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James Boswell

James Boswell
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Portrait of James Boswell
Born (1740-10-29)29 October 1740
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died 19 May 1795(1795-05-19) (aged 54)
London, England
Occupation Lawyer, diarist, author
Language English
Nationality Scottish
Citizenship Great Britain
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
University of Glasgow
Utrecht University
Notable works Life of Johnson
Spouse Margaret Montgomerie
Children Alexander Boswell (1775–1822)
James Boswell (1778–1822)
Veronica (1773–1795)
Euphemia (1774-ca. 1834)
Elizabeth (1780–1814)
Charles Boswell
(extramarital) (1762–1764)
Sally (extramarital) (1767–1768?).

James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck (; 29 October 1740 – 19 May 1795), was a Scottish lawyer, diarist, and author born in Edinburgh. He is best known for the biography he wrote of one of his contemporaries, the English literary figure Samuel Johnson, which the modern Johnsonian critic Harold Bloom has claimed is the greatest biography written in the English language.

Boswell's surname has passed into the English language as a term (Boswell, Boswellian, Boswellism) for a constant companion and observer, especially one who records those observations in print. In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes affectionately says of Dr. Watson, who narrates the tales, "I am lost without my Boswell."[1]


  • Early life 1
  • European travels 2
  • Mature life 3
  • Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson 4
  • Slavery 5
  • Discovery of papers 6
  • Theatrical depictions 7
  • Major Works 8
  • Published journals 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12

Early life

Boswell was born in Blair's Land on the east side of Parliament Close behind St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh on 29 October 1740. He was the eldest son of a judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, and his wife Euphemia Erskine. As the eldest son, he was heir to his family's estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire. Boswell's mother was a strict Calvinist, and he felt that his father was cold to him. As a child, he was delicate and suffered from some type of nervous ailment which appeared to be inherent[2] and would afflict him sporadically all through his life. At the age of five, he was sent to James Mundell's academy, an advanced institution by the standards of the time, where he was instructed in English, Latin, writing and arithmetic. Boswell was unhappy there, and his sickliness began to manifest itself in the physical incidents associated with nightmares and extreme shyness.

In view of this, the now-eight-year-old was removed from the academy and educated by a string of private tutors who included John Dunn and a Mr. Fergusson. The former had rather more success than his successor: he versed his charge in the joys of literature (not least of all the Spectator essays) and opened his eyes to the pleasances of religion. Dunn was also present during, if not directly involved in, Boswell's serious affliction of 1752, when he was rusticated to the "toun" of Moffat in northern Dumfriesshire. This afforded him his first experience of genuine society, and his recovery was rapid and complete. It may, however, have inculcated the notion that travel and entertainment were his best sedatives.

Boswell's Edinburgh. In his journals he often mentions using the "Back Stairs" behind Parliament Close. His birthplace was the family's town house on the east side of the close, just around the corner at the top of the steps.

At thirteen, Boswell was enrolled into the arts course at the University of Edinburgh, studying there from 1753 to 1758. Midway through his studies, he suffered a serious depression and nervous illness, but, when he recovered, he had thrown off all signs of delicacy and attained robust health. Boswell had swarthy skin, black hair and dark eyes; he was of average height, and he tended to plumpness. His appearance was alert and masculine, and he had an ingratiating sense of good humour.

Upon turning nineteen, he was sent to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow, where he attended the lectures of Adam Smith. While at Glasgow, Boswell decided to convert to Catholicism and become a monk. Upon learning of this, his father ordered him home. Instead of obeying, though, Boswell ran away to London, where he spent three months, living the life of a libertine, before he was taken back to Scotland by his father. Upon returning, he was re-enrolled at Edinburgh University and forced by his father to sign away most of his inheritance in return for an allowance of £100 a year.

On 30 July 1762, Boswell took his oral law exam, which he passed with some skill. Upon this success, Lord Auchinleck decided to raise his son's allowance to £200 a year and allowed him to return to London. It was during his second spell there that Boswell wrote his London Journal and, on 16 May 1763, met Johnson for the first time. The pair became friends almost immediately. Johnson eventually nicknamed him "Bozzy".

The first conversation between Johnson and Boswell is quoted in Life of Samuel Johnson as follows:

[Boswell:] "Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it."
[Johnson:] "That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help."[3]

European travels

It was around three months after this first encounter with Johnson that Boswell departed for Europe with the initial goal of continuing his law studies at Utrecht University. He spent a year there and although desperately unhappy the first few months, eventually quite enjoyed his time in Utrecht. He befriended and fell in love with Isabelle de Charrière, also known as Belle van Zuylen, a vivacious young Dutchwoman of unorthodox opinions, his social and intellectual superior. Boswell admired the young widow Geelvinck who refused to marry him. After this, Boswell spent most of the next two years travelling around the continent. During this time he met Jean-Jacques Rousseau and made a pilgrimage to Rome. Boswell also travelled to Corsica to meet one of his heroes, the independence leader Pasquale Paoli. His well-observed diaries and correspondence of this time have been compiled into two books Boswell in Holland and Boswell on the Grand Tour.

