1. The Cub
He had royal blood in him. His father, Alexander Boswell, Laird of Au-chinleck in Ayrshire and judge of the Scottish Court of Session, was descended from the Earl of Arran, a great-grandson of James II of Scotland. His mother was descended from the third Earl of Lennox, who was grandfather of Lord Darnley, who was father of James VI. James Boswell was born in Edinburgh October 29, 1740. As the eldest of three sons he was heir to the modest estate of Auchinleck (which he pronounced “Affleck”); but, since his father lived till 1782, James had to be discontent with such income as the Laird allowed him. Brother John suffered in 1762 the first of several attacks of insanity. Boswell himself was oppressed with spells of hypochondria, for which his cures were the amnesia of alcohol and the warmth of female forms. His mother taught him the Presbyterian Calvinist creed, which had a warmth of its own. “I shall never forget,” he later wrote, “the dismal hours of apprehension that I have endured in my youth from narrow notions of religion, while my mind was lacerated with infernal horror.”90 Throughout his life he oscillated between faith and doubt, piety and venery, and never achieved more than momentary integration or content.
After some tutoring at home, he was sent to the University of Edinburgh, then to Glasgow, where he attended the lectures of Adam Smith and studied law. At Glasgow he met actors and actresses, some of them Catholic. It seemed to him that their religion was more compatible than Calvinism with a jolly life; he liked especially the doctrine of purgatory, which allowed a sinner to be saved after a few aeons of burning. Suddenly James rode off to London (March, 1760), and joined the Roman Church.
His alarmed father sent a plea to the Earl of Eglinton, an Ayrshire neighbor living in London, to take James in hand. The Earl pointed out to the youth that as a Catholic he could never practice law, or enter Parliament, or inherit Auchinleck. James returned to Scotland and the Kirk, and lived under the paternal roof and eye; but, as the judge was busy, his son managed to “catch a Tartar”91—the first of his many bouts with venereal disease. Fearing that this reckless youth, on inheriting Auchinleck, would squander the estate in revelry, the father persuaded him, in return for an annuity of £ 100, to sign a document giving the future management of the property to trustees named by Boswell Senior.
On October 29, 1761, James came of age, and his annuity was doubled. In the following March he impregnated Peggy Doig; in July he passed his bar examination. On November 1, 1762, leaving ten pounds to Peggy, he set out for London. (Her child was born a few days later; Boswell never saw it.) In London he took a comfortable room in Downing Street. By November 25 he “was really unhappy for want of women”;92 but he remembered his infection, and “the surgeons’ fees in this city are very high.”93 So he steeled himself to continence “till I got some safe girl, or was liked by some woman of fashion.”94 His impression was that London provided every variety of courtesan, “from the splendid Madam at fifty guineas a night down to the civil nymph … who … will resign her engaging person to your honor for a pint of wine and a shilling.”95 He developed a connection with “a handsome actress,” Louisa, whose long resistance seemed to attest hygiene. Finally he persuaded her, and achieved quintuple ecstasy; “she declared I was a prodigy.”96 Eight days later he discovered that he had gonorrhea. By February 27 he felt cured; on March 25 he picked up a streetwalker, and “engaged her in armor” (with a prophylactic sheath). On March 27 “I heard service at St. Dunstan’s Church.” On March 31 “I strolled into the Park and took the first whore I met.”97 During the next four months Boswell’s London Journal records similar bouts—on Westminster Bridge, in Shakespeare’s Head Tavern, in the park, in a tavern on the Strand, in the Temple law courts, in the girl’s home.
This, of course, is only one side of the picture of a man, and to group these scattered episodes in one paragraph gives a false impression of Bos-well’s life and character. The other side of him was his “enthusiastic love of great men.”98 His first catch in this pursuit was Garrick, who sipped Boswell’s compliments and took to him readily. But James aimed at the top. In Edinburgh he had heard Thomas Sheridan describe the erudition and meaty conversation of Samuel Johnson. It would be a “kind of glory” to meet this pinnacle of London’s literary life.
