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Significant Scots
James Boswell

James BoswellBOSWELL, JAMES, the friend and biographer of Dr Samuel Johnson, was born at Edinburgh, October 29, 1740.

The Boswells, or Bosvilles, are supposed to have "come in with the Conquerer," and to have migrated to Scotland in the reign of David I. (1124-53). The first man of the family, ascertained by genealogists, was Robert Boseville, who figured at the court of William the Lion, and became proprietor of some lands in Berwickshire. Roger de Boswell, sixth in descent from this person, lived in the reign of David II., and acquired lands in Fife. His descendant, Sir John Boswell, who flourished in the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth century, acquired the lands of Balmuto in Fife, which was afterwards the principal title of the family. David Boswell of Balmuto, the eleventh representative of the family in succession, had, besides his heir, Alexander, who succeeded to the family estates, a son named Thomas, who became a servant of James IV., and was gifted by that monarch with the lands of Auchinleck, in Ayrshire, which were then in the crown by recognition. [Thomas Boswell is frequently mentioned in the Treasurer’s books under the reign of James IV. On the 15th May, 1504, is an entry, "Item, to Thomas Boswell, he laid downe in Leith to the wife of the kingis innis, and to the boy rane the kingis hors, 18s." On the 2nd August, is the following: "Item, for twa hidis to be jakkis to Thomas Boswell and Watte Trumbull, agane the Raid of Eskdale, (an expedition against the border thieves,) 56s." On the 1st of January, 1504-5, "Item, to Thomas Boswell and Pate Sinclair to by thaim daunsing geir, 28s." Under December 31st, 1505, "Item, to 30 dosane of bellis for dansaris, delyverit to Thomas Boswell, 4l, 10s." Mr. Pitcairn, from whose valuable "Collection of Criminal Trials" these extracts are made, seems to think that Thomas Boswell was a minstrel to King James: it is perhaps as probable that he was chief of the royal train of James. If such he really was, and if the biographer of Johnson had been aware of the fact, he would have perhaps considered it a reason for moderating a little his family pride – though we certainly must confess that there is not altogether wanting some analogy between the profession of Laird Thomas and Laird James.] The charters, one of which is dated in 1504, the other in 1505, bear that the lands were granted, "pro bono et gratuito servitio nobis per dilectum nostrum familiarem Thomam Boswell impensis," – and "pro bono servitio, et pro singulari favore quem erga ipsum thomam gerimus." The lands of Auchinleck had previously belonged to the family of the same name. Thomas Boswell, first of Auchinleck, married a daughter of Sir Hugh Campbell of Loudoun; and fell bravely fighting with his master at Flodden. The estimation and quality of his descendants may be exemplified by the dignity of the families into which they married in succession. The following are the fathers of their respective brides: - James Earl of Arran, who married the Princess Mary, daughter of king James II., and was ancestor of the Hamilton family; Sir Robert Dalzell of Glenae, ancestor of the Earls of Carnwath (the same gentleman had for his second wife, a daughter of Lord Ochiltree;)Crawford and Kerse; Sir John Wallace of Cairnhill (2nd wife, a daughter of Sir Archibald Stewart of Blackhall); Cunningham of Glengarnock; Hamilton of Dalzell; Earl of Kincardine; Colonel John Erskine, grandson of the lord treasurer Earl of Mar.

James Boswell was the eldest son of Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck, and of Euphemia Erskine. [He had two brothers; John, a lieutenant in the army; David, a merchant of Valencia in Spain.] The father was an advocate in good practice at the Scottish bar; who was, in 1754, elevated to the bench, taking, on that occasion, the designation of Lord Auchinleck. James Boswell, father of Lord Auchinleck, had also been a Scottish barrister, and, as we learn from Lord Kames, one of the best of his time; his wife was a daughter of Alexander Bruce, second Earl of Kincardine, whose mother was Veronica, a daughter of the noble house of Sommelsdyk in Holland. For an account of Auchinleck, reference may be made to Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands.

The father of the biographer was a stern and rigid Presbyterian, and a zealous supporter of the House of Hanover: young Boswell, on the contrary, from his earliest years, showed a disposition favourable to the high church and the family of Stuart. Dr Johnson used to tell the following story of his biographer’s early years, which Boswell has confessed to be literally true. "In 1745, Boswell was a fine boy, wore a white cockade, and prayed for King James, till one of his uncles (General Cochran) gave him a shilling, on condition that he would pray for King George, which he accordingly did." "So you see," adds Boswell, who has himself preserved the anecdote, "whigs of all ages are made in the same way."

He received the rudiments of his education at the school of Mr James Mandell, in Edinburgh, a teacher of considerable reputation, who gave elemental instruction to many distinguished men. He afterwards went through a complete academical course at the college of Edinburgh, where he formed an intimacy with Mr Temple of Allardeen in Northumberland, afterwards vicar of St Gluvies in Cornwall, and known in literary history for a well-written character of Gray, which has been adopted both by Dr Johnson and Mason in their memoirs of that poet. Mr Temple and several other young English gentlemen were fellow-students of Boswell, and it is supposed that his intercourse with them was the original and principal cause of that remarkable predilection for English society and manners, which characterized him through life.

