It was 250 years ago last Thursday, at about 7pm, that the most famous meeting in the history of English literature took place in the back parlour of a bookseller in Covent Garden. James Boswell, the 9th Laird of Auchinleck, was sitting there quietly drinking his tea when in walked Samuel Johnson. The two eventually became firm friends, Boswell started to document everything that Johnson said and did, and the art of biography as we know it was born.
The two men did not immediately hit it off. In Boswell's own contemporary journals, which were discovered in the 1920s in the stables of a castle in Malahide, Ireland, Boswell disclosed: "Mr Johnson is a man of a most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king's evil [scrofula scars]. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect …. He has great humour and is a worthy man. But his dogmatical roughness of manners is disagreeable. I shall mark what I remember of his conversation." The 22-year-old Boswell's first words to 53-year-old Johnson, who was rumoured not to like Scots, were: "Indeed, I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it." The famously witty Johnson replied: "Sir, that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help."
To begin with, Boswell was "so wrapt in admiration of his extraordinary colloquial talents that I found it extremely difficult to recollect and record his conversation with its genuine vigour and vivacity." But in his Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791, he records faithfully the telling details of everyday life with the great man. One typical conversation concerned Johnson's collection of orange peelings. "I have a great love for them," Johnson explained. "And pray, Sir, what do you do with them? You scrape them, it seems, very neatly, and what next?" "I let them dry, Sir." "And what next?" "Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further."
A celebratory breakfast was held on Thursday in the drawing room at the office of the publisher John Murray – the very office in which Byron's memoirs were burnt by John Murray II in 1824 for fear that the scandals in them would ruin the poet's reputation. John Sessions read from Boswell's London Journal. "Today Bozzy might have his own chat show," he told The IoS. "Dr Johnson would also be a natural in such a setting. Never underestimate Bozzy. He is sometimes daft, always philandering, and often drunk or hungover, but his love for Johnson in no way diminishes the shrewdness of his observation."
The Boswell Book Festival, dedicated to biography and memoir, takes place this weekend at his home, Auchinleck House in Ayrshire (boswellbookfestival.co.uk). Today, John Sessions reprises his role as Boswell, James Robertson talks about his latest novel, based on the Lockerbie bombing, and the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury, and Tam Dalyell discuss their ancestors and the houses built by them.
Biographies of Boswell include Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task: Writing the Life of Dr Johnson and Iain Finlayson's The Moth and the Candle: A Life of James Boswell.
James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson is available in an Everyman's Library edition at £14.99; a Penguin Classics edition for £20; and a Wordsworth Editions copy for just £3.99 – among others.
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