Like some of the greatest titles in this list, James Boswell’s life of Dr Johnson, the most famous biography in the English language, had a protracted, tortuous and tortured gestation. Boswell first advised his friend and mentor of his intention to write his life in 1772, when Johnson was 62, and the would-be biographer 31. He had, however, been making notes and gathering materials for his “presumptuous task” since their first encounter in 1763.
After Johnson’s death in 1784, Boswell settled down to organise a “prodigious multiplicity of materials”, a labour that, he admitted after five years of struggle, was costing him acute labour, perplexity and vexation. Moreover, he was being overtaken by rival lives (A potboiling “biographical sketch” by Thomas Tyers had appeared in 1784; Hester Thrale’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson in 1786; then A Life of Samuel Johnson by his friend and executor, Sir John Hawkins, came out in 1787). Worse, he was becoming a figure of pity and contempt in Grub Street, the self-appointed biographer who had both missed the bus and simultaneously failed his own life’s mission.
However, when it was published in 1791, Boswell’s Life was soon recognised as a masterpiece, a fitting monument to a great English writer and an extraordinary work of art in its own right. Naturally, there was the usual sniping. During the course of a life in Grub Street, Boswell had acquired many enemies. The main objections to his work fall under three heads: first, as the work of an acolyte, it’s plainly not a conventional biography; second, even by that standard, it fails – Boswell only knew Johnson in the latter half of his life and sometimes took outrageous liberties with his material; third, as an exercise in “life-writing”, it falls short, being scarcely more than a loosely linked string of scenes from a life. To which the obvious riposte is: open the book, forget about the narrow academic critique and read one of the most original works of English prose, as much a mirror to its author as to it subject.
Boswell never makes much secret of the fact that he and his subject have been friends and associates. For some 250 pages in my Everyman edition, he supplies a faithful, almost mundane, account of Johnson’s early years in Lichfield and his move to London.
When the 22-year-old Boswell finally meets Johnson, who was then aged 53, Life catches fire. Boswell, who has longed for this introduction and who confides to his own journal that he will “cultivate this acquaintance”, describes himself as “much agitated” at the prospect of meeting the great man. A roguish companion, present at the meeting, knowing the doctor’s famous dislike of the Scots, interjects that Boswell comes from Scotland. At this, the future biographer protests:
“Mr Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” I am willing to flatter myself that I meant this as a light pleasantry to soothe and conciliate him, and not as an humiliating abasement at the expence [sic] of my country, but this speech was unlucky. With the quickness of wit for which he was so remarkable, he seized the expression ‘come from Scotland’… and retorted, ‘That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.’”
Boswell’s nerves are jangling, but a sympathetic onlooker advises him: “Don’t be uneasy. I can see he likes you very well.”
What follows is the blossoming of the strangest literary friendship on record. Young Boswell was a libertine, a flatterer and a self-important voyeur. On his own account, he is at once humble, vainglorious, creepy, complacent and sentimental. But Johnson, the pugnacious Tory, lifelong stoic and fierce Augustan intellectual, was not only charmed by Boswell’s devotion, he seemed to have been motivated by it too, perhaps because he identified an ulterior motive in Boswell’s excessive note-taking. “One would think,” he told his confidante Thrale, that “the man had been hired to spy upon me”. Perhaps Johnson was even inspired by his new audience. His conversation and opinions take wing, becoming progressively more Johnsonian.
Although it was 10 years before Boswell found the courage to confess he was writing his Life, there were some clues to his ultimate intention. One turning point occurred with the pair’s celebrated tour of Scotland. In August 1773, 10 years after first meeting Boswell, Johnson set out with his young friend on A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, as his (1775) account of their travels expressed it. Boswell’s rival account, his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) became a first draft of a biographical approach to his mentor. This trial run for Life was a success. Now Boswell started working on the “vast treasure of his conversations at different times” that he had recorded in his journals.
Boswell’s plan was to paint a picture of a “life in scenes”, based principally on his own journal (18 volumes). As many have complained, these scenes mainly occur in the taverns and dining rooms of literary London, in the company of Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Joshua Reynolds, as well as many other close associates of Johnson.
Other elements of the portrait he paints derive from his companionship with Johnson:
As we walked along the Strand tonight, arm in arm, a woman of the town accosted us, in the usual enticing manner. “No, no, my girl (said Johnson), it won’t do.” He, however, did not treat her with harshness; and we talked of the wretched life of such women, and agreed that much more misery than happiness is produced by illicit commerce between the sexes.
