Today is the birthday (1740) of James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck, a Scottish biographer and diarist, best known for the biography he wrote of Samuel Johnson. Boswell was born in Blair’s Land on the east side of Parliament Close behind St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. He was the eldest son of a judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, and his wife Euphemia Erskine. As the eldest son, he was heir to his family’s estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire. His birthplace was the family’s town house on the east side of the close, just around the corner at the top of the steps.
At 19 he was sent to study law at the University of Glasgow, where he attended the lectures of Adam Smith. While at Glasgow, Boswell decided to convert to Catholicism and become a monk. Upon learning of this, his father ordered him home. Instead of obeying, though, Boswell ran away to London, where he spent three months, living the life of a libertine, before he was taken back to Scotland by his father. Upon returning, he was re-enrolled at Edinburgh University and forced by his father to sign away most of his inheritance in return for an allowance of £100 a year. On 30th July 1762, Boswell passed his oral law exam, after which his father decided to raise his allowance to £200 a year and permitted him to return to London. In this period, Boswell wrote his London Journal and, on 16 May 1763, met Johnson for the first time. The pair became friends almost immediately. Johnson eventually nicknamed him “Bozzy”.
The first conversation between Johnson and Boswell is quoted in Life of Samuel Johnson as follows:
[Boswell:] “Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.”
[Johnson:] “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”
It was around three months after this first encounter with Johnson that Boswell departed for Europe with the initial goal of continuing his law studies at Utrecht University. He spent a year there and although desperately unhappy the first few months, eventually quite enjoyed his time in Utrecht. After this, Boswell spent most of the next two years travelling around the continent, his Grand Tour. During this time, he met Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire with a recommendation letter of Constant d’Hermenches, and made a pilgrimage to Rome, where his portrait was painted by George Willison. Boswell also travelled to Corsica to meet one of his heroes, the independence leader Pasquale Paoli. His well-observed diaries and correspondence of this time have been compiled into two books, Boswell in Holland and Boswell on the Grand Tour.
Boswell returned to London in February 1766 accompanied by Rousseau’s mistress, with whom he had a brief affair on the journey home. After spending a few weeks there, he returned to Scotland to take his final law exam. He passed the exam and became an advocate. He practiced for over a decade, during which time he spent no more than a month every year with Johnson. Nevertheless, he returned to London annually to mingle with Johnson and the rest of the London literary crowd, and to escape what he perceived as a mundane existence in Scotland.
Boswell was a major supporter of the Corsican Republic. Following the island’s invasion by France in 1768, Boswell attempted to raise public awareness and rally support for the Corsicans. He sent arms and money to the Corsican fighters, who were ultimately defeated at the Battle of Ponte Novu in 1769. Boswell attended the masquerade held at the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon in September 1769 dressed as a Corsican Chief.
Boswell married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, in November 1769. She remained faithful to Boswell, despite his frequent liaisons with prostitutes, until her death from tuberculosis in 1789. After his infidelities, he would deliver tearful apologies to her and beg her forgiveness, before again promising her, and himself, that he would reform. James and Margaret had four sons and three daughters. Two sons died in infancy; the other two were Alexander (1775–1822) and James (1778–1822). Their daughters were Veronica (1773–1795), Euphemia (1774 – c. 1834) and Elizabeth, known as ‘Betsy’, (1780–1814). Boswell also had at least two extramarital children, Charles (1762–1764) and Sally (1767 – c. 1768).
Despite his relative literary success with accounts of his European travels, Boswell was only a moderately successful advocate, with the exception of the copyright infringement case of Donaldson v Beckett where Boswell represented the Scottish bookseller, Alexander Donaldson. By the late 1770s, Boswell descended further and further into alcoholism and gambling addiction. Throughout his life, from childhood until death, he was beset by severe swings of mood which modern psychologists diagnose as bipolar disorder. His happier periods usually saw him relatively vice-free. His character mixed a superficial Enlightenment sensibility for reason and taste with a genuine and somewhat romantic love of the sublime and a propensity for occasionally puerile whimsy. The latter, along with his tendency for drink and other vices, caused many contemporaries and later observers to regard him as being too lightweight to be an equal in the literary crowd that he wanted to be a part of. However, his humor and innocent good nature won him many lifelong friends.
Boswell was a frequent guest of Lord Monboddo at Monboddo House, a setting where he gathered significant observations for his writings by association with Samuel Johnson, Lord Kames and other luminaries.
