EDINBURGH LIFE—DEATH OF JOHNSON. 1773-1784
'My father used to protest I was born to be a strolling pedlar.'—SIR WALTER SCOTT—Autobiography.
'You have done Auchinleck much honour and have, I hope, overcome my father who has never forgiven your warmth for monarchy and episcopacy. I am anxious to see how your pages will operate on him.' Boswell had good grounds for thus expressing himself to Johnson over the publication of the latter's book. He had not long, it would seem, to wait for the breaking of the storm, as we find him writing to Temple in ominous language. 'My father,' he says, 'is most unhappily dissatisfied with me. He harps on my going over Scotland with a brute (think how shockingly erroneous!) and wandering, or some such phrase, to London. I always dread his making some bad settlement.' Then the old judge would grimly relate how Lord Crichton, son of the Earl of Dumfries, would go to Edinburgh, and how, when he was carried back to the family vault, the Earl, as he saw the hearse from the window, had said, 'Ay, ay, Charles, thou went without an errand: I think thou hast got one to bring thee back again.'
But had the son chosen to be quite candid here, we should see how just a cause the father had for his displeasure. In the spring of 1774, he had written to Johnson suggesting a run up to London, expressing the peculiar satisfaction which he felt in celebrating Easter at St Paul's, which to his fancy was like going up to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. The doctor was wisely deaf to this subtle appeal. 'Edinburgh,' said he, 'is not yet exhausted,' and reminded him that his wife, having permitted him last year to ramble, had now a claim upon him at home, while to come to Iona or to Jerusalem could not be necessary, though useful. Next year, however, Boswell was in London, 'quite in my old humour,' as he tells Temple, arguing with him for concubinage and the plurality of the patriarchs, from all which we may see that the plea urged to Johnson for the visit was to be taken in a lax sense by Boswell, who made his chief excuse out of some business at the bar of the House over an election petition in Clackmannan. He waited on Temple in Devon and shocked his host by his inebriety, but 'under a solemn yew tree' he had vowed reformation. But his return to town, if it 'exalted him in piety' at St Paul's, seems to have led but to fresh dissipation. He hints at 'Asiatic multiplicity,' but this is only when he has taken too much claret. The good resolutions at Iona and the influence of the ruins had passed away, the trip is extended to two months, and he frets irritably over his old friend Henry Dundas's election as King's Advocate,—'to be sure he has strong parts, but he is a coarse unlettered dog.' Harry Dundas at least was never found philandering as we find Bozzy on this occasion, where the mixture of religion and flirtation is so confusing. 'After breakfasting with Paoli,' he writes before leaving for the north, 'and worshipping at St Paul's, I dined tete-a-tete with my charming Mrs Stuart, of whom you have read in my Journal. We dined in all the elegance of two courses and a dessert, with dumb waiters, except when the second course and the dessert were served. We talked with unreserved freedom, as we had nothing to fear. We were philosophical, upon honour—not deep, but feeling, we were pious; we drank tea and bid each other adieu as finely as romance paints. She is my wife's dearest friend, so you see how beautiful our intimacy is.' But from Johnson's letter to Mrs Thrale we see looming ahead a crisis. 'He got two and forty guineas in fees while he was here. He has by his wife's persuasion and mine taken down a present for his mother-in-law,'—an error, doubtless, for 'stepmother.' He had entered himself this time at the Temple, and Johnson was his bond. He left to be in time for practice before the General Assembly, finding 'something low and coarse in such employment, but guineas must be had'—a feeling quite different from that of Lord Cockburn who thought the aisle of St Giles had seen the best work of the best men in the kingdom since 1640. Perhaps his feelings on this point were soothed by the traveller in the coach, a Miss Silverton, an 'amiable creature who has been in France. I can unite little fondnesses with perfect conjugal love.' Alas for poor Peggie Montgomerie, 'of the ancient house of Eglintoun,' blamed by his father for not bridling the follies of his son, waiting, doubtless, anxiously for the present to the second wife of his father as a means of peace-offering!
Then the secret leaks out that the father had refused Boswell's plan of being allowed L400 a year and the trial of fortune at the London bar. His debts of L1000 had been paid, and his allowance of L300 threatened with the reduction of a third. The promise under the old yew had not been kept; the one bottle of hock as a statutory limit had been exceeded, he had been 'not drunk, but was intoxicated,'—a subtle point for bacchanalian casuists, and very ill next day. He lays it on the drunken habits of the country which, he says, are very bad, and with the recollection of Burns' temptations in Dumfries we may admit that they were. His father, too, was now about to entail his estate, and Bozzy's predilection for feudal principles and heirs male brought things to a deadlock. He appealed to Lord Hailes, who admitted conscience and self formed a strong plea when found on different sides. Finally, after the judge had inserted in the deed his precautions against 'a weak, foolish and extravagant person,' the estate was entailed on Boswell. 'My father,' he tells Temple, 'is so different from me. We divaricate so much, as Dr Johnson said. He has a method of treating me which makes me feel like a timid boy, which to Boswell (comprehending all that my character does in my own imagination and in that of a wonderful number of mankind) is intolerable. It requires the utmost exertion of practical philosophy to keep myself quiet; but it has cost me drinking a considerable quantity of strong beer to dull my faculties.' The picture of the son drinking himself down to the level of the father is truly inimitable!
He feared the final settlement. He might be disgraced by his father, and not a shilling secured to his wife and children. Then he is comforted by the thought that his father is visibly failing, and he consults his brother David with a view to a settlement, should the succession pass to him. The birth of a son, who was diplomatically called Alexander, was taken by the old man as a compliment, and we find Boswell visiting at Auchinleck, 'not long at one time, but frequent renewals of attention are agreeable,' he finds, to his father. He proposed to Johnson a tour round the English cathedrals, but a brief trip with him to Derbyshire was all that resulted. We now find for the first time in the Life indications of what would ensue when the strong hand of Johnson was removed from the guidance of his weaker companion. 'As we drove back to Ashbourne,' he writes with curious frankness, 'Dr Johnson recommended to me, as he had often done, to drink water only,' and we meet with as curious a defence of drinking—the great difficulty of resisting it when a good man asks you to drink the wine he has had twenty years in his cellar! Benevolence calls for compliance, for, 'curst be the spring,' he adds with a change of Pope's verse, 'how well soe'er it flow, that tends to make one worthy man my foe!' 'I do,' he wrote in the London Magazine for March 1780, 'fairly acknowledge that I love drinking; that I have a constitutional inclination to indulge in fermented liquors, and that if it were not for the restraints of reason and religion, I am afraid that I should be as constant a votary of Bacchus as any man. Drinking is in reality an occupation which employs a considerable portion of the time of many people; and to conduct it in the most rational and agreeable manner is one of the great arts of living. Were we so framed that it were possible by perpetual supplies of wine to keep ourselves for ever gay and happy, there could be no doubt that drinking would be the summum bonum, the chief good to find out which philosophers have been so variously busied.' It looks as if poor Bozzy, when he wrote this, had heard of the Brunonian system of medicine, and of the unfortunate exemplication of it in practice and in precept by its founder in Edinburgh. No wonder such excesses produced violent reaction to low spirits and the 'black dog' of hypochondria. He finds it, after going to prayers in Carlisle Cathedral, 'divinely cheering to have a cathedral so near Auchinleck,' one hundred and fifty miles off, as Johnson sarcastically replied. Bozzy had been writing a series of articles, 'The Hypochondriack,' in the London Magazine, for about two years, but he was advised not to mention his own mental diseases, or to expect for them either the praise for which there was no room, or the pity which would do him no good. The active old man was now in better health than he had been upon the Hebridean tour, and was in hopes of yet shewing himself with Boswell in some part of Europe, Asia, or Africa. 'What have you to do with liberty and necessity?' cries the doctor to his friend, who had been worrying himself and his correspondent with philosophical questions, on which some six years before he had got some light from the Lettres Persanes of Montesquieu. 'Come to me, my dear Bozzy, and let us be as happy as we can. We will go again to the Mitre, and talk old times over.' Thrice during the 1781 visit to London do we see his unfortunate habits breaking out; and, when we find him saying he has unfortunately preserved none of the conversations, Miss Hannah More, who met him that day at the Bishop of St Asaph's, explains it—'I was heartily disgusted with Mr Boswell, who came upstairs after dinner much disordered with wine.'
Let us hear his own confession over his conduct at the house of Lady Galway.
