. Amid rumours that France was about to take over Genoese claims to Corsica, Boswell began further newspaper campaigns, and writing and collecting essays by various hands which he brought out as Essays in Favour of the Brave Corsicans in December. He published a letter anonymously in the Public Advertiser (6 July) urging a voluntary subscription for the Corsican cause. He and his Edinburgh colleague Andrew Crosbie purchased £700 worth of ordnance from the Carron Company for shipment to Corsica. Eventually an estimated £20,000 was raised by subscription and public gift for the Corsicans, before their submission to the French in summer 1769, with Boswell directly or indirectly responsible for all of this aid. In September he attended Garrick's Shakespeare jubilee at Stratford and made a spectacular appearance at a masked ball as an armed Corsican chief. He was known popularly by the designation ‘Corsica Boswell’ for many years, and he won Paoli's lifelong friendship and gratitude.
By the end of July 1769, after half-hearted pursuits of several eligible young women, and after numerous clandestine affairs (two of which resulted in illegitimate children, one and probably both of whom, to his distress, died in infancy), Boswell was formally engaged to his cousin and close friend and confidante, Margaret Montgomerie (1738–1789) [see Boswell, Margaret Montgomerie] of Lainshaw. The Lainshaw estate had deteriorated and Margaret was virtually penniless. Lord Auchinleck gave only grudging and reluctant approval to the match and was never reconciled to it, and he distressed Boswell by confirming rumours that he himself intended to remarry. On 22 September, on a last bachelor jaunt south, Boswell was joyously reunited in London with Paoli, now beginning his exile, and set about introducing him to his London acquaintances, among them Sheridan, Garrick, and Johnson. Boswell met Sir Joshua Reynolds, inaugurating another of the most significant of his London friendships, among his closest after Johnson's death (Reynolds would be the Life's dedicatee). The following month he became a co-proprietor of the London Magazine, continuing as a partner until late 1784, a year before it ceased publication. On 25 November 1769 Boswell and Margaret Montgomerie were married at Lainshaw, Boswell evidently having chosen the same day on which, in Edinburgh, Lord Auchinleck remarried. Relations between the two families were never anything other than strained. A visit to Auchinleck in 1770 led to an outright rift between Margaret Boswell and her parents-in-law, and she did not visit again (and was probably not invited) during Lord Auchinleck's lifetime. In Edinburgh, Boswell and his wife took up residence in a house in the Cowgate, and moved in May 1770 to a more commodious house in Chessel's Land in the Canongate. They moved once more in May 1771 to a house in James's Court on the north side of the Lawnmarket (it was owned by Hume and had once been his home). In 1773 they moved downstairs to a more spacious house in the same building.
Boswell worked diligently at the law, and in December 1769 was admitted to practise at the bar of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland. But in an anonymous three-part essay, 'On the Profession of a Player' (London Magazine, August–October 1770), he expressed again his moral qualms about the profession of law, exploring in particular the theatrical character of a barrister's courtroom conduct. Early the following year Alexander Donaldson brought out an edition of Shakespeare's plays, to which Boswell contributed a fulsome dedication to Garrick. Though he built a creditable practice, he grew restless and unhappy in his Edinburgh life, and developed the habits of heavy convivial drinking and frequent social drunkenness for which he became notorious in his own lifetime, and which linger as an inseparable part of his reputation. They were habits against which, for the rest of his life, he struggled with only intermittent success despite frequent pledges and resolutions. Paoli toured Scotland in September 1771, with Boswell as guide, and Boswell contributed an account to the London Magazine. The visit prompted him to resume his journal (a gap from 28 October 1769 to 4 September 1771 being the longest in the surviving journal from its beginning in 1761 until his death).
From March to May 1772, during the court's spring recess, Boswell returned happily to London, where on 14 April he made his maiden speech at the bar of the House of Lords. He had, and carefully recorded afterwards, many lengthy conversations with Johnson, and wrote in his journal for 31 March: 'I have a constant plan to write the life of Mr. Johnson'. The plan, referred to openly here for the first time, had formed earlier, perhaps as early as September 1764, when Boswell wrote to Johnson from the German territories that if Johnson died before him he would endeavour to do honour to his memory. He had written to Wilkes from Venice: 'Could my feeble mind preserve but a faint impression of Johnson, it would be a glory to myself and a benefit to mankind' (Boswell, letter, 13 July 1765, Yale L 1286). He also determined on a plan of visiting London annually during spring court recesses. In Edinburgh he believed himself drudging in provincial obscurity, and longed for the brilliant social company in which he moved in London. He kept up a frequent correspondence and a prolific miscellaneous journalism, acting as Edinburgh correspondent for several London newspapers and magazines. The collapse of the Ayr Bank led to a twenty-five-page pamphlet, Reflections on the Late Alarming Bankruptcies in Scotland, a wide-ranging indictment of Scottish manners and culture, written and published in early November. He became sufficiently established in his profession to be made an examiner of the Faculty of Advocates, but his 'constant plan' for Johnson's biography remained active. On 10 September 1772 he wrote to Garrick: 'If I survive Mr Johnson, I shall publish a Life of him, for which I have a store of materials' (Correspondence, 4.45).
On 15 March 1773 the Boswells' first surviving child, Veronica (1773–1795), was born. Boswell set out later that month for a six-week jaunt to London, having written beforehand to many of his London acquaintances, including Thomas Percy, Garrick, and Goldsmith. He saw Johnson frequently, and began asking about and recording the details of his early life in Lichfield and his first coming to London. Boswell was now more fully practised in his recording, and large portions of this journal were used almost verbatim in the Life. He canvassed assiduously for election to the Club, later briefly known as the Literary Club, and on 30 April he was admitted to membership under Johnson's forceful and enthusiastic sponsorship. Johnson delighted Boswell during this visit by committing himself to a long-proposed scheme to visit Boswell in Scotland later in the year and make a tour of the highlands and Western Isles (the Hebrides). Boswell returned to Edinburgh, reported for the London Magazine a series of 'Debates in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland', and worked as one of Donaldson's counsel in the landmark case on literary property. He prepared his notes on the case for publication, and in early February 1774 brought out The decision of the court of session upon the question of literary property … published by James Boswell, esq., advocate, one of the counsel in the cause, in time for Donaldson's successful appeal to the House of Lords against an earlier decision against him of the court of king's bench in London. This case (Donaldson v. Becket) long remained the basis of British and American copyright law.
