James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck, advocate, author, biographer, diarist, journalist, politician and traveller, was born on the 29th of October, 1740.
James Boswell is famous as one half of a pair of literary pals who set the heather alight in the mid-18th Century. But their relationship wasn’t one of a stereotypical dashing hero with a vertically challenged sidekick. James Boswell and Samuel Johnson weren’t like Batman and Robin or the Lone Ranger and Tonto. However, they might’ve been a bit like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The relationship has since been reduced to the level of caricature, but any idea of an obsequious or subservient Boswell is unfair. Johnson was a man of rare talent who held a high opinion of himself, but his reputation rests strongly on Boswell’s biography. The ego of the latter, on the other hand, was such that he often referred to himself in the third person, but he it was who had the wit to coax the boringly superior Johnson into revealing his innermost thoughts.
During their sojourn around the Highlands and Islands in 1773, they were more like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as they set out to resolve the ‘Ossian forgery’ of James MacPherson. The two friends and writers travelled through the west of Scotland on their celebrated tour, which was famously recorded and published by Boswell as ‘A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides’. The route they followed was that of the unsuccessful ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, after the Battle of Culloden, and Boswell’s captivating narrative covers a period of one hundred and one consecutive days in tandem with Johnson. Later, in 1775, Johnson published his own account of their travels, entitled ‘A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’. However, the world remembers only Boswell’s account, published in 1786 as the precursor to his masterpiece, the two-volume biography, published in 1791 and entitled, ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D.’.
Johnson is rightly famous as a lexicographer, but perhaps more so as the subject of the greatest biography ever written in the English language. Johnson may also have been an inspirational figure to the younger man – they met when the older man was fifty-three and the younger, a mere twenty-two – but Boswell’s ability as a writer is nowise inferior. There may have been differences in rank, but to say so of intelligence is wrong. There was also a difference in that Boswell had to make his living as an Advocate and even after the popularity of his books, he never became rich – only famous, which was to him perhaps the more appealing.
Boswell’s journals became the principal source for his biography of Johnson. “Authenticity is my chief boast,” was the unabashed response of Boswell to questions about whether or not he should have been so revealing of Johnson's whims and foibles. The historian, Thomas Macaulay, was a bit of a critic, but we should really liken Boswell to the great television interviewers of the 20th Century; perhaps Michael Parkinson. Rather than accept Macaulay’s verdict of ‘Lues Boswelliana’ or the ‘disease of admiration’, it’s better to see the outcome as the result of flattery and cunning questions, which Boswell used to provoke Johnson into giving of his best. Johnson, for his part, described Boswell as “the best travelling companion in the world.” Boswell was as ‘authentic’ as his boast in terms of recording his own quirks and vanities; not for him an ‘economical version’ of the truth. However, as Thomas Carlyle opined, beneath all the dubious traits was “a mind capable of discerning excellence” and “a heart to appreciate it, aided by the power of accurate observation and considerable dramatic ability”. The 20th Century publication of Boswell’s journals proved him to be one of the world's greatest diarists and, if he hadn’t written the classic biography, his journals alone would have resulted in lasting fame.
James Boswell was born in a house in Blair's Land, Parliament Close, in the ‘Old Town’ of Edinburgh, on the 29th of October, 1740. When he was five, James was sent to a select day school, but he ‘sulked up’ and between eight and thirteen, he was taught at home by tutors. He then went to the University of Edinburgh, where he studied arts and law until 1758. By the time he was eighteen, he was already in the habit of keeping a journal and writing inconspicuous poems, and had fallen in love with an actress. His father promptly banished him to the University of Glasgow, where he was tutored by no less a personage than Adam Smith. After six months in Glasgow, James scampered off to London, intending to become a monk. However, he was struck by the ‘bright lights’ and meeting Edward, the Duke of York, brother of the future King George. Boswell crept back to Edinburgh and, in 1762, despite socialising with his mates in the Soaping Club, he managed to pass his civil law exams. He then made a trip to London, hoping to gain a commission in the Army, but instead, he met Samuel Johnson, on the 16th of May, 1763, when their great friendship began.
Later in 1763, the adventurous Boswell made his ‘Grand Tour’ and for sure, he made the most of that trip. He spent the winter of 1763-64 studying law in Utrecht and developing his skills as a ladies’ man. He paid a high price for his dalliances, though, as throughout his adult life, he contracted gonorrhoea a total of seventeen times. His tour of Europe took in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Famously, Boswell also went to Corsica, in 1765. The reason for the fame was that later, in 1768, Boswell published ‘An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to That Island; and Memoirs of Pasquale de Paoli’. That biography of the heroic Corsican chieftain earned Boswell his first literary success and his tale of Corsican liberty also earned him the nickname ‘Corsica Boswell’. Back in Edinburgh in 1766, Boswell was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates and practised law for the next seventeen years. He earned a reputation as a defender of the poor and needy, but not very much money.
During that period, he made frequent visits to London and travelled extensively with Johnson, albeit not religiously every year. He was elected to the Literary Club in 1773 and, over a good number of years, contributed a series of seventy essays, significantly entitled ‘The Hypochondriack’, to ‘The London Magazine’. He became Laird of Auchinleck (pronounced ‘Ach-lek’) in 1782, when his father died and made a foray into politics, but he didn’t get elected. In 1785, he moved his family to London, to prepare ‘The Journal’ for publication. He was called to the English bar in 1786, but never practised in earnest as he spent most of his time composing ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’, which was published on the 16th of May, 1791. James Boswell died in London on the 19th of May, 1795, following weeks of serious illness.