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Triumph of an Artist

James Boswell
James Boswell; drawing by David Levine

1.

If you walk eastward across London’s Covent Garden (carefully avoiding the fire-eaters, the street mimes, and other performance artists), you will come to a small, neat row of Georgian houses called Russell Street. About thirty yards along Russell Street on the right-hand side, above a modern Italian coffeehouse, you can see a round blue plaque up on the first-floor brickwork. It is half obscured by a homely window box of dusty red geraniums. This modest site is, arguably, the sacred birthplace of modern English biography.

The blue plaque quietly announces that this was once Thomas Davies’s bookshop. Here, on Monday, May 16, 1763, in a small back parlor behind a glass door, the twenty-two-year-old James Boswell first met the fifty-three-year-old Dr. Samuel Johnson. The scene is one of the most justly famous in Boswell’s great Life of Johnson. Here is how it begins:

…Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing toward us,—he announced his awful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of the actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost, “Look, my Lord, it comes.” I found that I had a very perfect idea of Johnson’s figure, from the portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds soon after he published his Dictionary, in the attitude of sitting in his easy chair in deep meditation…. Mr. Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him, I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, “Don’t tell him where I come from.”

So Johnson seizes his cue, “tosses and gores” Boswell for his Scottishness (the first of many such maulings), and the great friendship is launched. The vividness of this tiny scene, its convincing dramatization, its sudden humor, its intimacy, and its brilliant psychological touches (such as the idea that Johnson might prove to be Boswell’s father’s ghost) are all characteristic of the book’s genius.

Boswell’s biography has never been out of print since 1791, and it is still generally admired as the founding text, the Old Testament, of the modern genre of life-writing. Its shortcomings are widely known, but generally accepted. Boswell knew little of Johnson’s early years in London, in the late 1730s and 1740s, when he associated with Richard Savage, wrote much of his poetry, frequented the theaters and the House of Commons as a journalist. In fact less than a tenth of the Life is dedicated to these first, checkered forty years of Johnson’s career, up to the time he began the Rambler essays.

Boswell’s intimacy with Johnson was largely based (apart from the extended Hebrides Tour) on a series of annual summer visits from Scotland, starting in 1766. These rarely lasted more than a couple of months at a time. (Indeed it has been meticulously calculated that although they knew each other for twenty-one years, Boswell and Johnson were only in each other’s company for fewer than 430 days.)

Boswell was sentimental about Johnson’s strange marriage to Elizabeth Porter (“Tetty,” twenty years his senior). He never revealed that Johnson had once planned to remarry; and he was always reticent on the subject of Johnson’s sexual feelings. (We learn more about these from Hester Thrale, Boswell’s rival biographer.) He did not have access to the more domestic side of Johnson’s life, either with the Thrales at Streatham or with his eccentric menage at Bolt Court. This strange kingdom, dominated by the blind Mrs. Williams, the black servant Francis Barber, and the heroic backstreet doctor Robert Levett, about whom Johnson wrote one of his most heartfelt poems, always eluded Boswell and indeed all other biographers.

Finally, because Boswell always revered the older Johnson as a moral guide and father figure, he softened those aspects which sometimes repelled others—Johnson’s physical ugliness, his nervous tics, his religious terrors, his greed at table, his loudness and barely controlled aggression in argument.

But for all this, the Life clearly remains a masterpiece. The opinion of Johnson’s contemporary and friend, the great eighteenth-century musicologist (and founding member of the Club) Charles Burney, still largely stands among general readers: “If all [Johnson’s] previous writings which had previously been printed were lost, or had never appeared, your book would have conveyed to posterity as advantageous an idea of his character, genius, and worth as Xenophon has done of those of Socrates.”

The paradox is that James Boswell’s own reputation, as a man and a writer, has been much less certain. Indeed it has fluctuated wildly, and reflects something of the uncertain status of the biographer, as conscious craftsman or artist, over the last two hundred years. One might say that for two centuries Boswell’s personal standing has been a kind of Dow Jones index of the biographer’s literary stock. How high, or low, has he been valued?

