February 24, 2018

Boswell, Johnson, London

On this day in 1762 James Boswell left Edinburgh for London, beginning the eight-and-a-half-month stay that would be recorded in his London Journal. When this and most of Boswell's other journals -- some 8000 pages of manuscript -- were discovered in the 1920s and 30s, they earned him a reputation as one of the great British diarists, to go with his Life of Johnson and his longstanding reputation as one of the great biographers. Read historically, the highlight of the Journal might be Boswell's first meeting with Samuel Johnson, though it was not auspicious. Having sought out Johnson in his publisher's bookshop, and knowing of his "mortal antipathy at the Scotch," Boswell tried to hide his roots. When found out, he attempted a jest: "Mr. Johnson, indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it." "Sir," said Johnson gloomily, "that, I find, is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help."

Read as a twenty-one-year-old's coming-of-age story, one told with candor and conviviality, the Journal is even better. Boswell was so excited to escape Edinburgh and his father's upper class expectations that, seeing London from Highgate Hill, he "gave three huzzas" and burst into song. Here was "the noise, the crowd, the glare of shops and signs"; here "we may be in some degree whatever character we choose"; here was a first meeting with Oliver Goldsmith, here one with David Garrick. And here was the beautiful, twenty-four-year-old actress, Louisa, not one of the "free-hearted ladies" with whom he was already too well-acquainted, but one who might bring "higher felicity" to a man, with "a full indulgence of all the delicate feelings and pleasures both of body and mind, while at the same time in this enchanting union he exults with a consciousness that he is a superior person." And six weeks later, here is how this early chapter in Bright (Candle) Lights, Big City ends:
    BOSWELL. Do you know that I have been very unhappy since I saw you?
    LOUISA. How so, Sir?
    BOSWELL. Why, I am afraid that you don't love me so well, nor have not such a regard for me, as I thought you had.
    LOUISA. Nay, dear Sir! (Seeming unconcerned.)
    BOSWELL. Pray, Madam, have I no reason?
    LOUISA. No, indeed, Sir, you have not.
    BOSWELL. Have I no reason, Madam? Pray think.
    LOUISA. Sir!
    BOSWELL. Pray, Madam, in what state of health have you been in for some time?
    LOUISA. Sir, you amaze me....
This was Boswell's third encounter with "Signor Gonorrhoea," and though Johnson would advise him to give up this "concubinage," the journals document fifteen more.

Buy at Amazon
Buy at Barnes & Noble