Books: From Bozzy the boozer to literary great

A Life of James Boswell by Peter Martin Weidenfeld pounds 25
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`He had, indeed, a quick observation and a retentive memory," the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote of James Boswell in his infamous 1831 essay on Boswell's Life of Johnson. "These qualities, if he had been a man of sense and virtue, would scarcely of themselves have sufficed to make him conspicuous; but, as he was a dunce, a parasite, and a coxcomb, they have made him immortal."

Macaulay's paradoxes about Boswell - in essence, that if he had not been a great fool, he would never have been a great writer - contributed to Boswell's posthumous reputation as a buffoon. Bozzy the boozer, the libertine, the sot had nonetheless managed to write one of the literary wonders of all time. This was the view which held sway until the 1930s, when a batch of Boswell's papers was uncovered at Malahide Castle outside Dublin, which immediately began to transform posterity's understanding of Boswell's character and his work.

As Peter Martin remarks in his preface, Boswell is the best example in the history of English literature of how the discovery of personal papers after an author's death can radically alter that person's reputation. The story of the recovery of Boswell's archive is worthy of fiction. Thousands of pages of manuscript letters, journals and drafts of books kept surfacing, and each time a discovery was made, a still more significant one was waiting in the wings. Another massive Boswell treasure trove was found at Fettercairn House in Kincardineshire. Letters were discovered wedged between pieces of furniture, or in old sacks and mailbags stuffed tight with stout wads of Boswell papers. Among them was Boswell's London journal of 1762-63, which when published became a runaway bestseller.

Scholars like the delectably named Frederick Pottle and Chauncey Tinker worked hard at this material to bring a new Boswell to light. Theirs was a more complex character who was often dissolute, but who also suffered a lifetime's affliction from melancholy which encouraged the confused and contradictory elements in his personality. Theirs too, was a writer who far from having produced a masterpiece by accident, was in fact revealed to have perfected the method of truthful portraiture and realistic biography by sheer brilliant artistry and aesthetic control.

Peter Martin's biography of Boswell is the first authoritative single- volume life for many years, based on the Yale Research Edition of his papers (a project which is still ongoing). At just over 600 pages it is too long and frequently becomes oppressive in its weight of detail. Any reader acquainted, for instance, with Boswell's account of The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson (1785), will baulk at Martin's own lengthy summary of that famous trip, while anyone else will want to turn to Boswell himself. Martin takes about a third of the book to get into his narrative stride, and the absence of coolheaded analysis in place of the relentless chronological pace is at times keenly felt. By page 255 (at which point Boswell is still only 29) and the painstaking record of Boswell's 10th gonorrhoeal infection, even the most stout-hearted of readers might be inclined to wilt.

That said, Martin's portrait of a Boswell at times attempting to cope with his depressive temperament, while at others trying to control the spontaneity that led to his roistering behaviour, is a powerful and convincing one. "The black demon" (or "hypochondria" as Boswell himself called it) pursued him all his life, and was a "kind of madness" which he shared with Dr Johnson, though Boswell believed he understood it better than his great friend and mentor. Indeed, he devoted countless entries in his journal to examining his states of depression, which could be an important stimulus to sexual promiscuity. While at a low point in 1763, for example, he strolled in St James's Park, "and took the first whore I met, whom I without many words copulated with free from danger, being safely sheathed. She was ugly and lean and her breath smelt of spirits."

Boswell's intense geniality represented the other side of the coin. "Let me value my forwardness," he once wrote in his journal. "It has procured me much happiness. I do not think it impudence. It is an eagerness to share the best society, and a diligence to attain what I desire." As a junior Scottish aristocrat doing the Grand Tour across Europe, he stalked and charmed the great, like Rousseau and Voltaire, and in his maturity he could always be relied upon to surround himself with the choicest talents of the age: Hume, Garrick, Reynolds, Goldsmith, to name just a few, and, of course, Johnson.

Boswell and Johnson first met in the parlour behind Thomas Davies' bookshop in May 1763. Boswell was 22, Johnson 30 years his senior. It was love almost at first sight. Taking Boswell's hand at the Mitre tavern one night shortly after they met, Johnson declared, "My dear Boswell I do love you very much." For Boswell, Johnson was inevitably a father figure (his relationship with his own father, the Laird of Auchinleck, being decidedly rocky), but also a validation of the direction of his own peculiar literary talents. At once the record of Johnson's conversation became "the crowning justification" of Boswell's journal, and by the early 1770s the idea of writing Johnson's Life had crystallised in his mind.

Fanny Burney once referred to Boswell as "that biographical, anecdotal memorandummer"; and the Life of Johnson, published in 1791, seven years after Johnson's death, has often had to be defended from the charge that it is fundamentally a random collection of anecdotes. There can now be little doubt of the accuracy of Boswell's reportage, as the Malahide and other material has revealed the sophistication of Boswell's memory, and the way in which he was so imbued with "the Johnsonian aether" that he could authentically reconstruct Johnson's conversations from his notes (he was, after all, by training, a legal advocate). But the scale of his achievement amounted to much more: his art was not simply concerned with the transcription of life, but with its skilful mimesis. As Martin comments, in his rich detail of countless living moments which enable the reader to "live o'er each scene", Boswell was the first "mimetic biographer".

He was also perhaps the first biographer to navigate successfully that hazardous boundary between reticence and revelation, between what the general reading public considers good and bad taste in the retailing of a life. Of course, he was widely criticised for his lack of discretion in his deprecation of the living as well as the dead, and for his record of casual conversation, and his biographical legacy would be obscured by the decorum of his Victorian successors. But as we reach, arguably, the end of a 30-year golden age of biography in Britain, with a trend towards the increasing blurring of what can be defined as biographical and what as purely fictional in our life writing, it is time to salute Boswell again as the master of the genre.

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