By the time of his death in 1795, Boswell was already a figure of fun to the younger generation. But it was Thomas Macaulay’s review in 1831 that first announced the bear market in Boswell. Macaulay’s attack can still rattle the coffee cups. His basic argument was savagely simple: Boswell was a fool who had, by the chance encounter with a great man, and the chance gift of a stenographic memory, produced a masterpiece:

Boswell was one of the smallest men that ever lived…. He was the laughing stock of the whole of that brilliant society which has owed to him the greater part of his fame…. Servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer, an eaves-dropper, a common but in the taverns of London….

This famous damnation stood for over a hundred years. In 1925 even Lytton Strachey, a shrewd and fearless fellow biographer with a marked distaste for Victorian respectability, was still taking this high moral line with Boswell. When he came to review the first edition of Boswell’s Letters, in 1925, he echoed Macaulay:

One of the most extraordinary successes in the history of civilization was achieved by an idler, a lecher, a drunkard and a snob…. [Boswell] had no pride, no shame, and no dignity…. He was…without a shade of self-consciousness, without a particle of reserve…. Boswell was ex hypothesi absurd: it was his absurdity that was the essential condition of his consummate art.

The first decisive recovery of Boswell’s popular reputation began with the publication of his London Journal in 1950. This was among the first fruits of the astonishing hoards of Boswell manuscripts recovered from an apparently endless series of cupboards, tallboys, chests, trunks, and croquet boxes, first at Malahide Castle (near Dublin) and then at Fettercairn House (near Aberdeen), between the two world wars. The fabulous fairy tale of this literary treasure hunt (like something out of a Henry James story) drove several of its participants close to madness, embezzlement, or bankruptcy. It has been told many times, but perhaps never better than in the sardonic tones of Ian Hamilton in Keepers of the Flame (1992).

These manuscripts inspired a lifetime of dedicated labor by the great Boswell scholar, with his green eye-shade, Professor Frederick Pottle, at Yale. It was Pottle who fearlessly edited the first London Journal. The self-portrait the Journal drew of the young Boswell was certainly drunken, bawdy, and lecherous. But it proved to be much else besides: candid, funny, minutely observant, and often remarkably shrewd.

Boswell gave an unblushing picture of his circle of young blades enjoying themselves in mid-eighteenth-century London: dressing, visiting, dining, play-going, drinking, and whoring.

Dempster said he had been drunk the night before, and this morning his tongue rattled in his mouth like two dice in a box. “True,” said his sister, “and your head ached like a backgammon table.” …I went to St. James’s Park, and like Sir John Brute [in Vanbrugh’s comedy], picked up a whore. She who submitted to my lusty embraces was a young Shropshire girl, only seventeen, very well-looked, her name Elizabeth Parker…. I was somewhat averse to my City walk today. But Erskine encouraged me in it, and said it would give my ballocks the venerable rust of antiquity.

He wonderfully catches the speed and flirtatiousness of conversation in the eighteenth-century salon. “Boswell: You must know Madam, I run up and down this Town like a young colt. Lady Mirabell: Why, Sir, don’t you stray into my stable, among others?” He describes a roaring night out at a beefsteak-house and then a cock-fighting pit, with a cool appraising gaze that foreshadows Hazlitt:

The pit and the seats are all covered with mat. The cocks, nicely cut and dressed and armed with silver heels, are set down and fight with amazing bitterness and resolution…. I looked round to see if any of the spectators pitied them when mangled and torn in a most cruel manner, but I could not observe the smallest relenting sign in any countenance.

Most memorably, Boswell gives an earlier version of the meeting with Johnson in May 1763. It is intriguing to compare this with the more familiar one from the Life:

I drank tea at Davies’s in Russell Street, and about seven came in the great Mr. Samuel Johnson, whom I have so long wished to see. Mr. Davies introduced me to him. As I knew his mortal antipathy at the Scotch, I cried to Davies, “Don’t tell him where I come from.” However, he said, “From Scotland.” …Mr. Johnson is a man of a most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king’s evil. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect and render him excellent company. He has great humour and is a worthy man. But his dogmatical roughness of manners is disagreeable. I shall mark what I remember of his conversation.

