James Boswell’s Scotland

The author of the Life of Samuel Johnson spent much of his own life trying to escape the country of his birth

LATE ON A SUNNY AFTERNOON last summer, I visited a deserted churchyard in Auchinleck, a drab little village surrounded by pastureland in Scotland’s western district of East Ayrshire. Many of the weathered gravestones were broken or tilted. Two small buildings stood among them: the old parish church and an unpretentious mausoleum, on the side of which I found a coat of arms with the inscription Vraye Foy, or True Faith. Otherwise, there was nothing—no statue, no plaque, no marker— to indicate that inside lay the remains of James Boswell, the passionate Scotsman who wrote one of the greatest books of all time, the Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Dr. Johnson, as the brilliant 18th-century critic, author and poet was known, produced a huge body of immensely influential literature, including a dictionary that remained the gold standard of English lexicography for the better part of a century. Eccentric and witty, he was the hub of a glittering circle in London that attracted such luminaries as novelist and playwright Oliver Goldsmith, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the actor David Garrick and Boswell himself. Johnson was renowned for his barbed aphorisms, many of which— “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American”—still circulate.

Boswell, a self-described “gentleman of ancient blood,” was a lawyer and a writer who knew Johnson well for more than 20 years. He was also a kind of genius. His biography of his friend and mentor—published after Johnson’s death—created a sensation. Boswell was determined “to tell the whole truth about his subject, to portray his lapses, his blemishes, and his weaknesses as well as his great qualities,” says Adam Sisman, a winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Nowadays we take such candor for granted, “but in Boswell’s time,” Sisman adds, it was “a startling innovation.”

Boswell remains a lively presence on the literary scene. Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without a Boswell sighting somewhere. A New Yorker spoof put Boswell to work on the life of Michael Jackson. (“When a boy, he was already notably fond of other children, and, as you know, he maintained his fondness for them into middle age.”) The New York Times has compared journalist Ron Suskind and biographer A. Scott Berg to Boswell and described Wired magazine as the “Boswell . . . for the geekerati.” The word “Boswell” is even in the dictionary, defined as “one who writes with love and intimate knowledge of any subject.” Two Boswell biographies have come out in the past five years, and a host of scholars, critics and other aficionados have taken to calling themselves “Boswellians.” One of them, Iain Brown, manuscript curator at the National Library of Scotland, hung a portrait of Boswell in his bathroom at home.

My own fascination with Boswell began several years ago, when I bought the Life after reading the introduction at a bookstore. Although I’ve always liked big books, this one was so formidable—1,402 pages—that I decided to try Boswell’s much shorter Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides first, as a sort of warm-up. By the time I finished that exuberant account of a ten-week holiday Boswell and Johnson spent exploring the islands off Scotland’s northwestern coast in 1773, I was hooked. I plunged right into the Life and then tackled Boswell’s other journals—13 volumes, in all.

I was intrigued by Johnson but found Boswell downright enthralling. The astute biographer turned out to be an irresistible character in his own right, a contradictory, needy and sometimes infuriating man who drank too much, talked too much and preserved many of his indiscretions in writing. Among the revelations in his journals: he fathered two illegitimate children before he married, and he remained a compulsive whoremonger throughout his life. He could be a pompous snob or entertain a crowded London theater by imitating a cow. He suffered from debilitating depressions, yet in public was the life of the party. “I admire and like him beyond measure,” declared 20-year-old Charlotte Ann Burney, the sister of the famous diarist Fanny Burney. “He . . . puts himself into such ridiculous postures that he is as good as a comedy.” The philosopher David Hume described him as “very good-humored, very agreeable, and very mad.”

One thing he was not agreeable about was Scotland. Boswell’s feelings about his homeland were deeply conflicted. He abhorred what he perceived as Scotland’s abjectprovincialism. To rid himself of his Scottish accent, he took diction classes from Thomas Sheridan, father of playwright (The School for Scandal) Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Yet Scotland was the place that shaped him. He spent most of his life there and often boasted “of being descended of ancestors who have had an estate for some hundreds of years.”

This is why, when I finished Boswell’s books, I decided to undertake a sort of literary pilgrimage. I wanted to find what remained of Boswell’s Edinburgh, and see Auchinleck, the family estate recently restored from near ruin. I also wanted to visit Boswell’s tomb and pay my respects to the great biographer.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1740. His father, Alexander, a lawyer and later a judge in Scotland’s supreme civil court, was a classical scholar with an unbending sense of propriety that he expected his children to embrace. His mother, Euphemia, was passive and devout, and Boswell was very fond of her. He once recalled that “her notions were pious, visionary and scrupulous. When she was once made to go to the theater, she cried and would never go again.”

