…”Early on, James ( Boswell ) had served notice that he was not cut out to follow in his father’s strait-laced footsteps. Scots are well known for being torn between dour conformity and impetuous rebelliousness, a contradiction emphatically personified by Boswell father and son. When James was 18, he developed a passion for the theater and fell for an actress a good ten years older. After Lord Auchinleck banished him to the University of Glasgow, Boswell, still under the spell of his Catholic mistress, decided to convert—tantamount to career suicide in Presbyterian Scotland—and ran away to London. There he lost interest in Catholicism, caught a venereal disease and decided he wanted to be a soldier.”…

Tom Huntington:While in Rome, Boswell posed for a painting by George Willison, which I found in Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery. There he was at age 24, round-faced with slight circles under his eyes and the faint suggestion of a smile on his plump lips. He wore a dandyish scarlet-and-yellow waistcoat beneath a green, fur-trimmed coat; lace peeked out from his cuffs. Above him, an owl perched absurdly on a branch. Somehow the painter captured the mixture of silliness and self-importance that made Boswell so engaging. Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture

Or….the habits and hangovers of enlightened Edinburgh where every gentleman is a drunkard and every drunkard a gentleman. In eighteenth century Edinburgh,temperance was an unknown virtue. As the historian Henry Grey Graham wrote, “it was a convivial age, and it was a drinking society.”

To be sure, the inhabitants of Edinburgh probably felt they had good reason to imbibe. They had but recently broken free from a stifling Calvinistic authority that, to quote Graham again, ” uttered anathemas against all worldly pleasures.” The too, there were the dreadful conditions in Old Town. The tenements, though picturesque , were often poorly built and poorly maintained. They could also be dangerous. Parliament tried to limit new buildings to a height of five stories. The law applied however, onlty to the front section of a building, and in hilly Edinburgh this often produced tenements with the permissible five stories in front and eight, ten, or even more floors in the rear. However, “it was generally understood that if a house falls, it cannot be rebuilt of the same height”. In such a community the only safe refuge was the taverns.

---On the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Boswell got to know Pasquale Paoli, the charismatic patriot leading an insurgency against the Genoese, who then ruled the island. In Paris he learned of his mother’s death and departed for Scotland (en route, Boswell noted in his journal, he and Rousseau’s mistress had sex 13 times in 11 days). His first important book, An Account of Corsica (1768), celebrated Paoli. To Britons of the day, Corsica was an exotic and romantic destination, and Boswell’s breezy travelogue made him a minor celebrity known as “Corsica Boswell.” Nevertheless, he kept his word to his father and began practicing law. Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture

…I was intrigued by Johnson but found Boswell downright enthralling. The astute biographer turned out to be an irresistible character in his own right, a contradictory, needy and sometimes infuriating man who drank too much, talked too much and preserved many of his indiscretions in writing. Among the revelations in his journals: he fathered two illegitimate children before he married, and he remained a compulsive whoremonger throughout his life. He could be a pompous snob or entertain a crowded London theater by imitating a cow. He suffered from debilitating depressions, yet in public was the life of the party. “I admire and like him beyond measure,” declared 20-year-old Charlotte Ann Burney, the sister of the famous diarist Fanny Burney. “He . . . puts himself into such ridiculous postures that he is as good as a comedy.” The philosopher David Hume described him as “very good-humored, very agreeable, and very mad.”…


Old and new Edinburgh coalesced in the person of Walter Scott. He was born in a tenement in Old Town in 1771 and died in 1832 as the city's golden age was ending. Though a man of the enlightenment, he was also the purveyor of an ancient , and violent tradition, for he was convinced that Scottish nationalism could be reasserted through the poetry , songs and legends of the gallant highlanders. In his best novels like "The Heart of Midlothian" he combined his interests in nationalistic antiquarianism and enlightened progress, seeking to judge "the past by the present and the present by the past."

The strengths and weaknesses of Edinburgh’s educated world were graphically sisplayed in the winter of 1786-87, when Scotland’s greatest “lad o’ pairts,” the farmer poet Robert Burns, came to town to seek his fortune on the strength of some published verses and on the back of a borrowed pony. At once the doors of Edinburgh society  were flung open in welcome, and through the doors the twenty-eight year old Burns passed in triumph: breakfasts, teas, dinners, suppers, a blaze of weighty admiration and flattering erudite attention. It was al the more remarkable in a man who had spent most his life treading behind a plough-horse. Adam Ferguson invited him to a party where a fifteen year old admirer, Walter Scott, met the lion of the season and came away impressed with the poet’s composure among men vastly more learned than he and considerably more polished.

…One thing he was not agreeable about was Scotland. Boswell’s feelings about his homeland were deeply conflicted. He abhorred what he perceived as Scotland’s abjectprovincialism. To rid himself of his Scottish accent, he took diction classes from Thomas Sheridan, father of playwright (The School for Scandal) Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Yet Scotland was the place that shaped him. He spent most of his life there and often boasted “of being descended of ancestors who have had an estate for some hundreds of years.”