Boswell very early began to show a taste for literary composition; in which he was encouraged by Lord Somerville, of whose flattering kindness he ever preserved a grateful recollection. His lively and sociable disposition, and passion for distinguishing himself as a young man of parts and vivacity, also led him, at a very early period of life, into the society of the actors in the theatre, with one of whom, Mr David Ross, he maintained a friendship till the death of that individual, in 1791, when Boswell attended as one of the mourners at his funeral. While still at college, Lady Houston, sister of Lord Cathcart, put under his care a comedy, entitled, "The Coquettes, or the Gallant in the Closet," with a strict injunction that its author should be concealed. Boswell exerted his interest among the players to get this piece brought out upon the stage, and made himself further conspicuous by writing the prologue, which was spoken by Mr Parsons. It was condemned at the third performance, and not unjustly, for it was found to be chiefly a bad translation of one of the worst plays of Corneille. Such, however, was the fidelity of Boswell, that, though universally believed to be the author, and consequently laughed at in the most unmerciful manner, he never divulged the name of the fair writer, nor was it known till she made the discovery herself.

After studying civil law for some time at Edinburgh, Boswell went for one winter to pursue the same study at Glasgow, where he, at the same time, attended the lectures of Dr Adam Smith on moral philosophy and rhetoric. Here he continued, as at Edinburgh, to adopt his companions chiefly from the class of English students attending the university; one of whom, Mr Francis Gentleman, on publishing an altered edition of Southern’s tragedy of Oroonoko, inscribed it to Boswell, in a poetical epistle, which concludes thus, in the person of his Muse:

"But where, with honest pleasure, she can find,
Sense, taste, religion, and good nature joined,
There gladly will she raise her feeble voice,
Nor fear to tell that BOSWELL is her choice."

Inspired, by reading and conversation, with an almost enthusiastic notion of London life, Boswell paid his first visit to that metropolis in 1760, and his ardent expectations were not disappointed. The society, amusements, and general style of life which he found in the modern Babylon, and to which he was introduced by the poet Derrick, were suited exactly to his taste and temper. He had already given some specimens of a talent for writing occasional essays and poetical jeux d’esprit, in periodical works, and he therefore appeared before the wits of the metropolis as entitled to some degree of attention. He was chiefly indebted, however, for their friendship, to Alexander, Earl of Eglintoune, one of the most amiable and accomplished noblemen of his time, who, being of the same county, and from his earliest years acquainted with the family of Auchinleck, insisted that young Boswell should have an apartment in his house, and introduced him, as Boswell himself used to say, "into the circle of the great, the gay, and the ingenious." Lord Eglintoune carried his young friend along with him to Newmarket; an adventure which seems to have made a strong impression on Boswell’s imagination, as he celebrated it in a poem called "the Cub at Newmarket," which was published by Dodsley, in 1762, in 4to. The cub was himself as appears from the following extract:

"Lord Eglintoune, who loves, you know,
A little dash of whim or so,
By chance a curious cub had got,
On Scotia’s mountains newly caught."

In such terms was Boswell content to speak of himself in print, even at this early period of life, and, what adds to the absurdity of the whole affair, he could not rest till he had read "the Cub at Newmarket" in manuscript to Edward Duke of York, and obtained permission from his royal highness to dedicate it to him.

It was the wish of Lord Auchinleck that his son should apply himself to the law, a profession to which two generations of the family had now been devoted, and in which Lord Auchinleck thought that his own eminent situation would be of advantage to the success of a third. Boswell himself, though, in obedience to his father’s desire, he had studied civil law at the colleges of Edinburgh and Glasgow, was exceedingly unwilling to consign himself to the studious life of a barrister at Edinburgh, where at this time the general tone of society was the very reverse of his own temperament, being (if we are to believe Provost Creech) characterized by a degree of puritanical reserve and decorum, not much removed from the rigid observances of the preceding century, while only a very small circle of men of wit and fashion—an oasis in the dreary waste—carried on a clandestine existence, under the ban, as it were, of the rest of the world. Boswell had already cast his eyes upon the situation of an officer in the foot-guards, as calculated to afford him that indulgence in London society, which he so much desired, while it was, at the same time, not incompatible with his prospects as a Scottish country gentleman.

It was with some difficulty that his father prevailed upon him to return to Scotland, and consult about the choice of a profession. The old judge even took the trouble to put his son through a regular course of instruction in the law, in the hope of inspiring him with an attachment to it. But though he was brought the length of standing his trials as a civilian before a committee of the Faculty, he could not be prevailed upon to enter heartily into his father’s views.

During part of the years 1761 and 1762, while confined to Edinburgh, and to this partial and unwilling study of the law, he contrived to alleviate the irksomeness of his situation by cultivating the society of the illustrious men who now cast a kind of glory over Scotland and Scotsmen. Kames, Blair, Robertson, Hume, and Dalrymple, though greatly his seniors, were pleased to honour him with their friendship; more, perhaps, on account of his worthy and dignified parent, than on his own. He also amused himself at this time in contributing jeux d’esprit to "a Collection of Original Poems by Scottish Gentlemen," of which two volumes were successively published by Alexander Donaldson, an enterprising bookseller; being an imitation of the "Miscellanies" of Dodsley. Several of the pieces in this collection were noticed very favourably in the Critical Review; and the whole is now valuable as a record of Scottish manners at a particular era. Boswell’s pieces were distinguished only by his initials. In one, he characterises himself saying, as to la belle passion,

Boswell does women adore,
And never once means to deceive;
He’s in love with at least half a score,
If they’re serious, he laughs in his sleeve.