'Another evening Johnson's kind indulgence towards me had a pretty difficult trial. I had dined at the Duke of Montrose's with a very agreeable party, and his Grace, according to his usual custom, had circulated the bottle very freely. Lord Graham and I went together to Miss Monckton's where I certainly was in extraordinary spirits, and above all fear or awe. In the midst of a great number of persons of the first rank, amongst whom I recollect with confusion a noble lady of the most stately decorum, I placed myself next to Johnson, and thinking myself now fully his match, talked to him in a loud and boisterous manner, desirous to let the company know how I could contend with Ajax. I particularly remember pressing him upon the value of the pleasures of the imagination, and, as an illustration of my argument, asking him, "What, sir, suppose I were to fancy that the—(naming the most charming Duchess in his Majesty's dominions) were in love with me, should I not be very happy?" My friend with much address evaded my interrogatories, and kept me as quiet as possible, but it may be easily conceived how he must have felt.'
His father was now dying, and a London trip, which had been planned by Boswell for 1782, found the son at the very limit of his credit. 'If you anticipate your inheritance,' he was reminded, 'you can at last inherit nothing. Poverty (added the old impransus Johnson, out of the depths of his own experience), my friend, is so great an evil that I cannot but earnestly enjoin you to avoid it. Live on what you have; live, if you can, on less.' Lord Auchinleck died suddenly at Edinburgh, on August 30th, 1782; and it was unfortunate for Bozzy that neither at the death of his father nor of his mother, nor, as we shall see of Johnson, was he present. The evening of the old man's days had been, we are assured by Ramsay of Ochtertyre, clouded by the follies and eccentricities of his son. For thirty years he had been sorely tried; twice he had paid his debts, he had indulged him with a foreign tour, had provided him with every means of securing professional success at the bar, only to see that son do everything to miss it and become everything his father hated in life—a Tory, an Anglican, and a Jacobite. The new laird was anxious to display himself on a wider sphere. Johnson was now visibly failing, and was glad of someone to lean upon for little attentions. 'Boswell,' he said, 'I think I am easier with you than with almost anybody. Get as much force of mind as you can. Let your imports be more than your exports, and you'll never go far wrong.' He reverted to the old days of the tour in a hopeful strain: 'I should like to come and have a cottage in your park, toddle about, live mostly on milk, and be taken care of by Mrs Boswell. She and I are good friends now, are we not?'
In 1783 Boswell appeared before the public with a Letter to the People of Scotland. It was on Fox's proposed bill to regulate the affairs of the East India Company. Against it he stands forth, 'as an ancient and faithful Briton, holding an estate transmitted to him by charters from a series of kings.' Guardedly Johnson admitted that 'your paper contains very considerable knowledge of history and of the constitution: it will certainly raise your character, though perhaps it may not make you a minister of state.' A copy to Pitt elicited the formal acceptance of thanks, but the exclusion of the bill Boswell took as proof of his own advocacy. He stood for Ayrshire, turning back from York when the dissolution was announced. 'Our Boswell,' wrote the doctor to Langton, 'is now said to stand for some place. Whether to wish him success his best friends hesitate.'
May found him with the Rambler for the last time. 'I intend,' he writes to Dr Percy, 'to be in London about the end of this month, chiefly to attend upon Dr Johnson with respectful affection. He has for some time been very ill with dropsical asthmatical complaints, which at his age are very alarming. I wish to publish as a regale to him a neat little volume—The Praises of Doctor Samuel Johnson, by co-temporary writers. Will your lordship take the trouble to send me a note of the writers who have praised our much respected friend?' The attentive Bozzy had written to all the leading men in the Edinburgh School of Medicine—Cullen, Hope, Monro, and others. With the expectation that an increase of Johnson's pension would enable him to visit Italy, he consulted Sir Joshua Reynolds, and, with his approval, wrote to Thurlow the Chancellor. At the house of the painter they dined for the last time.
'I accompanied him in Sir Joshua Reynolds's coach, to the entry of Bolt Court. He asked me whether I would not go with him to his house; I declined it, from an apprehension that my spirits would sink. We bade adieu to each other affectionately in the carriage. When he had got down upon the foot-pavement he called out, "Fare you well;" and, without looking back, sprung away with a kind of pathetick briskness, if I may use that expression, which seemed to indicate a struggle to conceal uneasiness, and impressed me with a foreboding of our long, long separation.'
We think of the dying Cervantes, and the student-admirer of the All Famous and the Joy of the Muses—'parting at the Toledo bridge, he turning aside to take the road to Segovia.'
THE ENGLISH BAR—DEATH. 1784-1795
'Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.'—JULIUS CAESAR, iii. 2.
There is something unsatisfactory in the fact that Boswell was not with Johnson as he died. It gives to his book an air of something distinctly lacking, which is not with us as we close Lockhart's Life of Scott. His own account is that he was indisposed during a considerable part of the year, which may, or may not, be a euphemism for irregular habits; yet, when we consider how easily he might have been with his old friend, we must own to a feeling that Boswell's mere satisfaction at learning he was spoken of with affection by Johnson at the close does not satisfy the nature of things or the artistic sense of fitness. No literary executor had been appointed, and the materials for a biography had been mostly destroyed by Johnson's orders. This, we may be sure, had not been expected by Boswell, who set himself, however, to prepare for the press his own Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, which his friend when alive had not been willing to see appear as a pendant to the Journey. 'Between ourselves,' he tells Temple, 'he is not apt to encourage one to share reputation with him.' Yet he felt, as he wrote to Percy on 20th March 1785, that it was a great consolation to him now that he had, as it was, collected so much of the wit and the wisdom of that wonderful man. 'I do not expect,' he adds, 'to recover from it. I gaze after him with an eager eye; and I hope again to be with him.'
Now that the strong hand of Johnson was removed, 'and the light of his life as if gone out,' the rest of Boswell's life was but a downward course. He struggles with himself, and feels instinctively the lack of the curb which the powerful intellect of the Rambler had held on the weaker character of the other. We find him repeating often to himself the lines from the Vanity of Human Wishes:—
'Shall helpless man, in ignorance sedate, Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?'
The Lord Advocate had brought into the Commons a bill for the reconstruction of the Court of Session, proposing to reduce the number of judges from fifteen to ten, with a corresponding increase of salary. The occasion was wildly seized by Boswell in May 1785 to issue a half-crown pamphlet, with the title, 'A letter to the People of Scotland, on the alarming attempt to infringe the Articles of the Union, and introduce a most pernicious innovation, by diminishing the number of the Lords of Session.' This extraordinary production, intended doubtless as a means of recommendation of the author for parliamentary honours, can hardly now be read in the light of events by any sympathetic Boswellian but with feelings of sorrow and confusion. Its publication we may be sure would never have been sanctioned by Johnson.
After stating the foundation of the Court of Session, by James V. in 1532, on the model of the Parliament of Paris, he attacks Dundas for having in himself the whole power of a grand jury. 'Mr Edward Bright of Malden, the fat man whose print is in all our inns, could button seven men in his waistcoat; but the learned lord comprehends hundreds.' He calls on the Scottish people not to be cowed: 'let Lowther come forth (we cannot emulate Boswell in the plenitude and the magnitude of his capital letters and other typographical devices), he upon whom the thousands of Whitehaven depend for three of the elements.' His own opposition he proclaims is honest, because he has no wish for an office in the Court of Session; he will try his abilities in a wider sphere. Rumours of a coalition in the county of Ayr between Sir Adam Ferguson and the Earl of Eglintoun he hopes are unfounded, 'both as an enthusiast for ancient feudal attachments, and as having the honour and happiness to be married to his lordship's relation, a true Montgomerie, whom I esteem, whom I love, after fifteen years, as on the day when she gave me her hand.' He assures the people they will have their objections to the bill supported by 'my old classical companion Wilkes, with whom I pray you to excuse my keeping company, he is so pleasant;' by Mr Burke, the Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, and by 'that brave Irishman, Captain Macbride, the cousin of my wife.' In grandiose capitals he appeals to Fox and to Pitt. 'Great sir,' he cries, 'forgive my thus presumptuously, thus rashly, attempting for a moment to forge your thunder! But I conjure you—in the name of God and the King, I conjure you—to announce in your own lofty language, that there shall be a stop put to this conspiracy, which I fear might have the effect of springing a mine that would blow up your administration.' This letter 'hastily written upon the spur of the occasion is already too long,' yet he calls upon his countrymen to allow him to 'indulge a little more my own egotism and vanity, the indigenous plants of my own mind.' His whole genealogy, Flodden and all, we hear over again. 'If,' he pertinently adds, 'it should be asked what this note has to do here, I answer to illustrate the authour of the text. And to pour out all myself as old Montaigne, I wish all this to be known.' After a eulogy of himself as no time-server, and his profession of readiness 'to discuss topicks with mitred St Asaph, and others; to drink, to laugh, to converse with Quakers, Republicans, Jews and Moravians,' he exhorts his friends and countrymen, in the words of his departed Goldsmith, who gave him many Attic nights and that jewel of the finest water, the acquaintance of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 'to fly from petty tyrants to the throne.' He declares himself a Tory, but no slave. He is in possession of an essay, dictated to him by Dr Johnson, on the distinction between Whig and Tory, and concludes with eclat, 'with one of the finest passages in John Home's noble and elegant tragedy of Douglas.'