Johnson arrived in Edinburgh three days after the rising of the court of session in August 1773, and spent three days at the Boswells' home receiving social visits. For seven weeks of September and October he and Boswell travelled about the highlands and Inner Hebrides, the rugged and at times dangerous travel punctuated by periods of gracious hospitality from the 'great, the learned, and the elegant' (Boswell, Life, 2.269). On 22 October they returned to the mainland, then spent an enjoyable six days at Auchinleck, invited by Boswell's father, a visit marred near the end by a violent argument between Johnson and Lord Auchinleck, who, Boswell noted, 'was as sanguine a Whig and Presbyterian, as Dr Johnson was a Tory and Church of England man' (Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 2 Nov 1773, Boswell, Life, 5.376). Boswell resumed legal work almost immediately, while Johnson stayed at the Boswells' home another ten days, receiving social visits. Margaret Boswell acted as hostess at many of them, despite her disapproval of Johnson's 'irregular hours and uncouth habits' and her opinion that 'he had too much influence over her husband' (Boswell, Life, 2.269). Lord Auchinleck, talking with a colleague in Edinburgh at the court of session, famously dubbed Johnson 'Ursa Major' (ibid., 5.384). The notes and journals Boswell kept on this trip, revised after Johnson's death with the help of Boswell's friend and editor, Edmond Malone, served as the basis for his innovative travel memoir and the first instalment of his Johnsonian biography, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), through which (and Johnson's own Journey to the Western Isles) this tour has become one of the most famous of literary journeys, its steps often retraced by later travellers. It had been a remarkable coup to coax the little-travelled Johnson, who passed his sixty-fourth birthday on the trip, to Scotland, against which he had often expressed a prejudice. It affords the most extended and remarkable instance of the many ways in which Boswell as biographer actually broadened his subject's range of experience and acquaintance. Johnson himself read most of Boswell's journal up to the mid-entry for 22 October, and Boswell several times recorded his pleasure and praise and compliments on its accuracy. The tour, as well as Johnson's admiration for the journal, deepened the friendship between the pair, and increased Johnson's respect for and confidence in Boswell as a future biographer.
Heir of Auchinleck
Johnson proved a robust but demanding companion, and the tour proved an immense strain on Boswell, leaving him fatigued and depleted. He wrote in June 1774: 'After Mr. Samuel Johnson left me … I was long in a state of languor. My mind had been kept upon its utmost stretch in his company. I had exhausted all my powers to entertain him' (Boswell, journal, Review of my life, June 1774, Defence, 197). He suffered his first severe depression since his marriage. A dispute with his father festered over the entailing of the estate, and Lord Auchinleck, like Margaret Boswell, ridiculed the association with Johnson, and spoke disparagingly of him. Ideas of transferring to the English bar took a deeper hold. On 20 May the Boswells' second daughter, Euphemia (1774–1837), was born. He did not undertake his usual spring jaunt to London, but remained in Scotland for the whole year, concerned with political activities in Ayrshire. Hopes that he might represent his county as an independent member in parliament remained with him until his last years, despite several ineffectual forays into Ayrshire elections motivated both by a desire to reverse the proportions of his year (to live in London, and visit Scotland) and a sincere disapproval of the way elections were arranged and controlled at this time. The latter half of the year was dominated by his most emotionally wrenching criminal trial, that of a sheepstealer, John Reid, who had in an earlier trial (1766) been his first criminal client. Despite Boswell's strenuous efforts both in court and after the verdict, Reid was hanged, proclaiming his innocence; the case left Boswell profoundly shaken. On his next spring jaunt to London he began to fulfil the requirements for one term's residence at the Inner Temple as a first step towards transfer to the English bar. In summer 1775 he wrote:
My father's coldness to me, the unsettled state of our family affairs, and the poor opinion which I had of the profession of a lawyer in Scotland, which consumed my life in the mean time, sunk my spirits woefully; and for some of the last weeks of the session I was depressed with black melancholy. … I thought myself disordered in mind. Yet I was able to discharge my duty as a lawyer.Boswell, journal, Review of my life during the summer session, 1775, Ominous Years, 158
On 9 October 1775 Boswell's son Alexander Boswell (1775–1822) was born. Pleased by the arrival of a male heir, Boswell resumed his journal with greater diligence than at any time since 1763. He followed closely at this time and later the events of the American War of Independence, his feelings—resembling those that produced his youthful attraction to the Corsicans—steadily pro-American. On his spring jaunt of 1776 he accompanied Johnson to Oxford, Stratford upon Avon, Birmingham, Lichfield, and Ashbourne, studying Johnson now in the scenes of his youth. In London, on 22 April, his interest in celebrity (in this case, a glamorous criminal notoriety) having been piqued by press reports of the forgery trials of Margaret Caroline Rudd and her accomplices, Boswell called on her at her lodgings. He wrote a detailed account of his interview, and called on her again several more times. On 15 May occurred the famous dinner at the Dillys', at which he contrived, after much astutely manipulative negotiation, to bring together Johnson and Wilkes, whose libertine morals and politics Johnson found abhorrent—one of the most notable of the many occasions in which Boswell manoeuvred Johnson into complex and even confrontational situations to study his reactions and record his responses. On this occasion, Wilkes's sly tact dissolved Johnson's initial discomposure into pleasant cordiality, and the episode, which Boswell wrote up from brief notes many years later, would become one of the Life's best known.