With regard to a more prominent trait of his character, he adds—

— Boswell is modest enough,
Himself not quite Phoebus he thinks,

* * * *

He has all the bright fancy of youth,
With the judgment of forty and five;
In short to declare the plain truth,
There is no better fellow alive!

At this time, he cultivated a particular intimacy with the Hon. Andrew Erskine, a younger brother of the musical Earl of Kelly, and who might be said to possess wit by inheritance, his father being remarkable for this property, (though not for good sense,) while his mother was the daughter of Dr Pitcairne. Erskine and Boswell were, in frivolity, Arcades ambo; or rather there seemed to be a competition betwixt them, which should exhibit the greater share of that quality. A correspondence, in which this contest seems to be carried on, was published in 1763, and, as there was no attempt to conceal names, the two letter-writers must have been regarded, in that dull and decorous age, as little better than fools—fools for writing in such a strain at all, but doubly fools for laying their folly in such an unperishable shape before the world.

At the end of the year, 1762, Boswell, still retaining his wish to enter the guards, repaired once more to London, to endeavour to obtain a commission. For this purpose he carried recommendations to Charles Duke of Queensberry - the amiable patron of Gay—who, he believed, was able to obtain for him what he wished. Owing, however, (as is understood,) to the backwardness of Lord Auchinleck to enforce his claims, his patrons put him off from time to time, till he was again obliged to return to Scotland. At length, in the spring of 1763, a compromise was made between the father and his son, the latter agreeing to relinquish his favourite project, and resume the study of the civil law for one winter at Utrecht, with the view of ultimately entering the legal profession, on the condition that, after the completion of his studies, he should be permitted to make what was then called "the grand tour."

Boswell set out for this purpose early in 1763; and, according to the recollection of an ancient inhabitant of Glasgow, his appearance, in riding through that city, on his way from Auchinleck, was as follows:—"A cocked hat, a brown wig, brown coat, made in the court fashion, red vest, corduroy small clothes, and long military-looking boots. He was on horseback, with his servant at a most aristocratic distance behind, and presented a fine specimen of the Scottish country gentleman of that day."—Edin. Lit. Jour. ii, 327.

In Boswell’s previous visits to London, he had never had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Dr Samuel Johnson. He had now that pleasure. On the 16th of May, as he himself takes care to inform us, while sitting in the backshop of Thomas Davies, the bookseller, No. 8, Russell-street, Covent Garden, Johnson came in, and Boswell was introduced, by Davies, as a young gentleman "from Scotland." Owing to the antipathy of the lexicographer to that country, his conversation with Boswell was not at first of so cordial a description as at all to predicate the remarkable friendship they afterwards formed. Boswell, however, by the vivacity of his conversation, soon beguiled the doctor of his prejudices; and their intimacy was confirmed by a visit which he soon after paid to Johnson at his apartments in the Temple. During the few months which Boswell spent in town before setting out for Utrecht, he applied himself assiduously to cultivate this friendship, taking apartments in the Temple in order that he might be the oftener in the company of the great man. Even at this early period, he began that practice of noting down the conversation of Johnson, which eventually enabled him to compose such a splendid monument to their common memory.

He set out for Utrecht, in August 1763, and, after studying for the winter under the celebrated civilian Trotz, proceeded, according to the compact with his father, upon the tour of Europe. In company with the Earl Marischal, whose acquaintance he had formed, he travelled through Switzerland and Germany, visiting Voltaire at Ferney, and Rousseau in the wilds of Neufchatel; men whom his regard for the principles of religion might have taught him to avoid, if his itch for the acquaintance of noted characters—one of the most remarkable features of his character—had not forced him into their presence. He afterwards crossed the Alps, and spent some time in visiting the principal cities in Italy. Here he formed an acquaintance with Lord Mountstuart, the eldest son of the Earl of Bute; to whom he afterwards dedicated his law thesis on being admitted to the bar.

At this time, the inhabitants of the small island of Corsica were engaged in their famous struggle for liberty, against the Genoese, and Pasquale de Paoli, their heroic leader, was, for the time, one of the most noted men in Europe. Boswell, struck by an irrepressible curiosity regarding this person, sailed to Corsica, in autumn 1765, and introduced himself to Paoli at his palace, by means of a letter from Rousseau. He was received with much distinction and kindness, and noted down a good deal of the very striking conversation of the Corsican chief. After a residence of some weeks in the island, during which he made himself acquainted with all its natural and moral features, he returned through France, and arrived in London, February 1766, his journey being hastened by intelligence of the death of his mother. Dr Johnson received him, as he passed through London, with renewed kindness and friendship.

Boswell now returned to Scotland, and, agreeably to the treaty formed with Lord Auchinleck, entered (July 26, 1766) as a member of the faculty of advocates. His temper, however, was still too volatile for the studious pursuit of the law, and he did not make that progress in his profession, which might have been expected from the numerous advantages with which he commenced. The Douglas cause was at this time pending, and Boswell, who was a warm partizan of the young claimant, published (November 1767) a pamphlet, entitled, "The Essence of the Douglas Cause," in answer to one, entitled "Considerations on the Douglas Cause," in which a strenuous effort had been made to prove the claimant an impostor. It is said that Mr Boswell’s exertions on this occasion were of material service in exciting a popular prepossession in favour of the doubtful heir. This, however, was the most remarkable appearance made by Mr Boswell, as a lawyer, if it can be called so.