No condensation of this, the most 'characteristical' of all his writings, can give the reader any idea of this extraordinary production. Once only does it deviate into sense when, on the last page, we find the advertisement of the Tour to the Hebrides, 'which was read and liked by Dr Johnson, and will faithfully and minutely exhibit what he said was the pleasantest part of his life.'
In the Hilary Term of 1786, he was called to the English bar, feeling it, as he said, 'a pity to dig in a lead mine, when he could dig in a gold one.' Johnson had always thrown cold water on the idea, though as early as February 1775, as we find from a letter of Boswell's to Strahan the printer, the idea had been proposed to him. In the May of 1786 he writes to Mickle, the translator of the Lusiad, that he is in a wavering state; he has the house of his friend Hoole, and he still retains the use of General Paoli's residence in Portman Square. When he did finally take up his own quarters in Cavendish Square, the result was not what he had expected. He was discouraged by the want of practice, and the prospect of any. In fact, he was to feel what, as Malone says, Lord Auchinleck had all along told his son, that it would cost him much more trouble to hide his ignorance of Scotch and English law than to shew his knowledge. He feared his own deficiencies in 'the forms, quirks and quiddities,' which he saw could be learned only by early habit. He even doubted whether he should not be satisfied with being simply baron of Auchinleck with a good income in Scotland; but he felt that such a course could not 'deaden the ambition which has raged in my veins like a fever.' The Horatian motto inscribed on the front of Auchinleck House, telling of the peace of mind dearer than all to be found everywhere, if the mind itself is in its own place, was never appreciated, however, by the new laird.
His ignorance of law was soon shewn at the Lancaster assizes. Mr Leslie Stephen is inclined to view the story as being not very credible. Yet we fear the authority is indisputable. 'We found Jemmy Boswell,' writes Lord Eldon, 'lying upon the pavement—inebriated. We subscribed at supper a guinea for him and half a guinea for his clerk, and sent him next morning a brief with instructions to move for the writ of Quare adhaesit pavimento, with observations calculated to induce him to think that it required great learning to explain the necessity of granting it. He sent all round the town to attorneys for books, but in vain. He moved, however, for the writ, making the best use he could of the observations in the brief. The judge was astonished, and the audience amazed. The judge said, 'I never heard of such a writ—what can it be that adheres pavimento? Are any of you gentlemen at the bar able to explain this?' The Bar laughed. At last one of them said, 'My Lord, Mr Boswell last night adhaesit pavimento. There was no moving him for some time. At last he was carried to bed, and he has been dreaming about himself and the pavement.' Lord Jeffrey once assisted Bozzy to bed in similar circumstances. 'You are a promising lad,' he told him next morning, 'and if you go on as you have begun, you may be a Bozzy yourself yet.' No wonder that we find him hesitating about going on the spring northern circuit, which would cost him, he says, fifty pounds, and oblige him to be in rough company for four weeks.
His only piece of promotion came from Lord Lonsdale. Pitt had been brought in by this nobleman for the pocket-borough of Appleby, and Bozzy had hopes of a Parliamentary introduction that way. Carlyle of Inveresk found this worthless patron of the unfortunate office seeker 'more detested than any man alive, as a shameless political sharper, a domestic bashaw, and an intolerable tyrant over his tenants.' Penrith and Whitehaven were in fear when he walked their streets; he defied his creditors; and the father of the poet Wordsworth died without being able to enforce his claims. The author of the Rolliad describes his power as
'Even by the elements confessed, Of mines and boroughs Lonsdale stands possessed; And one sad servitude alike denotes The slave that labours and the slave that votes.'
It was on this political boroughmonger and jobber that Boswell was now pinning his faith. The complete dependence of him on Lonsdale in return for the Recordership of Carlisle did not escape the notice of the wits, who now found that the writer who had been declaring over the India Bill of Fox his devotion to the throne, the Tory, but no slave, had transferred his entire loyalty and abjectest protestations to 'his king in Westmoreland.' To add to his distress, his wife was dying. A short trial of London had led her to return to Ayrshire, and her husband was lost in doubt whether to revisit her or cling to 'the great sphere of England,' the whirl of the metropolis, in hopes that the great prize would at last be drawn. In the north he found her still lingering on, but in his eagerness to obtain political influence 'I drank so freely that riding home in the dark I fell from my horse and bruised my shoulder.' From London he was again summoned, but with his curious infelicity at such times of trouble, he was not in time to witness her death: 'not till my second daughter came running out from the house and announced to us the dismal event in a burst of tears.' Remorse found vent in an agony of grief. 'She never would have left me,' he cries to Temple; 'this reflection will pursue me to my grave.' In July, the widower of a month hastened north to contest the county, only to find Sir Adam Fergusson chosen. 'Let me never impiously repine,' is his cry of distress. 'Yet as "Jesus wept" for the death of Lazarus, I hope my tears at this time are excused. The woeful circumstance of such a state of mind is that it rejects consolation; it feels an indulgence in its own wretchedness.' His hustings appearances would appear to have been at least marked by fluency, for Burns, his junior by eighteen years, declares his own inability to fight like Montgomerie or 'gab like Boswell.'
As he draws to a close, the letters of Boswell improve both in form and matter. It is painful to see him on every hand seeking the Parliamentary interest out of which he was all the while doing his best to write himself. No party could or would take him seriously. His rent-roll was over L1600, a large sum in these days, and it was yearly rising. Earnestly did his brother David press upon him a return to Auchinleck and the retrenchment of his expenses. But the spell of the lights of London was on him, and 'I could not endure Edinburgh,' he tells us, 'unless I were to have a judge's place to bear me up,' and that was a thing not to be dreamed of after the publication of the Letter. He dispersed his family to various schools, finding the eldest of the boys beginning to oppose him, 'and no wonder,' as he bitterly adds. Then the cry is forced from him in allusion to the famous passage in Shakespeare on Wolsey's hopes and fall—a passage which, curiously enough, we have come upon in the common-place book which Boswell had kept as a boy—'O Temple, Temple, is this realizing any of the towering hopes which have so often been the subject of our letters. Yet I live much with a great man, who, upon any day that his fancy shall be inclined, may obtain for me an office.' Everywhere he casts about, trying the Lord Chancellor, not seeing the smallest opening in Westminster Hall, but buoyed up by 'the delusion that practice may come at any time.'
'We must do something for you,' Burke had said in a kindly way, 'for our own sakes.' He recommended him to General Conway, but though the place was not obtained the letter was valued by Boswell more. Writing to Mr Abercrombie in America, even as late as the July of 1793, he is found expressing 'a great wish to see that country; and I once flattered myself that I should be sent thither in a station of some importance;' and from a letter to Burke we learn that this expected post had been a commissionership in the treaty between America and Britain. Dundas was another of his hopes. 'The excellent Langton says it is disgraceful, it is utter folly in Pitt not to attach to his administration a man of my popular and pleasant talents.' Dundas, however, after having been given a margin of two months for a reply, has made no sign; 'how can I delude myself? I will tell you,' he informs Temple, 'Lord Lonsdale shews me more and more regard. Three of his members assure me that he will give me a seat at the General Election.' Then that last reed was to break. At Lowther Castle, his wig was removed from his room, as a practical joke of a coarse order on the unoffending Boswell, and all the day he was obliged to go in his nightcap, which he felt was very ill-timed to one in his situation. The loss of the wig the unsuspecting victim declares will remain as great a secret as the writer of the letters of Junius, but ere long the tyrant whom he had invoked as the man of Macedonia to help Scotland has undeceived him. 'I suppose you thought,' he roughly said, 'I was to bring you into Parliament? I never had any such intention.' It is impossible not to feel for Boswell at this crisis. 'I am down at an inn,' he writes to Temple, 'and ashamed and sunk on account of the disappointment of hopes which led me to endure such grievances. I deserve all that I suffer. I am at the same time distracted what to do in my own county. I am quite in a fever. O my old and most intimate friend, I intreat you to afford me some consolation, and pray do not divulge my mortification. I now resign my Recordership, and shall get rid of all connection with this brutal fellow.' His last Parliamentary venture was cut short by the reflection how small was his following. How curiously after all this reads his own little autobiographical sketch in the European Magazine! 'It was generally supposed that Mr Boswell would have had a seat in Parliament; and indeed his not being amongst the Representatives of the Commons is one of those strange things which occasionally happen in the complex operations of our mixed Government. That he has not been brought into Parliament by some great man is not to be wondered at when we peruse his publick declaration.' Not to be wondered at, truly, though the writer chose to refer the wonder to his independence. Then the reader is informed how he had been a candidate at the general election for his own county of Ayr, 'where he has a very extensive property and a very fine place of which there is a view and description in Grose's Antiquities of Scotland.' The conclusion of the sketch relates how, at the last Lord Mayor's day, he sang with great applause a state-ballad of his own composition, entitled The Grocer of London. This was the last shot in the political locker. At a Guildhall dinner, given to Pitt by the worshipful company of grocers, Boswell contrived to get himself called upon for a song. He rose, and delivered himself of a catch on the model of Dibdin's 'Little cherub that sits up aloft,' prefaced and interlarded by an address to the guest of the evening. Honoured as he had been on his continental tour at the courts of Europe, yet never till to-night had he felt himself so flattered as now he was, in the presence of the minister he admired, and to whose home and foreign policy he gave a hearty, if discriminating support. Boswell for his song was encored six times, till the cold features of the minister were seen to relax in a smile, amid the general roar of plaudits and laughter! After this 'state ballad,' a copy of which was last seen at Lord Houghton's sale, Bozzy and a friend, in a state of high glee, returned to their lodgings, shouting all the way The Grocer of London! 'He has declared,' adds the complacent autobiographer, 'his resolution to persevere on the next vacancy.'
