Book Review: Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763

Edited by Frederick A. Pottle, Sterling Professor of English Literature at Yale University, this is the private diary of James Boswell, the literary journalist and man-about-town. Boswell is most famous today for his Life of Johnson, which is a biography of Samuel Johnson the compiler of the first major English dictionary. At the time when he composed this journal, Boswell was newly arrived in London from Edinburgh, Scotland, after an absence of about seven years. Now twenty-two, and out from under the thumb of a tyrannical and narrow-minded father (at least in his own eyes), Boswell engages in a vigorous (but not all-out) effort to win a commission in the Footguards, a regiment of the British Army permanently garrisoned in London.

Boswell’s father, Lord Auchinleck, was a Scottish laird, and one of the principal legal minds of Scotland at the time. He served on the equivalent of the Scottish Supreme Court for both civil and criminal matters, these being two separate courts at the time. The Union of Scotland and England was barely sixty years old at the time; some of the journal’s conversation revolves around whether such and such a Scotch man is a supporter of the Stuarts, still in exile in Paris.

Felicity and destiny combine to give this particular journal a beginning, middle and end. Boswell managed to get permission to move to London by settling on a scheme or plan to get into the Footguards as an officer within a year’s time or else agree to his father’s plan for the study of law; in exchange his father grants him an allowance of £200 a year for his life, payable in six-week installments of £25. Appendix I of this volume presents Boswell’s own explanation of how he is going to live on such a sum, and it makes for interesting reading on its own. The journal thus begins with Boswell’s journey to and arrival in London; it ends with him preparing to leave London for a journey on the Continent.

In between is a look at genteel society in a limited circle in London, twelve years before the American Revolution. Peace is lately concluded in the French-and-Indian War (excuse me, Seven Years’ War). Quebec, though French-speaking, is now an English possession. America is a backwater, though; only Canada is mentioned in the whole journal. One Canadian is met at a party; Samuel Johnson himself uses Canada as an example of the ludicrousness of believing the newspapers, by proving that the recently-concluded war did not, in fact, take Canada from the French. This is after Boswell reports going to an exhibition of pictures in which he sees the death scene of General Wolfe after winning the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City.

Boswell is not of high rank. His father is an important man, but a commoner and a Scotsman besides. Boswell is welcomed into a small circle of Anglophilic Scots with connections to the court of George II and the Prince of Wales (the soon-to-be-mad, soon-to-be-King George III Hanover). He lives on a relatively mean allowance in the most expensive city in the world. He passes an hour every day visiting important men who might grant him a commission in the Guards, but are more likely to let the year pass without opportunity to join the Army. With the Peace lately concluded (and not at all popular, from Boswell’s reports), regiments are parading through London to be broken up and their officers put on half-pay. It is not a good time to be joining the Army as an officer.

No matter. Boswell is chiefly interested in living in London. As a fourteen year old boy, he had absconded to the first city of the Isles in order to marry a childhood sweetheart, a Roman Catholic actress. As the son of a prominent land-holder and Supreme Court Justice, Boswell was unconscionably stupid and rash in this action. His father nearly disinherited him; however, on the advice of Boswell’s mother, Lord Auchinleck (pronounced Affleck, like the actor, apparently) he wrote to his friend and Member of Parliament Lord Eglinton. Eglinton found the boy, arranged for his seduction away from both the actress and the Pope before either indiscretion became public knowledge, and paid for his sexual initiation with a few first-rank whores. No wonder the twenty-two year-old boy can’t get London out of his mind. The Guards are merely a pretense to living in the greatest City in the world.

And Boswell hustles every bit as well as the average New Yorker in getting things done. He writes theater reviews, and occasionally participates in damning plays — by taking cudgels to the actors and knives and axes to the scenery. He shags whores in alleyways that he picks up in Hyde Park… and he suffers through six weeks of confinement and regular bleeding to get rid of the gonorrhea that results from his tryst with the beautiful, genteel and poverty-stricken Louisa. He records conversations overheard in coffee-houses and meets with prominent actors like David Garrick, leaves his calling cards with men and women who might help him win a commission, and publishes a couple of books.

All the time he tries to become more English, yet suffers from the very real difficulty of being actually Scottish, and undeniably so despite good speech and better writing. He presents himself as a decent human being… church-going (his habit of going to a different London church, often in a different sect each week, is both hysterical and charming at the same time), loyal to friends, punctilious about paying debts, keen to study philosophy with the great minds of the age. At the same time, he is regularly searching for female companionship. His sensibilities come off at once as both modern and disturbingly primitive: he occasionally has trouble sleeping due to a fear of ghosts, and shacks up in the same narrow and awkward bed with some of his male friends.

Of course, time is closing in on Boswell. He has enough money to continue living in London if he so desires, but he needs a career that is more enriching than scribbling in a journal if he is to have a wife or any sort of station in life. The Guards, it becomes increasingly clear, are simply a diversion from the real matter at hand, which is that an idle life in London is not so idyllic as it appears. Moreover, the events in the journal itself are pushing our narrator and hero into the company of some great men of the age, like Garrick, Johnson, a politician named Wilkes, and the philosopher David Hume. His impressionable young mind is really unable to resist their wise counsel, against the foolishness of some of his other London acquaintances. Slowly he begins to bow toward his father’s wishes, as he comes to terms with his teenage rebelliousness and begins to mature into adulthood.

Parts of the journal are tedious. He visits within a narrow circle of friends, dines within an only slightly broader circle, and makes only a few new acquaintances. This circle occupies his days, because these are the only people he can think of and knows who might help him get his commission, which is too obviously not coming; everyone else is aware of this failing, and only our narrator himself, the recorder of events, is blind to his dead-end chances. There is a tremendous amount of calling on people, and missing important communications because one person is not at home, or has gone out, or is at home but unavailable. This book proved to me how important cellphones and e-mail are as communications; several times Boswell copies out letters of his or his correspondents into his journal, and at all times I was aware of how much trouble he had to go through just for five minutes of someone’s time or attention.

Significant details are left out. Only in the last twenty pages does he mention his son, a bastard child left behind in Edinburgh in the care of his serving-girl mother and a wet nurse. A footnote alone reveals that this is not the twentieth century: the child will be dead before another year passes from the last date in the journal, of unknown causes but probably related to smallpox. Even so, the sex scenes are hilarious and his occasional wars of wit with other prominent people still have the power to incite laughter more than two hundred years later.

All in all, it was a well-written journal, but it was not a novel or precisely a non-fiction book. It is a rough draft of a memoir or an autobiography, clearly not written for an audience even in this relatively polished and edited version. An enjoyable read for lovers of period pieces, but not for a general audience.

Stars: 3.75 out of 5.

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