James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck (October 29, 1740 - May 19, 1795) was a lawyer, diarist, and author born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the eldest son of a judge, Alexander Boswell, 8th Laird of Auchinleck and his wife Euphemia Erskine, Lady Auchinleck. Boswell's mother was a strict Calvinist, and he felt that his father was cold to him. The heir to the estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire, which he inherited on the death of his father, Boswell is best known as the biographer of Samuel Johnson. His name has passed into the English language as a term (Boswell, Boswellian, Boswellism) for a constant companion and observer.
Boswell is also known for the detailed and frank journals that he wrote for long periods of his life, which remained undiscovered until the 1920s. These included voluminous notes on the grand tour of Europe that he took as a young nobleman and, subsequently, of his tour of Scotland with Johnson. His journals also record meetings and conversations with eminent individuals belonging to The Club, including Lord Monboddo, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith. His written works focus chiefly on others, but he was admitted as a good companion and accomplished conversationalist in his own right.
Boswell was born near St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. He was educated at James Mundell's academy, followed by a string of private tutors before being sent at the age of thirteen to the city's University by his father to study law. Upon turning nineteen he was sent to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow, where he was taught by Adam Smith. While at Glasgow, Boswell decided to convert to Catholicism and become a monk. Upon learning of this, Boswell's father ordered him home. Instead of obeying, Boswell ran away to London.
Boswell spent three months in London, where he lived the life of a libertine before he was taken back to Scotland by his father. Upon returning, Boswell was re-enrolled at Edinburgh University and was forced by his father to sign away most of his inheritance in return for an allowance of £100 a year. On July 30, 1762 Boswell took his oral law exam, which he passed with some skill. Upon this success, Lord Auchinleck decided to raise his son's allowance to £200 a year and allowed him to return to London. It was during this spell in London that Boswell wrote his London Journal and met Johnson for the first time, on May 16, 1763; the pair became friends almost immediately. Boswell was eventually nicknamed Bozzy by Johnson.
It was around three months after this first encounter with Johnson that Boswell departed for Europe with the initial goal of continuing his law studies at Utrecht University. Boswell, however, spent most of the next two and a half years travelling around the continent. During this time he met Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and made a pilgrimage to Rome. Boswell also travelled to Corsica to meet one of his heroes, the independence leader Pasquale Paoli.
Boswell returned to London in February 1766 accompanied by Rousseau's mistress, with whom he may have had a brief affair on the journey home. After spending a few weeks in the capital, he returned to Scotland to take his final law exam. He passed the exam and became an advocate. He practiced for over a decade, during which time he spent no more than a month every year with Johnson. Nevertheless, he returned to London each year in order to mingle with Johnson and the rest of the London literary crowd, and to escape his mundane existence in Scotland.
Boswell married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, in November 1769. She remained faithful to Boswell, despite his frequent liaisons with prostitutes, until her death of tuberculosis in 1789. After his infidelities he would deliver tearful apologies to her and beg her forgiveness, before again promising her, and himself, that he would reform. James and Margaret had four sons and three daughters. Two sons died in infancy; the other two were Alexander (1775-1822) and James (1778-1822). Their daughters were Veronica (1773-1795), Euphemia (1774-ca. 1834) and Elizabeth (1780-1814). Boswell also had at least two illegitimate children, Charles (1762-1764) and Sally (1767-1768?).
Despite his relative literary success with accounts of his European travels, Boswell was an unsuccessful advocate. By the late 1770s he descended further and further into alcoholism and gambling addiction. Throughout his life, from childhood until death, he was beset by severe swings of mood. His depressions frequently encouraged, and were exacerbated by, his various vices. His happier periods usually saw him relatively vice-free. His character mixed a superficial Enlightenment sensibility for reason and taste with a genuine and somewhat Romantic love of the sublime and a propensity for occasionally puerile whimsy. The latter, along with his tendency for drink and other vices, caused many contemporaries and later observers to regard him as being too lightweight to be an equal in the literary crowd that he wanted to be a part of. However, his humour and innocent good nature won him many lifelong friends.
Boswell was a frequent guest of Lord Monboddo at Monboddo House, a setting where he gathered significant observations for his writings by association with Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, Lord Kames, Lord Monboddo and other luminaries.