All this time his great work was slowly advancing. At the end of the Journal had appeared a notice: 'preparing for the Press, in one volume quarto, the Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., by James Boswell, Esq.' The note proceeds to sketch the plan; the collecting of materials for more than twenty years, his desire to erect to him a literary monument, the interweaving of 'the most authentick accounts' that can be obtained from those who knew him, etc. To his chagrin, Mrs Thrale's volume of anecdotes had been out before him, and Sir John Hawkins had been commissioned by the London booksellers to produce a Life, which had duly appeared. Not even the unequivocal success and merits of the Journal could induce 'the trade' to take Boswell seriously. No one had thought of him, any more than Gay would have been thought of as the biographer of the circle to which he had been admitted. Percy, even Sir William Scott, had been successively approached, but none had given a consideration to 'Johnson's Bozzy.' Such neglect, however, must have spurred him to exertion. The lively lady's anecdotage, dateless and confused, he could afford to despise as 'too void of method even for such a farrago,' as Horace Walpole said of it. But the solemn Hawkins, as an old friend and executor of Johnson's will, was a more dangerous rival. 'Observe how he talks of me,' cries Boswell querulously, 'as quite unknown.' No doubt Sir John was 'unclubable,' and by Reynolds, Dyer, Percy, and Malone he was detested. Yet his book, though eclipsed by Boswell's, is not unmeritorious; but for his allusion to 'Mr Boswell, a native of Scotland,' he has been made to pay severely by systematic castigation from his rival, who now doggedly, as Johnson would have said, set himself to the work before him. Wherever first-hand information could be had, he was constantly on the track. Miss Burney has told how she met him at the gate of the choir of St George's chapel at Windsor—'his comic-serious face having lost none of its wonted singularity, nor yet his mind and language.' She had letters from Johnson, and he must have some of the doctor's choice little notes: 'We have seen him long enough upon stilts, I want to shew him in a new light. He proposed a thousand curious expedients to get them, but I was invincible.' The approach of the king and queen broke off the interview, but next morning he was again on the watch. We must regret that they were not given, however much his indiscretions had made people chary of their confidences. 'Jemmy Boswell,' writes Lord Eldon, 'called upon me, desiring to know my definition of taste. I told him I must decline defining it, because I knew he would publish it.' To secure first-hand, sifted, and 'authentick' material this man, so long decried by sciolists as merely a fool with a note-book, would forego every rebuff or refusal. 'Boswell,' says Horace Walpole, 'that quintessence of busy-bodies called on me last week, and was let in when he should not have been. After tapping many topics, to which I made as dry answers as an unbribed oracle, he vented his errand; 'had I seen Dr Johnson's Lives of the Poets?'
During the progress of the Life he turned aside to his last literary vagary—No Abolition of Slavery; or the Universal Empire of Love, 1791. This long-lost brochure has this year been rediscovered, but it will add little interest to his life, as its main tenets had long been known. A writer in the Athenaeum for May 9th describes it as quarto in form, and dedicated to Miss B——, whom he identifies with Miss Bagnal to be shortly mentioned. On the three topics of slavery, the Middlesex election, and America, Bozzy differed respectfully but firmly from the doctor, who drank at Oxford to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies. Accordingly he stands stoutly by the planters and the feudal scheme of subordination, whose annihilation he maintains would 'shut the gates of mercy on mankind.' For his apparent inconsistency Burke is attacked:—
'Burke, art thou here, too? thou whose pen Can blast the fancied rights of men. Pray by what logic are those rights Allow'd to Blacks,—denied to Whites?'
Others may fail their king and country, but he as a throne and altar Tory calls all to know that
'An ancient baron of the land I by my king shall ever stand.'
He was now at last near the haven. The mass of his papers and materials had been arranged, after a labour which, as he tells Reynolds, was really enormous. The capacity for sustained effort, when set to it, of which he had boasted over his condensation of the evidence in the great Douglas case, stood him now in good service amid all his vexations, dissipations and follies.
In February 1788 we hear of his having yet seven years of the life to write. By January 1789 he had finished the introduction and the dedication to Sir Joshua Reynolds, both of which had appeared difficult, but he was confident they had been well done. To excite the interest in his coming book, or as Mr Leslie Stephen thinks, to secure copyright, he published in 1790 two quarto parts at half a guinea each—the letter to Chesterfield and the conversation of Johnson with the king. By December he has had additional matter sent him from Warren Hastings, and he hoped to be out on 8th March, but the January of the new year found him with still two hundred pages of copy, and the death not yet written. Yet many a time, as he writes Temple, had he thought of giving it up. To add to his troubles, he had indulged in landed speculations, paying L2500 for the estate of a younger branch; he had been lending money to a cousin, and if he could but raise a thousand pounds on the strength of his book, he should be inclined to hold on, or 'game with it,' as Sir Joshua said. Neither Reynolds nor Malone, however, took the hint; and at the latter's door he cast longing looks as he passed. He tells him he had been in the chair at the club, with Fox 'quoting Homer and Fielding to the astonishment of Jo. Warton.' He had bought a lottery ticket with the hopes of the prize of L5000, but—blank! The advance he needed was got elsewhere, and the property in his book saved. April finds him correcting the last sheet. He feared the result: 'I may get no profit, the public may be disappointed, I may make enemies, even have quarrels. But the very reverse of all this may happen.' Then on the 19th he writes to Dempster: 'my magnum opus, in two volumes quarto, is to be published on Monday, 16th May'—by a lucky chance it was the anniversary of the red day in Boswell's calendar, his meeting with Johnson eight and twenty years before! 'When it is fairly launched, I mean to stick close to Westminster Hall, and it will be truly kind if you recommend me appeals or causes of any sort.'
The rest of his life is soon told. Paoli was now again in Corsica. When Mirabeau had recalled the exiles, the general had been made by Louis XVI. military commandant of the island. Johnson, also, was gone, and the two strongest checks upon the excesses of Boswell were removed. Piteous it is to find him writing to Malone: 'that most friendly fellow Courtenay, begging the pardon of an M.P. for so free an epithet,' had taken him in hand, and had taken his word that for some months his daily allowance of wine should not exceed four good glasses at dinner, and a pint after it. The qualifying adjective 'good' is dangerous, and before the time for the bill was half expired, Bozzy has closured it and the amendment. The state of his affairs, the loss of his wife bore heavily on him, together with 'the disadvantage to my children in having so wretched a father—nay, the want of absolute certainty of being happy after death, the sure prospect of which is frightful.' Then a fitful gleam of the old Adam breaks out. He has heard of a Miss Bagnal, 'about seven and twenty, lively and gay, a Ranelagh girl, but of excellent principles insomuch that she reads prayers to the servants in her father's family every Sunday evening.' Another matrimonial scheme was the daughter of the late Dean of Exeter, 'a most agreeable woman d'un certain age,' as he engagingly adds, 'and with a fortune of L10,000.' The preparation of a second edition of the Life for July 1793 raised his spirits, but after a while he had run into excess, been knocked down and robbed. This he vows shall be a crisis in his life, and Temple's apprehension of his friend being carried off in a state of intoxication he finds awful to contemplate. Early in 1795 the end is announced by Temple's son writing to his father—'a few nights ago Mr Boswell returned from the Literary Club, quite weak and languid;' and the last letter to Temple from his correspondent of thirty-seven years is dated 8th April: 'I would fain write to you in my own hand, but really cannot.' His son James finishes the letter, to tell that the patient 'feels himself a good deal stronger to-day.' He was attended by Dr Warren, who had been with Johnson as he died. Some slight hopes of a recovery had been held out; and, with the ruling passion strong in death to interview a celebrity, he rallied in a letter to Warren Hastings. With the spirit on him of the days when he had told Chatham that his disinterested soul had enjoyed the contemplation of the great minister in the bower of philosophy, he tells him, 'the moment I am able to go abroad, I will fly to Mr Hastings and expand my soul in the purest satisfaction.' On May 19th 1795, at two in the morning, after an illness of five weeks, he died. He was in his fifty-fifth year.