His Corsican tour, and the friendship of Paoli, had made a deep impression on Boswell’s mind. He conceived that he had seen and made himself acquainted with what had been seen and known by few; and he was perpetually talking of the islanders and their chief. This mania, which was rather, perhaps, to be attributed to his vain desire of showing himself off in connection with a subject of popular talk, than any appreciation of the noble character of the Corsican struggle, at length obtained him the nick-name of Paoli, or Paoli Boswell. Resolving that the world at large should participate in what he knew of Corsica, he published, in the spring of 1768, his account of that island, which was printed in 8vo by the celebrated brothers, Foulis, at Glasgow, and was well received. The sketches of the island and its inhabitants, are lively and amusing; and his memoir of Paoli, which follows the account of the island, is a spirited narrative of patriotic deeds and sufferings. The work was translated into the German, Dutch, French, and Italian languages, and every where infected its readers with its own enthusiastic feeling in behalf of the oppressed islanders. Dr Johnson thus expressed himself regarding it:—"Your journal is curious and delightful; I know not whether I could name any narrative by which curiosity is better excited or better gratified." On the other hand, Johnson joined the rest of the world in thinking that the author indulged too much personally in his enthusiasm upon the subject, and advised him, in a letter, dated March 23, 1768, to "empty his head of Corsica." Boswell was so vain of his book, as to pay a visit to London, in the spring court vacation, chiefly for the purpose of seeking Dr Johnson’s approbation more at large.

In the following winter, a patent was obtained, for the first time, by Ross, the manager of the Edinburgh theatre; but, nevertheless, a violent opposition was still maintained against this public amusement by the more rigid portion of the citizens. Ross, being anxious to appease his enemies, solicited Boswell to write a prologue for the opening of the house, which request was readily complied with. The verses were, as Lord Mansfield characterised them, witty and conciliating; and their effect, being aided by friends properly placed in different parts of the house, was instantaneous and most triumphant; the tide of opposition was turned, the loudest plaudits were given, and Ross at once entered upon a very prosperous career.

In 1769, Boswell paid a visit to Ireland, where he spent six or seven weeks, chiefly at Dublin, and enjoyed the society of Lord Charlemont, Dr Leland, Mr Flood, Dr Macbride, and other eminent persons of that kingdom, not forgetting the celebrated George Falconer, the friend of Swift and Chesterfield. Viscount, afterwards Marquis Townshend, was then Lord Lieutenant, and the congeniality of their dispositions united them in the closest friendship. He enjoyed a great advantage in the union of one of his female cousins to Mr Sibthorpe, of the county of Down, a gentleman of high influence, who was the means of introducing him into much good society. Another female cousin, Miss Margaret Montgomery, daughter of Mr Montgomery of Lainshaw, accompanied him on the expedition; and not only added to his satisfaction by her own delightful company, but caused him to be received with much kindness by her numerous and respectable relations. This jaunt was the means of converting Boswell from a resolution, which he appears to have formed, to live a single life. He experienced so much pleasure from the conversation of Miss Montgomery, that he was tempted to seek her society for life in a matrimonial engagement. He had resolved, he said, never to marry—had always protested, at least, that a large fortune would be indispensable. He was now, however, impressed with so high an opinion of her particular merit, that he would wave that consideration altogether, provided she would wave his faults also, and accept him for better for worse. Miss Montgomery, who was really an eligible match, being related to the noble family of Eglintoune, while her father laid claim to the dormant peerage of Lyle, acceded to his proposal with corresponding frankness; and it was determined that they should be married at the end of the year, after he should have paid one parting visit to London.

Before this visit was paid, Mr Boswell was gratified in the highest degree, by the arrival of General Paoli, who, having been forced to abandon his native island, in consequence of the French invasion, had sought that refuge on the shores of Britain, which has never yet been refused to the unfortunate of any country. In autumn, 1769, General Paoli visited Scotland and Boswell; an account of his progress through the country, with Boswell in his train, is given in the Scots Magazine of the time. Both on this occasion, and on his subsequent visit to London, Boswell attended the exiled patriot with an obsequious fidelity, arising no doubt as much from his desire of appearing in the company of a noted character, as from gratitude for former favours of a similar kind. Among other persons to whom he introduced his Corsican friend, was Dr Johnson; an entirely opposite being, in destiny and character, but who, nevertheless, was at some pains to converse with the unfortunate stranger—Boswell acting as interpreter. It would be curious to know in what light Paoli, who was a high-minded man, beheld his eccentric cicerone.