Mature life

James Boswell by George Willison

Boswell returned to London in February 1766 accompanied by Rousseau's mistress, with whom he had a brief affair on the journey home.[4] After spending a few weeks in the capital, he returned to Scotland to take his final law exam. He passed the exam and became an advocate. He practised for over a decade, during which time he spent no more than a month every year with Johnson. Nevertheless, he returned to London annually to mingle with Johnson and the rest of the London literary crowd, and to escape his mundane existence in Scotland. He found enjoyment in playing the intellectual rhyming game crambo with his peers.

Some of his journal entries and letters from this period describe his amatory exploits. Thus, in 1767, in a letter to William Johnson Temple, he wrote, "I got myself quite intoxicated, went to a Bawdy-house and past a whole night in the arms of a Whore. She indeed was a fine strong spirited Girl, a Whore worthy of Boswell if Boswell must have a whore"[5] A few years earlier, he wrote that during a night with an actress named Louisa "five times was I fairly lost in supreme rapture. Louisa was madly fond of me; she declared I was a prodigy and asked me if this was not extraordinary for human nature."[6] Though he sometimes used a condom for protection,[7] he contracted venereal disease at least seventeen times.[8]

Boswell was a major supporter of the Corsican Republic. Following the island's invasion by France in 1768 Boswell attempted to raise public awareness and rally support for the Corsicans. He sent arms and money to the Corsican fighters, who were ultimately defeated at the Battle of Ponte Novu in 1769. Boswell attended the masquerade held at the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon in September 1769 dressed as a Corsican Chief.[9]

Boswell married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, in November 1769. She remained faithful to Boswell, despite his frequent liaisons with prostitutes, until her death from Alexander (1775–1822) and James (1778–1822). Their daughters were Veronica (1773–1795), Euphemia (1774-ca. 1834) and Elizabeth, known as 'Betsy', (1780–1814). Boswell also had at least two extramarital children, Charles (1762–1764) and Sally (1767–1768?).

Despite his relative literary success with accounts of his European travels, Boswell was only a moderately successful advocate, with the exception of the copyright infringement case of Donaldson v Beckett where Boswell represented the Scottish bookseller, Alexander Donaldson. By the late 1770s, Boswell descended further and further into alcoholism and gambling addiction. Throughout his life, from childhood until death, he was beset by severe swings of mood. His depressions frequently encouraged, and were exacerbated by, his various vices. His happier periods usually saw him relatively vice-free. His character mixed a superficial Enlightenment sensibility for reason and taste with a genuine and somewhat romantic love of the sublime and a propensity for occasionally puerile whimsy. The latter, along with his tendency for drink and other vices, caused many contemporaries and later observers to regard him as being too lightweight to be an equal in the literary crowd that he wanted to be a part of. However, his humour and innocent good nature won him many lifelong friends.

Boswell was a frequent guest of Lord Monboddo at Monboddo House, a setting where he gathered significant observations for his writings by association with Samuel Johnson, Lord Kames and other luminaries.

After Johnson's death in 1784, Boswell moved to London to try his luck at the English

  • Works by James Boswell at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by James Boswell at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Essay on Johnson, Boswell and the Abolition of Slavery
  • Blog on Boswell's London Journal
  • Online catalogue (in progress) of James Boswell's library at LibraryThing
  • Works by James Boswell at Internet Archive
  • James Boswell – a Guide
  • James Boswell's "An Account of Corsica" – Full text and illustrations
  • Young Boswell, by Chauncey Brewster Tinker, Boston: Atlantic monthly press, 1922, University of Michigan Library (Digital Collection)
  • Boswell Book Festival celebrates the art of biography and memoir at Boswell's home, Auchinleck House, in Ayrshire, Scotland
  • Archival material relating to James Boswell listed at the UK National Archives
  • Portraits of James Boswell at the National Portrait Gallery, London
  • Portraits of James Boswell and Dr. Johnson at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

External links

  • Boswell, James. Boswell's Book of Bad Verse (A Verse Self-Portrait) or 'Love Poems and Other Verses by James Boswell'. Edited with Notes by Jack Werner. London. White Lion, 1974. ISBN 0-85617-487-4.
  • Boswell, James. Boswell's Column. Being his Seventy Contributions to The London Magazine under the pseudonym The Hypochondriack from 1777 to 1783 here First Printed in Book Form in England. Introduction and Notes by Margery Bailey. London. William Kimber, 1951.
  • Boswell, James. Facts and Inventions: Selections from the Journalism of James Boswell. Edited by Paul Tankard. New Haven. Yale University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-300-14126-9
  • Boswell, James. The Journal of a Tour to Corsica; and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli. Edited, with an Introduction, by Morchard Bishop. London. Williams & Norgate, 1951.
  • Boswell, James. Letters of James Boswell to the Rev. W. J. Temple. Introduction by Thomas Seccombe. London. Sidgwick & Jackson, 1908.
  • Finlayson, Iain. The Moth and the Candle. A Life of James Boswell. London. Constable, 1984. ISBN 0-09-465540-5.
  • Mclaren, Moray: The Highland Jaunt. A Study of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson upon their Highland and Hebridean Tour of 1773. London. Jarrolds,1954.
  • Mallory, George. Boswell the Biographer. London. Smith, Elder, 1912.
  • Martin, Peter. "A Life of James Boswell". London. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999.
  • Pottle, Frederick A. Boswell and the Girl from Botany Bay. London. Heinemann, 1938.
  • Tinker, Chauncey Brewster. Young Boswell. Chapters on James Boswell the Biographer Based Largely on New Material. Boston. Atlantic Monthly, 1922.
  • Wyndham Lewis, D.B. The Hooded Hawk or The Case of Mr. Boswell. London. Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1946.