Edinburgh, situated on the shore of the Firth (or bay) of Forth, 400 miles north of London, was Scotland’s artistic and social center, and its capital. The nucleus of Boswell’s Edinburgh was a stately avenue now known as the Royal Mile. A boulevard lined by tall, straight-faced stone buildings, it descends from Edinburgh Castle on its cliffside perch to the Palace of Holyroodhouse near the base of the weathered peak called Arthur’s Seat. The castle was the fortress and palace that has dominated Edinburgh since the 16th century. Holyroodhouse had been the home of Scotland’s kings and queens for two centuries until 1707, when the Act of Union made Scotland part of Great Britain.

Clustered around the Royal Mile was a tangled maze of alleys and courtyards, where many of Edinburgh’s 50,000 inhabitants occupied tall tenements called “lands.” The poor lived on the bottom and top floors, the more well-to-do in between. The city, ancient even then (its origins date back to at least the seventh century a.d.), was filthy and smelly. Apall of coal smoke hung over its grimy buildings, and pedestrians had to remain alert for chamber pots being emptied from windows above. The Boswell residence, the fourth floor of a tenement, was just off the Royal Mile near Parliament House, where the Scottish Parliament sat until the Act of Union abolished it.

Today Edinburgh is a bustling modern city with a population of 448,000. As my train pulled into Waverley Station, I craned my neck to see the castle still perched majestically on its cliffside high above the tracks. From the station a taxi took me up a steep slope to the Royal Mile. Despite the traffic and the tourist shops, the cobblestone street and its stolid, stone-faced buildings retained an unmistakable 18th-century flavor.

Boswell’s birthplace burned down long ago, but other landmarks remain. I visited Parliament House, opened in 1639 and still the seat for the country’s supreme civil court. The exterior was redone in the 1800s, but inside the lofty Parliament Hall, I watched advocates in black gowns and white wigs pace up and down as they talked with clients beneath a magnificent arched-timber ceiling, just as they did in Boswell’s day. He often pleaded for his own clients in this hall; on many occasions the presiding judge was his father. Across the square from Parliament House, I admired the High Kirk of St. Giles, a massive, brooding presence capped by buttresses that form a gothic crown. This had been Boswell’s church, one he connected with his pious mother as well as “the dreary terrors of hell.”

The Boswells stayed in Edinburgh when the court was in session. In the spring and summer, they lived at their country estate 60 miles away. Auchinleck, a 20,000-acre holdover from feudal times, also provided homes for about 100 tenant farmers. Named after a previous owner, it had been in the Boswell family since 1504. Young James enjoyed riding with his father, planting trees and playing with the gardener’s daughter, for whom he developed a mad passion. “Auchinleck is a most sweet, romantic Place,” he wrote to a friend. “There is a vast deal of Wood and Water, fine retired shady walks, and every thing that can render the Countrey agreable to contemplative minds.” After Alexander Boswell became a judge at 46, earning the honorary title Lord Auchinleck, he built a fancy new home at his estate. Above the main entrance, he inscribed a quote from Horace: “What you seek is here in this remote place; if you can only keep a balanced disposition”—words he may have meant for his increasingly wayward eldest son.

Early on, James had served notice that he was not cut out to follow in his father’s strait-laced footsteps. Scots are well known for being torn between dour conformity and impetuous rebelliousness, a contradiction emphatically personified by Boswell father and son. When James was 18, he developed a passion for the theater and fell for an actress a good ten years older. After Lord Auchinleck banished him to the University of Glasgow, Boswell, still under the spell of his Catholic mistress, decided to convert—tantamount to career suicide in Presbyterian Scotland—and ran away to London. There he lost interest in Catholicism, caught a venereal disease and decided he wanted to be a soldier.

Lord Auchinleck fetched his son home, and there they made a deal: Boswell could seek a military commission, but first he had to study law. After chafing for two years under his father’s oppressive supervision, Boswell returned to London in 1762, intending to fulfill his military dreams. Abookseller there introduced him to Samuel Johnson, then 53 and already a formidable literary figure, who made no secret of his contempt for Scots. “Indeed I come from Scotland but I cannot help it,” Boswell stammered. To which Johnson growled: “That, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen can not help.”