A life which cannot challenge the world's attention—like that of John Sterling—which perhaps does not even modestly solicit it, yet one which no less certainly will be found to reward the critic of literary history and pathology. A complex, weak, unsteady life enough, and no one did more than Boswell himself to bring into glaring prominence the faults that lie on the surface, by that frank, open, and ostentatious peculiarity which he avowed, and which he compared to the characteristics of the old seigneur, Michael de Montaigne. Never was there a franker critic of James Boswell, Esq., than himself; 'the most unscottified of mortals,' as Johnson called him, has little or none of the reserve and reticence that are generally supposed to be marks of the national character. A rare and curious Epistle in Verse, by the Rev. Samuel Martin of Monimail, 1795, touches on the main points of his life, and the author, who was apparently a friend of Boswell, had learned 'with affectionate concern and respect that at the end prayer was his stay.' He criticises, in rather halting and prosaic lines,
'The prison scenes, his prying into death, How felons and how saints resign their breath; How varying and conflicting passions roll, How scaffold exhibitions shew the soul.'
He laments his 'injurious hilarity,' his degrading himself as 'the little bark, attendant on the huge all-bearing ark,' his political and ecclesiastical aberrations from the surer and better standpoints of his family and country. The feeling of this friend of Boswell would represent, we cannot doubt, the verdict at the time of his own circle.
The 'prison scenes' are an integral part in Boswell's psychology. Never did George Selwyn attend them with greater regularity, or Wyndham run after prize fights more assiduously. In the Public Advertizer, April 25, 1768, we find him writing: 'I myself am never absent from a publick execution. When I first attended them, I was shocked to the greatest degree ... convulsed with pity and terror. I feel an irresistible impulse to be present at every execution, as there I behold the various effects of the near approach of death.' The parallels of Charles V., Philip II., Philip IV., Charles II. of Spain, will not escape the reader, and strangely, or rather naturally enough, Boswell is found disagreeing with the censure pronounced by Johnson on the celebration of his own obsequies in his lifetime by Charles V. In the St James' Gazette of April 20, 1779, he is found actually riding in the cart to Tyburn with Hackman, the murderer of Miss Ray, and writing to the papers over the feeling of 'unusual Depression of Spirits, joined with that Pause, which so solemn a warning of the dreadful effects that the Passion of Love may produce must give all of us who have lively Sensations and warm Tempers.' But he suddenly deviates into business when he adds that 'it is very philosophically explained and illustrated in the Hypochondriack, a periodical Paper, peculiarly adapted to the people of England, and which comes out monthly in the London Magazine, etc.' In his Corsican tour we had seen him interviewing the executioner in the island, and some days before his final parting with Johnson he had witnessed the execution of fifteen men before Newgate and been clouded in his mind by doubts as to whether human life was or was not mere machinery and a chain of planned fatality. These cravings are clearly the marks of a mind morbidly affected and diseased, the result of the Dutch marriage as Ramsay believed. All through his life Boswell is conscious of his 'distempered imagination,' and the letters to Temple are scattered with irrelevances and repetitions, fatuities and inconsistencies that can be explained only on the score of mental disease. Were any doubts possible on this point, the expressions of his opinions on religion would dispel them. His 'Popish imagination,' quickened as it may have been by the escapade with the actress, was but the natural outcome of an ill-balanced mind. His feelings about consecrated places, loca solennia such as Iona, and Wittenberg, Rasay and Carlisle, we have seen. He delighted, says Malone, in what he called the mysterious, leading Johnson on ghosts, and kindred subjects. He was a believer in second sight: 'it pleases my superstition,' he tells Temple, 'which you know is not small, and being not of the gloomy but the grand species is an enjoyment.' When his uncle John died, we learn he was 'a good scholar and affectionate relative, but had no conduct. And, do you know, he was not confined to one woman; he had a strange kind of religion, but I flatter myself he will be ere long, if he is not already, in heaven!' He comforts himself constantly over life being a mere state of purification, and looks forward to a condition of events in which 'a man can soap his own beard and enjoy whatever is to be had in this transitory state of things.' He is for ever questioning Johnson upon purgatory, 'having much curiosity to know his notions on that point.' One of the last authentic glimpses of Boswell is his being found in the company of Wilberforce, going west, with a nightcap in his pocket, on some visit to a friend such as Miss Hawkins says he was but too fond of doing,—'away to the west as the sun went down'—doubtful of future punishment, but resolute in maintaining the depravity of man. It would almost appear as if Bozzy had read himself into Butler's doctrine that our present life is a state of probation for a future one, but had forgotten the qualification 'that our future interest is now depending on ourselves.'
The very influence of Johnson himself may have affected the weaker mind of Boswell injuriously. Both suffered from hypochondria, though that of the latter was far distant from the affliction of Johnson whom Dr Adams found 'in a deplorable state, sighing, groaning, talking to himself, and restlessly walking from room to room.' Temple maintained that the effect of Johnson's company had been of a depressing nature to his friend, and Sir Wm. Forbes believed that some slight tincture of superstition had been contracted from his companionship with the sage. The 'cloudy darkness,' as he himself calls it, of his mind, the weakness and the confusion of moral principles manifest enough in the Temple correspondence, are better revealed in the conversation with Johnson at Squire Dilly's, 'where there is always abundance of excellent fare and hearty welcome.' 'Being in a frame of mind which, I hope for the felicity of human nature, many experience,—in fine weather,—at the country-house of a friend,—consoled and elevated by pious exercises, I expressed myself with an unrestrained fervour to my "guide, philosopher, and friend;" My dear Sir, I would fain be a good man; and I am very good now. I fear God, and honour the King; I wish to do no ill, and to be benevolent to all mankind.' He looked at me with a benignant indulgence; but took occasion to give me wise and salutary caution. 'Do not, sir, accustom yourself to trust to impressions.' Boswell had surely forgotten all this when he cries bitterly to Temple that he was inclined to agree with him in thinking 'my great oracle did allow too much credit to good principles, without good practice.' Perhaps he remembered Johnson's appreciation of Campbell, the good pious man that never passed a church without pulling off his hat, all which shewed 'he has good principles.' Boswell had, unfortunately, been 'caught young' by the sceptical talk of Dempster, Hume, and Wilkes, and his extended Continental ramble had impaired the earlier views under which he had been reared.
But James Boswell deserves at the hands of his readers and of critics better treatment than has been measured out to him in the contemptuous estimate of Macaulay, and, still worse, in the shrill attack of the smaller brood 'whose sails were never to the tempest given,' but who have, by the easy repetition of a few phrases and an imperfect acquaintance with the writings and character of the man they decry, come to the complacent depreciation which, as Niebuhr said, is ever so dear to the soul of mediocrity. If James Boswell was not like Goldsmith, a great man, as Johnson finely pronounced, whose frailties should not be remembered, nor was, perhaps, in any final sense a great writer, yet for twenty years he had been the tried friend of the man who at the Mitre had called out to him, 'Give me your hand, I have taken a liking to you.' A plant that, like Goldsmith also, 'flowered late,' he has created in literature and biography a revolution, and produced a work whose surpassing merits and value are known the more that it is studied.
'Eclipse is first, the rest nowhere.'—MACAULAY.
'How delicate, decent is English Biography,' says Carlyle, 'bless its mealy mouth! A Damocles sword of Respectability hangs for ever over the poor English Life-writer (as it does over poor English Life in general), and reduces him to the verge of paralysis. Thus it has been said there are no English lives worth reading, except those of Players, who by the nature of the case have bidden Respectability good-day. The English biographer has long felt that, if in writing his man's biography he wrote down anything that could by possibility offend any man, he had written wrong.' The biographer, as Mr Froude found out for a commentary on all this, is placed between a Scylla and Charybdis, between what is due to the subject, and what is expected by the public. If something is left out of the portrait, the likeness will be imperfect; if the anxiety or the inquisitiveness of readers to know private details is left ungratified, the writer will be met by the current cant that the public has a right to know. The line is not easily drawn, and few subjects for the biographer can ever desire to be as candidly dealt with by him as Cromwell acted with Sir Peter Lely, in the request to be painted as he was, warts and all. Thus, too often the result will be but biography written in vacuo, 'the tragedy of Hamlet with the part of Hamlet omitted—by particular desire.'
