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Boswell Reading Boswell: a Chapter in Autobiographical Misconstruction

Boswell lit Boswell : un chapitre sur le contresens autobiographique

Allan Ingram

Résumé

James Boswell, like any contemporary Scottish or English gentleman, was a wide reader, schooled in the classics and, of course, in the greats of the vernacular, especially Shakespeare, Addison and, of his immediate contemporaries, Johnson. Boswell's reading, however, was not at all systematic, or systematisable. Except in his legal practice, where he often records reading solidly and unenthusiastically for a particular case, he tended to read as the mood took him, and often altogether without solidity. But Boswell's reading was in one respect distinctive, even thorough, and certainly directed towards understanding one thing as clearly as possible, even if filled with misreadings and misconstructions. He read his own journal, and the intention was to understand himself. My point is that Boswell made a conscious and sustained attempt with the Life of Johnson to edit himself into a less mockable, less amusing, less frivolous narrative figure for the purposes of public consumption, and thereby into a more consistent, less shaming, less volatile individual for his own consumption than in the journals that provided the fundamental reading material for the lives of Boswell and of Johnson

James Boswell, comme tout gentleman écossais ou anglais de son époque, était un grand liseur. Il avait reçu une éducation classique et étudié, bien sûr, les grands auteurs de langue anglaise, notamment Shakespeare ou Addison, ou encore, parmi ses proches contemporains, Johnson. Cependant les lectures de Boswell n'étaient en rien méthodiques ni réductibles à une méthode. Sauf dans le cadre de sa profession de juriste, où, pour une affaire précise, il remarque souvent avoir effectué des lectures assidues mais dépourvues de plaisir, il avait tendance à lire selon son humeur et le plus souvent sans aucune constance. Mais, il est une lecture que Boswell faisait de façon différente, voire avec grand intérêt, dans le seul but de comprendre le mieux possible ce qu'il lisait, même s'il lui arrivait souvent de passer à côté du sens ou de la construction du texte: c'était son propre journal et son but était de se comprendre lui-même. Mon propos est de montrer, que dans Life of Johnson, Boswell a consciemment et énergiquement tenté de faire paraître de lui-même une image différente de celle que renfermaient ses journaux intimes qui avaient servi de sources primaires aux vies de Boswell et de Johnson: aux yeux du public, à travers un personnage de fiction moins frivole, moins comique et moins ridicule, et donc, à ses propres yeux, sous les traits d'un individu moins versatile, moins humiliant et plus équilibré

Texte intégral

  • 1 See F.A. Pottle, The Literary Career of James Boswell Esq., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1929 (1967 ed (...)

1James Boswell, like any contemporary Scottish or English gentleman, was a wide reader, schooled in the classics — he read Latin well, though in his Hypochondriack essays he always quotes the Roman authors both in translation and in the original — and, of course, in the greats of the vernacular (that is English vernacular rather than Gaelic), especially Shakespeare, Addison and, of his immediate contemporaries, Johnson. One letter he published in the London Chronicle in October 1781, asking for a recipe for detecting and destroying bookworms, was signed “A Constant Reader.”1 If this implies a more pressing interest in the materiality of the books themselves rather than the substance of his reading (and Johnson, who was notoriously cavalier in his treatment of books as artefacts, stands as an obvious contrast here), evidence of Boswell's everyday familiarity with a good range of authors, past and present, is conspicuous both in his journals and in his published works, especially in The Hypochondriack, where he frequently appears to be quoting from memory — not least because of the multitude of mistakes, both in his Latin and his English. When reading is in fact recollection of reading, there is scope for error to slip in unspotted.

  • 2 James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ed. R.W. Chapman, Oxf (...)
  • 3 James Boswell, Boswell's Journal of A Tour to the Hebrides, ed. F.A. Pottle and C.H. Bennett, Lond (...)

2While touring the Hebrides, of course, with Johnson, it is “Ogden on Prayer” (made notorious by Rowlandson's frequent sightings of the volume in The Picturesque Beauties of Boswell, peeping out of Boswell's pocket) to which he has constant recourse, both for pleasure and, in case of need, for the business of self-reassurance. On Friday, 20 August, at St Andrews, he actually “read some of it to the company” at breakfast, to Johnson's approval.2 On the evening of Sunday, 17 October, at Inchkenneth, he reads aloud in the family of Sir Allan McLean “Ogden's second and ninth Sermons on Prayer, which, with their other distinguished excellence,” he observes, “have the merit of being short” (p. 380). And, more privately, in a passage which appears in full only in the manuscript journal, Boswell, terrified of drowning in a storm off the island of Coll, “prayed fervently to God” but “was confused, for I remember I used a strange expression: that if it should please him to preserve me, I would behave ten times better.” He is disturbed “by objections against a particular providence and against hoping that the petitions of an individual would have any influence with the Divinity; [...] but Dr. Ogden's excellent doctrine on the efficacy of intercession prevailed.”3 If this indicates the precise use to which some of Boswell's reading was put, why he chose it, why he carried it with him, under what circumstances it could be utilised, it also suggests that certain features of his learning's practicality was not for public consumption, or at least not in unedited form. Equally silent is the description in the published journal of Boswell reading aloud, to himself this time, in the cathedral on Iona. It is Ogden again, and again there is a private, but very specific, reason for the reading:

I then went into the cathedral, which is really grand enough when one thinks of its antiquity and of the remoteness of the place; and at the end, I offered up my adorations to GOD. I again addressed a few words to Saint Columbus; and I warmed my soul with religious resolutions. [...] I hoped that ever after having been in this holy place, I should maintain an exemplary conduct. One has a strange propensity to fix upon some point from whence a better course of life may be said to begin. I read with an audible voice the fifth chapter of St. James, and Dr. Ogden's tenth sermon. I suppose there has not been a sermon preached in this church since the Reformation. I had a serious joy in hearing my voice, while it was filled with Ogden's admirable eloquence, resounding in the ancient cathedral of Icolmkill. (p. 336)

3There is public reading and private reading, sometimes, as in the Tour, of the same text, and sometimes even the public performance of reading is for a private audience, being privately motivated. Here is one significant aspect of Boswell's reading.

  • 4 Robert De Maria Jr., Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Pr (...)
  • 5 James Boswell, Boswell's Column 1777-1783, ed. Margery Bailey, London, William Kimber, 1951, p. 2 (...)

4At the same time he was a lazy reader. Johnson's reading was not only enormous in quantity but it was, as Robert De Maria Jr. has shown, both systematic and categorised. “Study,” for Johnson, says De Maria, was serious and difficult reading — the New Testament in Greek was the model here. “Perusal,” on the other hand, was reading that was “purposeful, attentive, yet relatively easy,”4 and included reading to gather materials for a specific purpose, which formed the bulk of his professional reading. It was this mode that enabled Johnson to devour so prodigious a quantity of books and in so wide a variety of circumstances. “Mere” reading was reading for amusement, and included journals and newspapers, while “curious” reading was of “romance and other kinds of fiction” (p. 179). Boswell was not at all so systematic, or systematisable. Except in his legal practice, where he often records reading solidly and unenthusiastically for a particular case, he tended to read as the mood took him, and often altogether without solidity. Boswell cut corners. Even his misquoting of lines from Hamlet in The Hypochondriack — “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable, To me seem all the uses of this world”5 — indicates how little he had assimilated rhythms when reading Shakespearian lines. He expresses elsewhere his admiration for the art of abridgement, as if at bottom language matters less to him than content, which he would prefer to acquire with as little effort as possible. “It is wonderful,” he writes in his journal for Monday 15 July, 1782 (and he has been reading “a curious little book called A Two Years'Journal in New York”),

  • 6 James Boswell, Boswell Laird of Auchinleck, 1778-1782, ed. Joseph W. Reed and Frederick Pottle, Ed (...)

It is wonderful how much substance may be contained in a few sheets. Abridging is an excellent art. I really believe that a folio might be boiled into a small duo-decimo. Newbery's little books for children have epitomised Tom Jones and other works to admiration.6

5And he clearly has great fondness for the leisure reading of his own childhood, when, apparently, only the story mattered — stripped both of style and, in Tom Jones's case, we must assume, of the viciousness attributed to it by Johnson. In July 1763, in London, he visits “the old printing-office in Bow Churchyard kept by Dicey.” “There,” he writes in his journal,

  • 7 James Boswell, Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763, ed. Frederick A. Pottle, Harmondsworth, Pengui (...)

are ushered into the world of literature Jack and the Giants, The Seven Wise Men of Gotham, and other story-books which in my dawning years amused me as much as Rasselas does now. I saw the whole scheme with a kind of pleasing romantic feeling to find myself really where all my old darlings were printed. I bought two dozen of the story-books and had them bound up with this title, Curious Productions.7

6The comparison with Rasselas, which he describes elsewhere in the London Journal as “delighting the fancy” (p. 317) might suggest that as a mature reader Boswell has, in fact, progressed little beyond the sophistication of Jack and the Giants. Even his beloved Ogden is picked up at one point in the Hebrides trip by the truly mature reader, Johnson: “Ogden, too, he sometimes took up, and glanced at;” notes Boswell, “but threw it down again” (p. 214). Too short, no doubt.