It was a rocky start to what would eventually become the most famous friendship in English letters. Irma Lustig, who edited two volumes of Boswell’s journals for Yale University Press, believes Lord Auchinleck’s harshness created in his son “an insatiable need for attention and approval,” and in Johnson, almost 32 years his senior, Boswell found an answer to that need. When Boswell “opened his heart,” as biographer Frederick Pottle puts it, and told Johnson the story of his life, Johnson was charmed.

Lord Auchinleck was anything but charmed. He threatened to sell Auchinleck if James didn’t settle down, “from the principle that it is better to snuff a candle out than leave it to stink in a socket.” Knuckling under, Boswell went to Holland to continue studying law, then embarked on a postgrad grand tour of the Continent, determined to meet the leading men of his day. Though he failed to obtain an audience with Frederick the Great of Prussia, in Switzerland the brash young Scot wangled an invitation to visit philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, and in France he engaged Voltaire in a debate about religion. “For a . . . time there was a fair opposition between Voltaire and Boswell,” he noted with satisfaction.

While in Rome, Boswell posed for a painting by George Willison, which I found in Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery. There he was at age 24, round-faced with slight circles under his eyes and the faint suggestion of a smile on his plump lips. He wore a dandyish scarlet-and-yellow waistcoat beneath a green, fur-trimmed coat; lace peeked out from his cuffs. Above him, an owl perched absurdly on a branch. Somehow the painter captured the mixture of silliness and self-importance that made Boswell so engaging.

On the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Boswell got to know Pasquale Paoli, the charismatic patriot leading an insurgency against the Genoese, who then ruled the island. In Paris he learned of his mother’s death and departed for Scotland (en route, Boswell noted in his journal, he and Rousseau’s mistress had sex 13 times in 11 days). His first important book, An Account of Corsica (1768), celebrated Paoli. To Britons of the day, Corsica was an exotic and romantic destination, and Boswell’s breezy travelogue made him a minor celebrity known as “Corsica Boswell.” Nevertheless, he kept his word to his father and began practicing law. “[He] was a professional writer,” notes Irma Lustig, “but he was not, like Johnson, a writer by profession.”

After entertaining a number of matrimonial schemes involving wealthy women, Boswell again infuriated his father by marrying a poor cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, who was two years older. The couple rented an apartment from the philosopher David Hume at James’s Court, a fashionable Edinburgh address just off the Royal Mile.

As it happened, I too stayed in James’s Court, at a small hotel. On one of the court’s three arched entrances, I saw a plaque green with age noting the connection with Boswell, Johnson and Hume. The building where James and Margaret lived was destroyed by fire in 1857, but others from Boswell’s era still stand, tall, gray and unadorned.

Johnson stayed with the Boswells after he and James returned from the Hebrides; to Margaret, the ungainly Londoner was the houseguest from hell. “The truth is, that his irregular hours and uncouth habits, such as turning the candles with their heads downwards, when they did not burn bright enough, and letting the wax drop upon the carpet, could not be but disagreeable to a lady,” Boswell conceded. She also complained about Johnson’s influence over her husband. “I have seen many a bear led by a man,” she said in ex asperation, “but I never before saw a man led by a bear.”

During the two decades they would know each other, Boswell and Johnson actually spent little more than a year’s time together; their friendship was conducted largely from afar. Even so, the older man became the central figure in his young admirer’s life, a “Guide, Philosopher, and Friend,” as Boswell more than once put it. “Be Johnson,” he exhorted himself. Though reconciled, for the time being at least, to living in Edinburgh, he tried to visit London for several weeks each spring. “Come to me, my dear Bozzy,” Johnson wrote, “and let us be as happy as we can.”

On Boswell’s visits, the two men socialized in taverns, in Johnson’s rooms and dining with friends. They discussed topics from literature and politics to religion and gossip, and Boswell took care to preserve the conversations in his journals. One day in 1772 they spoke of marriage, “whether there is any beauty independent of utility,” why people swear, “the proper use of riches,” public amusements, politics ancient and modern, and various literary topics. Most important perhaps to Boswell was this advice from Johnson: “[N]obody can write the life of a man, but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse with him.”

There were occasions for even more talk after Boswell was admitted to the Club, a prestigious group of intellectual heavyweights who met for dinner and gossip every other Friday. Boswell had worried about being blackballed, but Johnson watched out for him. “Sir, they knew that if they refused you, they’d probably never have got in another. I’d have kept them all out,” he said. Club meetings meant evenings of scintillating conversation with the cream of Britain’s thinkers—historian Edward Gibbon, naturalist Joseph Banks, social philospher Adam Smith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan all eventually became members.