Chance helped him. On May 16, 1763, Boswell was drinking tea in Thomas Davies’ bookshop in Russell Street when “a man of most dreadful appearance” entered. Boswell recognized him from a portrait of Johnson by Reynolds. He begged Davies not to reveal that he came from Scotland; Davies “roguishly” revealed it at once. Johnson did not lose the opportunity to remark that Scotland was a good country to come from; Boswell winced. Johnson complained that Garrick had refused him a free ticket for Miss Williams to a current play; Boswell ventured to say, “Sir, I cannot think that Mr. Garrick would grudge such a trifle to you.” Johnson bore down on him: “Sir, I have known David Garrick longer than you have done, and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.” This hardly promised a lifelong friendship; Boswell was “stunned” and “mortified”; but after some more conversation “I was satisfied that though there was a roughness in his manner, there was no ill-nature in his disposition.”99
Eight days later, encouraged by Davies, and fortified by his pachydermatous audacity, Boswell presented himself at Johnson’s rooms in the Inner Temple, and was received with kindness if not with charm. On June 25 bear and cub supped together at the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street. “I was quite proud to think on whom I was with.” On July 22 “Mr. Johnson and I had a room at the Turk’s Head Coffee-house.” “After this,” Boswell wrote in his journal, “I shall just mark Mr. Johnson’s memorabilia as they rise up in my memory.”100 So the great biography began.
When, at his father’s urging, Boswell left for the Netherlands (August 6, 1763) to study law, master and man jibed so well that Johnson, aged fifty-three, accompanied Boswell, aged twenty-two, to Harwich to see him off.
2. Boswell Abroad
He settled in Utrecht, studied law, learned Dutch and French, and (he tells us) read all of Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs. He suffered at the outset a severe attack of melancholy, upbraided himself as a worthless philanderer, and thought of suicide. He blamed his recent dissipation on his loss of religious faith. “I was once an infidel; I acted accordingly; I am now a Christian gentleman.”101 He drew up an “Inviolable Plan” of self-reform: he would prepare himself for the duties of a Scottish laird; he would “be steady to the Church of England,” and cleave to the Christian moral code. “Never talk of yourself,” but “reverence thyself. … Upon the whole you will be an excellent character.”102
He regained his interest in life when he was accepted in the homes of the well-to-do Dutch. Now he dressed “in scarlet and gold, … white silk stockings, handsome pumps, … Barcelona handkerchief, and elegant toothpick case.”103 He fell in love with Isabella van Tuyll, known to her admirers as “Belle de Zuylen,” and also as “Zélide”; we have already paid our respects to her as one of many brilliant women in the Holland of those years. But she avoided marriage, and Boswell convinced himself that he had rejected her. He tried Mme. Geelvinck, a pretty widow, but found her “delicious and impregnable.”104 Finally “I determined to take a trip to Amsterdam and have a girl.” Arrived there, he “went to a bawdy house.... I was hurt to find myself in the sinks of gross debauchery.” The next day “I went to a chapel and heard a good sermon.... I then strolled through mean brothels in dirty lanes.”105 He regained “the dignity of human nature” on receiving from a friend a letter of introduction to Voltaire.
Having carried out his promise to his father that he would study faithfully at Utrecht, he received paternal permission and funds for the usual grand tour that crowned a young English gentleman’s education. He bade farewell to Zélide, sure she had tears of love in her eyes, and on June 18, 1764, he crossed the border into Germany. For almost two years thereafter he and Belle corresponded, exchanging compliments and barbs. From Berlin, July 9, he wrote:
As you and I, Zélide, are perfectly easy with each other, I must tell you that I am vain enough … as to imagine that you really was in love with me.... I am too generous not to undeceive you.... I would not be married to you to be a king. … My wife must be a character directly opposite to my dear Zélide, except in affection, in honesty, and in good humor.106
She did not answer. He wrote again on October 1, assuring her that she loved him; she did not answer. He wrote again on December 25:
Mademoiselle, I am proud, and I shall be proud always. You ought to be flattered by my attachment. I know not if I ought to have been equally flattered by yours. A man who has a heart and mind like mine is rare. A woman with many talents is not so rare. … Perhaps you are able to give me an explanation of your conduct toward me.107
Her reply deserves a place in the history of woman:
I received your letter with joy and read it with gratitude. … All those expressions of friendship and all those promises of eternal regard and of constantly tender recollection which you have collected [from her past words to him] are acknowledged and renewed by my heart at this moment. … You went on repeating … that I was in love with you. … You would have me admit this, you were determined to hear me say it and say it again. I find this a very strange whim in a man who does not love me and thinks it incumbent upon him (from motives of delicacy) to tell me so in the most express and vigorous terms.... I was shocked and saddened to find, in a friend whom I had conceived of as a young and sensible man, the puerile vanity of a fatuous fool.
My dear Boswell, I will not answer for it that never at any moment may my talk, my tone, or my look have kindled with you. If it happened, forget it. … But never lose the memory of so many talks when the pair of us were equally lighthearted: I well content in the flattery of your attachment, and you as happy to count me your friend as if there were something rare about a woman with many talents. Keep the memory, I say, and be sure that my tenderness, my esteem, I would even say my respect, are yours always.108
This letter chastened Boswell transiently; he kept his peace for a year. Then (January 16, 1766) he wrote from Paris to Zélide’s father, asking for her hand. “Would it not be a pity if so fortunate an alliance were unrealized?”109 The father answered that Zélide was considering another offer. A year later Boswell sent her a direct proposal. She replied, “I read your belated endearments with pleasure, with a smile. Well, so you once loved me!”110—and she refused his offer.