  • 8 James Boswell, Boswell, The Ominous Years, 1774-1776, ed. Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle, (...)

7As Peter Martin has pointed out, Boswell was keenly aware of the disadvantages his sloppy reading brought him. Quite simply he lacked solidity, not only when measured against readers of real substance like Johnson but against his more ordinary friends, including Sir John Pringle, the physician, who told him: “You know nothing.”8 He owned in his journal: “There is an imperfection, a superficialness, in all my notions. I understand nothing clearly, nothing to the bottom. I pick up fragments, but never have in my memory a mass of any size” (p. 203). But Boswell's reading was in one respect distinctive, even thorough, and certainly directed towards understanding one thing as clearly as possible, even if filled with misreadings and misconstructions. He read his own journal, and the intention was to understand himself.

8That said, the enterprise of self-reading towards self-knowledge is hazardous and filled with distractions. The first declared aim of keeping a journal, as expressed at the beginning of the London Journal, was for Boswell to follow the “ancient” precept, “Know thyself:”

A man cannot know himself better than by attending to the feelings of his heart and to his external actions, from which he may with tolerable certainty judge “what manner of person he is.” I have therefore determined to keep a daily journal in which I shall set down my various sentiments and my various conduct, which will be not only useful but very agreeable, (p. 65)

  • 9 Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape, London, Faber and Faber, 1959, p. 17.

9If “agreeable” is already a pointer to the distractions that reading oneself later might afford, the journal's proposed usefulness is more likely to fall foul of the hazards that passing time brings to the act of re-reading, or revisiting, the self of earlier years. “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago,” Samuel Beckett has his main character, Krapp, observe in Krapp's Last Tape, “hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that's all done with anyway.”9 Boswell found, equally, that disillusion could set in on second, or subsequent, readings. Not always, of course. In 1780 he read himself in 1762 and 1763. He is in Edinburgh, gloomy, and with a Memorial in a law case to prepare. “But,” he writes,

  • 10 James Boswell, Boswell Laird of Auchinleck, p. 177.

I thought I would look into my journal in London in 1762, that I might console myself in Edinburgh by being reminded that I had been as weary and melancholy in London as here. And I was so engaged by my own life that I read on all the time that I had appropriated to the Memorial.10

10Even here, though, he concludes his reading with feeling “sickened in mind by reviewing my own sickly weakness.” Later that same year, he again records reading “a good deal of my London journal in 1762 and 1763, and was humbled by my weakness” (p. 223). Reading the past, apparently, depends to a large extent upon the purpose and mood of the present. Interpretation is all, a point made by Boswell himself, at a younger, happier period, with relish. “According to the humour which I am in when I read it,” he writes in 1764,

  • 11 James Boswell, Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764, ed. Frederick A. Pottle, (...)

I judge of my past adventures, and not from what is really recorded. If I am in gay spirits, I read an account of so much existence and I think, “Sure I have been very happy.” If I am gloomy, I think, “Sure I have passed much uneasy time, or at best, much insipid time.” Thus I think without regard to the real fact as written.11

11Substance, apparently, is nowhere, no more than the “manner of person” James Boswell is. It all depends upon the impression.

12This was a troubling issue. Boswell in 1764 was capable of relishing transitoriness, passage, surface and impressions, indeed of delighting in being the fleeting creature of brilliant fancy, though he was also capable of the kind of dark mood and behaviour that he would later find humbling in the reading. By his middle age, however, he looked for more solid evidence of himself. The fleeting, the superficial, the fragmentary, no longer had such attraction. He was too often too miserable. If reading the past brought no security, then what was the point of having recorded it, so laboriously, for so many years, and what was the point, now, of reading it? Indeed, what was the point of accumulating yet more “existence” for an equally humbling reading in years to come?

13These issues come together in, and are crucial to the success of, The Life of Johnson. Often, during the course of the Life, we are obliged to listen “to that stupid bastard” Boswell took himself for all his life, not because of Boswell the narrator of the biography but because of Boswell the participant, the liver through of the scenes and sequences that were so crucial a part of his biographical method. He does, however, do his best to minimise the damage. When Boswell set about mining the record of his own life to produce an account of his learned friend's, he was not only undertaking one of the most influential literary projects of the eighteenth century — equivalent, in its way, to Pope's Homer — but he was also revisiting that long accumulation of impressions, facts as written and sickly weaknesses in order to render it fit for publication. In so doing, he was undertaking a remaking of himself, as false to the “fact as written,” as he well knew, as any subsequent reading of it had been, but as central to the enterprise of biography as his apparently endless labours in seeking, verifying and documenting the minutest details about Johnson's life before and without Boswell. Without Boswell's falsification of Boswell, the Life of Johnson could not have been the major biographical influence that it became.