Biography, like History, has suffered from considerations of dignity and propriety. The writers of the Hume and Robertson school of history, in their stately minuet with the historical muse, have been careful to exclude everything that seemed beneath the dignity of the sceptred pall; biographers have as consciously studied the proprieties. 'The Muse of history,' says Thackeray, 'wears the mask and speaks to measure; she too in our age busies herself with the affairs only of kings. I wonder shall history ever pull off her periwig and cease to be Court-ridden? I would have History familiar rather than heroic, and think that Mr Hogarth and Mr Fielding will give our children a much better idea of the manners of the present age in England, than the Court Gazette and the newspapers which we get thence.' As the historian has striven to obscure the real nature of the Grand Monarque, by confining his action to courts and battlefields, so the biographer, in his desire of never stepping beyond the proper, has enveloped his hero in a circle of correct ideas, after the manner of George the Fourth and his multiplicity of waistcoats. Dignity and respectability have ruined alike the historian and the biographer.
Lockhart foresaw that some readers would accuse him of trenching upon delicacy and propriety over his sixth and seventh chapters in the Life of Scott, and the circumstances were after all such as, had choice been permitted him, he might easily have omitted, considering it his duty to tell what he had to say truly and intelligibly. Of all men Macaulay had nothing to fear from any rational biography that should ever be written of him, yet has not Mr Trevelyan assured his readers that the reviewers had told him, that he would much better have consulted his uncle's reputation by the omission of passages in his letters and diaries? Such criticism, as he justly says, is to seriously misconceive the province and the duty of the biographer, and his justification is that the reading world has long extended to the man the just approbation which it so heartily extended to his books. The Latin critics assigned history,—and accordingly history in miniature, biography,—to the department of oratory. The feeling, in consequence, has long prevailed of regarding biography as the field for the display of every other feeling then veracity. It has been emotional, or it has been decorously dull. To all such writers the style adopted by Boswell would appear, and justly appear, revolutionary. The cry is raised of there being nothing sacred, of the violation of domestic privacy, of the sanctities of life being endangered, of indiscretions, and violations of confidences, by the biographer. Accordingly, just as Macaulay decided that, in general, tragedy was corrupted by eloquence, and comedy by wit, so biography and history have suffered from the dignity of Clio. Boswell was perfectly aware what he was doing, nor did he awake to find himself famous for a method into which the sciolists pretend he only unconsciously blundered. In the preface to the third edition of the Journal he writes:—'Remarks have been industriously circulated in the publick prints by shallow or envious cavillers, who have endeavoured to persuade the world that Dr Johnson's character has been lessened by recording such various instances of his lively wit and acute judgment, on every topick that was presented to his mind. In the opinion of every person of taste and knowledge that I have conversed with, it has been greatly heightened; and I will venture to predict, that this specimen of his colloquial talents will become still more valuable, when, by the lapse of time, he shall have become an ancient; and no other memorial of this great and good man shall remain but the following Journal.' This is not the writing of one who has been without a clear idea of what he was undertaking, and of his own qualifications for the task. 'You, my dear sir,' he tells Sir Joshua Reynolds in the dedication, 'perceived all the shades which mingled in the grand composition; all the peculiarities and slight blemishes which marked the literary Colossus.' The inclusion of the letters and of private details was an integral part of his scheme. When he introduced the subject of biography at Dr Taylor's, no doubt with his own book in his eye, he said that in writing a man's life the man's peculiarities should be mentioned because they mark his character. When he resolved on their publication, he thought it right to ask Johnson explicitly on this point, and the reply was what in 1773 the doctor had given to Macleod in Skye, when he had asked if Orrery had done wrong, to expose the defects of Swift with whom he had lived in terms of intimacy. 'Why, no, sir,' Johnson had decided, 'after the man is dead, for then it is done historically.' A biographer that would omit or disguise the relations of Nelson to Lady Hamilton, would be justly suspected of disingenuousness, and Lockhart, especially in his treatment of the political side of his subject,—for example in the notorious Beacon incident—is but too open to this charge. But disingenuousness is a charge that never could have occurred to Boswell, whose veracity is the prime quality that has made him immortal. When the Journal was in the press, Hannah More, studious of the name of the moralist and the sage, 'besought him to mitigate his asperities.' 'I will not,' said Boswell roughly, but wisely for posterity, 'cut off his claws, nor make a tiger a cat to please anyone.'
Boswell's books are veritable books. Few books have had such a severe test applied to them. His first was dedicated to Paoli, whose sanction must be taken to guarantee every line of it. "In every narrative," he writes in the dedication to Malone of the Journal, "whether historical or biographical, authenticity is of the utmost consequence. Of this I have ever been so firmly persuaded that I inscribed a former work to that person who was the best judge of its truth. Of this work the manuscript was daily read by Johnson, and you have perused the original and can vouch for the strict fidelity of the present publication." His Life of Johnson was as fearlessly dedicated to Sir Joshua Reynolds, one whose intimacy with Johnson could stamp, with assured knowledge of the subject, the credit and success of the work. Among the 'some dozen, or baker's dozen, and those chiefly of very ancient date,' of reliable biographies whose paucity Carlyle laments, the works of Boswell may be safely included. Their accuracy is confessed by workers in all fields. His Tour created a type; no better volume of travels has ever been written than the Journal; and the critic who has dealt at the reputation of Boswell its heaviest blow has yet to confess, that Homer is no more the first of poets, Shakespeare the first of dramatists, Demosthenes the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers, with no second.
How is this? Written in 1831, before Lockhart Southey and Carlyle by their biographies of Scott, Nelson, and Frederick had appeared as rivals, why is it no less true now? What singular gift or quality can account for this singular aloofness from the ordinary or extraordinary class of writers? Why does Boswell yet wear the crown of indivisible supremacy in biography? His own words will not explain it, the possession of Johnson's intimacy, the twenty years' view of his subject, his faculty for recollecting, and his assiduity in recording communications. This and more than this Lockhart possessed, the nearest rival to the biographical throne. He was the son-in-law of his subject, for whom he had as true an admiration as Boswell had for Johnson. But Boswell was only in the company of his idol some 180 days, or 276 if we include the time on the tour in Scotland, in all the twenty years of his acquaintance. Lockhart had the journals of Sir Walter, and the communications of nearly a hundred persons. A comparison in any sense, literary, social, or moral, would have been felt by Lockhart as an insult, for he clearly regards Sir Alexander Boswell as a greater man than his father. But if, like the grandsire of Hubert at Hastings, Lockhart has drawn a good bow, Boswell, like the Locksley of the novelist, has notched his shaft, and comparisons have long ceased to be instituted. Gray has attempted the explanation—a fool with a note-book. He has invented nothing, he has only reported. But every year sees that person at work, with his First Impressions of Brittany, Three Weeks in Greece, and the everlasting Tour in Tartanland. These are the creations of the note-book, but it has given them no permanence. The tourist puts in everything he sees, truly enough, or thinks he sees. But it is the art of Boswell to select 'the characteristical,' and the typical, to group and to dramatize. Ninety-four days he spent on the northern tour, and the result is a masterpiece. Pepys is garrulous, often vulgar, always lower-middle-class; but Boswell writes like a gentleman.
Macaulay has explained it by a paradox. Goldsmith was great in spite of his weaknesses, Boswell by reason of his; if he had not been a great fool, he would never have been a great writer. He was a dunce, a parasite, a coxcomb, a Paul Pry, had a quick observation, a retentive memory, and accordingly—he has become immortal! Alas for the paucity of such immortals under so common circumstances; their number should be legion! That a fool may occasionally write interesting matter we know; but that a man should write a literary classic, graced by arrangement, selection, expression, is not even paradox but hyperbole run mad. The truth is, Macaulay had no eye for such a complex character as Boswell. Too correct himself, too prone to the cardinal virtues and consistency, to follow one who, by instinct, seemed to anticipate Wendell Holmes' advice—'Don't be consistent, but be simply true'—and too sound politically in the field where Boswell and the doctor abased themselves in absurd party spirit, Macaulay can no more understand sympathetically the vagaries of Boswell than Mommsen or Drumann can follow the political inconsistency of Cicero. He had no Boswellian 'delight in that intellectual chemistry which can separate good qualities from evil in the same person;' and in his essay on Milton he has disclaimed explicitly all such hero-worship of the living or the dead and denounced Boswellism as the most certain mark of an ill-regulated intellect. Nor had he, or Carlyle either, before him the evidence of the letters to Temple.
