Boswell was born in Edinburgh in 1740 into a strict family, his father, Lord Auchinleck, being a lawyer and eventually a senior judge, and his mother a Calvinist. He studied at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities before escaping to London, where he discovered much about society, women, and himself. When his father arrived to fetch him back, he was suffering with gonorrhoea, the first of many bouts he was to contract in his life.
Having come of age, Boswell returned to London in 1762 determined to secure a commission in the foot guards. There he fell in with Andrew Erskine, an army officer, and George Dempster, a young, wealthy, and newly-elected MP from Scotland. Among many others, he met Oliver Goldsmith and the radical politician John Wilkes. Towards the end of his sojourn in the capital, he became firm friends with Samuel Johnson, 30 years his senior. They would meet and spend significant amounts of time together until the end of Johnson’s life in 1784.
Having given up the idea of an army commission, Boswell moved to Utrecht in 1763 to continue studying law, but then embarked on a Grand Tour around Europe. On his way he became more friendly with Wilkes, exiled in Italy, and he met Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who persuaded him of Corsica’s right to liberty from Genoa. This idea underpinned his first successful book - published in 1768 - that gave an account of his experiences on the island, and of his friendship with the independence leader Pasquale Paoli: An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to That Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli.
Boswell moved back to Edinburgh, where he completed his law studies, and where he went on to practise as an advocate for the best part of two decades. He married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, with whom he had two sons and three daughters who survived into adulthood. He also had at least two extramarital children. A couple of years after inheriting the Auchinleck title on the death of his father in 1782, Boswell moved his family to London. He was called to the English bar from the Inner Temple, but rarely practised, preferring to concentrate on his writing.
For several years after the first book on Corsica, Boswell’s only published writings were essays in a periodical called London Journal, under the title The Hypochondriack. However, a year after Johnson’s death, he edited a diary he had kept of a tour he took with Johnson in the Highlands and Western islands of Scotland. Johnson, himself, had already published an account of that tour - Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland - ten years earlier. Whereas Johnson’s writing was generalised and philosophical, Boswell’s diary - The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides - proved to be more entertaining, both anecdotal and gossipy, as well as rich in observant detail.
The Journal of a Tour was a commercial success, foreshadowing Boswell’s future, and now famous, biography - The Life of Samuel Johnson - first published by Charles Dilly in 1791. Gordon Turnbull’s entry for Boswell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says The Life ‘remains the most famous biography in any language, one of Western literature’s most germinal achievements: unprecedented in its time in its depth of research and its extensive use of private correspondence and recorded conversation, it sought to dramatize its subject in his authorial greatness and formidable social presence, and at the same time treat him with a profound sympathy and inhabit his inner life.’ (Many editions of this are freely available online at Internet Archive.)
Boswell’s last years are known to have been rather unhappy ones. His wife died in 1789, and though his children loved him dearly, he was unsatisfied with his achievements. He drank excessively and continued to indulge in other vices. Moreover, his eccentricities became increasingly self-indulgent making him a difficult guest. He lived to see a second edition of The Life of Samuel Johnson in 1793, but died on 19 May 1795. Further information is readily available at Wikipedia, NNDB, or Thomas Frandzen’s Boswell website.
Both Boswell’s early published diaries - The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and An Account of Corsica - can be found online at Internet Archive. It was not until the 20th century that any more diaries came to light. After Boswell’s death, his executors, and then his heirs, considered it prudent to keep his papers secret (because they contained intimate details). They were then kept in the archives at the Auchinleck estate for many years, until they passed from one great grand-daughter to another who, having married Lord Talbot de Malahide, lived at Malahide Castle, north of Dublin. There, in the 1920s, a large stash of Boswell’s private papers was discovered, including diaries. They were bought by the American collector Ralph H. Isham, and are now mostly archived at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The story of how Isham acquired Boswell’s papers and how they were brought to publication is the subject of more than one book.
Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763 - the first of many Boswell publications by Yale - was edited by the Boswell scholar, Frederick A. Pottle, and came out in 1950. The publishers (Yale in the US and Heinemann in the UK) did not hold back in their admiration: ‘The Boswell Papers are the largest and most important find of English literary manuscripts ever made;’ and, ‘The incredible fact about Boswell’s London Journal is that it is an entirely new book.’ This is the most famous and popular of Boswell’s published journals. Perhaps because it is the only one that survived expurgation by family members - and is a racy read. Boswell’s comings and goings as a young man (he was only 22) in London are interesting enough, but it is the way he examines his own psyche, and records the dilemmas he finds there, particularly those of a sexual nature, that makes this book so extraordinary for its time. Indeed, this constant self-examination by Boswell of Boswell feels very modern.
Here are several extracts from Boswell’s London Journal.
26 November 1762
‘I was much difficulted about lodgings. A variety I am sure I saw, I dare say fifty. I was amused in this way. At last I fixed in Downing Street, Westminster. I took a lodging up two pair of stairs with the use of a handsome parlour all the forenoon, for which I agreed to pay forty guineas a year [later bargained down to £22], but I took it for a fortnight first, by way of a trial. I also made bargain that I should dine with the family whenever I pleased, at a shilling a time. [. . .] The street was a genteel street, within a few steps of the Parade; near the House of Commons, and very healthful.’
14 December 1762
‘It is very curious to think that I have now been in London several weeks without ever enjoying the delightful sex, although I am surrounded with numbers of free-hearted ladies of all kinds: from the splendid Madam at fifty guineas a night, down to the civil nymph with white-thread stockings who tramps along the Strand and will resign her engaging person to your honour for a pint of wine and a shilling. Manifold are the reasons for this my present wonderful continence. I am upon a plan of economy, and therefore cannot be at the expense of first-rate dames. I have suffered severely from loathsome distemper, and therefore shudder at the thoughts of running any risk of having it again. Besides, the surgeons’ fees in this city come very high. But the greatest reason of all is that fortune, or rather benignant Venus, has smiled upon me and favoured me so far that I have had the most delicious intrigues with women of beauty, sentiment, and spirit, perfectly suited to my romantic genius.’
15 December 1762
‘The enemies of the people of England who would have them considered in the worst light represent them as selfish, beef-eaters, and cruel. In this view I resolved today to be a true-born Old Englishman. I went into the City to Dolly’s Steak-house in Paternoster Row and swallowed my dinner by myself to fulfill [sic] the charge of selfishness; I had a large fat beefsteak to fulfil the charge of beef-eating; and I went at five o’clock to the Royal Cockpit in St James’s Park and saw cock-fighting for about five hours to fulfill [sic] the charge of cruelty.
A beefsteak-house is a most excellent place to dine at. You come in there to a warm, comfortable, large room, where a number of people are sitting at table. You take whatever place you find empty; call for what you like, which you get well and cleverly dressed. You may either chat or not as you like. Nobody minds you, and you pay very reasonably. My dinner (beef, bread and beer and waiter) was only a shilling. The waiters make a great deal of money by these pennies. Indeed, I admire the English for attending to small sums, as many smalls make a great, according to the proverb.
At five I filled my pockets with gingerbread and apples (quite the method), put on my old clothes and laced hat, laid by my watch, purse and pocket-book, and with oaken stick in my hand sallied to the pit. I was too soon there. So I went into a low inn, sat down amongst a parcel of arrant blackguards, and drank some beer. [. . .] I then went to the cockpit, which is a circular room in the middle of which the cocks fight. It is seated round with rows gradually rising. The pit and the seats are all covered with mat. The cocks, nicely cut and dressed and armed with silver heels, are set down and fight with amazing bitterness and resolution. Some of them were quickly dispatched. One pair fought three-quarters of an hour. The uproar and noise of betting is prodigious. A great deal of money made a quick circulation from hand to hand. There was a number of professed gamblers there. An old cunning dog whose face I had seen at Newmarket sat by me a while. I told him I knew nothing of the matter. “Sir,” said he, “you have as good a chance as anybody.” [. . .] I was shocked to see the distraction and anxiety of the betters. I was sorry for the poor cocks. I looked around to see if any of the spectators pitied them when mangled and torn in a most cruel manner, but I could not observe the smallest relenting sign in any countenance. I was therefore not ill pleased to see them endure mental torment. Thus did I complete my true English day, and came home pretty much fatigued and pretty much confounded at the strange turn of this people.’
