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 …

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