During the time of his visit to London, September, 1769, the jubilee took place at Stratford, to celebrate the birth of Shakspeare. As nearly all the literary, and many of the fashionable persons of the day were collected at this solemnity, Boswell entered into it with a great deal of spirit, and played, it is said, many fantastic tricks, more suited to a carnival scene on the continent, than to a sober festival in England. To pursue a contemporary account, "One of the most remarkable masks upon this occasion was James Boswell, Esq. in the dress of an armed Corsican chief. He entered the amphitheatre about 12 o’clock. He wore a short, dark-coloured coat of coarse cloth, scarlet waistcoat and breeches, and black spatterdashes; his cap or bonnet was of black cloth; on the front of it was embroidered in gold letters, Viva la liberta; and on one side of it was a handsome blue feather and cockade, so that it had an elegant as well as a warlike appearance. On the breast of his coat was sewed a Moor’s head, the crest of Corsica, surrounded with branches of laurel. He had also a cartridge-pouch, into which was stuck a stiletto, and on his left side a pistol was hung upon the belt of his cartridge-pouch. He had a fusee slung across his shoulder, wore no powder in his hair! but had it plaited at full length with a knot of blue ribbons at the end of it. He had, by way of staff, a very curious vine all of one piece, with a bird finely carved upon it, emblematical of the sweet bard of Avon. He wore no mask; saying, that it was not proper for a gallant Corsican. So soon as he came into the room, he drew universal attention. The novelty of the Corsican dress, its becoming appearance, and the character of that brave nation, concurred to distinguish the armed Corsican chief. He was first accosted by Mrs Garrick, with whom he had a good deal of conversation. Mr Boswell danced both a minuet and a country dance with a very pretty Irish lady, Mrs Sheldon, wife to captain Sheldon of the 38th regiment of foot, who was dressed in a genteel domino, and before she danced, threw off her mask." London Magazine, September, 1769, where there is a portrait of the modern Xenophon in this strange guise. [Mr Croker has mentioned, in his edition of the life of Johnson that on this occasion he had the words "CORSICA BOSWELL" in a scroll of gilt letters round his hat. But perhaps the above account somewhat invalidates the statement. Boswell however, is known to have been ambitious of some such prenomen as CORSICA, from an idea he entertained, that every man, aiming at distinction, should be known by a soubriquet, derived from the thing or place by which he had gained celebrity. He seems to have adopted this fancy from the Roman fashion, of which Scipio Africanus is an instance. Thus, he encouraged a proposal for calling Johnson by the epithet DICTIONARY JOHNSON.]

On the 25th of November, he was married, at Lainshaw, in Ayrshire, to Miss Montgomery, [It has already been mentioned, that Boswell’s courtship took place, or at least commenced in Ireland. I cannot help thinking that the following composition, published in his name by his son, must have had a reference to this transaction. It is stated by Sir Alexander to have been written to an Irish air: -

O Larghan Clanbrassil, how sweet is thy sound!
To my tender remembrance as Love’s sacred ground;
For there Marg’ret Caroline first charm’d my sight,
And fill’d my young heart with a flutt’ring delight.

When I thought her my own, ah! too short seem’d the day,
For a jaunt to Downpatrick, or a trip on the sea;
To express what I felt then, all language were vain,
’Twas in truth what the poets have studied to feign.

But, too late, I found even she could deceive,
And nothing was left but to sigh, weep, and rave;
Distracted, I flew from my dear native shore,
Resolved to see Larghan Clanbrassil no more.

Yet still in some moments enchanted I find
A ray of her fondness beams soft on my mind;
While thus in bless’d fancy my angel I see,
All the world is a Larghan Clanbrassil to me.]

and what is rather a remarkable circumstance, his father was married on the same day, at Edinburgh, to a second wife. With admirable sense, affection, and generosity of heart, the wife of James Boswell possessed no common share of wit and pleasantry. One of her bon mots is recorded by her husband. Thinking that Johnson had too much influence over him, she said, with some warmth, "I have seen many a bear led by a man, but I never before saw a man led by a bear." Once, when Boswell was mounted upon a horse which he had brought pretty low by riding the country for an election, and was boasting that he was a horse of blood, "I hope so," said she, drily, "for I am sure he has no flesh." Her good-humoured husband kept a collection of her good things, under the title of Uxoriana. Perhaps her best property was her discretion as a housewife and a mother; a quality much needed on her side of the house, since it was so deficient on that of her husband. In a letter from Auchinleck, 23d August, 1773, Dr Johnson thus speaks of her: "Mrs Boswell has the mien and manner of a gentlewoman, and such a person and manner as could not in any place be either admired or condemned. She is in a proper degree inferior to her husband; she cannot rival him, nor can he ever be ashamed of her." She died in June, 1789, leaving two sons, Alexander and James, and three daughters, Veronica, Euphemia, and Elizabeth.

For two or three years after his marriage, Boswell appears to have lived a quiet professional life at Edinburgh, paying only short occasional visits to London. In autumn, 1773, Dr Johnson gratified him by coming to Edinburgh, and proceeding in his company on a tour through the north of Scotland and the Western Islands. On this occasion, Boswell kept a journal, as usual, of every remarkable part of Dr Johnson’s conversation. The journey being made rather late in the season, the two travellers encountered some hardships, and a few dangers; but they were highly pleased with what they saw, and the reception they every where met with; Boswell, for his own part, declaring that he would not have missed the acquisition of so many new and delightful ideas as he had gained by this means, for five hundred pounds. Dr Johnson published an account of their trip, and the observations he made during its progress, under the title of a "Journey to the Western Islands;" and Boswell, after the death of his friend, (1785), gave to the world the journal he had kept, as a "Tour to the Hebrides," 1 volume 8vo. The latter is perhaps one of the most entertaining works in the language, though only rendered so, we must acknowledge, at the expense of the author’s dignity. It ran through three editions during the first twelvemonth, and has since been occasionally reprinted.

For many years after the journey to the Hebrides, Boswell only enjoyed such snatches of Johnson’s company and conversation, as he could obtain by occasional visits to London, during the vacations of the Court of Session. Of these interviews, however, he has preserved such ample and interesting records, as must make us regret that he did not live entirely in London. It appears that, during the whole period of his acquaintance with Johnson, he paid only a dozen visits to London, and spent with him only a hundred and eighty days in all; which, added to the time which they spent in their northern journey between August 18th and November 23d, 1773, makes the whole period during which the biographer enjoyed any intercourse with his subject, only two hundred and seventy-six days, or one hundredth part of Johnson’s life.

