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James Boswell

James Boswell / Writers

  • Name  : Boswell
  • Born  : 1740
  • Died  : 1795
  • Category  : Writers
  • Finest Moment : Publication of Life of Johnson (1791)

'Through his diaries we can hear Samuel Johnson speak as though he were standing next to us'

Born 29 October in Edinburgh, into an old and well-heeled family. His father was Alexander Boswell, advocate and laird of Auchinleck in Ayrshire from 1749, was raised to the bench, and given the judicial title of Lord Auchinleck in 1754. James Boswell was therefore pressured to be a success in the legal profession from an early age. Naturally he rebelled.

Hating day school, he was taught at home by tutors, from the ages of 8-13. He then somewhat reluctantly, studied law at Edinburgh, until he fell in love with a Roman Catholic actress. His father immediately bumped him across the country to Glasgow University but in the spring of 1760 he ran away to London. There he converted to Catholicism, energetically entered the nightlife, and tried to gain entry to a guards' regiment. He was eventually persuaded to complete his studies in Glasgow.

He returned to London in 1762, having passed the exam in Civil Law. The following year came the unexpected and pivotal meeting with Samuel Johnson, whose work he admired. Johnson was then 53, Boswell 22. Shortly after, the two struck up a friendship which lasted for the remainder of Johnson's lifetime.

A European tour or two now interjected themselves, with Boswell attempting, and sometimes failing, to meet with the great figures. He did meet with Rousseau and Voltaire however. He also made a tour in Corsica, meeting up with the Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli, with whom he also became a friend. His Corsican experiences were written up, culminating in his first book, An Account of Corsica (1768). France then had its beady eyes on Corsica, and Boswell was a sympathetic reporter for the Corsican cause.

Boswell had begun keeping a journal in 1762, and though these were not to be published until the 1950s, they proved to be a rich source of material for Boswell's publications. They also provide a superb picture of life then. That Boswell much enjoyed the sensual pleasures only enriched the writing.

He married cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, in 1769, and they settled in Edinburgh where he practiced law for some 17 years. London, and his friend Johnson, kept calling of course, especially when his wife was unwell. In 1773 Boswell persuaded Johnson to accompany him on a tour of the Hebrides. This now famous trip was written up by Johnson and published in 1775 as Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland. It was not until after Johnson's death that Boswell published his abridged description, as Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). It is agreed by all that it is the better book of the two.

Boswell succeeded to the family estate on his father's death in 1782. Two years later Johnson died. Boswell was attempting to enter politics, but this was to prove a continual frustration. For a while he was sponsored by the unscrupulous and powerful James Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale, which eventually led to Boswell obtaining the post of Recordership of Carlisle, but Boswell grew apart from his sponsor and resigned this position in 1790.

His wife died in 1789, and Boswell continued to labour on his biography of Johnson. This was finally published on 16 May, 1791, in two volumes. Though the biography gained literary praise, the author was lessened by a seeming contentment to remain in the shadows. His reputation was only redeemed after his death, by the publications of his journals, including Boswell's London Journal (1950), Boswell in Holland (1952), and Boswell on the Grand Tour (1955). Along with the unabridged version of the Tour (1936) and his Life of Johnson (1934-40).

With these publications, and the findings of his private papers and original manuscripts, Boswell has finally emerged from his self-imposed modesty, and is now regarded as one of this country's foremost chroniclers. It could be appropriate to finish with one of the many pieces of fine wit and observation from the Life, for without Boswell, many of these would never have left Johnson's living-room.

Boswell: I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it Johnson: That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help. (Boswell's Life of Johnson, 16 May 1763)

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