Monday 16 May
Temple & his Brother breakfasted with me. I went to Love's to try to recover some of the money which he owes me but alas a single guinea was all I could get. He was just going to dinner, so I stayed and eat a bit; tho I was angry at myself afterwards. I drank tea at Davies's in Russel Street and about seven came in the great Mr Samuel Johnson, whom I have so long wished to see Mr Davies introduced me to him. As I knew his mortal antipathy at the Scotch, I cried to Davies: Don't tell where I come from. However he said From Scotland. Mr Johnson said I indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it. "Sir replied he." That I find is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help. Mr Johnson is a man of a most dreadfull appearance. He is a very big man is troubled with sore eyes, the Palsy & the King's evil. He is very slovenly in his dress & speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge, and strength of expression command vast respect and render him very excellent company. He has great humour and is a worthy man. But his dogmatical roughness of manners is disagreeable. I shall mark what I remember of his conversation.
And he did.
In May 1763, James Boswell was 22, son of a respectable Scottish laird. This was his first visit to London. Samuel Johnson was 53, and had published his Dictionary, Rambler, Idler, and Rasselas, and was now one of the most famous literary figures in Britain. From this meeting (there is a blue plaque on the building in Covent Garden, now a café) came their friendship, and the greatest biography ever written.
Boswell was a deeply unlikely person to produce such a masterpiece. He had literary ambitions, oh yes, as any educated young man would, but he had many ambitions woefully unrealized: to be a fine strutting soldier and a great lawyer, a suave lover and a confidant of great men like Voltaire and Rousseau, to be a wise and temperate and virtuous and sober and grave and dignified man.
He was a buffoon, a drunkard, a coward, a prig, lecherous and depressed and dreamy and vain and flighty and hypochondriac, vacillating between sceptical and puritanical, hopelessly weak-willed and pathetic. You have to love him. He became famous for one thing, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). His own journals were only published in the middle of the twentieth century, yet they are equally compelling reading: the biography of himself that comes from them is in some ways as great a work as that of Johnson. We know both Johnson and Boswell as we know few, if any, other figures in history.
As soon as I began to look into my books I decided I could not do justice to him in one node, James Boswell. Here I sketch only the briefest of biography. Expect forthcoming nodes on, at the very least,
He was born on 29 October 1740 in Edinburgh
, the eldest son of the eighth Laird
) in Ayrshire
. He grew up in Edinburgh, then spent more time at the estate when his father succeeded to the title in 1749. His father was a Law Lord of Scotland, and it was natural that Jamie should be groomed for the law. He was tutored privately and met two boys who were to become lifetime friends, William Johnson Temple
and John Johnston
; his early thoughts are often preserved because he confided so much to them. He was intelligent, and promising in literary abilities. He wrote, fell in love with actresses, and so on.
His own plans were to be a dashing Army officer in a handsome coat, to lounge around in London high-life and gaming, being received as a great writer and wit, to mix with talented men and beautiful women. All this was anathema to his father, so in 1760 he ran away. On reaching London he secretly became a Roman Catholic. If this secret had ever come out it would have totally ruined his life, depriving him of all possible employments. Fortunately his pious resolution did not last, and his London company plunged him into debauchery. He was persuaded to return home, and in the never-ending battle between him and his father, they compromised that he should study the law in London.
He still wanted to be an officer; he still spent much of his time in London waiting around for his contacts with nobility to do something about getting him a commission in a fashionable regiment: but for the most part he was free to meet people, and to write down his meetings. So he met Samuel Johnson. He recorded him brilliantly, and indeed many other celebrated figures of the age who mixed with them (Goldsmith, Burke, Garrick, Fanny Burney, etc. etc.), and after Johnson's death in 1784 he began compiling his notes into a book. This must have been very difficult for one of Boswell's character, but it eventually appeared in 1791. (He was drunk a great deal of his life, but did have long periods of sobriety.) He also published an account of the journey the two of them took to the Highlands and Hebrides, a lively companion to Johnson's account.
English and Scottish law are entirely different: several years later he went to university in Utrecht to study Roman law, as used in Holland and Scotland. Johnson accompanied him to the port and waved goodbye, dispensing friendly and fatherly advice. In Holland he courted the extraordinary Belle de Zuylen, a genius and a beauty who wrote under the name of Zélide.
Later he toured France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. He forced an introduction on an astonished Voltaire, and enjoyed himself with Rousseau's mistress Thérèse Levasseur, among many other women. (His London journal is full of quick screws of trollops on dimly-lit bridges.) He met General Paoli, who was fighting for the liberation of Corsica, and back in London made the Corsicans a fashionable cause.
Eventually he married respectably: to his cousin Margaret Montgomerie, in 1769. He practised respectably as a lawyer; he inherited his father's estate in 1782. They had six children, she died in 1789, and he on 19 May 1795, at the age of 54. His writings will be read and enjoyed forever.
Wednesday, 5 August 
I should have mentioned that on Monday night, coming up the Strand, I was tapped on the shoulder by a fine fresh lass. I went home with her. She was an officer's daughter, and born at Gibraltar. I could not resist indulging myself with enjoyment of her. Surely, in such a situation, when the woman is already abandoned, the crime must be alleviated, though in strict morality, illicit love is always wrong.
I last night sat up again, but I shall do so no more, for I was very stupid today and had a kind of feverish headache. At night Mr Johnson and I supped at the Turk's Head. He talked much for restoring the Convocation of the Church of England to its full powers, and said that religion was much assisted and impressed on the mind by external pomp. My want of sleep sat heavy upon me, and made me like to nod, even in Mr Johnson's company. Such must be the case while we are united with flesh and blood.