14Many of Boswell's own reading habits, as noted earlier, went into the deliberate misconstruction of himself. He was well practised, after all, in getting things wrong, often through imperfectly knowing them, or through reading them less than closely, or through misremembering. But he was well practised, too, in seizing the essence of what was important to him, either in an event, a spoken phrase, or a person, albeit something apparently peripheral to the main events taking place. If these features threaten to make the record that is his journal, and therefore the account that is the Life, less than reliable, they at the same time render his telling absolutely precise in terms of emotional authenticity, not least, of course, because it was Johnson, for Boswell, who provided the essence of so much that made a life, Boswell's life, more than an existence. Falsification of the self was a small price to pay if it allowed him to present the real knowledge as written of what Samuel Johnson had meant, to him and to the world.

  • 12 James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ed. George Birkbeck Hill, rev. L.F. Powell, Oxfo (...)

15Falsification in the Life is of a range of kinds, some of it conscious and cautious, some less deliberate, more deeply rooted in the kind of person, and kind of reader, that Boswell had acquiesced in becoming. At its most obvious, at least to a reader familiar with his journal, is the imposed anonymity, for example in conversations, whereby the Boswell that was “tossed and gored” is anonymised as “a gentleman who was present,” or “a young man who was uneasy from thinking that he was very deficient in learning.”12 Above and beyond such minor silences, though, is a whole revision of Boswell the participant and initiator, centre stage actor in his own life, sometimes, certainly, in order to take such credit as he felt was due to him (the stage management of the famous dinner with John Wilkes, for example), but as often in order to move himself aside from what he at other times read as whimsical, bewildering or humbling. An example, and perhaps a less than obvious one, is the treatment of the conversation at dinner, in company at Edward Dilly's house on 15 April 1778. At one point, Johnson becomes aggressive in his talk. Here is the passage from the journal:

  • 13 James Boswell, Boswell In Extremes, 1776-1778, ed. Charles Mc C. Weis and Frederick A. Pottle, Lon (...)

He then was a sad aggressor. For he said he was willing to love all mankind except an American; and his inflammable corruption taking horrible fire, he “breathed out slaughter,” calling them rascals and robbers and pirates, and he'd burn and destroy. Miss Seward said very well to him, “Sir, this is an instance that are always most violent against those whom we have injured.” This was a keen touch to him. He took it (and I suppose thought so) as applied to the Nation, and roared again, till he was absolutely hoarse. I sat in great uneasiness. It was truly a brutum fulmen. At last I got him led to some other subject.13

16While the episode is not one that could be considered humbling to Boswell in the recollection — indeed it is Johnson who might have felt some shame had he read it — there is, nevertheless, the danger of repenting the display by Johnson, repenting, even, the need to write it and, beyond that, the extent to which it might make Boswell question his own veneration of the man who, in his view, should have been himself humbled by the remembrance. This is Boswell considerably uneasy in the event, uneasy in the retelling, and grateful to have “got him led to some other subject.” They go on to talk of luxury, but before this Boswell inserts a distancing comparison, which would seem to help himself in the act of assimilating Johnson's shocking behaviour: “I said next day that his conversation this day was like a warm southern climate, where you have a bright sun, luxuriant foliage, luscious fruits. But where the same heat sometimes produces violent thunder and lightning or a terrible earthquake. The earthquake as to America came in the middle of ’his admirable reflections’” (p. 288). Johnson is ordered, if a little uneasily, into the scheme of things. Even earthquakes have their place. Small but significant changes, however, have taken place by the time the scene is recreated in the Life, including the omission of the earthquake. Johnson has been discussing friendship.

  • 14 James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ed. R.W. Chapman, Oxford, Oxford University Pres (...)