The friendship had its rough patches. At times, Boswell felt the lash of Johnson’s temper. After one stinging rebuke, Boswell likened himself to “the man who had put his head into the lion’s mouth a great many times with perfect safety, but at last had it bit off.” Another outburst wounded Boswell so deeply he avoided Johnson for a week. The two men finally reconciled at a dinner. “We were instantly as cordial again as ever,” Boswell said.

He saved more than a hundred letters from Johnson and quoted them extensively in the Life, but their correspondence was erratic. Months might pass in silence, until Boswell roused himself from one of his depressions. Sometimes he requested advice—about his black moods, about his law cases, about his father. Johnson provided thoughtful, penetrating answers, even though the younger man could be every bit as exasperating on paper as he sometimes was in person. On one occasion, Boswell childishly stopped writing just to see how long it would take Johnson to write to him. Other times, he would fret, worried that Johnson was angry. “I consider your friendship as a possession, which I intend to hold till you take it from me, and to lament if ever by my fault I should lose it,” Johnson reassured him.

There was never any need to doubt Johnson’s affection; it was genuine. “Boswell is a man who I believe never left a house without leaving a wish for his return,” he once said. Among other things, the two were bound by melancholy. Johnson had a morbid fear of madness and he, too, fought depression, while Boswell analyzed his own precarious mental health to the point of obsession. Once, after watching a moth burn in a candle’s flame, Johnson said, “That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was Boswell.”

The Hebrides adventure capped the most settled period of Boswell’s life. He was 32 then—reasonably content and cheerful, a busy, respectable advocate making a decent living, with a loving wife and the first of their five children. Eventually, however, he began drinking heavily, losing money at cards, visiting prostitutes. In his profession, he hurled himself into lost causes and earned a reputation for erratic behavior. After his father died in 1782, it was his turn to be the Laird of Auchinleck, a man of distinction. But soon enough the satisfactions of country life began to pall. And then, late in 1784, Samuel Johnson died of congestive heart failure at age 75.

The news left Boswell “stunned, and in a kind of amaze.” It was well known that he had long intended to write Johnson’s biography, and no sooner had the great man breathed his last than a letter reached Edinburgh from a prominent bookseller asking that Boswell do so. But before starting that monumental task, he wrote The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides— perhaps he, too, felt the need of a warm-up—which was published to great acclaim in 1785.

Beginning work on the Life, Boswell’s contempt for Scotland’s “coarse vulgarity” and “Presbyterian prejudices” got the better of him. He had long thought about relocating to London for good. Finally, in 1786, he and Margaret and their children made the move. It was a disaster. Boswell spent much of his time drinking with friends and accomplished only halting progress on the book. Margaret’s health deteriorated rapidly. She returned to Auchinleck and soon died there of tuberculosis. Though he had neglected her for years, Boswell was shattered. He wrote in his journal that he longed “to have but one week, one day, in which I might again hear her admirable conversation and assure her of my fervent attachment notwithstanding all my irregularities.”

Back in London after a dismal interval of mourning at Auchinleck, Boswell resumed work on the Life. He wrote by fits and starts, often moving forward only with the gentle prodding of Edmond Malone, a friend and Shakespearean scholar. He did not set out to be innovative, but, says biographer Adam Sisman, he did write consciously for effect. When he was in school in Glasgow, one of his teachers had been Adam Smith, who would later write the landmark economic treatise Wealth of Nations. Smith impressed upon Boswell the importance of detail—he said, for example, that he was “glad to know Milton wore latchets in his shoes, instead of buckles.” It was a lesson Boswell would never forget. He often said he wanted to write the Life like a “Flemish picture,” meaning rich in painstaking detail. He was a superb reporter, adept at ferreting tidbits from Johnson’s acquaintances, and of course he had shrewdly teased many vivid nuggets out of the man himself, keeping an especially sharp eye for tics and odd behaviors, such as the doctor’s shabby personal appearance, his “convulsive starts and odd gesticulations” and his appalling manners at the dinner table. “Let me not be censured for mentioning such minute particulars,” he pleaded. “Every thing relative to so great a man is worth observing.”

Boswell also took care to compose his book in what he called “scenes,” Sisman points out, skillfully dramatized little playlets piled one atop another. It was a technique all but unprecedented at the time. The result was biography as intimate epic—a stirring narrative with a glamorous supporting cast and the loquacious warts-and-all hero at center stage. Published in 1791, the book was an immediate success. Areview in Gentleman’s Magazine called it “a literary portrait . . . which all who knew the original will allow to be THE MAN HIMSELF.” The statesman Edmund Burke told King George it was the most entertaining book he had ever read. The massive, two-volume set was expensive—it cost two guineas, four times as much as a typical book—but the first printing of 1,750 copies sold out within months.

