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Guilt-Edged Insecurity

Boswell: The Great Biographer, 1789–1795

edited by Marlies K. Danziger, edited by Frank Brady
McGraw-Hill, 371 pp., $24.95

Boswell’s London Journal, 1762–1763

by James Boswell

Boswell in Holland, 1763–1764

by James Boswell

Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764

by James Boswell

Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France, 1765–1766

by James Boswell

Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766–1769

by James Boswell

Boswell for the Defence, 1769–1774

by James Boswell

Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., 1773

by James Boswell

Boswell: The Ominous Years, 1774–1776

by James Boswell

Boswell in Extremes, 1776–1778

by James Boswell

Boswell, Laird of Auchinleck, 1778–1782

by James Boswell

Boswell: The Applause of the Jury, 1782–1785

by James Boswell

Boswell: The English Experiment, 1785–1789

by James Boswell

Boswell: The Great Biographer, 1789–1795

by James Boswell

Some have kept diaries to remind themselves of their deeds, others to reproach themselves for their misdeeds. On March 28, 1754, Thomas Turner, school-master of East Hoathly in Sussex and subsequently proprietor of the village shop, recorded remorsefully in his diary that he had been appallingly drunk that day. “Oh! with what horrors does it fill my heart, to think I should be guilty of doing so, and on a Sunday too!” he wrote. “Let me once more endeavour never, no never, to be guilty of the same again.” But his endeavors were not successful and he continued to turn to his diary as others might have turned to the priest in the confessional. Some years later, once again tipsy on a Sunday, he had dark fears of eternal damnation: “Think how miserable must my unhappy lot speedily be, should I sleep never to open my eyes again in this world when ever I am in liquor!”

Nor was alcohol the only tempter. One Sunday evening at the end of October 1762 he remembered sadly that he had spent part of the day drinking tea, a habit which had, he felt sure, “corrupted the morals of people of almost every rank.” “This is not the right use that Sunday should be applied to,” he told himself sternly. And of course the source of these and all other corrupting influences was the great world of fashion and politics in London. While his neighbors flocked eagerly to see famous statesmen and leaders of London society when they visited nearby Halland House, home of the Duke of Newcastle, Turner dismissed the whole glittering spectacle as “vanity and tumult.”

Another and more famous diarist thought very differently. “When we came upon Highgate hill and had a view of London, I was all life and joy,” James Boswell noted in his journal. “I repeated Cato’s soliloquy on the immortality of the soul and my soul bounded forth to a certain prospect of happy futurity.” The date was November 19, 1762. In time and space Boswell was less than three weeks and sixty miles away from Turner’s self-administered rebuke about the dangers of Sunday tea drinking, but by any other reckoning the two seemed as far removed from each other as diarists could be.

Boswell’s journal had opened with a dispassionate statement of the advantages he expected to reap from keeping it. It would give “a habit of application,” helping to keep off indolence and spleen, and it would also “lay up a store of entertainment.” As for self-reproach, the nearest he came to that was to observe that “if I should go wrong, it will assist me in resolutions of doing better.” And when he spoke of doing better he did not seem to be thinking of overcoming the weaknesses of the flesh. Rather he had in mind the polishing and perfecting of such skills as would enable him to conquer the great world of London. If he set down his follies and his failures it was in order to learn from them, not to wring his hands over them. This surely was to be a totally worldly record of a worldly life, a journal reflecting self-satisfaction and ambition rather than self-doubt and humility.

Certainly Macaulay thought so. In 1831, when he launched his famous denunciation of Boswell in the Edinburgh Review, he concentrated his fire on this habit of self-revelation:

Every thing which another man would have hidden,—every thing, the publication of which would have made another man hang himself, was matter of gay and clamorous exultation to his weak and diseased mind…. All these things he proclaimed to all the world, as if they had been subjects for pride and ostentatious rejoicing.

It is hard to believe that even the self-righteous Macaulay could think that only a weak and diseased mind kept Boswell from seeing the need to hang himself; but he certainly did not think he might ever have felt the need to reproach himself or beat his breast in penitence. A sense of sin was not included among the alleged mental weaknesses. In his view Boswell was simply

one of the smallest men that ever lived,…a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect…. 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 eavesdropper, a common butt in the taverns of London.

He could not credit him with any immortal longings, any humility, any capacity for self-criticism or even self-knowledge, let alone self-reproach.