The strangely vain and eccentric conduct of Boswell had, long ere this period, rendered him almost as notable a character as any of those whom he was so anxious to see. His social and good-humoured character gained him universal friendship; but this friendship was never attended with perfect respect. Men of inferior qualifications despised the want of natural dignity, which made him go about in attendance upon every great man, and from no higher object in life than that of being the commemorator of their conversations. It is lamentable to state that, among those who despised him, was his own father; and even other relations, from whom respect might have been more imperatively required, were fretted by his odd habits. "Old Lord Auchinleck," says Sir Walter Scott, "was an able lawyer, a good scholar, after the manner of Scotland, and highly valued his own advantages as a man of good estate and ancient family, and, moreover, he was a strict presbyterian and whig of the old Scottish cast." To this character, his son presented a perfect contrast—a light-headed lawyer, an aristocrat only in theory, an episcopalian, and a tory. But it was chiefly with the unsettled and undignified conduct of his son, that the old gentleman found fault. "There’s nae hope for Jamie, man," he said to a friend about the time of the journey to the Hebrides; "Jamie’s gane clean gyte: What do ye think, man? he’s aff wi’ the land-louping scoundrel of a Corsican; and whase tail do ye think he has pinned himself to now, man?" Here the old judge summoned up a sneer of most sovereign contempt. "A dominie, man, (meaning Johnson) an auld dominie, that keepit a schule, and ca’d it an academy!" By the death of Lord Auchinleck, in 1782, Boswell was at length freed from what he had always felt to be a most painful restraint, and at the same time became possessed of his paternal estate.

Boswell’s mode of life, his social indulgences, and his frequent desertion of business for the sake of London literary society, tended greatly to embarrass his circumstances; and he was induced to try if they could be repaired by exertions in the world of politics. In 1784, when the people were in a state of most alarming excitement in consequence of Mr Fox’s India Bill, and the elevation of Mr Pitt, he wrote a pamphlet, entitled, "A Letter to the People of Scotland, on the Present State of the Nation." Of this work Dr Johnson has thus pronounced his approbation:—"I am very much of your opinion, and, like you, feel great indignation at the style in which the King is every day treated. Your paper contains very considerable knowledge of history and of the constitution, very properly produced and applied." The author endeavoured, by means of this pamphlet, to obtain the favourable notice of Mr Pitt; but we are informed that, though the youthful minister honoured the work with his approbation, both on this occasion, and on several others, his efforts to procure an introduction to political life were attended with a mortifying want of success. He was, nevertheless, induced to appear once more as a pamphleteer in 1785, when he published a second " Letter to the People of Scotland," though upon an humbler theme, namely, "on the alarming attempt to infringe the articles of Union, and introducing a most pernicious innovation, by diminishing the numbers of time Lords of Session." This proposal had been brought forward in the House of Commons; the salaries of the judges were to be raised, and, that the expense might not fall upon the country, their number was to be reduced to ten. Boswell (to use a modern phrase) immediately commenced a vehement agitation in Scotland, to oppose the bill; and among other measures which he took for exciting public attention, published this letter. His chief argument was, that the number of the judges was established immutably by the act of union; an act which entered into the very constitution of parliament itself, and how then could parliament touch it? He also showed that the number of fifteen, which Buchanan had pronounced too small to form a free or liberal institution, was little enough to avoid the character of a tyrannical junto. He further argued the case in the following absurd, but characteristic terms:—"Is a court of ten the same with a court of fifteen? Is a two-legged animal the same with a four-legged animal? I know nobody who will gravely defend that proposition, except one grotesque philosopher, whom ludicrous fable represents as going about avowing his hunger, and wagging his tail, fain to become cannibal, and eat his deceased brethren." The agitation prevailed, and the court remained as it had been, for another generation.

Boswell, whose practice at the Scottish bar was never very great, had long wished to remove to the English, in order that he might live entirely in London. His father’s reluctance, however, had hitherto prevented him. Now that the old gentleman was dead, he found it possible to follow his inclination, and accordingly he began, from time to time, to keep his terms at the Inner Temple. His resolution was thus sanctioned by a letter to him from Dr Johnson, which exhibits at once a cautious and encouraging view of the mode of life he proposed to enter upon:—"I remember, and entreat you to remember, that virtus est vitium fugere; the first approach to riches is security from poverty. The condition upon which you have my consent to settle in London, is that your expense never exceeds your annual income. Fixing this basis of security, you cannot be hurt, and you may be very much advanced. The loss of your Scottish business, which is all you can lose, is not to be reckoned any equivalent to the hopes and possibilities that open here upon you. If you succeed, the question of prudence is at an end; any body will think that done right which ends happily; and though your expectations, of which I would not advise you to talk too much, should not be totally answered, you can hardly fail to get friends who will do for you all that your present situation allows you to hope; and if, after a few years, you should return to Scotland, you will return with a mind supplied by various conversations and many opportunities of inquiry, with much knowledge and materials for reflection and instruction."

At Hilary Term, 1786, he was called to the English bar, and in the ensuing winter removed his family to London. His first professional effort is said to have been of a somewhat ominous character. A few of the idlers of Westminster Hall, conspiring to quiz poor Bozzy, as he was familiarly called, made up an imaginary case, full of all kinds of absurdities, which they caused to be presented to him for his opinion. He, taking all for real, returned a bona-fide note of judgment, which, while it almost killed his friends with laughter, covered himself with ineffaceable ridicule.