Further reading

  1. ^ Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur (18 April 2011). "A Scandal in Bohemia". The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 17 February 2014. 
  2. ^ It is true that two uncles and a younger brother had been driven to the brink of madness.
  3. ^ James Boswell Life of Samuel Johnson, [1992] Everyman ed, p247
  4. ^ Correspondence of James Boswell and William Johnson Temple, Edinburgh 1997, page 140 footnote 4 [2]
  5. ^ Boswell Correspondence, letter of 26 June 1767. Retrieved 2 May 2011. 
  6. ^ ''Tis Nature's Fault: Unauthorized Sexuality during the Enlightenment'' by R.P.Macubbin, page 64. Retrieved 2 May 2011. 
  7. ^ ''Privacy: concealing the eighteenth-century self'' by P Spacks page 141. Retrieved 2 May 2011. 
  8. ^ ''Glimpses of Glory'' by R. L Greaves page 381. Retrieved 2 May 2011. 
  9. ^ Pierce p.9-10
  10. ^ Pierce p.92-93
  11. ^ "A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin – Full Text Free Book (Part 2/13)". Retrieved 2 May 2011. 


Published journals

Major Works

The comedy Young Auchinleck (1962) by Scottish playwright Robert McLellan depicts Boswell's various courtships and troubled relations with his father in the period after his return to Scotland in 1766, culminating in his eventual marriage to his cousin Margaret Montgomery (Peggy) in 1769 on the same day as his father's second marriage in a different part of the country. The play was first produced at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1962 and adapted for BBC Television in 1965.

Theatrical depictions

These detailed and frank journals include voluminous notes on the Grand Tour of Europe that he took as a young man and, subsequently, of his tour of Scotland with Johnson. His journals also record meetings and conversations with eminent individuals belonging to The Club, including Lord Monboddo, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith.

In the 1920s a great part of Boswell's private papers, including intimate journals for much of his life, were discovered at Malahide Castle, north of Dublin. These provide a hugely revealing insight into the life and thoughts of the man. They were sold to the American collector Ralph H. Isham and have since passed to Yale University, which has published general and scholarly editions of his journals and correspondence. A second cache was discovered soon after and also purchased by Isham. A substantially longer edition of The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was published in 1936 based on his original manuscript, edited by L. F. Powell. His London Journal 1762–63, the first of the Yale journal publications, appeared in 1950. The last, The Great Biographer, 1789–1795, was published in 1989.

Discovery of papers

Boswell's most prominent display of support for slavery was his 1791 poem 'No Abolition of Slavery; or the Universal Empire of Love,' which lampooned Clarkson, Wilberforce and Pitt. The poem also supports the common suggestion of the pro-slavery movement, that the slaves actually enjoyed their lot: "The cheerful gang! – the negroes see / Perform the task of industry."

Boswell was present at the meeting of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in May 1787 set up to persuade William Wilberforce to lead the abolition movement in Parliament. However, the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson records that by 1788 Boswell "after having supported the cause... became inimical to it."


It has often been asked how a man such as Boswell could have produced so remarkable a work as the Life of Johnson. Among those who attempted an answer were Macaulay and Carlyle: the former argued that Boswell's uninhibited folly and candour were his greatest qualifications; the latter replied that beneath such traits was a mind to discern excellence and a heart to appreciate it, aided by the power of accurate observation and considerable dramatic ability.[11]

When the Life of Samuel Johnson was published in 1791 it at once commanded the admiration that Boswell had sought for so long, and it has since suffered no diminution. Its style was unique in that, unlike other biographies of that era, it directly incorporated conversations that Boswell had noted down at the time for his journals. He also included far more personal and human details than those to which contemporary readers were accustomed. Instead of writing a respectful and dry record of Johnson's public life in the style of the time, he painted a vivid portrait of the complete man, brought to life through a 'dramatic' style of dialogue. It has often been described as the greatest biography ever written.

A literary party at Sir Joshua Reynolds' – 1781. The painting shows the friends of Reynolds including Boswell at left.

Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

. Kirk. The mausoleum is attached to the old Auchinleck Ayrshire in Kirkyard Auchinleck in what is now the old mausoleum of the Boswell family crypt Boswell's remains were interred in the [10]

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