Macaulay knew full well that his verdict was based on insufficient evidence but he also knew—or thought he knew—that the rest of the evidence would never come to light. The work he was reviewing, Croker’s new edition of the Life of Johnson, suggested that such private papers as Boswell had left behind had been dispersed or destroyed. And of course the tone of the review, its vindictive defamation of Boswell, would almost certainly discourage his descendants from seeking out any manuscripts that might have survived and allowing them to be published. This in its turn would mean that the real nature of his amazingly honest self-revelation would never be known and it would continue to be dismissed as “gay and clamorous exultation.” Boswell’s reputation was caught in a self-tightening noose.

It was the best part of a century before the stranglehold began to be broken. In 1925 Professor Chauncey Tinker of Yale found a hoard of Boswell manuscripts at Malahide Castle in Ireland and shortly afterward these were bought by Colonel Ralph Isham, who began to print them privately. In 1929 Professor Frederick Pottle of Yale took over the task of editing them, only to be himself overtaken by the discovery of further papers both at Malahide and at Fettercairn House in Scotland. In Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers he later told how the whole collection was brought together and purchased by Yale University for publication in two separate series, a research edition intended for scholars and a trade edition aimed at the general reader. Pottle died in 1987, having seen twelve of the thirteen trade volumes through the press. With one exception, a volume dealing with writings found among the Boswell papers but not by Boswell, he edited all twelve, either alone or with a collaborator. Professor Frank Brady, his earliest collaborator and coeditor of this final volume, also died before its publication, and so it has been left to Professor Danziger to bring the trade series to its triumphant conclusion. Now at last we can see the whole of the iceberg whose tip Macaulay so carelessly misunderstood; and there are more things in its depths than are dreamed of in his philosophy.

They do not make themselves very apparent in Boswell’s London Journal, the first volume of the trade series, first published in 1950, which is devoted to the journal. Boswell kept in London from 1762 to August 1763. When he thinks his dignity requires a silver-hilted sword, he first browbeats the sword cutter into letting him have one without payment and then when he comes back the next day to pay he scolds the poor man for being too trusting. This he considers “a good adventure and much to my honour.” Yet there are other adventures rather more to his honor, as when he comes to the aid of two Highland officers who are being hissed and pelted at the opera. He knows all about the violent anti-Scots prejudice of the time, he knows that the success he craves depends on playing down his Scottish origins, but he is still prepared to stand up for the officers. This may be pride, but it is not the bloated blustering kind that Macaulay condemns. On the other hand, in the summer of 1763, when Boswell meets Johnson and stumbles on his life’s work, he is told that no incident is too trivial to be entered in his journal; and when Johnson goes on to suggest that he should arrange for a friend to burn it for him after his death he determines instead to have it preserved in the family archives. He seems uncomfortably close to the vain and shallow Macaulayesque Boswell, heedlessly proclaiming to the world things that would have been better hidden.

But the picture soon changes. In the second volume, Boswell in Holland (1952), we find him pursuing his studies at Utrecht, plunged in remorse for days on end and castigating himself every bit as fiercely as Turner had done for his drunkenness, his idleness, for the pain he has caused his father, even for the mere fact of enjoying himself. “Pleasure ruins the mind,” he tells himself sternly. He draws up a formidable document entitled “Inviolable plan, to be read over frequently” and is in torment when he fails to live up to its demands. Like the saints in the desert a thousand years earlier, he seems to be ringed by demons of temptation who can only be cast out by prayer and self-denial. “I have stood upon my guard and repelled dissipation,” he writes cautiously after several weeks of abstinence and plain living.

When he leaves Utrecht and sets off on the Grand Tour the picture changes once more. He is cheerful and self-confident—“My head is crowded with a variety of brilliant ideas”—and there is no more talk of repelling dissipation. “I then went to Billon’s, who had a very pretty girl for me with whom I amused myself,” he notes shortly after his arrival in Turin. “Billon had promised to have a girl to sleep with me all night at his lodgings. I went there at eleven but did not find her. I was vexed and angry.” When he catches sight of Frederick the Great he becomes so excited that his companions have to calm him down, and when he meets Rousseau he tells him he proposes to have thirty women, get them all with child, and then marry them off to deserving peasants who will accept them with suitable gratitude. And he looks back on the days of remorse and self-doubt with amazement, almost with disbelief: “What a gloomy winter did I pass at Utrecht!”

It is as though there were two Boswells, one sanguine and accomplished, the other tormented by a sense of sin. Johnson offered a thoroughly twentieth-century diagnosis, telling him that his inner self was desperately anxious to please his father, but Boswell insisted there was no split, only a healthy combination of sturdy Scot and cosmopolitan sophisticate. “I am a singular man,” he claimed. “I have the whim of an Englishman to make me think and act extravagantly, and yet I have the coolness and good sense of a Scotsman to make me sensible of it.” But the one thing that neither explanation took into account was the fact that at the age of nineteen, when he had first run away from home to London, Boswell had been secretly received into the Roman Catholic Church, apparently intending to go to France and enter a monastery.