17 December 1762
‘I mentioned to Sheridan [Thomas Sheridan, actor, and father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan] how difficult it was to be acquainted with people of fashion in London: that they have a reserve and a forbidding shyness to strangers. He accounted for it thus: “The strangers that come here are idle and unemployed; they don’t know what to do, and they are anxious to get acquaintances. Whereas the genteel people, who have lived long in town, have got acquaintances enough; their time is all filled up. And till they find a man particularly worth knowing, they are very backward. But when you once get their friendship, you have them firm to you.” ’
19 January 1763
‘This was a day eagerly expected by [George] Dempster [a young and wealthy, newly-elected MP from Scotland], [Andrew] Erskine [a lieutenant], and I, as it was fixed as the period of our gratifying a whim proposed by me: which was that on the first day of the new tragedy called Elvira’s being acted, we three should walk from the one end of London to the other, dine at Dolly’s, and be in the theatre at night; and as the play would probably be bad, and as Mr David Malloch, the author, who has changed his name to David Mallet, Esq. was an arrant puppy, we determined to exert ourselves in damning it.
I this morning felt the stronger symptoms of the sad distemper, yet I was unwilling to imagine such a thing. However, the severe exercise of today, joined with hearty eating and drinking, I was sure would confirm or remove my suspicions.
We walked up to Hyde Park Corner, from whence we set out at ten. Our spirits were high with the notion of the adventure, and the variety that we met with as we went is amazing. As the Spectator observes, one end of London is like a different country from the other in look and in manners. We eat an excellent breakfast at the Somerset Coffee-house. We turned down Gracechurch Street and went up on the top of London Bridge, from whence we viewed with a pleasing horror the rude and terrible appearance of the river, partly froze up, partly covered with enormous shoals of floating ice which often crashed against each other. [. . .] We went half a mile beyond the turnpike at Whitechapel, which completed our course, and went into a little public house and drank some warm white wine with aromatic spices, pepper and cinnamon. We were pleased with the neat houses upon the road. [. . .] We had some port, and drank damnation to the play and eternal remorse to the author. We then went to the Bedford Coffee-house and had coffee and tea; and just as the doors opened at four o’clock, we sallied into the house, planted ourselves in the middle of the pit, and with oaken cudgels in our hands and shrill-sounding catcalls in our pockets, sat ready prepared, with a generous resentment in our breasts against dullness and impudence, to be the swift ministers of vengeance. [. . .] [The three of them went on to write a highly critical pamphlet about Elvira.]
The evening was passed most cheerfully. When I got home, though, then came sorrow. Too, too plain was Signor Gonorrhoea.’
25 March 1763
‘As I was coming home this night, I felt carnal inclinations raging through my frame. I determined to gratify them. I went to St James’s Park, and, like Sir John Brute [a character from John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife], picked up a whore. For the first time did I engage in armour, which I found but a dull satisfaction. She who submitted to my lusty embraces was a young Shropshire girl, only seventeen, very well-looked, her name Elizabeth Parker. Poor thing, she has a sad time of it!’