It is to be regretted that this decisive step in life was not adopted by Boswell at an earlier period, as thereby he might have rendered his Life of Johnson still more valuable than it is. Johnson having died upwards of a year before his removal, it was a step of little importance in a literary point of view; nor did it turn out much better in respect of professional profit.

So early as 1781, when Mr Burke was in power, that great man had endeavoured to procure an extension of the government patronage towards Boswell. "We must do something for you," he said, "for our own sakes," and recommended him to General Conway for a vacant place, by a letter, in which his character was drawn in glowing colours. The place was not obtained; but Boswell declared that he valued the letter more. He was now enabled, by the interest of Lord Lowther, to obtain the situation of Recorder of Carlisle; a circumstance which produced the following


Boswell once flamed with patriot zeal,
His bow was never bent;
Now he no public wrongs can feel
Till LOWTHER nods assent.

To seize the throne while faction tries
And would the Prince command,
The TORY Boswell coolly cries,
My King’s in

The latter verse is an allusion to the famous Regency question; while, in the former, Boswell is reminded of his zealous exertions in behalf of monarchy in the pamphlet on the India Bill. It happening soon after that Dr John Douglas, a fellow-countryman of Boswell’s, was made Bishop of Carlisle, a new and happier epigram appeared:—

Of old, ere wise concord united this isle,
Our neighbours of Scotland were foes at Carlisle;
But now what a change have we here on the Border,
When Douglas is Bishop and Boswell Recorder!

Finding this recordership, at so great a distance from London, attended with many inconveniences, Boswell, after holding it for about two years, resigned it.

It was well known at this time that he was very anxious to get into parliament; and many wondered that so sound a tory should not hare obtained a seat at the hands of some great parliamentary proprietor. Perhaps this wonder may be explained by a passage in his last Letter to the People of Scotland. "Though ambitious," he says, "I am uncorrupted; and I envy not high situations which are attained by the want of public virtue in men born without it, or by the prostitution of public virtue in men born with it. Though power, and wealth, and magnificence, may at first dazzle, and are, I think, most desirable, no wise man will, upon sober reflection, envy a situation which he feels he could not enjoy. My friend—my ‘Maecenas stavis edite regibus’—Lord Mountstuart, flattered me once very highly without intending it. ‘I would do any thing for you,’ he said, ‘but bring you into parliament, for I could not be sure but you would oppose me in something the very next day.’ His lordship judged well. Though I should consider, with much attention, the opinion of such a friend before taking my resolution, most certainly I should oppose him in any measure which I was satisfied ought to be opposed. I cannot exist with pleasure, if I have not an honest independence of mind and of conduct; for, though no man loves good eating and drinking better than I do, I prefer the broiled blade-bone of mutton and humble port of ‘downright Shippen,’ to all the luxury of all the statesmen who play the political game all through."

He offered himself however, as a candidate for Ayrshire, at the general election of 1790; but was defeated by the interest of the minister, which was exerted for a more pliant partizan. On this and all other proper occasions, he made no scruple to avow himself a Tory and a royalist; saying, however, in the words of his pamphlet just quoted, "I can drink, I can laugh, I can converse, in perfect good humour, with Whigs, with Republicans, with Dissenters, with Moravians, with Jews—they can do me no harm—my mind is made up—my principles are fixed—but I would vote with Tories, and pray with a Dean and Chapter.

If his success at the bar and in the political world was not very splendid, he consoled himself, so far as his own fancy was to be consoled, by the grateful task of preparing for the press his magnum opus—the Life of Dr Johnson. This work appeared in 1791, in two volumes, quarto, and was received with an avidity suitable to its entertaining and valuable character. Besides a most minute narrative of the literary and domestic life of Johnson, it contained notes of all the remarkable expressions which the sage had ever uttered in Mr Boswell’s presence, besides some similar records from other hands, and an immense store of original letters. As decidedly the most faithful biographical portraiture in existence, and referring to one of the most illustrious names in literature, it is unquestionably the first book of its class; and not only so, but there is no other biographical work at all approaching to it in merit. While this is the praise deserved by the work, it happens, rather uncommonly, that no similar degree of approbation can be extended to the writer. Though a great work, it is only so by accident, or rather through the persevering assiduity of the author in a course which no man fit to produce a designedly great work could have submitted to. It is only great, by a multiplication and agglomeration of little efforts. The preparation of a second edition of the life of Dr Johnson, was the last literary performance of Boswell, who died, May 19, 1795, at his house in Great Poland Street, London, in the 55th year of his age; having been previously ill for five weeks of a disorder which had commenced as an intermitting fever. He was buried at the family seat of Auchinleck.

The character of Boswell is so amply shadowed forth by the foregoing account of his life, that little more need be said about it. That he was a good-natured social man, possessed of considerable powers of imagination and humour, and well acquainted with literature and the world of common life, is universally acknowledged. He has been, at the same time, subjected to just ridicule for his total want of that natural dignity by which men of the world secure and maintain the respect of their fellow-creatures in the daily business of life. He wanted this to such a degree, that even those relations whose respect was most necessary, according to the laws of nature, could scarcely extend it; and from the same cause, his intellectual exertions, instead of shedding a lustre upon his name, have proved rather a kind of blot in his pedigree. His unmanly obsequiousness to great men—even though some of these were great only by the respect due to talent—his simpleton drollery—his degrading employment as a chronicler of private conversations—his mean tastes, among which was the disgusting one of a fondness for seeing executions—and the half folly, half vanity, with which he could tell the most delicate things, personal to himself and his family, in print - have altogether conspired to give him rather notoriety than true fame, and, though perhaps leaving him affection, deprive him entirely of respect. It was a remarkable point in the character of such a man, that, with powers of entertainment almost equal to Shakspeare’s description of Yorick, he was subject to grievous fits of melancholy in private. One of his works, not noticed in the preceding narrative, was a series of papers under the title of "The Hypochondriac," which appeared in the London Magazine for 1782, and were intended to embody the varied feelings of a man subject to that distemper.