Carlyle, in the theory of hero-worship, has made capital use of Boswell. He sees the strong mind of Johnson leading 'the poor flimsy little soul' of James Boswell; he feels 'the devout Discipleship, the gyrating observantly round the great constellation.' He has Boswell's reiterated declarations to support him. On one side Carlyle's vindication of the biographer is successful; he errs in emphasizing the discovery by Boswell of the Rambler. In such a discovery Langton and Beauclerk had long preceded him, and the Johnson that Boswell met in Davies' parlour was the pensioned writer who had out-lived his dark days, and was the literary dictator of the day, and the associate of Burke and of Reynolds. But Carlyle comes nearer the truth when he touches on the Boswellian recipe for being graphic—the possession of an open, loving heart, and what follows from the possession of such. Like White of Selborne, with his sparrows and cockchafers, Boswell, too, has copied some true sentences from the inspired book of nature.
But however this may account for his insight—the heart seeing farther than the head—it will not account for his literary qualities. Of all his contemporaries, Goldsmith and Burke excepted, no one is a greater master of a pure prose style than Boswell, and for ease of narrative, felicity of phrase, and rounded diction he is incomparable. Macaulay believed a London apprentice could detect Scotticisms in Robertson; Hume's style is often vicious by Gallicisms and Scots law phrases which nothing but his expository gifts have obscured from the critics. Beattie confesses learning English as a dead language and taking several years over the task. But Boswell, 'scarce by North Britons now esteemed a Scot,' writes with an ease that renders his style his own. 'The fact is,' says Mr Cotter Morison, 'that no dramatist or novelist of the whole century surpassed or even equalled Boswell in rounded and clear and picturesque presentation, or in real dramatic faculty.'
Let us take one portrait from the Boswell gallery—the meeting of the two old Pembroke men, Johnson and Oliver Edwards.
'It was in Butcher Row that this meeting happened. Mr Edwards, who was a decent-looking elderly man in gray clothes and a wig of many curls, accosted Johnson with familiar confidence, knowing who he was, while Johnson returned his salutation with a courteous formality, as to a stranger. But as soon as Edwards had brought to his recollection their having been at Pembroke College together nine-and-forty years ago, he seemed much pleased, asked where he lived, and said he should be glad to see him in Bolt Court. EDWARDS: "Ah, sir! we are old men now." JOHNSON (who never liked to think of being old): "Don't let us discourage one another." EDWARDS: "Why, Doctor, you look stout and hearty. I am happy to see you so; for the newspapers told us you were very ill." JOHNSON: "Ay, sir, they are always telling lies of us old fellows."
Wishing to be present at more of so singular a conversation as that between two fellow collegians, who had lived forty years in London without ever having chanced to meet, I whispered to Mr Edwards that Dr Johnson was going home, and that he had better accompany him now. So Edwards walked along with us, I eagerly assisting to keep up the conversation. Mr Edwards informed Dr Johnson that he had practised long as a solicitor in Chancery.... When we got to Dr Johnson's house and were seated in his library, the dialogue went on admirably. EDWARDS: "Sir, I remember you would not let us say prodigious at College. For even then, sir (turning to me), he was delicate in language, and we all feared him." JOHNSON (to Edwards): "From your having practised the law long, sir, I presume you must be rich." EDWARDS: "No, sir; I had a good deal of money; but I had a number of poor relations to whom I gave great part of it." JOHNSON: "Sir, you have been rich in the most valuable sense of the word." EDWARDS: "But I shall not die rich." JOHNSON: "Nay, sure, sir, it is better to live rich, than to die rich." EDWARDS: "I wish I had continued at College." Johnson: "Why do you wish that, sir?" EDWARDS: "Because I think I should have had a much easier life than mine has been. I should have been a parson, and had a good living, like Bloxam and several others, and lived comfortably." JOHNSON: "Sir, the life of a parson, of a conscientious clergyman, is not easy. I have always considered a clergyman as the father of a larger family than he is able to maintain. I would rather have Chancery suits upon my hands than the cure of souls." Here, taking himself up all of a sudden, he exclaimed, "O! Mr Edwards! I'll convince you that I recollect you. Do you remember our drinking together at an ale-house near Pembroke Gate?" ... EDWARDS: "You are a philosopher, Dr Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in."—Mr Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr Courtenay, Mr Malone, and, indeed, all the eminent men to whom I have mentioned this, have thought it an exquisite trait of character. The truth is, that philosophy, like religion, is too generally supposed to be hard and severe, at least so grave as to exclude all gaiety. EDWARDS: "I have been twice married, Doctor. You, I suppose, have never known what it was to have a wife." JOHNSON: "Sir, I have known what it was to have a wife, and (in a solemn, tender, faltering tone) I have known what it was to lose a wife. It had almost broke my heart."
EDWARDS: "How do you live, sir? For my part, I must have my regular meals, and a glass of good wine. I find I require it." JOHNSON: "I now drink no wine, sir. Early in life I drank wine: for many years I drank none, I then for some years drank a great deal." EDWARDS: "Some hogsheads, I warrant you." JOHNSON: "I then had a severe illness, and left it off. I am a straggler. I may leave this town and go to Grand Cairo, without being missed here or observed there." EDWARDS: "Don't you eat supper, sir?" JOHNSON: "No, sir." EDWARDS: "For my part, now, I consider supper as a turnpike through which one must pass, in order to get to bed." JOHNSON: "You are a lawyer, Mr Edwards. Lawyers know life practically. A bookish man should always have them to converse with. They have what he wants." EDWARDS: "I am grown old, I am sixty-five." JOHNSON: "I shall be sixty-eight next birthday. Come, sir, drink water, and put in for a hundred." ... Mr Edwards, when going away, again recurred to his consciousness of senility, and looking full in Johnson's face, said to him, "You'll find in Dr Young,
'O my coevals! remnants of yourselves.'"
Johnson did not relish this at all; but shook his head with impatience. Edwards walked off seemingly highly pleased with the honour of having been thus noticed by Dr Johnson. When he was gone, I said to Johnson I thought him but a weak man. JOHNSON: "Why, yes, sir. Here is a man who has passed through life without experience: yet I would rather have him with me than a more sensible man who will not talk readily. This man is always willing to say what he has to say."'
How admirable is the art in this scene, how numerous and fine are the strokes of character, and the easy turn of the dialogue! No fool with a note-book, no tippling reporter, as the shallow critics say, could have written this. To them there would have appeared in a chance meeting of two old men nothing worthy of notice, yet how dramatically does Boswell touch off the Philistine side of Edwards, and insert the fine shading and the inimitable remarks about the setting up for the philosopher, and supper being a turnpike to bed! This art of the biographer is what gives a memorableness to slight incidents, by the object being real and really seen; it is the 'infinitude of delineation, the intensity of conception which informs the Finite with a certain Infinitude of significance, ennobling the Actual into Idealness.'
Openness of mind will do much, but there must be the seeing eye behind it. For the mental development of Boswell, there is no doubt that, as with Goldsmith, his foreign travels had done much. As Addison in the Freeholder had recommended foreign travel to the fox-hunting Tory squires of his day as a purge for their provincial ideas, Boswell shares with the author of the Traveller and the Deserted Village cosmopolitan instincts and feelings. 'I have always stood up for the Irish,' he writes, 'in whose fine country I have been hospitably and jovially entertained, and with whom I feel myself to be congenial. In my Tour in Corsica I do generous justice to the Irish, in opposition to the English and Scots.' Again, 'I am, I flatter myself, completely a citizen of the world. In my travels through Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Corsica, France, I never felt myself from home; and I sincerely love every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.' This is the very antithesis to Johnson, whose frank confession was, 'for anything that I can see, foreigners are fools.'
