James Boswell Born, 1740

by on January 24th, 2011
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When James Boswell was a young boy, he once donned a white cockade and prayed for King James, in defiance of his Presbyterian Whig father’s wishes. His uncle offered him a shilling if he would pray for King George instead. James took the shilling, and prayed for the Protestant King. “Whigs of all ages are made in the same way,” said Samuel Johnson, when Boswell told him the story later in life.

A quick realignment of principles was a pattern that Boswell would follow from time to time in his adult life. In the late 1780’s he became an ardent abolitionist, only to turn around and become just as ardent a pro-slaver. He even wrote a poem in 1791, “No Abolition of Slavery; or the Universal Empire of Love,” which mocked the abolitionists and suggested that the slaves actually enjoyed their lives of servitude. In another case, he made a stunning turn-around when, forbidden by his father to convert to Catholicism in order to become a monk, he chose the alternate path of moving to London to become a libertine.

Boswell may have wavered in some issues, but in two he was steadfast. He was a prolific keeper of journals and taker of notes, a habit from which he never strayed. And he was forever loyal to his good friend, the celebrated man of letters, Samuel Johnson.

James Boswell’s father must have torn his hair out over his wayward son. Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, was a judge of the supreme courts of Scotland, and by all accounts a dour man. He had a strict sense of propriety that he expected his children to adopt, and his son James gave him a great deal of trouble. His wife, James’s mother, was Euphemia Erskine Boswell, a submissive woman of whom James was very fond. He recalled that “her notions were pious, visionary and scrupulous. When she was once made to go to the theater, she cried and would never go again.”

The family divided their time between Edinburgh, when the court was in session, and summers at their country estate. James loved the country, and would gladly have spent all his time there. At the age of five, he was sent to school in Edinburgh, where he was unhappy, frightened, and sickly. By the time he was eight, he had been removed from school because of his many illnesses, and placed under private tutors. It was during this period that he grew to love literature.

At the age of 13, he entered the University of Edinburgh, but had to be removed a few years later, when he fell into a nervous depression. He may have been genetically disposed — two uncles and a younger brother also suffered from mental illness. At 19, he went back to school, this time to the University of Glasgow, where he was out from under his father’s thumb. There he began an affair with an actress who was at least 10 years older than he was, and a Catholic.

One thing led to another, and pretty soon Boswell wanted to convert to Catholicism. Soon after that, he received the inspiration to first convert, and then to become a monk. After that, his father ordered him home.

But James didn’t go home; he went to London. In London, he lost interest in Catholicism, contracted gonorrhea (for the first of 17 times) and decided he wanted to join the army. Then his father showed up and brought him home personally.

His father threatened to sell the estate if James didn’t settle down, and put his son on an allowance of £100 a year. He also struck a bargain with him — if he finished his university degree first, he would allow him to join the army. No doubt he realized that James wasn’t likely to maintain interest in the project for long.

Boswell finished his studies in Holland, and afterwards went on a tour of the Continent. He had particularly hoped to get an audience with Frederick the Great of Prussia, but was not able to do so. He did, however, meet the Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli, and became obsessed with him for awhile. He also met the philosophers Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

While he was away, Boswell’s mother died, and he returned home to Scotland. He was accompanied by Rousseau’s mistress, Therese Le Vasseur, with whom, he noted in his journal, he had sex 13 times in 11 days.

Once Boswell had completed his law degree, his father allowed him to move to London. He also raised his allowance to £200 a year. Although the majority of his time was spent in Scotland, he loved the London life, and went there whenever possible. There were two main attractions for Boswell in London: stimulating society and unlimited sex.

Boswell regarded himself as quite a sexual athlete. He once bragged to friends that he had completed the act of love five times in one night. He frequented prostitutes often, preferring “high class” whores who, he believed, were less likely to infect him with disease, but visiting whomever he could afford. When he chose a woman from the lower eschelons of street life, he preferred to “enjoy her in armor,” that is, using a prophylactic. Condoms in Boswell’s day were usually made of oiled linen, or sometimes from animal intestines. He apparently didn’t use them often enough, because he had many occasions of venereal disease.

In 1769, to the consternation of his father, Boswell married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, a woman with no fortune. They were apparently quite happy, despite Boswell’s frequent indiscretions and just as frequent tearful apologies.

Boswell first met Samuel Johnson on May 16, 1763 at the shop of Tom Davies the bookseller. Johnson rebuffed him. Eight days later, he called on Johnson at his home and was admitted. Within a few weeks, Johnson urged him to come as often as he could, and by the end of June the great man had declared, “Give me your hand; I have taken a liking to you.” Boswell was in heaven.

Johnson loved to talk, and Boswell loved to listen. He was also adroit at drawing him out, and was the ideal interviewer and recorder. He prepared for hours for his meetings with Johnson, thinking of topics for discussion, and preparing questions. “Sir,” Johnson said to him on one occasion, “you appear to have only two subjects, yourself and me, and I am sick of both.” Of course, he took copious notes, and recorded everything in his journals.

Boswell did not publish his greatest work, the Life of Samuel Johnson, until seven years after the subject’s death, and the work did not make him a popular man. He had been largely tolerated by London intellectual society because of Johnson’s influence, and that was now at an end. Too, his Life was a new type of biography: Boswell had sought to lay out his subject accurately, including all his tics and odd behaviors. Those who had formerly conversed freely in front of him now felt inhibited. They worried that their most casual comments might be recorded for posterity.

The last few years of Boswell’s life were fairly dark. His great friend was dead, as were his parents and his wife. His health was bad, although he still attempted to live the life of a rake. His children’s education had but him seriously into debt. There were disagreements with his children — in particular, one of his daughters took him to task for taking liberties with her 14-year-old friend. “It seems that after dinner, when I had taken too much wine, I had been too fond,” he wrote in his journal. He seemed to have no memory of the event.

At the age of 54, James Boswell died at his home in London of kidney failure and uremia. He was buried at his ancestral home, Auchinleck, Scotland.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Boswell; Nicholas Lezard, “Inclusive Portrait of a Wittier Age,” The Guardian; Tom Huntington, “James Boswell’s Scotland,” Smithsonian, January 2005; http://kirjasto.sci.fi/boswell.htm; http://www.nndb.com/people/256/000085001/; Robert P. Maccubbin, ‘Tis Nature’s Fault: Unauthorized Sexuality During the Enlightenment.


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