Boswell’s Life of Dissipation
Boswell fastidiously kept records of his drinking, and they reveal him to be an imbiber for all ages
One of the most interesting survivals in the cache of Boswell papers which surfaced during the last century at Malahide Castle in Ireland was the manuscript book in which Boswell kept a record of the guests he entertained at Auchinleck, and of what they drank on each evening.
The household consumption was neatly recorded in a series of nine columns according to type of liquor: claret, port, Lisbon, sherry, Madeira, Mountain, Sitgis, gin, brandy, rum. Some of these drinks are unfamiliar to us. “Lisbon” was probably a white wine from Carcavelos, near Lisbon. “Mountain” is a sweet and luscious wine from Malaga, in southern Spain. “Sitgis” is probably a muscatel or malvasia wine from Sitges, a port 20 miles southwest of Barcelona. Port is by far the largest item.
But why did Boswell put himself to the trouble of keeping such an exact record? An entry in his journal from the autumn of 1783 supplies a hint:
A great variety of other company was at Auchinleck. I felt the entertaining of them in general as a laborious and anxious task. I several times drank too much wine, and suffered severe distress after it. I was quite averse to writing. I was exact only in keeping my Book of Company and Liquors, in which I marked with more regularity than I supposed possible for me all the company with us at dinner in one column, and all night in another, with the different liquors drank each day in separate columns.
It was as some kind of counterpoint to the dissipation in drink to which he was always prone that Boswell kept up the prosaic translation of pleasure into accounts that the Book of Company and Liquors represents. He understood his weakness perfectly well, having described himself in verse as a “virtuous man who is inclined to drink; | Who feels an inward suction in his breast, | A raging vortex”. The Book of Company and Liquors represented one small way in which he could somehow at least partially reclaim this weakness of will for order and regularity.
The levels of consumption were at times prodigious. On October 13, 1783 there were three men at dinner at Auchinleck, and between them they polished off three bottles of claret, two bottles of port, two bottles of Lisbon, three bottles of Mountain and one bottle of rum. Three days later six men sat down to dinner, but did not rise until they had emptied seven bottles of claret, two “Scotch pints” of claret (each of which was equivalent to three English pints, and thus to approximately two normal bottles), three bottles of port, one bottle of Lisbon, two bottles of Madeira, one bottle of Mountain and one bottle of rum.
You might think that, after such indulgence, a day or so of dry toast and herbal tea might be just the thing. But the following day seven men were at table, and if anything they exceeded the potations of the previous evening. They again drank seven bottles of claret, two Scotch pints of claret, and three bottles of port, before varying the conclusion of the entertainment with two bottles of Lisbon, one bottle of Madeira and no fewer than three bottles of rum. Boswell’s journal entry after this debauch says something for his stamina:
I drank a great deal of wine without feeling any bad effect…While I kept the highest pitch of jollity, I at the same time maintained the peculiar decorum of the family of Auchinleck.
It is a typically Boswellian touch to re-describe self-indulgence as dutiful observance of “the peculiar decorum of the family of Auchinleck”. In the 1760s a recurrent feature of the rackety life he had led in Edinburgh was an initial phase of reckless drinking, followed by a night spent in a brothel. On one occasion he had given a dinner for some friends to whom he had lost a bet that he would not get a dose of the clap while travelling in Europe. Overwhelmed with drink, he became confused on his way back to his lodgings, and wandered instead into “a low house in one of the alleys in Edinburgh where I knew a common girl lodged, and like a brute as I was I lay all night with her”.
The next morning he showed clear signs of the pox. Five weeks later he repeated the frolic, spending the night with “a whore worthy of Boswell, if Boswell must have a whore”. Marriage did not bring with it a permanent amendment of life. After a while Boswell began once more to stay out late drinking and whoring, and responded violently to expressions of concern from his long-suffering wife. The arrival of morning was often accompanied with remorse, Boswell being “vexed to think of having given my valuable spouse so much uneasiness; for she scarcely slept any the whole night watching me. The reflection, too, of my having this summer so frequently been intoxicated galled me.”
Even a constitution as vigorous as that of Boswell will eventually buckle under such a relentless regime of dissipation. By the summer of 1794, Boswell — who had always been prone to intermittent fits of sobriety — wrote to his son Jamie from Auchinleck to claim that “I have not drunk half a bottle of wine any day since I came here, some days not more than two glasses, some none at all. This moderation I am convinced has produced a calmness in my blood and spirits very different from the effects of too free living in the metropolis.”
There is a pathos in this solitary and largely sober Boswell after the riotous parties of the early 1780s. On Christmas Day 1794, Boswell ate his Christmas dinner alone:
I sat down by myself in my own dining room to excellent leek soup a roast turkey and a minced pie with all which having regaled myself sufficiently I drank a bottle of rich gold wine. In the evening I had coffee and Edinburgh seedcake.
Boswell didn’t specify what this “rich gold wine” was, and it’s not easy to come up with plausible suggestions as to what it might have been. He seems never to have kept Sauternes or Barsac. The Mountain he did keep and like, although intensely sweet and rich, was more likely to be brown in colour than golden. It may have been a bottle of Sitgis.
Whatever the wine was, it clearly gave pleasure, but there were not to be many more such moments for Boswell. On April 14 the following year he was taken ill while in London at the Club. He was succumbing to kidney failure and uraemia, aggravated by persistent heavy drinking and repeated infections of gonorrhea. He died on May 19, aged 54.