Boswell enjoyed some brief exaltation, and even took out a boasting ad in London’s Public Advertiser: “Boswell has so many invitations in consequence of his Life of Johnson that he may be literally said to live upon his deceased friend.” But some acquaintances, angered by his “practice of publishing without consent what has been thrown out in the freedom of conversation,” avoided his company. Others noticed that once he finished his great work, he lost his bearings. Perhaps the lowest point came when his daughter took him to task for misbehaving with one of her 14-year-old friends. “It seems that after dinner, when I had taken too much wine, I had been too fond,” he wrote in his journal, claiming that he had no clear memory of the event.

Boswell’s final years were grim. He remained in London, carousing and whoring; his health was ruined by repeated venereal infections. Hounded by debts incurred educating his children and buying land in Ayrshire, he complained that he felt “listless and fretful.” He died at home from kidney failure and uremia at the age of 54. “I used to grumble sometimes at his turbulence,” grieved Malone, “ but now miss and regret his noise and his hilarity and his perpetual good humour, which had no bounds.”

After his death, Boswell’s reputation went into a spin. Thanks in no small part to a devastating critique by essayist Thomas Macaulay in 1831, the writer came to be regarded as a toady who had somehow managed to produce a worthy biography that reflected the greatness of its subject, not its author. “Of all the talents which ordinarily raise men to eminence as writers, Boswell had absolutely none,” Macaulay wrote. That view began to change only after many of Boswell’s papers, including his journals, came to light in the 1920s. They were found in an Irish castle, where they had been taken by a descendant; some had been stuffed into a box used to store croquet equipment. Still more papers turned up later, including the original manuscript of the Life. Yale University began publishing the journals in 1950, and the first volume sold almost a million copies. Since then the journals have helped Boswell emerge from Johnson’s shadow. “We read him now,” says the National Library’s Iain Brown, “for the pure pleasure of reading Boswell.” What he wrote, and how he wrote, still matter. “Not only did Boswell invent the biography as we know it,” notes critic Charles Mc- Grath, “he was also, in effect, the father of feature journalism, and for good and ill he created many of the conventions we still observe. The celebrity profile oral history, documentary reporting the travel yarn, the high-powereddinner- party piece—the list of forms that he mastered or invented goes on and on.”

Even as Boswell’s reputation was undergoing rehabilitation, Auchinleck was falling into disrepair. By the mid-1960s, when another James Boswell inherited the house, it had so deteriorated that the new owner could not afford to fix it. He sold it, and in 1999 it was given to the Landmark Trust, a charity that rents historic buildings to vacationers. After spending nearly $5 million on renovations, the trust opened Auchinleck to overnight guests two years ago, which is how I was able to stay there last summer.

To get to the house, I drove from the village of Auchinleck down a country lane, crossed a small stone bridge and topped a rise. There I found a beautiful mansion standing all by itself in the countryside. Above the entrance, I noticed an elaborately carved pediment “terribly loaded with Ornaments of Trumpets & Maces and the Deuce knows what,” as another guest recorded in 1760, and below it Horace’s cautionary admonition about keeping a balanced disposition.

Exploring outside, at the end of a steep path I stumbled upon a small beach at the edge of the River Lugar, a slowflowing stream. On the other side, a cliff reared over the black water. It struck me that Boswell had taken Johnson to that very spot, and, so moved by the “romantick scene,” had confided to him his family history and gushed about his own distant relationship to King George III.

Neil Gow is a local judge and the current chairman of the Auchinleck Boswell Society. On my last day in Scotland, I met him in the churchyard at the Boswell mausoleum. Adapper man with a twinkle in his eye, Gow led me inside. Ducking our heads, we descended several stone stairs into a dark, arched space where nine Boswells, including James, his father and Margaret, lay in sepulchers behind unfinished stone. One niche was broken; when Gow beamed his flashlight through the hole, we could see a skull inside. On another sepulcher, I saw the initials J.B. “That’s where he is,” Gow said. So in the end, I reflected, heritage had won out after all. Here was James Boswell, surrounded by family—including the father he could not please and the wife he so often disappointed. In death, the reluctant Scotsman had done what he could not bring himself to do in life. He had come home for good.

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