The first impression of Johnson in the Journal has a physical shock quite unlike that of the Life. This is Johnson in the raw, “dreadful,” “uncouth,” “dogmatical,” “disagreeable.” His portrait has not been safely “framed,” or biographically softened in retrospect. The complex orchestration, the visual dramatizing, and the richly humorous perspective of the Life are all absent. It is the same historic event, the same sequence of actions, but with an entirely different effect.

Paradoxically the revelation of Boswell’s candor and excellence as an autobiographer thus serves to prove his sophistication as a literary biographer. With two versions of a scene like this, it could no longer be argued that Boswell was a mere stenographer. What he first recorded, he later transformed. The subtle device of the Hamlet joke, the ennobling reference to the Reynolds portrait, the disarming drama of his own naive alarm in Johnson’s presence, are all revealed as products of a matured and highly conscious biographical act.

The London Journal sold a million copies in hardback. Boswell’s stock was suddenly soaring. Frederick Pottle praised him in his introduction as a writer to compare with Pepys and Rousseau. But he went further than that: “The reason why the world has been slow to grant Boswell unusual powers of imagination is that he was so completely successful in achieving historical solidity…. Boswell was a great imaginative artist—the peer in imagination with Scott and Dickens.”

The two-volume biography by Pottle and James Brady that followed (1966, 1984) proceeded to champion Boswell the artist, while showing the corresponding complexity of Boswell the man. He was no longer a priapic simpleton, but a figure of furious and even Romantic contradictions. The revelations of his lifelong melancholy, his struggle to free himself of his father Lord Auchinleck’s crushing disapproval, the split in his professional life between Edinburgh and London, his Romantic Scottish inheritance, his extraordinary gift for inspiring intimacy and affection from other great figures of the age (Rousseau and Voltaire, the revolutionary General Paoli, the great portrait painter Reynolds, the Shakespearean scholar Malone), all helped to transform his reputation.

The figure of Boswell was now beginning to appear, paradoxically, as more complex, strange, and sympathetic than Johnson himself. The continuing publication of his Journals, now covering more than a quarter of a century (1762–1795), steadily confirmed his position as one of the great autobiographers of the eighteenth century. His meetings with Rousseau in October 1764 with all its confessional outpourings and intimacies (“I seized his hand. I thumped him on the shoulder. I was without restraint”), began to look as symbolic as that with Johnson. His initial popular image as the rumbustious young Scots Casanova, though (happily) never quite outgrown, yielded to a darker, more adult and introspective picture as his century progressed toward the French Revolution.

Nevertheless the moral attacks on Boswell continued, though in contemporary rather than Victorian form. In a notorious volume, Boswell’s Clap and Other Essays (1979), William B. Ober, M.D., returned to the charge that his life was fundamentally a failure, destroyed by “his relations with his father, his [Calvinist] religious upbringing, and his own psychosexual development.” Ober grimly traced the course of nineteen separate venereal infections between March 1760 (aged nineteen) and June 1790 (aged fifty), eventually leading to Boswell’s death from “uremia,” or kidney failure. Ober connected Boswell’s obsessive promiscuity to his repeated bouts of clinical depression. (Boswell’s brother John was to end in an asylum, as did one of his daughters, Euphemia.) “The forces which propelled him were unconscious and uncontrollable.” Despite the literary success of the Life, Boswell’s last decade was “a tragic failure.”

Ober’s summary is as devastating and reductive as anything by Macaulay:

Thus we leave him, a man trapped by forces beyond his control, with motivation deeper than his insight, driven to a life marked by mental depression, chronic anxiety, and a continuing sense of guilt and need for punishment, intemperate and incontinent, impairing his manhood by courting (and receiving) venereal disease in expiation, and finally seen “lying naked on a dunghill in London.”

Clearly, this was not a blue-chip position for Boswell. So when last autumn a new biography appeared, A Life of James Boswell by Peter Martin, the market still trembled in the balance. Martin, a professor in Illinois, had previously written a fine scholarly monograph on Boswell’s friend and faithful co-editor on the Life, the great Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone. He was inclined to share Malone’s indulgent view of Boswell: “I used to grumble sometimes at his turbulence, but now miss and regret his noise and his hilarity and his perpetual good humour, which had no bounds.”