On 7 July 1776, after his return to Edinburgh, Boswell visited the dying Hume, whose 'infidel' scepticism both fascinated and disturbed him, and recorded their exchanges, enlarging the record from memory on 3 March 1777. Hume died tranquilly on 25 August, and Boswell himself remained long disconcerted by Hume's placidity. Further distresses followed: in the same month Boswell capitulated again to his father's will, and agreed finally to sign the estate entail long sought by Lord Auchinleck (now recurrently ill and in acute pain). On 15 November another son was born, but died in March the following year, and Boswell gave up any idea of a spring jaunt to London. Margaret Boswell had now begun to show symptoms of consumption. In September when Boswell resolved to visit Johnson in Ashbourne, he described himself as 'one going upon a pilgrimage to some sacred place' (Boswell, journal, 10 Sept 1777). After his return to Edinburgh his most important journalism now took the form of his series of monthly reflective essays, eventually seventy in number, for the London Magazine in the melancholic persona of ‘The Hypochondriack’. The Hypochondriack essays would continue, without a break, from October 1777 to August 1783. Gently meditative in tone, addressed sympathetically to the Hypochondriack's 'atrabilious brethren' (Boswell, Hypochondriack, 1.v, February 1778)—his fellow sufferers from inexplicable periods of depression—these essays offer some of Boswell's most considered thoughts on a wide range of moral, social, and political issues, including many of most pressing concern to himself: death, executions (which he attended compulsively throughout his life), war, diary-keeping, marriage, and drinking, among others. In March 1778 Boswell set out for London, where he spoke at the bar of the House of Commons for the first time. Johnson was now at work on his Prefaces: Biographical and Critical ('Lives of the Poets'), for which Boswell provided various pieces of research assistance.
On 15 September the Boswells' second surviving son, James Boswell (1778–1822), was born. In March of the next year Boswell left once more for London. There, his fascination with criminal notoriety again active, he attended the trial and execution of James Hackman (murderer of Martha Ray, mistress of the earl of Sandwich). He met Hackman in prison, and wrote sympathetic letters about him in the London newspapers. His return to Edinburgh was, as usual, dispiriting. Lord Auchinleck was kept away from the court of session by his illness. In July the Boswells were saddened to hear that Lainshaw, Mrs Boswell's family home, had been sold, and Boswell quarrelled later with his former teacher, Adam Smith, over his public eulogy of Hume. He brightened on a jaunt with Colonel James Stuart, Mountstuart's brother, to visit his regiment at Leeds, the journal of which trip Boswell described as a 'log-book of felicity' (Boswell, Life, 3.415). He was in London for about two weeks in October and had, as he put it, his only 'second crop' of Johnsoniana in one year (ibid., 3.399–400). In spring 1780 Lord Auchinleck resigned his justiciary gown, and Boswell published anonymously A letter to Robert Macqueen, Lord Braxfield, on his promotion to be one of the judges of the high court of justiciary, urging that the circuit criminal courts be conducted 'in the most solemn, exact, and regular way'. The letter testifies to the admiration and regard in which, in spite of their years of bitter contention, he still held his father.
On 15 June 1780 the Boswells' fifth surviving child, Elizabeth (Betsy; 1780–1814), was born. In March 1781 Boswell set off for London to appear as counsel for Hugh Montgomerie (whose election for Ayrshire had been disallowed in favour of Sir Adam Fergusson) before the house committee. The death of Henry Thrale during this visit (on 4 April 1781) aroused Boswell's complex anxieties about Hester Thrale, the rival intimacy which had developed between her and Johnson, and the possibility of a marriage. He composed the scurrilous Ode by Dr Samuel Johnson to Mrs Thrale upon their Supposed Approaching Nuptials. He returned to Edinburgh, and to the law, and spent portions of time at Auchinleck with his ailing father. Both his wife and his father were now critically ill, and Boswell was more eager than ever to leave his 'narrow sphere' and secure a remunerative place in London. Lord Auchinleck died on 30 August 1782 at his house in Edinburgh. 'Wept', Boswell wrote in his journal, 'for alas! there was not affection between us' (Boswell, journal, 29–30 Aug 1782, Laird, 477). Boswell, though proudly ninth laird of Auchinleck, was ill-trained in estate management, already heavily in debt, and stunned to discover the extent of Lord Auchinleck's settlements on his widow. He was faced for the rest of his life with an impossible financial strain. He and his wife and children came to Auchinleck, which his children had never seen, to take up residence on 18 September. Boswell sought advice from Alexander Fairlie of Fairlie, the agricultural improver, promoter of the successful Fairlie Rotation. Fairlie returned annually until 1789, and again in 1791 and 1794. Despite his love of London, Boswell was fiercely proud of his ancestral estate. He was generally lenient to his tenants, and enlarged and beautified Auchinleck. As one of the late eighteenth-century's ‘improving’ lowland lairds, he continued his father's campaigns of plantation and development of mining, and introduced new agricultural techniques to supplement the outmoded practices still in operation in the time of his father. But when he made his next spring visit, in 1783, to London—where he was to appear in an appeal before the House of Lords—he consulted his friends with greater earnestness about a transfer to the English bar. Most, including Johnson, advised against it.
Death of Johnson, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and move to London
In the autumn of 1783 at Auchinleck, Boswell resumed his laird's duties, became a JP, and was chosen praeses of the quarter sessions at Ayr. Still vainly hoping to attract political notice, he wrote A Letter to the People of Scotland in support of the king and Pitt the younger in their opposition to Fox's East India bill, and in Ayrshire the next spring he presented to the county a loyal address to the king, as part of another ill-formed campaign to supplant Sir Adam Fergusson as MP. He set out for London soon afterwards, but hearing of the dissolution of parliament hurried back to Scotland to present himself (in vain) as a candidate. He set out again in April, and while in Lichfield he tried, without success, to flirt with Anna Seward, of whose verse-novel Louisa he wrote a fulsome review for the Public Advertiser (3 June 1784). This friendship soured later over the Life of Johnson, and the pair became embroiled in a lively paper war, since, with mixed feelings about Johnson and on some matters hostile to him, Anna Seward was among those who believed Boswell's estimate of Johnson too generous.