For a young man of worldly ambition it was a devastating mistake, one which if it became known would debar him both from the career his father wanted him to make in Scotland and also from the successes he hoped to achieve in London. And so he very quickly regretted it and determined that it would not become known. Only his friend Sir David Dalrymple, it seems, had any knowledge of it during Boswell’s life-time. We will never know what spiritual instruction Boswell received, what mark it left upon him, what regrets he may have had about the monastic life that might have been; but we can be reasonably sure that the part of him which every now and again turned the journals into chronicles of despair and penitence is not to be explained merely by dual nationality and a stern father figure.

Perhaps we should not be too solemn about all this. Boswell is by no means the only historical figure whose surviving writings present problems of this sort. In 1972, when Wilmarth Lewis and John Brooke were planning to follow up the Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s correspondence with a similar edition of his memoirs, they both agreed that the genial and expansive Walpole of the letters was very different from the embittered author of the memoirs. In particular the Memoirs of the Reign of King George III, described by John Brooke as “a Gothic romance with no foundation in fact,” breathes out an almost demonic hatred of George III’s mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales, which is extremely difficult to explain rationally. Sir Lewis Namier used to think that it sprang from Walpole’s repressed hatred of his own mother, in its turn springing from unconscious fears that he was illegitimate. But there has never been a shred of evidence for this theory and Namier was sensible enough to put it forward only as a supposition. His caution should be a warning to us all. Psychoanalysis is a risky hobby for amateurs, especially when the person on the couch has been dead for two centuries.

Boswell’s Grand Tour came to an end in Paris in March 1766 when he received the news of his mother’s death. He hurried home to Scotland and settled down to do what was expected of him, making a career at the Scottish bar and marrying a Scottish wife. His father disapproved of his choice of a wife and he reciprocated by opposing his father’s remarriage and reviling his stepmother: “What an infamous woman must she be who can impose on an old man worn out with business, and ruin the peace of a family!” Although these disputes were very bitter they could never plunge him into the remorseful depths he had known in Utrecht. He was where he knew he was supposed to be, doing what he knew he was supposed to do, and there were no grounds for self-reproach. But the lure of London was a very different matter. It was a great deal more dangerous than it had been in his youth, because now it threatened not just to cut across the wishes of his Scottish parents but to draw him away from a Scottish legal career, a Scottish wife, a Scottish family, and also from the duties he would owe to the family estates after his father’s death. If he succumbed to this temptation then the self who had been so troublesome in Utrecht would exact terrible retribution.

He did succumb and retribution was swift. The editors of Boswell in Extremes, the ninth volume in the series, published in 1970, tell us that his excesses when he was in London in 1776 were quite different from all that had gone before. Previous debaucheries could be explained away as “mere temporary relaxation of moral muscle,” but now there was something approaching total collapse. The self-castigation in the journals was harsh, even desperate. Entry after entry confessed drunkenness, wild rages, “profane utterances,” “shocking folly,” followed by cries of self-loathing and feverish prayers for forgiveness. At last there came a respite: he managed to drink nothing but water for four weeks and as a result “was in excellent spirits.” During the next few years he was able to record experiences and events in which he could take pride—successes in the Scottish law courts, the running of the family estates after his father’s death, the publication of his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides—but the old tug of war between London and Scotland, between ambition and duty, was still waiting to tear him apart.

Things came to a head at the end of 1785 when he traveled to London hoping to bask in the success of the Tour to the Hebrides, and found instead “a shocking abusive letter from Lord Macdonald, which I thought made it indispensable for me to fight him.” Macdonald, one of those who had entertained Johnson and Boswell on the Isle of Skye, had reacted angrily to a passage in the book which alleged that he treated his tenants so badly that they were driven in desperation to emigrate to America. “I wrote to my wife before dinner,” Boswell noted, “under an apprehension it might be the last letter. Courtenay, on my asking him, directed me how to stand and fire a pistol…. A violent death, especially when a man by his fault occasions it, is shocking. I endeavour to cherish pious hope.” A few weeks later, after the quarrel had been patched up and the threat of a violent death lifted, he attended the traditional Ash Wednesday service at a Roman Catholic chapel, kneeling at the altar as the priest made the sign of the cross in ashes on his forehead.

