Thursday, February 13, 2014

Boswell's London Journal 1762 -1763, by James Boswell

"I think there is a blossom about me of something more distinguished than the generality of mankind. But I am much afraid that this blossom will never swell into fruit, but will be nipped and destroyed by many a blighting heat and chilling frost."
-- James Boswell (p. 161)

In one of Arthur Machen's beautiful memoirs, which I don't seem to have handy, he describes leaving rural Wales to move to London in the 1880s. He visits famous taverns and coffeehouses he's read about,  where he half-expects to meet the literary idols of the day and fall into their company ... then realizes what he's looking for is the society from a hundred years earlier.

Which makes me think of my experience in the late 1980s, lonely and broke, like Machen, reading at a Hardee's off an Interstate overpass because there was nowhere else I could afford to go, with absolutely no idea how to meet another writer, much less be mentored by one.

This passage doesn't seem to be in Machen's Far Off Things, the only one of the memoirs currently available through Project Gutenberg. However, he does talk there about how "I am often made quite envious when I see and hear how a young man, fresh on the town, drops so easily, so pleasantly, so delightfully into a quite distinguished place in literature before he is twenty-five. He enters the world of letters as a perfectly well-bred man enters a room full of a great and distinguished company, knowing exactly what to say, and how to say it; everyone is charmed to see him; he is at home at once; and almost a classic in a year or two."

Machen did, over time, join some London clubs, make good friends, and become a noted literary host in his own right. But the life he imagined as a young man, and the example of a literary career he described, was clearly much like the one led in reality by Samuel Johnson's future biographer, James Boswell, in 1762 - 1763 (and doesn't that sound like a school year?)

In rebellion against his father, a Scottish lord pressuring him into a legal career, the 22-year-old Boswell went to London in search of a commission in the Army (there's a lengthy introduction, but thank goodness to Jane Austen for giving me at least a vague background on the need to buy your way in). He's made friends with a few people who have connections, and while he waits for that to get off the ground, he goes to the theater, publishes a pamphlet lampooning a playwright, gets gonorrhea, and dines out like crazy.

Again, thinking of the young writer moving to a strange city in contemporary times: on almost every page, someone is inviting him for dinner, or for breakfast, or tea -- sometimes extending open invitations to drop in any time. Wouldn't THAT have been handy? When I start to feel mildly envious, I have to remember that, as a woman, the same doors wouldn't have been open in the same way, even in similar circumstances, and besides, odds are I wouldn't have been the one getting the dinner, but the one cleaning up afterwards.

Anyway, I wouldn't have wanted the gonorrhea.

It must be said: it amazed me how often, and frankly, he talks about prostitutes, and sex in general. Maybe it was reading two novels in a row about women in the 1860s, putting me in a relatively prim mindset, but a hundred years earlier, things seemed a lot more relaxed. Even new to high society, Boswell is pretty sure of his chances with even some of the noblewomen in his circle, although a seduction there is more of a long-term strategy, compared to picking up a strange woman in the park and taking her to a random alleyway. One of his later notes to self hilariously vows "Swear to have no more rogering before you leave England except Mrs. ____ in chambers ..." (p. 304)

According to the introductory material in the book, while this journal was a key literary preparation for Boswell to the writing of his magnus opus on Samuel Johnson, the racier material helped keep it out of print until 1950, as it was first squirreled away, and then forgotten, by his embarrassed family.

The book has a surprising element of narrative for reports of daily life, as Boswell gives up the idea of joining the Guards and eventually meets Samuel Johnson, which will change the course of his life for good. Along the way, although naturally "addicted to low jocularity" (p. 321), he attempts to remake himself in a mode that will be taken more seriously, and relates a lot of other great period detail that makes me want to get in a time machine and go to one of those dinners. For example, he buys "a genteel violet-coloured frock suit" (p. 53), which sounds awesome.

Department of Nihil Novum (nothing new under the sun):

He quotes a friend musing that "nothing will make me either happy or the reverse above a day. It is hard ... that we tire of everything" (p. 74), proving once again that times change but human nature doesn't. 

"The pleasure of gratifying whim is very great." (p. 80)

"Mrs. Sheridan said that this age was (as Henry Fielding styled it) a trifling age." (p. 91)

"I have thought a good deal upon education. I see so many difficulties that I despair of a good method. I take this state of being to be a jest." (p. 103)

He gets advice about friends who are fun but untrustworthy: "go to his house often, just as you would to a play." (p. 148)

"I returned ... in that sort of humour that made me consider writing as a dangerous thing and wish that I had never wrote and I think I would not write again." (p. 151)

That one's certainly eternal!

In the Preface, a scholar is quoted saying that Boswell's "chosen lifework" was "defeating the forces of oblivion." (p. xviii). If nothing else, that makes him a Friend to the Skull and Book Library.

Boswell, James. Boswell's London Journal, 1762 - 1763. Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

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