Boswell accompanied Johnson to Oxford, Johnson's first trip since a long confinement through illness, and spent much of the time interviewing William Adams, master of Pembroke, about Johnson's earlier years, and noting his answers. This pleasant Oxford jaunt was to be their last together. Back in London, talk of Johnson's wintering in Italy for his health prompted Boswell to write to Lord Chancellor Thurlow, requesting an increase in Johnson's pension to help with the expense, a gesture that left Johnson deeply moved. Thurlow undertook to press as far as he could, but the application was not granted. On 30 June 1784 Boswell took his last parting from Johnson. He learned in Edinburgh on 17 December 1784 of Johnson's death. Seriously ill himself, he wrote in his journal: 'I was stunned, and in a kind of amaze … My feeling was just one large expanse of stupor. I knew that I should afterwards have sorer sensations' (Boswell, journal, 17 Dec 1784, Applause, 271). Letters arrived in quick succession from his publisher Charles Dilly, inviting him to be the editor of Johnson's works, and pressing him to produce his biography. Confronted now with the weight of public pressure and expectation, as well as many years' worth of unsystematic accumulation, and the prospect of many more years of research into the time before he knew Johnson, Boswell resolved that in the spring he would go to London to revise and publish his journal of the Scottish tour, 'a good prelude to my large work, his life' (Boswell, Register of letters, 23 Dec 1784). On Fairlie's advice he engaged Bruce Campbell (c.1734–1813), his second cousin, a pioneer breeder of the Ayrshire cattle, to see to the needs of his estate farms.
Another political disappointment followed in February 1785. The post of knight marshal of Scotland having become available, Boswell wrote to Henry Dundas to apply for it, and was rejected. He set out for London in late March, and wrote a second Letter to the People of Scotland, opposing Ilay Campbell's bill for reducing the number of the lords of session, and venting his considerable anger at Dundas, whose rise to 'prodigious power' in Scotland had both impressed and infuriated him. On 29 April he dined with Malone, the beginning of the critical literary association of the last decade of Boswell's life, one that proved vital to the eventual achievement of both of his Johnsonian masterworks. Malone soon became Boswell's closest London friend and an invaluable prompt and editor. For some months they met several times a week, revising the Tour journal. He returned to Scotland and arrived at Auchinleck on 3 October, ending what had been his longest London stay since 1762–3. The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, seen through the press by Malone (to whom it was dedicated), was published on 1 October 1785, and was the second of Boswell's major publications to be an instant success. The whole impression, of 1500 copies, was sold out by the 17th of that month. Long extracts were published serially in newspapers and magazines, and more space was given in reviews and letters to editors than to any other book (1785–6). Some reviewers were inevitably baffled by its novelty and personal candour, and hostile to its attention to minute quotidian detail, but its success increased Boswell's confidence in his closely personal and anecdotal approach to biography. In letters he and Malone began revising for a second edition, of which Malone supervised the printing while Boswell was in Scotland, and this edition was published on 22 December. A third was published in October 1786, which edition (there were several thereafter) was the last to include revisions by Boswell himself.
Boswell remained at Auchinleck for a month, collecting rents and paying and receiving social visits, then set out in November 1785 for London via Edinburgh. In London he heard again from Margaret Caroline Rudd, and the interest they had shown in each other at their first meetings in 1776 grew into a sexual affair. This affair, with a widely recognized criminal celebrity, shocked even friends such as Reynolds, long accustomed to Boswell's frequent infidelities. When, typically, he confessed it to Margaret Boswell, then gravely ill, it caused her a sharper distress than all his other extramarital affairs and habitual whoring. On 9 February 1786 he completed the requisite number of meals in the Temple commons for admission to the English bar, to which he was called on 13 February, and he joined the northern circuit as junior member. Soon after he had left for the northern circuit, Mrs Piozzi's Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson were published. He left the circuit early in order to attend the House of Lords for an appeal in which he was counsel, and he published a reply to Mrs Piozzi in the newspapers, along with 'Piozzian Rhymes', signed ‘Old Salusbury Briar’. In May he took a house at 56 Great Queen Street. His journals record further miserable vacillation about transferring to London and conscientious attendance at courts, but (as he had not actually studied to acquire English law) little or no legal business. His entry for 5 June marks the first explicit mention in his journal of work on 'sorting materials' for the Life of Johnson, and the entries for 9–11 July show him as beginning to write it. On deciding finally to move to London, he returned to Scotland, having spent less than three of the previous seventeen months with his family, and on 20 September 1786 he left with his wife and their five children, and took up residence in Great Queen Street.
Recorder of Carlisle and death of Margaret Boswell
In November, Boswell wrote to the earl of Lonsdale, whose notice he had attracted with complimentary references in his second Letter to the People of Scotland (1785) and the Tour, seeking the position of recorder of Carlisle. Lonsdale responded by asking if he could go at once to Carlisle as counsel for the mayor at the coming by-election. Boswell accepted, travelled to Carlisle, and saw the election through, but recorded much in his journals of Lonsdale's violently tyrannical manner and the subordination in which he kept his entourage of dependants. In March 1787 there appeared Sir John Hawkins's Life of Johnson. This, the most significant and substantial of the several biographies of Johnson before Boswell's, he had been anxiously awaiting, as Hawkins had known Johnson for some forty years and was one of his executors. In May Boswell announced in the Public Advertiser that he had delayed his own book in order to see other promised works, and that his own biography would 'correct' the 'erroneous Accounts' of Hawkins and Mrs Piozzi. Mrs Boswell's health worsened seriously in London, and he resolved to take her to Auchinleck with him for a short visit late in August, after which they set off once more for London, where Malone now urged him to put the writing of the Life ahead of attendance at courts and other considerations. But he applied again to Lonsdale for the recordership of Carlisle, which, on 20 December, Lonsdale offered, asking him to set out the next day. Boswell complied, but again grew rapidly disheartened with his patron and recorded more in his journals of Lonsdale's brutality and ill temper. On 11 January 1788 he was elected recorder of Carlisle.