After Johnson’s death in 1784, Boswell moved to London to try his luck at the English Bar, which proved even less successful than his career in Scotland. In 1792 Boswell lobbied the Home Secretary to help gain royal pardons for four Botany Bay escapees including Mary Bryant. He also offered to stand for Parliament but failed to get the necessary support, and he spent the final years of his life writing his Life of Samuel Johnson. During this time his health began to fail due to venereal disease and his years of drinking. Boswell died in London in 1795. Close to the end of his life he became strongly convinced that the “Shakespeare papers”, including two previously unknown plays Vortigern and Rowena and Henry II, allegedly discovered by William Henry Ireland, were genuine. After Boswell’s death they proved to be forgeries created by Ireland himself. Boswell’s remains were interred in the crypt of the Boswell family mausoleum in what is now the old Auchinleck Kirkyard in Ayrshire. The mausoleum is attached to the old Auchinleck Kirk.
His biography is occasionally hailed as the greatest biography in English, but this assessment is heavily contested nowadays. The work was a popular and critical success when first published. It is regarded now as an important stage in the development of the modern genre of biography, but some modern critics object that the work cannot be considered a proper biography. While Boswell’s personal acquaintance with Johnson only began in 1763, when Johnson was 54 years old, Boswell covered the entirety of Johnson’s life by means of additional research. The biography takes many critical liberties with Johnson’s life; Boswell makes various changes to Johnson’s quotations and even censors many comments. Nonetheless, modern biographers have found Boswell’s biography an important source of information on Johnson and his times.
Macaulay’s critique in the Edinburgh Review was highly influential and established a way of thinking of Boswell and his Life of Johnson which was to prevail for many years. He was damning of Croker’s editing: “This edition is ill compiled, ill arranged, ill written, and ill printed”, and held a mixed opinion of Boswell: “Servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer, an eavesdropper, a common butt in the taverns of London…; such was this man, and such he was content and proud to be”. Macaulay also claimed “Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them”. Macaulay also criticized what he saw as a lack of discretion in the way the Life reveals Johnson’s and others’ personal lives, foibles, habits and private conversation; but recognized that it was this that made the Life of Johnson a great biography.
In the 1920s a great part of Boswell’s private papers, including intimate journals for much of his life, were discovered at Malahide Castle, north of Dublin. These provide a hugely revealing insight into the life and thoughts of the man. They were sold to the US collector Ralph H. Isham and have since passed to Yale University, which has published general and scholarly editions of his journals and correspondence. A second cache was discovered soon after and also purchased by Isham. A substantially longer edition of The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was published in 1936 based on his original manuscript, edited by L. F. Powell. His London Journal 1762–63, the first of the Yale journal publications, appeared in 1950. The last, The Great Biographer, 1789–1795, was published in 1989.
These detailed and frank journals include voluminous notes on the Grand Tour of Europe that he took as a young man and, subsequently, of his tour of Scotland with Johnson. His journals also record meetings and conversations with eminent individuals belonging to The Club, including Lord Monboddo, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith.
Here is an interesting query by an assistant editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition), the successor to Johnson’s dictionary:
I am an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Whilst revising the word ‘devilled’, I have come across a mysterious reference to a comment made by James Boswell that we can’t find in his writings. I was wondering if any of you reading this forum could help us find this ‘missing’ passage from Boswell’s writings.
According to Theodora Fitzgibbon, in The Art of British Cooking (1965) and Food of the Western World (1976), Boswell ‘frequently refers to partaking of a dish of “devilled bones” for supper’. This assertion has been repeated in various popular recipe books, newspaper articles, blogs, etc. Sometimes Boswell is said to have written about ‘devilled bones’ in The Life of Samuel Johnson, but Fitzgibbon herself doesn’t actually say that.
Here at the OED, we haven’t been able to find a reference to ‘devilled bones’ in a digital edition of any of Boswell’s works, including Life of Johnson. Neither could blogger Jane-Anne Hobbs (http://whatsforsupper-juno.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/devilled-mushrooms-on- ): ‘After an exhaustive search of Boswell’s books – at least the ones that have been digitised – I couldn’t find a single reference to the writer gnawing on spicy bones. I did discover with relief, though, that ‘bone’ in this context meant a devilled joint of meat, not a dry rib or femur or the like.’ Sadly Theodora Fitzgibbon has passed away, so we can’t ask her for help.
Has any reader of this forum come across a reference to ‘devilled bones’ in any of Boswell’s writings? At the moment, our earliest example of the adjective ‘devilled’ applied to a food is from 1796. Since James Boswell died in 1795, if he did write about ‘devilled bones’, it would be the earliest known evidence. If anyone can help, we would greatly appreciate it!
There’s a good recipe here https://www.jamesbeard.org/recipes/deviled-beef-bones It’s modern, of course, but it will do the trick.