While this epistolary game was going on, Boswell had sampled many countries and women. In Berlin he saw Frederick on the paradeground, but no nearer. He took to his bed a pregnant chocolate vendor; she seemed a safe port. In Leipzig he met Gellert and Gottsched; at Dresden he visited “the grand gallery of pictures, which I was told is the noblest in Europe.”111 He passed down through Frankfurt, Mainz, Karlsruhe, and Strasbourg into Switzerland. We have already accompanied him on his visits to Rousseau and Voltaire. In those exalted days the aura of genius and the fever of fame subdued the lust of youth.
On January 1, 1765, he left Geneva to cross the Alps. He spent nine exhilarating months in Italy, saw every major city, and sampled feminine wares at every stop. In Rome he sought out Winckelmann, kissed the Pope’s slippered foot, prayed in St. Peter’s, and caught his favorite disease again. He ascended Vesuvius with John Wilkes. In Venice he shared the same courtesan with Lord Mountstuart (son of the Earl of Bute), and renewed his infection. In a month at Siena he courted Porzia Sansedoni, the mistress of his friend Mountstuart; he urged her not to let any sentiment of fidelity interfere with generosity, for “my Lord is so formed that he is incapable of fidelity himself, and does not expect it of you.”112
His better side showed in his next exploit. From Livorno he took ship to Corsica (October 11, 1765). Paoli had liberated the island from Genoa in 1757, and was now in the eighth year of his rule of the new state. Boswell reached him at Sollacarò, and presented a letter of introduction from Rousseau. He was at first suspected as a spy, but “I took the liberty to show him a memorial I had drawn up on the advantages to Great Britain from an alliance with Corsica”; thereafter he dined regularly with the General.113 He took many notes that served him later in writing his Account of Corsica (1768). He left the island on November 20, and traveled along the Riviera to Marseilles. There “a tall and decent pimp” secured for him “an honest, safe, and disinterested girl.”114
From Aix-en-Provence he began to send to The London Chronicle news paragraphs to be released in successive issues from January 7, 1766, informing the British public that James Boswell was approaching England with firsthand data on Corsica. Arriving in Paris (January 12), he received word from his father that his mother had died. He undertook to escort Rousseau’s Thérèse Levasseur to London; if we may believe him she gave herself to him en route. He dallied in London for three weeks, saw Johnson on several occasions, and finally presented himself to his father in Edinburgh (March 7, 1766). His three years and four months of independence and travel had done something to mature him. It had not weakened his lust nor tempered his vanity, but it had broadened his knowledge and perspective, and had given him a new poise and self-confidence. He was now “Corsican Boswell,” a man who had dined with Paoli, and who was writing a book that might stir England to go to the Liberator’s aid and make the island a British stronghold in a strategic sea.
3. Boswell at Home
On July 29, 1766, he was admitted to the Scottish bar, and for the next twenty years his life was centered in Edinburgh, with many forays into London and one to Dublin. Helped perhaps by his father’s position as a judge, but also by his readiness in debate, he “came into great employment,” and “made sixty-five guineas” in his first winter before the courts.115 An exuberant generosity mingled with his self-esteem; he defended the lowliest criminals, spent his florid eloquence on obviously guilty persons, lost most of his cases, and dissolved his fees in drink. After those sunny months in Italy he felt to his bones the cold of Scotland, for which there seemed no cure but alcohol.
He continued his sexual wandering. He took a Mrs. Dodds as his mistress, but to supplement her services he “lay all night with … a common girl,” and presently “discovered that some infection had reached me.”116 Three months later, in a vertigo of intoxication, he tells us that he “went to a bawdy house, and passed a whole night in the arms of a whore. She was a fine, strong, spirited girl, a whore worthy of Boswell, if Boswell must have a whore.”117 Another infection. Obviously marriage was the only device that could save him from physical and moral degeneration. He courted Catherine Blair; she rejected him. He fell in love with Mary Ann Boyd, an Irish lass with a Grecian form and a rich father. He followed her to Dublin (March, 1769), lost his passion on the way, got drunk, went to an Irish prostitute, contracted venereal disease again.118
In February, 1768, he sent to the press An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to That Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli. Its plea for British aid to Paoli caught the imagination of England, and prepared public opinion to approve the action of the British government in sending secret arms and supplies to the Corsicans. The book sold ten thousand copies in England; it was translated into four languages, and gave Boswell more fame on the Continent than Johnson enjoyed. On September 7, 1769, the author appeared at the Shakespeare festival in Stratford in the garb of a Corsican chief, with “Corsican Boswell” inscribed on his hat; but, as this was for a masquerade ball, it did not quite deserve the ridicule it received.