Yet Boswell's stock of learning was small. 'I have promised,' he writes in 1775, 'to Dr Johnson to read when I get to Scotland; and to keep an account of what I read. He is to buy for me a chest of books, of his choosing, off stalls, and I am to read more, and drink less—that was his counsel.' The death of his wife forces the confession, 'how much do I regret that I have not applied myself more to learning,' and he acknowledges to their common friend Langton that, if Johnson had said that Boswell and himself did not talk from books, this was because he had not read books enough to talk from them. In his manuscripts there are many misspellings. He assigns to Terence a Horatian line and, in a letter to Garrick, quotes as Horatian the standard mens sana in corpore sano of Juvenal. More strange is his quoting in a note an illustration of the phrase 'Vexing thoughts,' without his being apparently aware that the words are by Rous of Pembroke, the Provost of Eton, whose portrait in the college hall he must often have seen, the writer of the Scottish Metrical Version of the Psalms. Yet his intellectual interests were keen. Late in life he has 'done a little at Greek; Lord Monboddo's Ancient Metaphysics which I am reading carefully helps me to recover the language.' He has his little scraps of irritating Latinity which he loves to parade, and when he dined at Eton, at the fellows' table, he 'made a considerable figure, having certainly the art of making the most of what I know. I had my classical quotations very ready.' Besides, the easy allusiveness of Boswell to books and to matters beyond the scope of general readers, his interest in all things going forward in the Johnsonian circle, his shewing himself in some metaphysical points—predestination, for example—fully a match for Johnson, and his own words in the Journal—'he had thought more than anybody supposed, and had a pretty good stock of general learning and knowledge'—all conspire to shew that, if he had no more learning than what he could not help, James Boswell was altogether, as Dominie Sampson said of Mannering, 'a man of considerable erudition despite of his imperfect opportunities.'
Nor were his entire interests Johnsonian. Scattered through his writings we find allusions to other books, in a more or less forward stage of completeness, and of which some must have been destroyed by his faithless executors. We hear of a Life of Lord Kames; an Essay on the Profession of an Advocate; Memoirs of Hume when dying, 'which I may some time or other communicate to the world;' a quarto with plates on The Beggar's Opera; a History of James IV., 'the patron of my family;' a Collection of Feudal Tenures and Charters, 'a valuable collection made by my father, with some additions and illustrations of my own;' an Account of my Travels, 'for which I had a variety of materials collected;' a Life of Sir Robert Sibbald, 'in the original manuscript in his own writing;' a History of the Rebellion of 1745; an edition of Walton's Lives; a Life of Thomas Ruddiman, the Latin grammarian; a History of Sweden, where three of his ancestors had settled, who took service under Gustavus Adolphus; an edition of Johnson's Poems, 'a complete edition, in which I shall with the utmost care ascertain their authenticity, and illustrate them with notes and various readings;' a work on Addison's Poems, in which 'I shall probably maintain the merit of Addison's poetry, which has been very unjustly depreciated.' His Journal, which is unfortunately lost, he designed as the material for his own Autobiography. A goodly list, and a varied one, involving interest, knowledge, and research, fit to form the equipment of a professed scholar.
Boswell foresaw the danger, and he justified his method of reporting conversations. 'It may be objected by some persons, as it has been by one of my friends, that he who has the power of thus exhibiting an exact transcript of conversations is not a desirable member of society. I repeat the answer which I made to that friend:—'Few, very few, need be afraid that their sayings will be recorded. Can it be imagined that I would take the trouble to gather what grows on every hedge, because I have collected such fruits as the Nonpareil and the Bon Chretien? On the other hand, how useful is such a faculty, if well exercised! To it we owe all those interesting apophthegms and memorabilia of the ancients, which Plutarch, Xenophon, and Valerius Maximus, have transmitted to us. To it we owe all those instructive and entertaining collections which the French have made under the title of Ana, affixed to some celebrated name. To it we owe the Table-Talk of Selden, the Conversation between Ben Jonson and Drummond of Hawthornden, Spence's Anecdotes of Pope, and other valuable remains in our own language. How delighted should we have been, if thus introduced into the company of Shakespeare and of Dryden, of whom we know scarcely anything but their admirable writings! What pleasure would it have given us, to have known their petty habits, their characteristick manners, their modes of composition, and their genuine opinion of preceding writers and of their contemporaries!'
The world in consideration of what it has gained, and the recollection of what we should have acquired had such a reporter been found for the talk of other great men, has long since forgiven Boswell, and forgotten also his baiting the doctor with questions on all points, his rebuffs and his puttings down—'there is your want, sir; I will not be put to the question;' his watching 'every dawning of communication from that illuminated mind;' his eyes goggling with eagerness, the mouth dropt open to catch every syllable, his ear almost on the shoulder of the doctor, and the final burst of 'what do you do there, sir,—go to the table, sir,—come back to your place, sir.'
And these conversations which he reported in his short-hand, yet 'so as to keep the substance and language of discourse?' How far did he Johnsonize the form or matter? The remark by Burke to Mackintosh, that Johnson was greater in Boswell's books than in his own, the absence of the terse and artistic touch to the sayings of the Rambler in the pages of Hawkins, Thrale, Murphy and others, suggest inevitably that they have been touched up by their reporter. The Boswelliana supplies here some slight confirmation of this, for there have been preserved in that collection stories that reappear in the Life, and the final form in which they appear in the later book is always that of a pointed and improved nature. It would, therefore, seem that Boswell, whose imitations of Johnson Mrs Thrale declared in some respects superior to Garrick's, in his long devotion to the style and manner of his friend, 'inflated with the Johnsonian ether,' did consciously or otherwise add much to the originals, and so has denied himself a share of what would otherwise be justly, if known, set down to his credit.
'I own,' he writes in 1789 to Temple, 'I am desirous that my life should tell.' He counted doubtless on the Autobiography for this purpose. 'It is a maxim with me,' said the great Bentley, 'that no man was ever written out of reputation but by himself.' At first sight it would appear that Boswell had inflicted upon his own fame an indelible blot. From whom but himself should we ever have learned those failings, of which Macaulay has deftly made so much in his unsympathetic writing down of the man, after the manner of the Johnsonian attack on Milton and Gray? In whom but himself should we detect the excrescences in his works—the permutations and combinations in shaving, the wish for a pulley in bed to raise him, his puzzle over the disproportionate wages of footmen and maidservants, his boastings, his family pride, his hastily writing in the sage's presence Johnson's parody of Hervey in the Meditations on a Pudding, his superstitions, and his weaknesses? It is this that has cost him so dear with the critics, and the superior people, 'empty wearisome cuckoos, and doleful monotonous owls, innumerable jays also and twittering sparrows of the housetops.' He compares his own ideas to his handwriting, irregular and sprawling; his nature to Corinthian brass, made up of an infinite variety of ingredients, and his head to a tavern which might have been full of lords drinking Burgundy, but has been invaded by low punch-drinkers whom the landlord cannot expel. Blots and inequalities there are in the great book. Cooper off the prairie, Galt out of Ayrshire, are not more untrue to themselves than is Boswell at such moments. But 'within the focus of the Lichfield lamps' he regains his strength like a Samson.
Boswell, with all his experience, never attained the mellow Sadduceeism of the diner-out. As a reward, he never lost the literary conscience, the capacity for labour, the assiduity and veracity that have set his work upon a pedestal of its own. The dedication to Reynolds, a masterly piece of writing, will shew the trouble that he took over his method, 'obliged to run half over London in order to fix a date correctly.' And he knew the value of his work, which the man with the note-book never does. In his moments of self-complacency he could compare his Johnsoniad with the Odyssey; and he will not repress his 'satisfaction in the consciousness of having largely provided for the instruction and entertainment of mankind.' Literary models before him he had none. Scott suggests the life of the philosopher Demophon in Lucian, but Boswell was not likely to have known it. He modestly himself says he has enlarged on the plan of Mason's Life of Gray; but his merits are his own. For the history of the period it is, as Cardinal Duperron said of Rabelais, le livre—the book—'in worth as a book,' decides Carlyle, 'beyond any other production of the eighteenth century.'
Time has dealt gently with both Johnson and Boswell. 'The chief glory of every people,' said the former in the preface to his Dictionary 'arises from its authors: whether I shall add anything to the reputation of English literature must be left to time.' In the constituency of the present no dead writer addresses such an audience as Johnson does. Of Johnson Boswell might have said, as Cervantes did of his great creation Don Quixote, he and his subject were born for each other. There is no greater figure, no more familiar face in our literature than 'the old man eloquent'; and as the inseparable companion 'held in my heart of hearts, whose fidelity and tenderness I consider as a great part of the comforts which are yet left to me,' rises the figure of his biographer, the Bozzy no more of countless follies and fatuities, but Boswell, the prince of biographers, the inheritor of unfulfilled renown, now become, like his hero himself, an ancient. And they are still in the heyday of their great fame. Along the stream of time the little bark, as he hoped, sails attendant, pursues the triumph and partakes the gale.
With James Boswell it has happened, as Mark Pattison says of Milton, to have passed beyond the critics into a region of his own. That 'mighty civil gentlewoman,' the mistress of the Green Man at Ashbourne, M. Killingley, who waited on him with the note of introduction to his extensive acquaintance—'a singular favour conferr'd on one who has it not in her power to make any other return but her most grateful thanks, &c.,'—is but a symbol of the feelings of the readers who ever wish well to the name and the fame of James Boswell.