Huntington:Johnson stayed with the Boswells after he and James returned from the Hebrides; to Margaret, the ungainly Londoner was the houseguest from hell. “The truth is, that his irregular hours and uncouth habits, such as turning the candles with their heads downwards, when they did not burn bright enough, and letting the wax drop upon the carpet, could not be but disagreeable to a lady,” Boswell conceded. She also complained about Johnson’s influence over her husband. “I have seen many a bear led by a man,” she said in ex asperation, “but I never before saw a man led by a bear.”

All this was heady stuff for an impoverished farmer who longed to escape the plough. Yet their was something disquieting about Edinburgh’s appreciation of the Rustic Bard. The truth is, what was best in Burn’s poems Edinburgh’s literati did not much enjoy.Dr. Hugh Blair disliked their liberal political leanings and the lawyer novelist Mackenzie, in an article hailing Burn’s genius, had to admit that the poet’s Muse was ” a little unguarded in her ridicule of hypocrisy.

What genuinely enthralled the speculative minds of Edinburgh’s savants was that Burns had a muse at all. To the savants he was, as Mackenzie dubbed him, “the heaven taught ploughman,” the living proof of Edinburgh’s central tenet that nobility of heart is innate, even in an untutored Scot’s plowman. To the savants of Edinburgh, Burns was not so much a first-rate  poet as he was a first rate confirmation of their theories.

…After chafing for two years under his father’s oppressive supervision, Boswell returned to London in 1762, intending to fulfill his military dreams. Abookseller there introduced him to Samuel Johnson, then 53 and already a formidable literary figure, who made no secret of his contempt for Scots. “Indeed I come from Scotland but I cannot help it,” Boswell stammered. To which Johnson growled: “That, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen can not help.”…

What was equally disquieting for Burns was the sharply divided life he was leading. By day, he stood often enough, in the drawing rooms of the New Town, and at night he had to return over the thousand foot long North Bridge to a mean tenement in the High Street , where the female lodgers on the floor above did not ” make love metaphysically” . Burns discovered that soon enough. “As our floors are low and ill-plaistered, we can easily distinguish our laughter-loving, night-rejoicing neighbors- when they are eating, when they are drinking, when they are singing, when they are etc.”

…It was a rocky start to what would eventually become the most famous friendship in English letters. Irma Lustig, who edited two volumes of Boswell’s journals for Yale University Press, believes Lord Auchinleck’s harshness created in his son “an insatiable need for attention and approval,” and in Johnson, almost  thirty-two years his senior, Boswell found an answer to that need. When Boswell “opened his heart,” as biographer Frederick Pottle puts it, and told Johnson the story of his life, Johnson was charmed. …

Huntington:There was never any need to doubt Johnson’s affection; it was genuine. “Boswell is a man who I believe never left a house without leaving a wish for his return,” he once said. Among other things, the two were bound by melancholy. Johnson had a morbid fear of madness and he, too, fought depression, while Boswell analyzed his own precarious mental health to the point of obsession. Once, after watching a moth burn in a candle’s flame, Johnson said, “That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was Boswell.” Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com

But if the savants of the New Town had their charms for the poet, so did the raucous inhabitants of the Old Town. The savants grew fretful when they learned that their “heaven taught ploughman” was spending time in the Old City’s taverns  among bawdy-talking, hard drinking company by no means devoted to elegance, and noble sentiments. Once, such diversions would scarcely have mattered, but Edinburgh was fast becoming a divided city and the New Town itself had accelerated the process. The North Bridge could not span such divisions, and Robert Burns could not straddle them, try as he might. As winter came to an end, the poet had the uneasy feeling that he had worn out his welcome in Edinburgh, with his fortune still unmade. In the spring, sadder and presumably wiser, he returned to the plow.

Boswell. Sir Joshua Reynolds. :Others noticed that once he finished his great work, he lost his bearings. Perhaps the lowest point came when his daughter took him to task for misbehaving with one of her 14-year-old friends. “It seems that after dinner, when I had taken too much wine, I had been too fond,” he wrote in his journal, claiming that he had no clear memory of the event. Boswell’s final years were grim. He remained in London, carousing and whoring; his health was ruined by repeated venereal infections. Hounded by debts incurred educating his children and buying land in Ayrshire, he complained that he felt “listless and fretful.” He died at home from kidney failure and uremia at the age of 54.


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  1. sue powell says:

    I loved Boswell’s London Journal- it’s one of my favourite books and I became very fond of Jamie whilst reading

    I have also visited dr johnson,s house in London, even though James didn’t visit there
    I thought the book was great and painted a real flesh and blood portrait of a very likeable young man, faults and all’

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