Mrs Piozzi's Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson prompted Boswell to publish his irreverent Ode by Dr Samuel Johnson to Mrs Thrale. He had been disappointed by the Letters, in which he found 'less able and brilliant writing than I expected', 'proof' of what he saw as Johnson's 'fawning' on Mrs Piozzi, and of Johnson's 'treating me and other friends much more lightly than we had reason to expect'. Even though he found two days later that they 'improved on me', the experience had temporarily 'cooled my warmth of enthusiasm for “my illustrious friend”' (journal, 7 March 1788, English Experiment, 194, 196). None the less Boswell resumed work on the Life, and by May he could speak of having only his journals of the last two years of Johnson's life to revise. But Mrs Boswell was distressed by the now obviously terminal nature of her illness. In May he yielded to her entreaties, and set out for Auchinleck, where work on the Life stalled, and Boswell was often away from home as, having been a declared candidate for the county, he began his canvass. He wrote an address to the real freeholders of Ayrshire dated 30 June, and published it in the Edinburgh Advertiser (1–4 July). In October he set out for the Michaelmas quarter sessions at Carlisle, where Lonsdale joined him, and he spoke before the grand jury as recorder. Later that month he left Auchinleck with his sons for London, and was little in Scotland after this date. Work on the Life resumed, and by the beginning of 1789 he had nearly finished a first rough draft. In January he took a smaller house at 38 Queen Anne Street West, Cavendish Square, but in April, having received alarming accounts of Mrs Boswell's health, he headed north, with his eldest daughter, Veronica. He again resumed local political activities. On 5 May, as praeses of the general quarter sessions at Ayr, in another attempt to court political notice he proposed and had carried an address to the prince of Wales, expressing 'a grateful sense of his public conduct with regard to the Regency'. Word from Lonsdale came that he wished Boswell to accompany him to London to appear as recorder in an action brought against the Carlisle corporation in the court of king's bench. Boswell hesitated, anguished by, but unwilling and unable fully to confront, his wife's mortal illness, and uncertain about whether to adhere to the association with Lonsdale he had so assiduously sought, and which he thought might yet bring him into parliament. He set out, pausing at Carlisle to meet Lonsdale. He had been in London less than a week, and Lonsdale's case had not yet come on, when letters reached him with the news that Mrs Boswell was sinking. From 4 June he and his sons posted night and day, arriving at Auchinleck to find that his wife had died on the morning of the day he left London.
Guiltily disconsolate, berating himself for his conduct as a husband and for having valued Margaret insufficiently, and inadequate under the burden of sole responsibility for their five children, Boswell set out at the end of the summer once more in pursuit of business on the northern circuit, but, he told Temple, his 'mind was so sore from my late severe loss' that he avoided the 'roaring, bantering society of lawyers'. He continued:
Every prospect that I turn my mind's eye upon is dreary … The law life in Scotland amidst vulgar familiarity would now quite destroy me. I am not able to acquire the law of England. To be in Parliament unless as an independent member would gall my spirit. To live in the country would either harrass me by forced exertions, or sink me into a gloomy stupor … The Life of Johnson still keeps me up. I must bring that forth …23 Aug 1789, Great Biographer, 11
After attending to further business in Carlisle, he set out on 1 October for London with Veronica, James, and Elizabeth, and Alexander joined them at Carlisle. Veronica boarded with a schoolfriend in London, Euphemia went to a boarding-school in Edinburgh, Alexander went to Eton, James continued as a day boy at the Soho Academy in London (and went later to Westminster), and Betsy was sent to a boarding-school in Chelsea. In mid-October in London, Boswell returned to a final burst of work on the Life. On 7 December the court of king's bench saw the trial that had been in the offing since Lonsdale called Boswell from the dying Margaret's bedside. Boswell appeared before Lord Kenyon, the lord chief justice, as one of two counsel for the Carlisle corporation. The trial resulted in a victory (though only a temporary one) for Lonsdale.
Boswell worked assiduously at this time, with others of his friends, to erect a monument to Johnson in Westminster Abbey (eventually it was placed in St Paul's Cathedral) and his long association with Paoli, who was returning to Corsica, now neared its end. Paoli had remained, during his London exile of some twenty-one years, an unswerving source of friendship, moral advice, wisdom, and hospitality. Boswell gave a farewell dinner for Paoli on 22 March 1790, and translated Paoli's speech to the Corsican general assembly and published it in the London Chronicle for 30 November. He enjoyed a temporary easy sociability with Lonsdale in the aftermath of the trial victory, and felt pleased with his progress on the Life. He and Malone had devised an arduous programme of revising later manuscript sections even as the earlier ones were being printed. He launched newspaper campaigns promoting his forthcoming book, and disparaged Mrs Piozzi's. But among other complications Thomas Percy, having grown anxious about the appearance he was to make in Boswell's work, disconcerted him by asking not to be named in it. Boswell altered some material, but rejected the request for anonymity, and Percy long remained profoundly offended by his eventual depiction in the Life. Then Boswell found himself summoned (in the middle of a visit from Temple, whom he had not seen since 1783, and his eldest daughter) by Lonsdale to accompany him to his seat at Laleham in Middlesex. Lonsdale, evidently offended when he asked to be excused because of the arrival of his old friend, later spoke abusively, and Boswell 'inwardly resolved to withdraw myself from all connection with him'. But he noted in his journal for 20 May: 'I was now in absolute poverty'. He soon heard enough to know that Lonsdale had no thought of bringing him into parliament or employing him in Westminster Hall. The simmering hostility between them mounted, and the pair came to a violent open quarrel. On the journey north Lonsdale insulted Boswell grossly, Boswell sought pistols from some officers at an inn, and they came almost to a duel before Lonsdale's temper abated and they reached an uneasy calm. Boswell discharged his various legal duties, resigned the recordership (effective 12 July 1790), and his political association with Lonsdale ended.
