Best remembered today as friend and biographer of Dr Samuel Johnson, Boswell was an extraordinary figure of eighteenth-century society. Vain yet good-natured, foolish yet charming, he was also conceited and a hypochondriac with a drinking problem. He forced himself upon eminent people, and bragged about the great men he knew. |
David Hume thought him a bit crazy. Yet for years Boswell moved in the same circles as Sheridan, Goldsmith, Rousseau, Voltaire and Walpole. He was an inveterate notetaker.
Boswell, born in Edinburgh, was the son of Alexander Boswell, an advocate who some years later was elevated to the bench of the Court of Session and took the judicial title of Lord Auchinleck, after the family estate in Ayrshire. At the University young James studied law but his heart was never in it - to his father's irritation he preferred high life in London and travel in Europe.
In London, Boswell ("Bozzy" to all his friends) shamelessly badgered his contacts for an introduction to Dr Johnson. When they eventually met in 1763, the two men rapidly became friends. From the very first, the young Scot made notes of the great man's conversation, Johnson encouraging him to do so.
Boswell married in 1769. His wife was a sensible woman and extraordinarily patient with her gadabout husband. She did not share his enthusiasm for Johnson.
Boswell entertained Johnson in James's Court,Lawnmarket, in 1773 when the great man arrived in Edinburgh to begin their famous journey to the Hebrides. Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was not published until 1786, a year after Johnson's death. His Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791, was an immediate success.
A perceptive observer blessed with a retentive memory, Boswell's narrative has dramatic power. These gifts and his industry have given us an incomparable picture of his times.