Martin takes into account the infamous Ober essay, but chooses to see Boswell’s depression, drinking, and womanizing in a far more sympathetic light. He presents them as a continual Romantic rebellion against oppressive patriarchy and Calvinism. They are also explained as an understandable psychological reaction against his domineering father, the Scottish Senior Judge. We are reminded that Boswell was a fellow countryman (Ayrshire) of Robert Burns’s, whose own fleshly indulgences have long since been granted an almost heroic status.

Martin recalls Johnson’s brisk and kindly analysis of Boswell’s melancholy. Most important of all, he argues in a crucial passage that a shared experience of depression produced an empathetic bond between Boswell and Johnson that engendered the Life:

The great link between Johnson and Boswell in the Life was provided by Johnson’s “diseased imagination.” …It is also a record of Boswell’s own efforts to be healed by Johnson…. The Life is restlessly full of himself partly because he is using it to define his indefinable self, in the archetypal pattern of a Romantic egoist.

The result is a significant shift in historical perspective. Boswell is presented less as a late Augustan clubman, comically running amok in London, and more as a proto-Romantic Scottish wanderer who can never quite settle anywhere, or in any relationship. Martin succeeds in giving us a fresh sense of Boswell’s Romantic credentials. These include his love of the ancestral Auchinleck estate; his lifelong passion for Corsican liberty; and his instinctive sympathy (as a member of the Scottish Bar) with accused prisoners, whom he defends with extraordinary skill and fervor in the Scottish courts and even accompanies to the scaffold. It shows too in his growing sympathy with the insurrectionary American colonists: “I am growing more and more an American. I see the unreasonableness of taxing them without the consent of their assemblies. I think our ministry are mad in undertaking this desperate war.”

Above all, Martin champions Boswell’s devastating emotional honesty. Like Rousseau, whose Confessions appeared in 1782, his self-consciousness and self-exposure in the Journals belongs to the new age. His powers of self-description and self-contradiction have a captivating extravagance. “My brilliant qualities are like embroidery upon gauze.” While his guilt and shame (particularly over sexual matters) can be gloomy and tormenting, his irrepressible gaiety and irreverence blows in like a new breeze. “To be perpetually talking sense runs out the mind, as perpetually ploughing and taking crops runs out the land. The mind must be manured, and nonesense is very good for the purpose.”

One of Martin’s subtlest advances over the great two-volume Pottle and Brady biography is to convince us that Boswell was a man who really might have done anything besides writing Johnson’s Life. Two of his earlier books were, after all, essentially the work of a Romantic travel writer, the Account of Corsica (1768) and his Tour of the Hebrides (1785). Both were journeys to comparatively wild and remote places, and Boswell (even in Johnson’s company) always loved an adventure. This is certainly true of the largely forgotten Corsican book, in which Boswell set out to track down the Corsican revolutionary leader, General Paoli, to his lair somewhere in the wooded southern slopes of the island, to obtain an interview with the hero.

Boswell landed illicitly at the little fishing village of Centuri (Cap Corse), and then hacked southward over the mountain trails into the remote highland city of Corte. (Today it is still remote. It has its own local radio station—Radio Corti Vivu—broadcasting haunting Corsican songs, lamentos, about amor e muerte. It sells “vendetta” lock-knives, and until recently was the fortress home of the French Foreign Legion.) He then clambered over the dizzy passes of the Monte D’Oro, and down through the shadowy chestnut forests to the southwestern seashore on the Mediterranean.

Anyone who has followed in his footsteps (his boots almost crippled him) will emerge with an entirely different view of Boswell’s daring single-mindedness, and natural Romanticism. When he set out from Corte, supplied only with a mule, a gourd of wine, and some “delicious pomegranates,” Boswell wrote this (I give a slightly fuller version than Martin’s):

My Corsican guides appeared so hearty, that I often got down and walked along with them, doing just what I saw them do. When we grew hungry, we threw stones among the thick branches of the chestnut trees which overshadowed us, and in that manner we brought down a shower of chestnuts with which we filled our pockets, and went on eating them with great relish; and when this made us thirsty, we laid down by the side of the first brook, put our mouths to the stream, and drank sufficiently. It was just being for a little while, one of the prisca gens mortalium, the primitive race of men, who ran about in the woods eating acorns and drinking water.