The Life of Johnson
In London, Boswell found that Malone had supervised the printing of another forty pages of the Life. He was 'put in train again', and resumed his typical patterns of convivial dinners, revising with Malone, and visits to prostitutes. He, Malone, Reynolds, and John Courtenay MP were so often in each other's company that they became known as 'the Gang'. Later in the year he arranged with his brother Thomas David to attend to estate business at Auchinleck as his deputy, on whose recommendation he appointed as overseer Andrew Gibb, a younger brother of Gavin Gibb, to succeed James Bruce, a childhood friend, who had died in August. (Gibb would serve Boswell, his son, and grandson, on the estate for a total of forty-six years.) Still closely and emotionally engaged in estate affairs, Boswell bought, despite his desperate financial state, nearby Knockroon at a cost of £2500. Fairlie lent him £1500 on the security of the land, but how to raise the other thousand remained a persistent anxiety for the winter of 1791. Eventually Dilly and his printer, Henry Baldwin, lent him the money in anticipation of royalties on the Life. In November, still vainly hoping for Pitt's interest, he sang his William Pitt, the Grocer of London at the lord mayor's feast in the Guildhall, celebrating Pitt's recent success in a favourable trade convention with Spain, and published it in the Public Advertiser. In April 1791 he published anonymously a lengthy verse pamphlet, No Abolition of Slavery, or, The Universal Empire of Love, containing in part an attack on abolitionism.
In January 1791, as printing of the Life proceeded, Boswell moved to 47 Great Portland Street, his home for the rest of his life. On 13 May forty-one London booksellers purchased more than 400 sets (of two large quarto volumes), and on 16 May, the twenty-eighth anniversary of his first meeting with Johnson in Davies's back parlour, the biography was published. Sales exceeded all expectations. Of a total of 1750 sets printed, 800 were sold in the first two weeks, 1200 by the end of August, 1400 by December, and 1600 by August 1792. When he settled accounts with Dilly, the transaction was (he noted) 'very flattering to me as an author' (Boswell, journal, 24 Nov 1792, Great Biographer, 201). To promote interest in the Life, he wrote a third-person biography of himself in the European Magazine, published in two parts in the May and June issues. As tributes to the Life poured in from his friends, Boswell continued to attend Westminster Hall, but knew that his transfer to the English bar had been a failure. Convivial dinners, a remarkably extensive and varied range of social acquaintance, frequent heavy drinking, prostitutes, fitful but never plausible schemes of remarriage, and his children's continuing love for him, despite his difficulties as a widower in supervising their lives, punctuated the time which, since the publication of the Life, had become essentially idle. In July Reynolds, now in his own last illness, and valuing Boswell's companionship highly, arranged for his election to the honorary post of secretary for foreign correspondence in the Royal Academy, which led later to his joining the Royal Academy Club. On 28 August 1791 he returned to Auchinleck, where he had not been since October 1789, attended desultorily to estate business, and left again in October for London, where he often visited Reynolds, now in rapidly failing health. Reynolds died on 23 February 1792, and Boswell felt his loss severely.
In summer 1792, shortly before a visit with his two elder daughters to Temple and his family in Cornwall, Boswell's characteristic sympathy for impoverished criminals was roused again by the plight of Mary Bryant (or Broad) and the other four survivors of an escape from the penal colony in New South Wales, now confined in Newgate. He appealed on their behalf to Dundas, now home secretary, who set in motion the granting of a royal pardon for Mary Bryant. In October 1793 Boswell arranged for Mary to rejoin her relations in Fowey, and, after seeking to raise money for her through subscriptions, he paid most of a promised annuity of £10 personally. At Auchinleck in spring 1793 he devoted great care and attention to the choice and the appointment of a successor to John Dun, who had died the preceding October, as parish minister. Aware of the kinds of angry broils parish appointments could lead to (they had been pilloried in the poems of his fellow Ayrshireman, Robert Burns), Boswell yielded to his parishioners' choice and presented the Revd John Lindsay to the parish in March. Immediately thereafter he left for London by way of Edinburgh, where he had not been since his move to the English bar in 1786, and this short visit was the last time he saw his native city. In London he worked hurriedly, as publication time drew near, to prepare his second edition of the Life. Much new material, including a number of original letters, had come to him, and he added many lengthy new notes, and prefatory matter. The second edition appeared on 17 July, in three octavo volumes, 'corrected and considerably enlarged by additional Letters and interesting Anecdotes …'. The 'Corrections and Additions' were later issued separately to accommodate purchasers of the first edition.
Temple visited London, and on 27 September the friends saw each other for the last time. Boswell continued despondent that he had had never fulfilled his hopes of 'attaining both to consequence and wealth'; 'I tried to soothe myself with the consideration of my fame as a writer' (Boswell, journal, 13 Feb 1794, Great Biographer, 287). The entry for 12 April 1794 marks the end of his full journal (only a few later fragmentary notes survive). As secretary for foreign correspondence of the Royal Academy he campaigned in support of William Mitford's candidacy for the professorship of ancient history (having admired his conservative History of Greece), in opposition to John Gillies. He returned to Auchinleck in June 1794 with his two elder daughters, who had not been there since their mother's death in 1789, where Alexander (now studying at Edinburgh University) received them. Betsy remained in London at a boarding-school in Soho Square, and James at Westminster. Archibald Montgomerie, eleventh earl of Eglinton, as lord lieutenant of Ayrshire, named Boswell one of his deputies, but Boswell declined the office, having differed with him earlier in Ayrshire political matters, and he yet nurtured hopes of a seat in parliament or a place in government or diplomacy.
In March, Boswell wrote to Dundas, asking to be made minister or commissioner to Corsica, but was rejected, and he wrote to Paoli in Corsica asking that he and his brother T. D. might be remembered, should positions become open in the new administration there. He left Auchinleck for London on 12 January 1795, intending to return in August, and spent his time after his long absence characteristically 'relishing the Metropolis with avidity' (to Le Fleming, 3 March, Correspondence, 2nd edn, 2.450) but essentially, as he had been since the first edition of the Life, idle, and regretting again that he had never risen to political consequence. The last surviving letter written fully in his hand (13 April 1795), to Malone, concerns Samuel Parr's inscription for Johnson's monument in St Paul's. On 14 April Boswell was taken violently ill at a meeting of the Club, and had to be carried home to Great Portland Street. After about five weeks of severe pain, but without knowing his danger, he died there at 2 a.m. on 19 May 1795, attended during his last illness by Veronica, Euphemia, James, and his brother T. D. A twentieth-century diagnosis names uraemia as the cause of death, 'the result of acute and chronic urinary tract infection, secondary to postgonorrheal urethral stricture' (Ober, 28). His sons set out for Auchinleck to superintend funeral arrangements, and he was interred in the family vault at Auchinleck church on 8 June 1795.