From this pleasing subject, he, I know not how or why, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American :” and he “breathed out threatenings and slaughter;” calling them, “Rascals — Robbers — Pirates;” and exclaiming, he'd “burn and destroy them.” Miss Seward, looking to him with mild but steady astonishment, said, “Sir, this is an instance that we are always most violent against those whom we have injured.” — He was irritated still more by this delicate and keen reproach; and roared out another tremendous volley which one might fancy could be heard across the Atlantic. During this tempest I sat in great uneasiness, lamenting his heat of temper; till, by degrees, I diverted his attention to other topicks.14

17Some aspects of the outburst, indeed, are emphasised, including the more dramatic quotation, as opposed to summary, of “Rascals — Robbers — Pirates.” But in other important ways Johnson's tirade has been toned down, made less coarse and less apparently unthinking. He no longer, for example, fails to see the point of Miss Seward's rebuke, and gone is Boswell's own comment, it was a “brutum fulmen.” Most conspicuously, his second bout of roaring, “till he was absolutely hoarse,” has the purely brutish taken out of it and replaced by a note of humour. It is now “another tremendous volley, which one might fancy could be heard across the Atlantic,” which does not quite turn Johnson into a figure of fun, yet softens the edges of his fury sufficiently to render it that much more acceptable within the company (note that it is now “his heat of temper” that Boswell specifically laments, rather than being uneasy, apparently, at the entire spectacle), and also, by implication, more acceptable to a community of readers. A subtle act of editorship has therefore taken place, more so if we acknowledge the real uneasiness caused to Boswell in the original scene, back in 1778. Johnson in the Life has been smoothed away from the thuggish and Boswell, originally humiliated not by his own behaviour but by association with his idol's, has managed to reread and reconstruct himself as friend of a personality, rather than henchman to a lout.

  • 15 On this see especially chapter 7 of my Boswell's Creative Gloom, London, Macmillan, 1982.

18Following his publication of the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in 1785 which had reprinted whole sections of his original journal with minimal alteration, Boswell had been largely crucified as a frivolous hanger-on to a larger reputation.15 My point, and it is my final one, is that Boswell made a conscious and sustained attempt with the Life to edit himself into a less mockable, less amusing, less frivolous narrative figure for the purposes of public consumption, and thereby into a more consistent, less shaming, less volatile individual for his own consumption than in the journals that provided the fundamental reading material for the lives of Boswell and of Johnson. This editing enterprise in its turn was virtually predestined by the kind of reader Boswell had been all his life: how could he not misread himself when it came to a public presentation of all he had been in the company of a man who was to represent all he admired? If the self that he wrote into the Life of Johnson, then, is a misconstruction, even further from the living self he was becoming than within the primary accounts on which it is based, it is nevertheless one that is essential to the Johnson that he knew and, equally, to the Boswell who was able to see himself through his own last difficult years to the conclusion of his project.

Notes

1 See F.A. Pottle, The Literary Career of James Boswell Esq., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1929 (1967 edn.), p. 248.

2 James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ed. R.W. Chapman, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1924 (1970 edn.), p. 202.

3 James Boswell, Boswell's Journal of A Tour to the Hebrides, ed. F.A. Pottle and C.H. Bennett, London, Heinemann, 1936, p. 249-50.

4 Robert De Maria Jr., Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1997, p. 105.

5 James Boswell, Boswell's Column 1777-1783, ed. Margery Bailey, London, William Kimber, 1951, p. 208.

6 James Boswell, Boswell Laird of Auchinleck, 1778-1782, ed. Joseph W. Reed and Frederick Pottle, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1993, p. 459.

7 James Boswell, Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763, ed. Frederick A. Pottle, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1966, p. 324.

8 James Boswell, Boswell, The Ominous Years, 1774-1776, ed. Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle, London, Heinemann, 1963, p. 147. Both this and the following quotation also cited in Peter Martin, A Life of James Boswell, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999, p. 348.

9 Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape, London, Faber and Faber, 1959, p. 17.

10 James Boswell, Boswell Laird of Auchinleck, p. 177.

11 James Boswell, Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764, ed. Frederick A. Pottle, London, Heinemann, 1953, p. 140.

12 James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ed. George Birkbeck Hill, rev. L.F. Powell, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934-50 (1964 edn), 6 vols, I, 454.

13 James Boswell, Boswell In Extremes, 1776-1778, ed. Charles Mc C. Weis and Frederick A. Pottle, London, Heinemann, 1971, p. 287-8.

14 James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ed. R.W. Chapman, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980, 946.

15 On this see especially chapter 7 of my Boswell's Creative Gloom, London, Macmillan, 1982.

Auteur

Professeur d'anglais à l'université de Northumbria à Newcastle. Ses nombreuses publications portent sur le dix-huitième siècle ainsi que sur la période moderne, avec des œuvres sur Boswell, Swift, Pope, sur divers aspects de la folie et de l'écriture ainsi que des publications sur Joseph Conrad et James Boswell. Sa dernière publication, en collaboration avec Michelle Faubert, est Cultural Constructions of Madness in Eighteenth-Century Writing : Representing the Insane (Palgrave, 2005). Sa recherche actuelle porte sur « La dépression et ses représentations au XVIIIe siècle »

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