The Corsicans still proudly call the basic diet of chestnuts and water pane de legna, vino di petra: “bread from the wood, wine from the stone.” At the tiny hilltop village of Sollacaro, where Boswell eventually ran Paoli to earth (and somehow convinced him that he was not a spy who should be instantly shot), there is now another plaque. It is set in a piece of rough stone wall, opposite (as I remember it) the village general store and post office, with olive oil, paraffin lamps, and shotgun cartridges for sale in the window. The plaque reads: “James Boswell. Ecrivain Britannique Et Ami De La Corse Rencontra Dans Ce Village Du 22 au 29 Octobre 1765 Pasquale Paoli ‘Babbu Di A Patri.'”

This too is a sacred site, for it commemorates one of the many other lives that the young Boswell might have led. He might, for instance, have returned from Corsica to Holland, and married the brilliant, seductive Dutch blue-stocking and short-story writer Zélide, with whom he had fallen in love in 1764. Or he might, after his celebrated defense of the Scottish sheep-farmer John Reid in 1766, have become the most famous defense barrister before Thomas Erskine. Martin writes:

Never once from 1766 until 1783 did Boswell miss a [court] Session. In his first few years he quickly earned a well-deserved reputation for his eloquence and emotional persuasiveness…. [The acquittal of Reid] was a spectacular triumph for him in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence.1

Later, he might have sailed as the official expedition historian on Captain James Cook’s last voyage to Australia and Polynesia, as he was sorely tempted to do in April 1776. Or later still, in March 1794, he might have been accepted as the first British Ambassador to Corsica, a post for which he officially applied, hot on the heels of the young Napoleon Bonaparte. He might, too, have made his name by writing other biographies.

Boswell seriously considered embarking on a full-scale Life of the philosopher David Hume, whom he had dramatically interviewed on his deathbed, about the nature of religious belief and skepticism. He also thought of writing about Edmund Burke, and about General Paoli (with whom Boswell always stayed when the general was eventually exiled in London). Other subjects he considered were the great Scottish judge Lord Kames; and the great portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, about whom Boswell had kept extensive notes.

Martin gives full, rapid, dryly amusing accounts of all these episodes or “digressions” in Boswell’s truly extraordinary career. One of the most revealing discoveries is to see how Boswell himself, toward the end, regretted the loss of all his “alternative” lives. Martin argues that it was this Romantic sense of having missed so much that haunted and depressed him, and drove him endlessly back to “drink and drabs.” Once the Life was written and published (1791), he had very little left to fall back on, and surprisingly little sense of achievement at all. Although he was only in his early fifties, Boswell often felt he had failed in worldly terms (just as Johnson had been haunted by the same idea in old age).

It is moving to find his teenage son, Jamie, writing to cheer his father in 1794, by reminding Boswell instead of all the remarkable highlights of his career:

Pray, Sir, do not suffer yourself to be melancholy. Think not of your having missed preferment in London or any of these kind of things…they who have obtained places and pensions etc. have not the fame of having been the biographer of Johnson or the conscious exultation of a man of genius. They have not enjoyed your happy and convivial hours. They have not been known to Johnson, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Garrick, Goldsmith etc etc. They have not visited the patriots of Corsica. In short, would you, rather than have enjoyed so many advantages, have been a rich, though dull, plodding lawyer? You cannot expect to be both at the same time.

It is doubly moving to realize that Jamie was only sixteen when he wrote these words of wisdom and consolation. Boswell had brought him up well. Unlike his own father, he had succeeded in making a friend of his son, itself no mean achievement. Jamie grew up to be a brilliant scholar, and completed Malone’s Variorum edition of Shakespeare. As Professor Martin observes, his father would have been immensely proud of him.

2.

There can be little doubt, then, that Peter Martin’s excellent book has made Boswell a more complex, sympathetic—and indeed—more modern figure. Yet his work also remains a little too close to Pottle and Brady, and slightly inert under the accumulated industrial weight of Boswellian scholarship. It is meticulous and thoughtful throughout, but perhaps too cautious (too Malonian) to effect any really dramatic change in Boswell’s fortunes.