In his will made on 28 May 1785 Boswell had named Sir William Forbes executor. He left debts amounting to about £9000. An addition to his will (12 October 1791) nominated his brother T. D. Boswell, along with Forbes, guardian of his children. He left the care of his voluminous private diaries and correspondence and other papers to Forbes, Temple, and Malone, who were to inspect them and decide which if any should be published for the financial benefit of the children other than his heir, Alexander. Temple died the year after his friend, without having inspected the private papers. Forbes and Malone, although they never met, made inspections and corresponded with care and in detail, then left a decision about whether anything in the private writings warranted publication to Boswell's younger son, James. He when he came of age concurred with the executors' general opinion, against publication. In a codicil to his will, Boswell had left particular care of the Life to Malone, who discharged his trust with immense dedication, as much a friend to Boswell and the biography as he was in Boswell's lifetime. With occasional help from Forbes he brought out the third edition, 'revised and augmented', in four octavo volumes in May 1799 and the fourth (1804), fifth (1807), and sixth (1811) editions. Boswell's son James contributed notes to the third edition, and read over and corrected the whole of the sixth, which was many times reprinted throughout the nineteenth century. Other major re-edited editions appeared steadily. G. B. Hill's edition of 1887 represented the high point of a long Victorian fascination with Boswell's book, and brought to a vernacular English text for the first time a complex and comprehensive editorial apparatus on a scale then normally reserved for the classics. L. F. Powell's 'revised and enlarged' edition of Hill appeared in six volumes from 1934 to 1964 (the fifth volume containing the Tour to the Hebrides and other material, and the sixth volume a comprehensive index). This edition, usually referred to as Hill–Powell, held its position as the standard scholarly version of the work throughout the twentieth century.
Boswell's Life of Johnson remains the most famous biography in any language, one of Western literature's most germinal achievements: unprecedented in its time in its depth of research and its extensive use of private correspondence and recorded conversation, it sought to dramatize its subject in his authorial greatness and formidable social presence, and at the same time treat him with a profound sympathy and inhabit his inner life. Boswell both elevated the life of the writer to epic stature, and attended to the minute details of life as lived to provide a steady disclosure of character through their long gradual accretion. To the task of life-writing, Boswell brought his forensic and evidence-sifting habits from his Edinburgh legal training, and the practised journalist's touch for popularizing and rendering accessible a body of complex material. To the conversation scenes (which, based mostly on revisions of his journal entries, remain the best remembered, while making up only about half of the Life) he brought the avid eighteenth-century theatregoer's sense of character revelation through dramatically rendered social self-articulation. But though the Life has delighted many, putting Johnson's thunderous aphoristic pronouncements into permanent quotable circulation, it remains—like the biographer who produced it—as controversial as it is famous. It has been attacked, in equal measure, for embodying a servile hero-worship and for offering a portrait grotesquely unflattering. While Boswell has been praised for keeping Johnson's name and greatness alive long after a taste for reading him faded, some Johnsonian scholars allege that Boswell's vision of a deeply troubled, frequently combative, and opinionated conversational colossus has unfairly eclipsed in the popular imagination Johnson's own writing, where it is said an intellect far more meditative, capacious, and analytically flexible is to be found. None the less, later scholarship has properly supplemented but never supplanted the Life's basic vision, and has drawn upon Boswell's work as a central source even in those challenges to aspects of its representation.
Boswell's private diaries, letters, and other papers—long suppressed, unsystematically stored, and in some places expurgated by his heirs—came to light in the early twentieth century when his descendants, the Talbots of Malahide, near Dublin, became interested in their literary and commercial value. These papers, and others from later unexpected recoveries from Malahide, then from Fettercairn House, Kincardineshire (home to the descendants of Forbes), and other sources, were eventually assembled after long effort by the American collector Ralph Heyward Isham (1890–1955), who sold his collection (later much augmented) to Yale University in 1949. In that year, under the inaugural general editorship of Frederick A. Pottle (1897–1987), the Yale Boswell Editions were established, and made the publication of selections of the Boswell papers one of the great editorial undertakings of modern times. It brought Boswell a second, posthumous, wave of fame, detached him from the popular myth of a life lived in more or less constant attendance on Johnson, and brought notice to the crowded variety of his own life. It overturned the famously demeaning appraisal of Boswell made by Macaulay in his review of Croker's edition (1831) of the Life, which had done much to fix a distorted image of Boswell in the Victorian popular imagination. A reading edition of Boswell's journal, supplemented as needed by letters and other material, with the popular and bestselling London Journal, 1762–1763 (1950) appearing as the first in the sequence, ran eventually to fourteen volumes, the last being Boswell: the Great Biographer, 1789–1795, edited by Marlies K. Danziger and Frank Brady (1989). The main work of the Boswell editions, the parallel Research Edition series, designed for a specialist scholarly readership, of volumes of correspondence, journals, and a genetic transcription of the manuscript of the Life of Johnson, continued into the twenty-first century.
Boswell stood about 5 feet 6 inches tall, and his weight in 1776 was recorded as 11 stone 12 lbs. He had a very dark complexion and a thick crop of very dark hair. His portrait by Willison, in 1765, shows a young Boswell, in Pottle's description, 'odd, eager, egotistical, boyish, sensual—and attractive' (Pottle, Earlier Years, 222), and in Brady's, 'a silken Boswell in furred scarlet and green, with graceful hands, a soft alert face, and some determination about him' (Brady, Later Years, 293). Reynolds's portrait (1785) shows Boswell aged forty-five in 'blue coat, white stock, and powdered wig, steady and dignified'. Here the 'face has taken on assured and self-conscious importance … [S]ome hint of cheerfulness lingers about the mouth, and the eyes remain always alert' (ibid., 293). George Dance's sketch, of April 1793, shows a 'well-set, double-chinned' Boswell, as does an undated semi-caricature from about the same period by Thomas Lawrence (Yale U., Beinecke L.). Boswell was an ebulliently animated social presence, a fine singer, an energetic anecdotalist, and an entertainingly gifted mimic. In October 1790 Frances Burney, not having seen him for some time, agreed to meet him knowing she would derive 'amusement from his oddity and good humour', and reported that his 'comic serious face and manner' had 'lost nothing of their wonted singularity' (Journals and Letters, 1.181–2).
