A young man could get in all sorts of trouble in 18th c. London.
When I was very young, I fell in love with movies and spent all my time reading about old Hollywood--books about the studio system, biographies of people in the industry, histories of the period from about 1930-1960. I read lots of stories about the making of many movies that I had never seen. Reading about what went on--who was cast and why, who got along and who didn't, how many drafts there were of the screenplay, why was this director fired, why there is something peculiar in that famous scene--of course made me desperate to see these movies. But when I found them, I almost always was disappointed. The story behind the movie was so much more interesting than the finished product.
I guess I have always liked the how and the why of any given thing more than the thing itself, which is why a book like Adam Sisman's "Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson" appealed to me. I just recently started reading "The Life of Dr. Johnson"--yes, just now; I have enormous gaps in my education and I am always trying to catch up--and remembered that Sisman, whose book on Coleridge and Wordsworth I had read, had written a book about Boswell's book (book! book! book!). I knew that this was considered one of the key books in the history of English literature, so I became curious about how it was written--the story behind the story.
Young Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck.
Sisman's presumptuous task, I guess you would say, was to try to restore Boswell's image to a serious literary figure from the caricature he'd become--a notebook-toting scribbler who spent his life panting at the feet of the great Dr. Johnson, copying down every word he said, and then just publishing his notebooks as is. The thought for many years was that Boswell was an idiot who was lucky enough to make friends with the right person, but as Sisman explains in an afterword, the discovery after Boswell's death of reams of his papers and letters revealed the careful work that he put into constructing the mammoth biography.
James Boswell actually came from a prestigious Scottish family, and as the oldest son, was set to follow in his father's footsteps as a lawyer and the lord--or I should say Laird--of the family estate, Auchinleck. However, he had next to no interest in spending a sober legal life in Scotland; young Jamie, much to his father's chagrin, wanted to socialize in London--drink, whore, write a poem or two, hang out with the glitterati. He hoped for a commission in the foot-guards, the most glamorous regiment, but his angry father forced him back to the Continent to study law under threat of cutting him off from the family money. So Boswell did as obliged, but he was already in love with London, and had already met his literary idol, Samuel Johnson.
Johnson had insulted Boswell at their first meeting, but, as Boswell would find out, that was par for the course with Johnson (being Scottish gave Johnson, who looked down on the Scots, extra ammunition). In reality, he took a liking to the young Boswell, who once he got over his tongue-tiedness, proved himself to be a cheerful, forgiving, reasonably clever companion--he was quite popular as a guest in London, though a heavy drinker even by 18th century standards, and thus prone to getting into embarrassing scrapes or worse (he woke up in gutters, robbed and beaten, a few times in his life).
When Boswell's father played the disinheritance hand and made the young Boswell head to the Continent to finish his studies, Johnson advised Boswell to keep up with his journals. Writing down each day's events became almost an obsession with him, as he spent hours if necessary each night recounting everything that had happened to him. However, although it was time consuming, doing this kind of work helped him train his eye for observation and improved his writing. When he returned to London, he got the idea to write down as much as he could of every minute he spent with Johnson, including all his words and then-famed witticisms. Over the twenty years or so of their friendship, Boswell didn't actually spend that much time with Johnson--reluctantly, he had to spend much of the year in Edinburgh, tending to his tepid law practice while his disapproving father kept watch. After his father died, Boswell was able to go to London more (though really it should have been less, as he should have been attending to Auchinleck, not running up debts in London), but he only had a little time left with Johnson, who died in 1784.
Boswell and Johnson, far left, at a meeting of the Literary Club. There probably was more drinking than literating going on.
Johnson's death was a big event, as he was considered by many to be England's foremost man of letters. Publishers were sure that a biography of Johnson would be a big seller, so several people rushed into the fray--most notably Sir John Hawkins, the executor of Johnson's estate, and Mrs. Piozzi, a close woman friend from whom Johnson had actually been estranged at the time of his death. Most people, though, were sure that Boswell would be the man for the job. So was he, but Boswell was determined to do his friend justice--he wouldn't just throw together a book by just lifting pages from his journals. Instead, he decided that he would collect as much information as possible from everyone who had known Johnson, a task that would take some time.