For Boswell’s popular reputation still remains surprisingly precarious. It is not unusual to find a current compendium of eighteenth-century manners, Dr. Johnson’s London by Liza Picard, casually referring to Boswell’s great Life as unavoidably dull, and his Journal as “possibly more readable, an accurate self-portrait of an unlikable young man.” In her index, the useful part of Boswell’s career is summarized in the following entries: “as source; and prostitutes; travels by stage coach; fear of highwaymen; contracts gonorrhea; wine drinking; attends club; on cockfighting; shaving and wig-dressing; rent for lodgings; at theatre; Scottish accent.”2

One wonders why should Boswell still attract such continuing scorn and disapproval? If we consider him as a Romantic, his life really looks quite staid and socially responsible compared (say) to his fellow countrymen, Burns or Lord Byron. But of course Boswell was not, like them, a poet. So he cannot be granted a poet’s license. Could it be that the continuing uncertainty of the literary biographer’s status, still regularly attacked by influential contemporary writers as different as Janet Malcolm, A.S. Byatt, or John Updike, has somehow deflected a harsher kind of judgment against him?

If the accusation of “stenographer” has faded, perhaps the implication of moral, or artistic, parasite still remains. Professor Martin has a characteristically thoughtful, though diplomatic, passage about the peculiar, reflexive form of Boswell’s biography:

The Life celebrates not only Johnson’s mental powers, but also Boswell’s zest for living…. To some extent, Johnson was an excuse for celebrating his own nature and psyche. Viewing the Life as Boswell’s involuntary autobiography may help to explain why it embarrassed and exasperated so many critics.

With these matters still open, it is fascinating to find a new book about Boswell which concentrates almost entirely on reassessing his career and talents, specifically as Johnson’s biographer (and no other). Adam Sisman is himself an English biographer by profession (and, one feels clearly, by vocation). He has published a lively and much-praised study of the controversial historian A.J.P. Taylor (whose private life was not exactly conventional). He understands the métier, and has proved himself, so to speak, a cool head in a tight corner.

Sisman steps in, with a modest but determined air, to defend Boswell the Biographical Artist. He sees, at once, the central drama and expresses it boldly:

The Life of Johnson can be read as an unending contest between author and subject for posterity. Johnson and Boswell are locked together for all time, in part-struggle, part-embrace. Boswell will forever be known as Johnson’s sidekick, remembered principally because he wrote the life of a greater man; Johnson is immortalized but also imprisoned by the Life, known best as Boswell portrayed him. Each is a creation of the other.

Sisman also knows that the success of Boswell the autobiographer has subtly undermined Boswell the biographer:

The publication of Boswell’s letters and journals started a scholarly debate about the accuracy of the Life of Johnson: was it really what it appeared to be, or was it a disguised piece of fiction?… To what extent had Boswell “invented” Dr. Johnson, as George Bernard Shaw suggested? And, indeed, himself?

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task takes up this cause with great originality and refreshing lightness of touch. Sisman’s first surprise move is to break out of the chronological jacket imposed by Pottle and Brady, and retained by Martin. His first section, “Life Lived,” summarizes the whole of Boswell’s career up to 1784, the year of Johnson’s death, in a brilliant bravura essay of fewer than seventy pages. (Corsica flashes by in a page, the love affair with Zélide in a paragraph.) He then concentrates the rest of his book on a wonderfully vivid reconstruction of Boswell’s epic struggle, over seven long years, actually to compose the great work itself (“Life Written”), and then to live with its aftermath (“Life Published”).

In Sisman’s hands, this becomes an extraordinarily gripping narrative. Johnson himself once compared (in Idler 102) an author’s struggle to write a major book with a military commander’s commitment to win a great battle. Certainly Sisman’s account has the pace and heady excitement of a battle narrative, where everything is being risked.