Boswell was and remains a divisive personality, even for modern readers who find the fluent, precise, demotic prose of the journals compelling: an unstable amalgam of vibrant self-advertising vanity and self-tortured insecurity; an able but reluctant Edinburgh lawyer who marred his chances for judicial promotion with over-zealous and occasionally frenetic defences of poor criminal clients, with whom he felt a particular sympathy; a loving but erratic husband; a lenient, beloved, but overburdened father; a kind and improvement-oriented lowland laird who longed for life in London; a sentimental Jacobite who developed an extraordinary veneration for George III; libertinistic, but guilt-stricken at his own recurrent drunkenness and compulsive whoring. The unflinching confessional candour of his journals has found readerships both attracted and disconcerted. 'I have a strange feeling,' he wrote, 'as if I wished nothing to be secret that concerns myself' (journal, 4 Jan 1776). Yet these self-scrutinizing records—like the biography of Johnson—disclose at the same time Boswell's capacious and generous fascination with the mystery of the other, an engagement with men and women striking or distinctive in whatever way. In his travels and social conduct he sought to collect acquaintances and cultivate friendships with the high and the low, the famous, and the notorious, and his collections are drawn—contrary to his Victorian reputation for mere toadying and tuft-hunting—as much from the regions of the humble and the abject as from the eminent and accomplished. Boswell's drive to record himself and others, and his pertinacious pursuit of his two greatest claims on posterity's attention—the journal and his biographical attachment to Johnson—were not explicable to those closest to him: his Edinburgh legal fraternity, his father, or his wife. Others, like Johnson and Malone, understood and encouraged, and Boswell left behind a window on them all, and a record of his times, unrivalled in detail, accuracy, and social range.
- J. Boswell, journals, memoranda, letters, and other private papers, Yale U.
- Boswell for the defence, 1769–1774, ed. W. K. Wimsatt and F. A. Pottle (1959), vol. 7 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, laird of Auchinleck, 1778–1782, ed. J. W. Reed and F. A. Pottle (1977)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat, repr. (1993), vol. 11 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat
- Boswell: the applause of the jury, 1782–1785, ed. I. S. Lustig and F. A. Pottle (1981), 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)
- F. A. Pottle, The literary career of James Boswell (1929)
- [J. Boswell], ‘On the profession of a player’, London Magazine (Aug–Oct 1770)
- The correspondence of James Boswell with David Garrick, Edmund Burke, and Edmond Malone, ed. G. M. Kahrl and others (1986), vol. 4 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1966–)
- Boswelliana, the commonplace book of James Boswell, ed. C. Rogers (1874)
- The Hypochondriack: being the seventy essays by the celebrated biographer James Boswell, appearing in the London Magazine from November 1777 to August 1783, ed. M. Bailey, 2 vols. (1928)
- F. Brady, James Boswell: the later years, 1769–1795 (1984)
- F. Brady, Boswell's political career (1965)
- The correspondence of James Boswell with James Bruce and Andrew Gibb, overseers of the Auchinleck estate, ed. N. P. Hankins and J. Strawhorn (1998), vol. 8 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1966–)
- J. Boswell, ‘Register of letters’, Yale M 255
- The correspondence and other papers of James Boswell relating to the making of the ‘Life of Johnson’, ed. M. Waingrow, rev. edn (2001)
- The journals and letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D'Arblay), ed. J. Hemlow and others, 12 vols. (1972–84), vol. 1
- W. Ober, ‘Boswell's clap’ and other essays (1979)
- D. Buchanan, The treasure of Auchinleck: the story of the Boswell papers (1974)
- F. A. Pottle, Pride and negligence: the history of the Boswell papers (1982)
- BL, letters to William Julius Mickle, RP248(i) [copies]
- BL, letters to John Wilkes, Add. MS 30877
- Morgan L., letters to William Temple
- NA Scot., letters to Sir Alexander Dick of Prestonfield
- NL Scot., letters to Sir David Dalrymple
- NL Scot., letters to Sir William Forbes
- NL Scot., letters to Lord Hailes
- NRA, priv. coll., letters to the Hon. Andrew Erskine
- G. Willison, oils, 1765, Scot. NPG
- D. Allen, group portrait, etching, 1783, Scot. NPG
- T. Rowlandson, etching, 1786 (after S. Collings), V&A
- G. Langton, pen and wash drawing, 1790, Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire
- T. Lawrence, pencil sketch, 1790–1795, Yale U., Beinecke L., Denham album
- T. Lawrence, pencil sketches, 1790–1795, NPG
- G. Dance, pencil, crayon, and wash drawing, 1793, NPG
- D. G. Thompson, stipple and line engraving, pubd 1851 (after J. E. Doyle), NPG
- H. W. Bunbury, chalk drawing (with Dr Johnson), V&A
- H. W. Bunbury, pencil drawings (with Dr Johnson), V&A; repro. in J. Boswell, The journal of a tour to the Hebrides (1785)
- H. Singleton, group portrait, oils (with his family), Scot. NPG
- W. S. Watson, group portrait, oils (The inauguration of Robert Burns as poet laureate of the Lodge Canongate, Kilwinning, 1787), Scot. NPG
Wealth at Death
debts approx. £9000: Correspondence of James Boswell, ed. Hankins and Strawhorn, ‘Introduction’, xlii
- Boswell, Alexander, Lord Auchinleck (1707–1782), judge
- Boswell, James (1778–1822), barrister and literary scholar
- Boswell, Margaret Montgomerie [Peggie] (1738?–1789), wife of James Boswell
- Boswell, Sir Alexander, first baronet (1775–1822), poet and politician
- Club [Literary Club, Johnson's Literary Club] (act. 1764–1784)
- Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784), author and lexicographer