As others got their books, remembrances, and essays into print, Boswell was encouraged to at least stake a claim by publishing something related to Johnson. He published a travelogue based on his visit with Johnson to the Hebrides; he had planned to publish it earlier, but abandoned this idea when Johnson decided to publish his own version of the trip. But while Johnson's book had been a meditation on the land and people they encountered, Boswell's version was a gossipy, warts and all portrait about life on the road with Johnson. While many people enjoyed it, they were also somewhat appalled. It wasn't right, they thought, to show a great man in less than a noble light. Friends now felt uncomfortable around Boswell--everyone had known he wrote things down, but they didn't know he wrote down everything and had no reservations about publishing it. At a meeting of the Literary Club he and Johnson had belonged to (Johnson was a founder, Boswell later invited by him to be a member), David Garrick, the actor, scolded Boswell about not drinking (what a rarity) with the others; this was perceived as Boswell's way of making sure he was sober enough to write everything that happened that night. In other words, Boswell became socially something like Harriet the Spy after she was outed--constantly suspected.
It took Boswell seven years to finish the biography. He collected letters of Johnson's from correspondents, badgered people endlessly for remembrances and anecdotes, and searched out facts to fill in missing parts of Johnson's life. As much work as he did, though, Boswell also spent an enormous amount of time not working--he tried to be a lawyer in London, an ill-advised move that was financially disastrous and no doubt worsened the health of his consumptive wife; he drank; he did nothing and agonized about what he should be doing. He got involved in a series of misadventures with the difficult, mean Lord Lonsdale, who he thought would get him a place in Parliament but never did. But finally, with the help of his friend Edward Malone, who acted as editor, the book came came out.
It was a success and a scandal. Numerous people whose stories were quoted in it were angry--Boswell had asked their permission, but once it was out in print, they didn't like how it looked (unlike now, people used to be uneasy about having their names in print). And again, some were uneasy to see a person like Johnson who was regarded as a paragon shown in a light that made him appar quite ordinary. Worst of all for Boswell, while people found the book very entertaining, his decision to structure the book in a year by year fashion and write Johnson's story as a series of scenes, with dialogue, led people to regard him as nothing more than a copyist who had attached himself to someone much better than him and then just--
Wait, what have I been doing? Why am I recounting all this? Good heavens, I sound like I'm giving a book report, and one written by a not very clever twelve year old. I suppose I am, more than a review, but this is material that I am sure people are more than familiar with. So here's why Boswell's book was important 1) It showed a great man's life but included everyday things about his appearance, quirks, and failings, which was uncommon at that time; 2) He researched it, diligently tracking down facts and sources to back them up at a time when most biographers settled for, "I somewhat recall," and "Somewhere around this time," rather than concrete dates and names. And that's really all the background you need to know.
Now as to the book itself. I had been lukewarm on the other book I read by Sisman, "The Friendship." Not that there was anything wrong with it--I think I just expected more, perhaps too much; Sisman certainly can't help it if Wordsworth, though one of the lead characters in the book, was one of the less interesting (thank goodness for the comparatively spritely, in permanent disarray Coleridge). I enjoyed this book more, mostly because while it contained plenty of biographical material, in the end it is about a specific task, the construction of a book, which is something that fascinates me. Maybe I'm hoping to find help to complete my own work--amongst the fiction projects I never have enough time to work on, I also have an idea for a nonfiction book I'd like to do, if that is not too presumptuous a task for someone like myself who is only a pretender to the historian role.
Sisman is easy to read--I don't remember if I said this before, but he seems like he would make a fine, easygoing professor whose English class might be a nice break from all the other headaches of college life. Researching this book must have been a monumental job, as there are literally thousands of pages of Boswelliana floating around out there--much as Boswell kept finding new information and stories about Johnson, even as the book was going to print, new pieces of Boswell's paper still keep turning up in odd places (some were found in the twentieth century in the material of a door). Sisman does hit the idea of Boswell's problems with his father and search for a father figure a bit heavily, but I guess that's always an easy one. I was glad when the elder Laird of Auchinleck died, though, so I didn't have to hear anymore about him. It's a very readable book, entertaining enough, but it's not a must read except for aficionados of the period.
There are many things not to like about Boswell--his tiresome drinking, his constant affairs and dalliances with prostitutes while his sick wife struggled on her own with their five children, his difficulty in just getting started on working on anything (okay, I admit that getting started on a project is the hardest part). But he was supposed to be good-hearted--if a bit lunkheaded when it came to his wife and family and finances. Anyone who is a writer can certainly identify with the image of Boswell and his permanently attached notebook and journal writing, of course. Most of all, Boswell's decision to do more than most biographers of the period by researching and finding as much information as possible about Johnson came from his admirable desire to do all he could to preserve the memory of his friend, who meant so much to him. If only we could all have such good friends. And when I ask myself what is the meaning of Boswell and his "Life of Johnson," that's what I keep coming back to, the wondrous idea of such devotion and love.
Samuel Johnson, now less famous for his dictionary than Boswell is for his biography.