Books: The lad of many parts

A Life of James Boswell by Peter Martin Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25, 613pp: Sixteen bouts of gonorrhoea failed to dent a huge appetite for life.

The usual perception of James Boswell is of a vain, egotistical, amoral, neurotic, buffoonish exhibitionist, a foil to his mentor Samuel Johnson, who appears as the Socrates of the story - erudite, incisive, wise, humane, dignified, witty. To put it another way, Boswell is forever the Watson to Johnson's Sherlock Holmes, the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.

The greatest quality of Peter Martin's impressive revisionist biography is the way it subverts these conventional expectations. He persuades me that Boswell was a better writer than Johnson and had a finer mind. Johnson's reputation is absurdly overblown. He was insanely jealous of all his more gifted contemporaries, and there were many, from Wilkes to Hume. The good doctor did not know how to argue a case, and if Boswell disagreed with him, he lost his temper or sulked. Johnson's idea of conversation was essentially that of the pampered star on a modern chat show. He expected that whatever he said, however fatuous, would be greeted with nods, smiles and laughter.

Where Johnson was riddled with political bigotry (any proposal to narrow the scandalous gap between rich and poor in the 18th century was derided as "levelling down"), misogyny (Martin cites half a dozen shocking examples and suggests that Johnson might have had problems achieving normal orgasm), and racism (with Americans and Scots particularly featuring in his demonology), Boswell was always more alive to nuance, ambiguity and what Keats called "negative capability". Most of all, he was a more complete human being. Maybe at times Martin overdoes this side of Boswell, especially in the meticulous examination of the multitudinous sexual escapades, but he faces his subject's satyriasis with admirable clarity.

Boswell was a writer of genius who wasted much of his talent pursuing a futile career as an advocate in Scotland and a barrister in England. As an advocate he was a highly skilled propagandist for his clients and a courageous, even foolhardy, defence counsel.

Unlike Johnson, who was a trimmer, Boswell was a natural rebel - not a useful characteristic for a lawyer. His zest for life and curiosity about others was inexhaustible. His charm and charisma must have been literally fabulous, for he could win over almost any human being he set his sights on.

Boswell would write to chosen luminaries, asking for an interview and pointing out that he was "of singular merit". Intrigued, the targets would invariably have to meet the boastful young man who penned such words and when they did, they were hooked. Boswell gate-crashed where others feared to tread and successively won the friendship and respect of Rousseau, Voltaire, Paoli, Wilkes, Hume, Lord Kames, Goldsmith and, of course, Johnson. The only literary celebrity to resist the charm was Horace Walpole, possibly because his closet homosexuality could find no common ground with the Scot's rampant heterosexuality.

Boswell wrote thousands of words each day, either in journals or for publication. The sources for his life are probably the most copious for any 18th-century figure, and Martin has mastered them. The snag is that writing a life of Boswell is a kind of Hegelian task, for he was involved in all the main currents of European politics and culture from 1750 to 1790.

Fully to comprehend Boswell, one must not only vanquish the mountain of primary material at Yale and elsewhere but also be expert in the most heterogeneous fields: Rousseau and Voltaire studies, the empiricist philosophy of Berkeley and Hume, 18th-century cabinet government, the Scottish legal system, Corsica, crime and punishment, Jacobitism, the history of the Highlands. It is scarcely a criticism of Martin to say that he sometimes lacks the depth of knowledge to contextualise Boswell properly, but I did find his treatment of the famous tour of the Hebrides with Johnson in 1773-74 let down by a less than complete grasp of the Jacobite dimension. There are many better accounts extent of this jaunt in the Highlands.

On the other hand, there is no aspect of Boswell's life - whether it be his defence of the American colonists against Johnson's imprecations, his morbid liking for public executions, his rivalry with Hester Thrale Piozzi as Johnson's most trusted confidante, his chequered relationship with Henry Dundas (for 30 years effectively the ruler of Scotland), and his troubled family relationships with disapproving father, imbecile brother and long-suffering wife - where Martin does not have valuable insights to convey. He rightly makes Boswell's hypochondria a central theme but does not, in my view, probe deeply enough to uncover the roots of his melancholia. The judgement that Boswell was "like an actor on a stage surrounded by mirrors, each reflecting back at him the multiple aspects of his mind" is disappointingly anodyne. Such a judgement could be passed on almost any interesting human being.

Martin is at his best when dealing with Boswell's prodigious sexual appetite. He even tells us which woman gave him the most pleasure in bed - the dissolute adventuress, forger and perjurer Margaret Caroline Rudd.

The hundreds of women Boswell slept with produced no less than 16 separate bouts of gonorrhoea. Here we surely have the Victor Hugo syndrome, the prolific writer who is also a legendary womaniser.

One vulgar wag said that Boswell was fertile both upstairs and downstairs. His two overriding aims in life were to possess women and compete with gifted men; when he slept with Rousseau's mistress Therese Le Vasseur, he achieved, as it were, the grand slam of making love to a woman allegedly "possessed" by the most original mind of his age.

Johnson may have proved that the pen was mightier than the phallic sword, but in Boswell's case it was a close-run thing.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas