The Seductive Journalist

James Boswell: The Later Years, 1769–1795

by Frank Brady
McGraw-Hill, 609 pp., $24.95

When James Boswell was twenty, he ran away from the University of Glasgow and went to London. There he meant to become a Roman Catholic, perhaps a monk. But an attentive friend of a friend diverted him with the pleasures of the town; and instead of entering a monastery, Boswell caught his first case of gonorrhea. Seldom has a career of sexual misconduct been more scrupulously documented than the thirty-five years of Boswellian excess which followed. Frank Brady, in his accurate biography, continues Frederick Pottle’s James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740–1769 (1966); and in his compact closing sentences finds that the illness which at last killed his protagonist was uremia, brought on by chronic postgonorrheal infection.

Boswell was perfectly willing to approach ladies of good family. Complaining about his wife Margaret, he once wrote, “Some of my qualifications are not valued by her as they have been by other women—ay, and well-educated women too.” However, he hugged his opportunities where he met them. He could indeed be faithful to Margaret (who was “moderate and averse to much dalliance”) for years at a time. He could also stop off on the way to a court of law where he was observing a trial—the law was his profession—and pick up a momentary partner. “Complete” (i.e., achieving climax), Boswell recorded on this occasion, and then added, with ill-founded confidence, “for the first and I fancy last time” (i.e., since his marriage, three years earlier). Reaching Boswell’s strenuous mid-thirties, the conscientious biographer despairs of close tracking, and says,

It seems pointless to give an extended recital of Boswell’s routine sexual wanderings during the next year. Descriptions and names slide by: “a young slender slut with a red cloak,” Peggy Grant, Peggy Dundas, “a big fat whore,” “an old dallying companion now married,” “Rubra” [i.e., redhead], Dolly.

Anyone informed of the painful effects of gonorrhea, especially under the so-called treatments of Boswell’s day, must wonder how an anxious, intelligent lawyer could take such chances. It is true that Margaret’s disposition was cooler than his own, and he felt driven to try other resources. Yet he ran unnecessary risks with miscellaneous streetwalkers; and haste or alcohol generally kept him from wearing the prophylactic sheathes that were available.

The disease mortified him. The third time he was infected, he wrote to a friend, “I am determined to be entirely rid of it, and to take still more care than ever against it.” Nevertheless, it became, along with inflamed toenails, a recurrent misery.

I suspect that Boswell got pleasure as well as pain from disgrace. He once compared himself to “a child that lets itself fall purposely, to have the pleasure of being tenderly raised up again by those who are fond of it.” His father, a judge in the highest courts of Scotland, was sarcastic and imperious. Although a good Latin scholar (like his heir), he disliked modern literature. Boswell’s mother was described by her son as “pious, visionary, and scrupulous.” She infused hellfire…

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