After Johnson's death in 1784, Boswell moved to London to try his luck at the English Bar, which proved even more unsuccessful than his career in Scotland. He also offered to stand for Parliament but failed to get the necessary support, and he spent the final years of his life writing his Life of Johnson. During this time his health began to fail due to venereal disease and his years of drinking. Boswell died in London in 1795.
Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson
When the Life of Johnson was published in 1791 it at once commanded the admiration that Boswell had sought for so long, and it has suffered no diminution since. Its style was revolutionary - unlike other biographies of that era it directly incorporated conversations that Boswell had noted down at the time for his journals. He also included far more personal and human details than contemporary readers were accustomed to. Instead of writing a respectful and dry record of Johnson's public life, in the style of the time, he painted a vivid portrait of the complete man. It is still often said to be the greatest biography yet written, and the longevity of Dr. Johnson's fame perhaps owes much to the work.
The question has often been asked of how a man such as Boswell could have produced so remarkable a work as the Life of Johnson. Among those who attempted an answer were Macaulay and Carlyle: the former arguing, paradoxically, that Boswell's uninhibited folly and triviality were his greatest qualifications; the latter, with deeper insight, replying that beneath such traits were a mind to discern excellence and a heart to appreciate it, aided by the power of accurate observation and considerable dramatic ability. (It should be noted that Macaulay's venomous condemnation of Boswell's personality may have had a political foundation: Boswell was a Tory, and as such a target for Whig historian Macaulay's attacks. In addition, Macaulay's grandfather was the victim of one of Johnson's sharpest rebukes: "Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature, as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles, without having good practice?").
"I do not recollect having had any other valuable principle impressed upon me by my father except a strict regard for truth, which he impressed upon my mind by a hearty beating at an early age when I lied, and then talking of the dishonour of lying."
"My heart warmed to my countrymen, and my Scotch blood boiled with indignation. I jumped from the benches, roared out 'Damn you, you rascals!', hissed and was in the greatest rage . . . I hated the English; I wished from my soul that the Union was broke and that we might give them another battle of Bannockburn"
"For my own part I think no innocent species of wit or pleasantry should be suppressed: and that a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation."
In a poem about himself: "Boswell is pleasant and gay, / For frolic by nature designed; / He heedlessly rattles away / When company is to his mind."
"We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over. So in a series of kindnesses there is, at last, one which makes the heart run over."
On his last meeting with Johnson: "We bade adieu to each other affectionately in the carriage. When he had got down upon the foot pavement he called out 'Fare you well'; and without looking back, sprung away with a kind of pathetic briskness, if I may use that expression, which seemed to indicate a struggle to conceal uneasiness, and impressed me with a foreboding of our long, long separation."
Discovery of papers
In the 1920s a great part of Boswell's private papers, including intimate journals for much of his life, were discovered at Malahide Castle, north of Dublin. These provide a hugely revealing insight into the life and thoughts of the man. They were sold to the American collector Ralph H. Isham and have since passed to Yale University, which has published general and scholarly editions of his journals and correspondence. A second cache was discovered soon after and also purchased by Isham. A substantially longer edition of A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was published in 1936 based on his original manuscript. His London Journal 1762-63, the first of the Yale journal publications, appeared in 1950. The last, The Great Biographer, 1789-1795, was published in 1989.
- Dorando, a Spanish Tale (1767, anonymously)
- Account of Corsica (1768)
- The Hypochondriack (1777-1783, a monthly series in the London Magazine)
- A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785)
- The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791, reprinted in Everyman's Library)
- Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763
- Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, including his correspondence with Belle de Zuylen (ZeĢlide)
- Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764
- Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France, 1765-1766
- Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766-1769
- Boswell for the Defence, 1769-1774
- Boswell: the Ominous Years, 1774-1776
- Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778
- Boswell: Laird of Auchinleck 1778-1782
- Boswell, the Applause of the Jury, 1782-1785
- Boswell, the English Experiment, 1785-1789
- Boswell: The Great Biographer, 1789-1795
- Purdie, D.W. (2002). The Maladies of James Boswell, Advocate. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 32, 197-202.
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