3 May 1763
‘I walked up to the Tower in order see Mr Wilkes come out. [Wilkes, a radical journalist and MP, who had been arrested on a general warrant that soon proved inadequate to keep him in prison]. But he was gone. I then thought I should see prisoners of one kind or another, so went to Newgate. I stepped into a sort of court before the cells. They are surely most dismal places. There are three rows of ‘em, four in a row, all above each other. They have double iron windows, and within these, strong iron rails; and in these dark mansions are the unhappy criminals confined. I did not go in, but stood in the court, where were a number of strange blackguard beings with sad countenances, most of them being friends and acquaintances of those under sentence of death. [. . .]
Erskine and I dined at the renowned Donaldon’s, where we were heartily entertained. All this afternoon I felt myself still more melancholy, Newgate being upon my mind like a black cloud.’
4 May 1763
‘My curiosity to see the melancholy spectacle of the executions was so strong that I could not resist it, although I was sensible that I would suffer much from it. In my younger years I had read in the Lives of the Convicts so much about Tyburn that I had a sort of horrid eagerness to be there. [. . .] I got upon a scaffold very near the fatal tree, so that [I] could clearly see all the dismal scene. There was a most prodigious crowd of spectators. I was most terribly shocked, and thrown into a very deep melancholy.’
19 July 1763
‘At eleven I went to St Paul’s Church; walked up to the whispering gallery, which is a most curious thing. I had here the mortification to observe the noble paintings in the ceiling of the Cupola area a good deal damaged by the moisture of winter, I then went up to the roof of the Cupola, and went out upon the leads, and walked around it. I went up to the highest storey of roof. Here I had the immense prospect of London and its environs. London gave me no great idea. I just saw a prodigious group of tiled roofs and narrow lanes opening here and there, for the streets and beauty of the buildings cannot be observed on account of the distance. The Thames and the country around, the beautiful hills of Hampstead and of Highgate looked very fine. And yet I did not feel the same enthusiasm that I have felt some time ago at viewing these rich prospects.’
30 July 1763
‘Mr [Samuel] Johnson and I took a boat and sailed down the silver Thames. I asked him if a knowledge of the Greek and Roman languages was necessary. He said, “By all means; for they who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, it is surprising what a difference it makes upon people in the intercourse of life which does not appear to be much connected with it.’
“And yet,” said I “people will go through the world very well and do their business very well without them.”
“Why,” said he, “that may be true where they could not possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without literature as if he could sing the song which Orpheus sung to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors in the world.” He then said to the boy, “What would you give, Sir, to know about the Argonauts?”
“Sir,” he said, “I would give what I have.” The reply pleased Mr Johnson much, and we gave him a double fare.
“Sir,” he said, “a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every man who is not debauched would give all that he has to get knowledge.”
We landed at the Old Swan and walked to Billingsgate, where we took oars and moved smoothly along the river. We were entertained with the immense number and variety of ships that were lying at anchor. It was a pleasant day, and when we got clear out into the country, we were charmed with the beautiful fields on each side of the river. [. . .]
When we got to Greenwich, I felt great pleasure in being at the place which Mr Johnson celebrates in his London: a Poem. I had the poem in my pocket, and read the passage on the banks of the Thames, and literally “kissed the consecrated earth.” ’
4 August 1763
‘This is now my last day in London before I set out upon my travels, and makes a very important period in my journal. Let me recollect my life since this journal began. Has it not passed like a dream? Yes, but I have been attaining a knowledge of the world. I came to town to go into the Guards. How different is my scheme now! I am upon a less pleasurable but a more rational and lasting plan. Let me pursue it with steadiness and I may be a man of dignity. My mind is strangely agitated. I am happy to think of going upon my travels and seeing the diversity of foreign parts; and yet my feeble mind shrinks somewhat at the idea of leaving Britain in so very short a time from the moment in which I now make this remark. How strange must I feel myself in foreign parts. My mind too is gloomy and dejected at the thoughts of leaving London, where I am so comfortably situated and where I have enjoyed most happiness. However, I shall be the happier for being abroad, as long as I live. Let me be manly. Let me commit myself to the care of my merciful creator.’
The Diary Junction