Initially, the greatest threat was the literary competition. In 1786, two years after Johnson’s death, there were no fewer than nine other biographers in the field against Boswell: Mrs. Thrale, Thomas Tyers, William Cook, the Reverend William Shaw, Joseph Towers, Charles Burney, Dr. Samuel Parr, Sir John Hawkins, and the reverend Dr. Andrew Kippis, the enormously learned “editor of the Biographia Britannica.” Moreover Haw-kins, not Boswell, was the publisher’s favorite. It took mad King George III to soothe Boswell with the eminently sane and perspicacious remark: “There will be many foolish lives first. Do you make the best.”

Later, the struggle became far more intense and personal. (Sisman’s chapter heads read: “Bereavement,” “Humiliation,” “Struggle,” “Despair”). To complete the Life (the draft manuscript ran to 416,000 words) Boswell eventually had to sacrifice his legal career, give up his political ambitions (after endless snubs and humiliations from his brutish patron, Lord Lonsdale), and, worst of all, frequently abandon his wife Margaret, who was slowly dying from consumption in Scotland. Here the narrative becomes very dark, even tragic.

Almost the only constant light was Edmond Malone, whose role as editor, confidant, and wise friend (three very different things) throughout these years was exemplary. Malone was the perfect editor in a quite modern sense. He steered Boswell through the emotional storm of embargoed manuscripts, slipping deadlines, recurrent marital crises, literary rivalries, alcoholic collapses, teetotal resurrections, and above all endless rewriting and polishing. (Boswell seems to have worked best on dried toast, milkless tea, and the revivifying guilt of a bad hangover, with the prospect of a good dinner with Malone at the end of the week.)

Meanwhile, Sisman skillfully takes us into the biographer’s workshop. He shows us Boswell consciously inventing a revolutionary kind of biography. The crucial elements of this were fourfold: the conversion of biographical narrative into a string of semi-dramatized scenes (e.g., the dinner party with Wilkes); the creation of “authentic” dialogue artfully reconstructed from journal notes sometimes twenty years old (e.g., Johnson’s gloomy discussion of death); the revelation of character through idiosyncratic or trivial detail (e.g., how Johnson stroked his cat Hodge); and the evocation of the subject’s continuing inner life built up through citation of private letters or diaries (Johnson’s prayers about Tetty).

Sisman’s final success is to accept how deeply and authentically the writing of Johnson’s Life does indeed express Boswell’s own. He quotes Boswell’s key remark in the Journals for December 7, 1789. “I had now resolved Life into my own feelings.” He takes on, rather more easily than Professor Martin, the contemporary idea that part of biography will always be “involuntary autobiography,” and indeed draws its strength from that.

This encourages Sisman not to attack (or even defend) Boswell, but to interpret him more freely. So, in an unforgettable passage, he interprets Boswell’s “sentimental” treatment of Johnson’s wife Tetty by referring to Boswell’s own feelings about his dying wife Margaret:

…As he sketched his picture of Johnson’s marriage, Boswell could hear Margaret coughing up blood in the next room…. Watching his own wife wasting away, it was natural for Boswell to identify with Johnson, tenderly caring for Tetty in her final illness.

In this way, Adam Sisman has achieved a real and permanent shift in our perception of James Boswell. He has consolidated the idea of Boswell as an unstable Romantic figure, a man who wrote his great work at a time not of Augustan certainties but of historic upheavals. (The Bastille fell, even as Boswell revised his first proofs.) But more than that, he has vindicated the idea of Boswell as the dedicated, intelligent literary artist: “Boswell had extended the form into new territory, borrowing techniques from the novel, the theatre, and the confessional memoir. With meticulous care, with long-practised skill, and with a generous imagination, he crafted a character who lived and breathed.”

If Boswell’s life was touched with farce, it was also blazed with heroism and tragedy. Eventually, he brought it all to bear on Johnson, and the creation of a new kind of biographical masterpiece. As a result, he enlarged the whole notion of what it was to be human. That too should be on a blue plaque, somewhere.

  1. 1

    Boswell’s tempestuous career as a Scottish advocate can now be followed in compulsive detail in Boswell’s Edinburgh Journals, 1767–1786, edited by Hugh M. Milne (Edinburgh: Mercat, 2001). 

  2. 2

    Dr. Johnson’s London: Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows and Female Education (St. Martin’s, 2001).