Boswell in London

November 15: On this day in 1762 James Boswell left Edinburgh for London, beginning the eight-and-a-half-month stay that would be recorded in his London Journal. When this and most of Boswell's other journals—some 8,000 pages of manuscript—were discovered in the 1920s and 30s, they earned him a reputation as one of the great British diarists, to go with his longstanding reputation as one of the great biographers for The Life of Samuel Johnson.

 

Read for Boswell's relationship with Johnson, the highlight of the Journal might be their inauspicious first meeting. Having sought out Johnson in a bookshop, and knowing of his "mortal antipathy at the Scotch," Boswell tried to hide his roots. When found out, he attempted a jest: "Mr. Johnson, indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it." "Sir," Johnson famously replied, "that, I find, is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help." Boswell goes on to say that although Johnson is "a man of very dreadful appearance"—sore eyes, convulsive tics, scrofula scars, slovenly dress, "uncouth" voice, "roughness of manners"—his "great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect and make him very excellent company."

 

But the Journal is as much a twenty-one-year-old's candid coming-of-age story, as a window upon 18th-century London. Boswell was so excited to escape Edinburgh and his father's upper class expectations that, seeing London from Highgate Hill, he "gave three huzzas" and burst into song. Here was "the noise, the crowd, the glare of shops and signs"; here "we may be in some degree whatever character we choose." And Boswell's days are full of many other first meetings, whether literary (Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick) or sexual (the beautiful, twenty-four-year-old actress, Louisa and many ladies of the night). Boswell details his every meal, purchase, and encounter, citing Johnson himself as sanction for putting down a "fair and undisguised" record: "Sir," said he, "there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great knowledge of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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