Saturday, 1 March 2014

Boswell in London

Boswell’s London Journal – 1762-1763. James Boswell. First published from the original MSS by Frederick J. Pottle, William Heinemann, Ltd., London, 1950. pp 374.

This review was written on October 28th 2010

This book has been in my father’s library but has not been read by me before. It was unsigned by him in Irish unlike many of his books and I may have some doubts that it was ever read by him, at least during the first few years of its publication when my father was at his busiest during the two inter-party governments. It was read by me after I had completed my Maverick autobiography and had sent the latter to the publishers.

The diaries were kept during the two years of Boswell’s second visit to London. He left his home in Edinburgh when he was still in his late teens or early twenties. The diaries could be described as dull going and I did some skipping at times but finished the volume with a good insight into the social and economic life of the better educated and the more privileged classes of mid-18th century London.  

Boswell was remarkable in that he became an avid recorder of his daily life in the town and he had a remarkable ability of intruding into the daily lives of the wealthy, the nobility, the artists, the actors and the politicians, some of whom are still household names in our own time. Despite his youth and his relative  poverty (he had an annual allowance of £200 from his father who was the Laird of Auchinleck and a senior member of the Scottish Bar but Boswell, through his extravagant  ways, found it difficult to manage on what was a reasonable allowance for these times). He soon made many friends among the influential in London and was not slow to advance his own interests among the high and the mighty. He had the confidence and the compelling personality to attract others and was not slow in imposing himself to his own advantage.

His early and poor relations with his father accounted for his anxiety to leave Edinburgh and to travel to London. During an earlier visit to London he showed a surprising maturity for a person in the late teens, as was evident in his contacts and associations with the influential and particularly his early propensity to enjoy the easy virtues of the many street women who inhabited London at the time. His later two year stay was to remind one of his attractions to these ladies of easy virtue and of the unfortunate consequences in health matters which were derived from these encounters. He was nothing if not frank about his life, including his more intimate proclivities.

London circa 1762
From the time of his arrival in London he had determined to write a detailed and frank diary. He writes well but in the formal and dated style of the times and his text is replete with words which are less appropriate or even obsolete in our day. He was an inveterate socialite and was fortunate that he was addicted to tea rather than alcohol. Alcohol at the time was largely consumed as beer or as a low alcohol wine called negus. He must have been an attractive and articulate young man if one is to judge by his many and important friends and by their obvious ease and enjoyment in his company.

His late meeting with Samuel Johnson while in London led to an immediate and warm friendship between them. From the beginning of their acquaintance the much older Johnson evinced a great affection for the young man. He became a father figure to Boswell and seemed happiest in his company. As is so well known, Johnson became the subject of Boswell’s later biography,

Boswell went to London in 1760 ostensibly to join the army but for a variety of reasons he failed to gain a commission. His two years were devoted to socialising and diary writing. He had refused to join the legal profession despite his father’s strenuous attempts to influence him in the direction of law but eventually, thanks to reconciliation between himself and his father, he left London for Utrecht in Holland to study in the law faculty there. Thus he left his many friends in London for the next stage in his life.

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