Unfortunately this penitential exercise did little to relieve his inner struggles. “Mental and emotional turmoil mark the entire stretch of journal 1785–89,” writes Mrs. Irma Lustig in her introduction to Boswell: The English Experiment (1986), the twelfth volume. There was a brief moment of glory when he put his Scottish law career behind him and was called to the English bar—“I took my seat at the bar, and felt myself a member of the ancient Court of King’s Bench, and did not despair of yet being a judge in it”—but shortly afterward he was “much cast down” when his friend General Paoli told him bluntly: “You are past the age of ambition. You should determine to be happy with your wife and children.”

But at forty-five Boswell had no intention of throwing away ambition and so he brought his wife and children to London to be happy with him while he pursued it. They were not happy, nor was he. His wife was terminally ill with consumption and she suffered a great deal from the foul London air as well as from her husband’s debaucheries and dalliance. Boswell had an infinite store of remorse—“I upbraided myself with seeming indifference and thought how very differently she would have behaved had I been ill”—but he could not bring himself to change his ways. In April 1789, after allowing her to go back to Scotland, he heard that she was dying and traveled north “on purpose to soothe and console her”; but when he arrived he found that his pitiable schemes for his own self-advancement were more important than his presence at her bedside, so that he spent his time away from home until he fell off his horse in a drunken stupor and had to be put to bed himself until his political patron Lord Lonsdale summoned him back to London. A few days after his arrival there he heard that she was worse and once more he hurried north. He was too late: she had died on the day he left London.

The last volume of the series opens with this death and closes with Boswell’s own death six years later. The first document in it is a letter in which he told Lonsdale he was struggling “to free my mind from a charge of barbarous neglect which now upbraids me and may attend me to my grave.” The struggles were in vain and remorse deepened into despair. “I have an avidity for death,” he wrote. “I eagerly wish to be laid by my dear, dear wife. Years of life seem insupportable…. Every prospect that I turn my mind’s eye upon is dreary.” Now, too late, he saw that Paoli was right: “I certainly am constitutionally unfit for any employment.” He would never be a success as a lawyer in England, yet he could not bear to go back to being a lawyer in Scotland. He still danced attendance on Lonsdale, hoping to be brought into Parliament by him, but instead when the elections came around Lonsdale picked a quarrel with him and challenged him to a duel. “You will be settled,” he told him grimly, “when you have a bullet in your belly.”

A week later Boswell woke from troubled sleep—he had dreamed that his daughter too was dying of consumption—and found himself thinking of his “worthy, rational, steady father” and of the pain he had caused him. He prayed to God that his own children would be happier than he had been, but already the pain was there again; just as his father had feared that he would be corrupted by London so he now feared that Eton would make his son “expensive and vicious.” Desperation turned to desolation and even the grave lost its attractions. Perhaps after all there would be no reunion, no forgiveness. He confessed to a friend that he was terrified by “the want of absolute certainty of being happy after death, the sure prospect of which is frightful.” Shortly after this he gave up his journal altogether.

When he started it again in 1792 he was more cheerful. His Life of Johnson, on which he had been working since Johnson’s death in 1784, had been published in May 1791 and had been an enormous success. He had shifted his burden of guilt sufficiently to think seriously about remarrying. But very soon what he called “my wretched hypochondria” returned, laced once more with a sense of failure. The journal ends in the spring of 1794, a year before his death, and after that there is only a handful of letters. “Pray, Sir, do not suffer yourself to be melancholy,” begged his son. “I cannot be contented merely with literary fame and social enjoyments,” Boswell told him. “I must still hope for some creditable employment, and perhaps I may yet attain it.” And so, still hoping, he met his death on May 19, 1795.

His doctors shook their heads and muttered about mortification of the bladder and the recurrence of the venereal infections of youth. Macaulay saw nothing but the final collapse of a weak and diseased mind and produced a harshly paradoxical epitaph: “If he had not been a great fool, he would never have been a great writer.” This verdict seems absurdly facile now that Yale’s enterprise is complete, now that we know as much about Boswell as we are ever likely to know. Yet Macaulay was right to stress the paramount importance of the passion for self-revelation. It was not the empty boastfulness of a fool and it was certainly not “gay and clamorous exultation.” On the other hand it was never a mere penitential exercise. It was a search for self-knowledge, a search that was often priggish, often mawkish, sometimes ridiculous, but for the most part honest. James Boswell was able to write the greatest biography in the English language not because of his abilities nor because of his failings, but because of his absorbing interest in James Boswell. He could never have held up such a marvelous mirror to Johnson if he had not been so dedicated to holding one up to himself.

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