Perhaps, it is only justice to Boswell, after expressing the severe character which the world has generally pronounced upon him, [Sir William Forbes, in his Life of Beattie, thus speaks of Boswell: - "His warmth of heart towards his friends was very great; and I have known few men who possessed a stronger sense of piety, or more fervent devotion, (tinctured, no doubt, with a little share of superstition, which had probably been in some degree fostered by his habits of intimacy with Dr Johnson) perhaps not always sufficient to regulate his imagination or direct his conduct, yet still genuine, and founded both in his understanding and his heart. For Mr Boswell I entertained a sincere regard, which he returned by the strongest proof in his power to confer, by leaving me the guardian of his children."] to give his own description and estimate of himself, from his Tour to the Hebrides. "Think of a gentleman of ancient blood, the pride of which was his predominant passion. He was then in his 33d year, and had been about four years happily married: his inclination was to be a soldier; but his father, a respectable judge, had pressed him into the profession of the law. He had travelled a good deal, and seen many varieties of human life. He had thought more than any body supposed, and had a pretty good stock of general learning and knowledge. He had all Dr Johnson’s principles, with some degree of relaxation. He had rather too little than too much prudence; and, his imagination being lively, he often said things, of which the effect was very different from the intention. He resembled sometimes ‘the best-natured man with the worst-natured muse.’ He cannot deny himself the vanity of finishing with the encomium of Dr Johnson, whose friendly partiality to the companion of his tour, represents him as one ‘whose acuteness would help any inquiry, and whose gaiety of conversation, and civility of manners, are sufficient to counteract the inconveniencies of travel, in countries less hospitable than we have passed.’"

The Commonplace Book of James Boswell

James Boswell
By W. Keith Leask (1896) (pdf)

Boswell's Journal
Or a Tour of the Hebrides With Samuel Johnson, LL.D. now first published from the original manuscript (1936) (pdf)

The story of the manuscripts of James' Boswell is one of the most dramatic among all the tales of book and manuscript collecting, and the manuscripts themselves are among the most valuable literary properties ever discovered. For more than a century it was believed by scholars that all Boswell’s papers had- been destroyed shortly after his death. A few years ago, however, it became known that there existed in Malahide Castle a large collection which had come down through the years by inheritance to Lord Talbot de Malahide, Boswell’s great-great-grandson. In 1927 Lord Talbot, who had previously declined to entertain any suggestion of releasing the papers, agreed to sell the property, including the publishing rights. The entire collection was acquired by Lt.-Golonel Ralph H. Isham, who proceeded at once to arrange for printing it privately in a limited edition.

The editing of the manuscripts was entrusted to Mr. Geoffrey Scott, and after his death to Professor Frederick Pottle of Yale University, who is everywhere recognized as a leading authority on the period of Johnson and Boswell. The task of deciphering, arranging, and annotating the huge collection, comprising more than a million words, proved to be the work of years, and its progress has been followed with profound interest by scholars and the public. The eighteen volumes of the limited edition have appeared at irregular intervals, beginning in 1928; the nineteenth and final volume, containing the index, is now in preparation.

When Colonel Isham acquired the Malahide collection, it was assumed that it contained all of Boswell’s manuscripts that had been preserved. In addition to a large number of very important letters by and to Boswell, it included most of his journal, which he had kept intermittently for 37 years. But in spite of the richness of the material thus made available to the world for the first time, it was a disappointment to discover that there were some serious gaps in the journal. A few years later, when the publication was already well under way, another extraordinary treasure-trove came to light at Malahide Castle, when through a happy accident an old croquet-box in an unused cupboard was found to contain another large batch of Boswell papers. First in importance among the documents—all of which are invaluable to students of the period—was the original manuscript of the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.

Colonel Isham was able to acquire this second lot of manuscripts also, and he arranged for the expansion of his privately printed edition to include much of the new material. But the work had already proceeded past the point at which the Hebridean Journal belonged chronologically; in any event its bulk and the added expense would have increased the set too far beyond the limits originally contemplated and promised to the subscribers.

It is now known also that Sir William Forbes, Boswell’s executor, carried off a considerable portion of his friend’s papers, and died without restoring them to the heir. These papers, of whose existence the public has only recently been informed, are now in the custody of a Judicial Factor appointed by the Court of Session of Scotland, and will remain inaccessible until their ownership has been determined.

The present publishers expect to issue, from time to time, additional volumes containing more of the Boswell papers, but they determined that the first book should be the hitherto unpublished Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. It is their privilege thus to make available one of the great books of English literature in its original form, which, as it here appears, differs materially from the previously printed text.

After more than 150 years, the Journal as Boswell wrote it is published, Throughout the years of preparation the English and American publishers have worked closely together and have had the invaluable help of both Colonel Isham and Professor Pottle. The first edition is issued jointly by the English and American publishers in a large-paper limited edition; the first trade editions are issued separately by the publishers in their respective countries on the same day.

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