Boswell may have been responsible for creating the image of Johnson as a critic who loved to hold forth (“Depend upon it, Sir…”), but he also records a lot of merriment, banter and jollity. The bookseller Tom Davies declares that “Johnson laughs like a rhinocerous”. The conversation, fuelled with quantities of port, ranges promiscuously across all manner of topics: printers, adultery, birds, primogeniture, marriage, crowds, booksellers, Americans, the plays of Sheridan, bad poets (especially Thomas Gray), bears, fame, Whigs, warfare and cookery books. Life is also a book of table talk, overheard conversations and literary repartee.
The portrait of Johnson that emerges from Boswell’s method is of a very great Englishman – brave, insecure, humane, witty, loquacious, often melancholy, prejudiced, pragmatic, rude, voracious, patriotic, sarcastic and deeply entertaining. Johnson almost always comes across as winning and eccentric. Speaking of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, he says: “ Sir, I was once in company with Smith, and we did not take to each other, but had I known he loved rhyme as much as you tell me he does, I should have HUGGED him.”
Johnson’s circle included bishops, academics, booksellers,even George III, whose meeting with Johnson is a high point of Boswell’s first volume (there were two).
Johnson may have been a Tory who hated Whigs, but he was never reclusive, indifferent or antisocial – he loved company. Thus it was that he met the famous radical hellraiser, John Wilkes, on 15 May 1776. Johnson loathed the idea of Wilkes. A man apparently without principle, Wilkes was a member both of parliament and the Hellfire Club, a demagogue and a rake. He liked to present himself as a “patriot” – a man committed to shaking up oppressive governments. This self-characterisation had provoked one of Johnson’s most celebrated verdicts: “Patriotism, Sir, is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Boswell knew that Wilkes was good company and contrived – mischievously – to get him invited to dinner with Edward Dilly, the bookseller. When Boswell said he would bring Johnson, Dilly was horrified, but Boswell pressed ahead. Boswell: “Mr Dilly, Sir, sends his respectful compliments” and would Johnson be so good as to dine at his house Wednesday next? He would. Boswell: “Provided, Sir, I suppose, that the company… is agreeable?” What if Dilly asked some of his patriotic friends, for instance, John Wilkes?
Johnson appears to have affected indifference: “What is that to me, Sir? As if I could not meet any company whatever, occasionally.”
Wednesday 15 May 1776 came round and at the dinner Wilkes seated himself next to Johnson, resolutely determined to please. “Pray, give me leave, Sir,” he said, carving Johnson a slice of veal, and then, “a little of the stuffing – some gravy… a squeeze of this orange, or the lemon, perhaps?” Johnson’s surly response gradually softened. The names of common acquaintances came up and Wilkes scoffed at those he knew Johnson had sometimes scorned himself. No one, of course, could speak ill of his friends but Johnson himself. Scotland was another matter. The great man reported that Boswell had taken him there – it was a barren place. Johnson and Wilkes began competing together to make jibes against Scotland. Poor Boswell, Johnson said, with pointed cunning, hardly knew what real civility was for living among savages in Scotland and rakes in London. Wilkes did not rise to this. “Except,” he replied, with a broad smile, “when he is with grave, sober, decent people, like you and me.” The dinner at Dilly’s was a huge success.
It’s almost impossible to do this book the justice it deserves by selective quotation. Boswell probably needed an editor, but his obsessive note-taking and occasional banality make for compulsive reading. As a biographer, he is both a voyeur and a provocateur, a ringmaster, a social climber and sycophantic stooge. How self-aware is he ? It’s hard to say. But when, in the final pages, Johnson’s life draws to a close – he was mortally afraid of dying – the reader had lost both a friend (Johnson) and a great friendship (Boswell and Johnson). The subject of this classic biography, who died in 1784, was immediately buried at Westminster Abbey, revered as one of the greatest Englishmen. Boswell’s health began to fail through a combination of alcoholism and VD. He died in London in 1795 and was buried in the crypt of the family mausoleum in Auchinleck, Ayrshire.
A signature sentence
“As I had the honour and happiness of enjoying his friendship for upwards of 20 years; as I had the scheme of writing his life constantly in view; as he was well apprised of this circumstance, and from time to time obligingly satisfied my inquiries, by communicating to me the incidents of his early years; as I acquired a facility in recollecting, and was very assiduous in recording, his conversation, of which the extraordinary vigour and vivacity constituted one of the first features of his character; and as I have spared no pains in obtaining materials concerning him, from every quarter where I could discover that they were to be found, and have been favoured with the most liberal communications by his friends; I flatter myself that few biographers have entered upon such a work as this, with more advantages; independent of literary abilities, in which I am not vain enough to compare myself with some great names who have gone before me in this kind of writing.”
Three to compare
W Jackson Bate: Samuel Johnson (1977)
Richard Holmes: Dr Johnson and Mr Savage (1993)
Adam Sisman: Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (2000)
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