His cousin Margaret Montgomerie had accompanied him to Ireland, and had borne humbly with his Irish courtship and revelry. She was two years older than he, and her £ 1,000 made her no equal match (as Boswell Senior urged) for the heir of Auchinleck, but when he contemplated her patient devotion to him it dawned upon him that she was a good woman and would make a good wife; moreover, his reputation for lechery and drinking had narrowed his choice. The judge himself was contemplating marriage, which would put a stepmother between father and son, and might eat into the estate. Boswell begged his father not to marry; the father persisted; they quarreled; Boswell thought of going to America. On July 20, 1769, he wrote to “Peggy” Montgomerie asking would she marry him and consent to go with him to America and live on his £ 100 a year and the interest on her £ 1,000. He warned her that he was subject to periods of melancholy. Her reply (July 22) deserves remembrance:
I have thought fully, as you desired, and … I accept your terms. … J. B. with £ 100 a year is every bit as valuable to me as if possessed of the estate of Auchinleck. … Free of ambition, I prefer real happiness to the splendid appearance of it. … Be assured, my dear Jamie, you have a friend that would sacrifice everything for you, who never had a wish for wealth till now, to bestow it on the man of her heart.119
On November 19 the father married; on November 25 the son. The younger couple set up a separate household, and in 1771 they rented a flat from David Hume. James strove for sobriety, worked hard as an advocate, and rejoiced in the children his wife bore him. Apparently she discouraged his marital approaches during the later months of her repeated pregnancies. On October 27, 1772, he went to a prostitute after having “too much wine.”120 He excused himself by arguing that concubinage was permitted by Scripture. He resumed his drinking, and added gambling. His journal noted, October 5, 1774: “Drank to intoxication.” November 3: “Many of us drank from dinner till ten at night.” November 4: “Much intoxicated; … fell with a good deal of violence.” November 8: “Drunk again.” November 9: “I was very ill, and could not get up till about two.” December 24: “I was very drunk, … stayed above an hour with two whores at their lodging in a narrow dirty stair in the Bow. I found my way home about twelve. I had fallen.”121 His wife forgave him, and cared for him in his illnesses.
His drinking had many causes: his many failures at the bar, his difficulties with his father, his shame of his infidelities, his awareness that he had not realized the dreams of his vanity, and his distaste for life in Scotland. Almost yearly he ran off to London, partly to plead cases there, partly to savor the conversation of Johnson, Reynolds, Garrick, and Burke. In 1773 he was admitted to “the Club.” In the fall of that year he proudly walked the streets of Edinburgh with Dr. Johnson at his side, as a prelude to their tour of the Hebrides.
At first, on these London trips, he remained faithful to his wife, and wrote to her fondly; but by 1775 he had resumed his patronage of promiscuity. He was especially busy toward the end of March, 1776. “When I got into the street the whoring rage came upon me. I thought I would devote a night to it.” His devotion continued for several nights. “I thought of my valuable spouse with the highest regard and warmest affection, but had a confused notion that my corporeal connection with whores did not interfere with my love for her.”122 Another venereal infection sobered him transiently.
These exploits, and his subservience to Johnson, earned him scornful comments from men like Horace Walpole, and (posthumously) a lethal lashing by Macaulay,123 but they did not leave him friendless. “My character as a man of parts and extensive acquaintance makes people fond of my attention.”124 Most Londoners agreed with Boswell that no woman had a right to a whole man. If men like Johnson and Reynolds liked him, and many London homes were open to him, he must have had many amiable traits. These men of discernment knew that he passed from woman to woman, and from idea to idea, like a hasty traveler, scratching many surfaces but never reaching to the heart of the matter, never feeling the bruised soul behind the sacrificial flesh. And he knew it, too. “I have really a little mind with all my pride,” he said; “my brilliant qualities are like embroidery upon gauze.”125 “There is an imperfection, a superficialness, in all my notions. I understand nothing clearly, nothing to the bottom. I pick up fragments, but never have in my memory a mass of any size.”126
It was those fragments, and that memory, that redeemed him. He made amends for his defects by worshiping in others the excellence that he could not achieve for himself; by attending upon them humbly, by remembering their words and deeds, and, at last, with no minor artistry, placing them in an order and a light that made an unrivaled picture of a man and an age. And may we never be disrobed, in body and mind, in secret lust and indefatigable vanity, as thoroughly as this man, half lackey and half genius, revealed himself for posterity.