Sketches By Bozzy
The youthful indiscretions of Johnson’s biographer
“It is certain that I am not a great man, but I have an enthusiastic love of great men, and I derive a kind of glory from it.” Frederick the Great may have eluded Boswell in Berlin, so prompting these regretful words of his, but with other figures Boswell pursued during a European tour of one and a half years in the early 1760s it was a different matter. Voltaire, the spindly, skeletal satirist, behaved more or less obligingly, putting him up for a night in his Swiss fiefdom; Rousseau was grumpier, but still tolerated his importunities. Boswell later returned the compliment by repeatedly seducing Rousseau’s plain and illiterate companion Thérèse Le Vasseur over the several days it took him to deliver her to England, where Rousseau had taken refuge from religious persecution. Before their arrival, however, Thérèse instructed her guide, deflatingly, not to assume his automatic superiority as a lover to the much older Rousseau, asking him “as a man who had travelled more had he not noticed how many things were achieved by men’s hands”. “I felt like a child in her hands, not a lover,” Boswell reported disconsolately.
Yet he generally maintained a healthy degree of self-regard, often combined with a measure of cheek, though his better qualities were sometimes obscured by the company he kept. What was it people found in him? Intelligent curiosity? Mostly. Overall astuteness? Frequently. Marked liberalness? Not especially. Indefatigable engagingness? Assuredly. Though as sexually incontinent as other young men of comparable rank and wealth at the time, he met with much forgiveness. As to whether he was truly any more enlightened than his peers, Robert Zaretsky’s account reserves judgment. Less inclined to question religious orthodoxy than Rousseau, certainly, while studying at Glasgow University as a young man he had had his early inclination to jettison Calvinism for Catholicism and the life of a monk nipped in the bud by his father, Lord Auchinleck. The lucky son lived accordingly thereafter, grateful for the fleshly gifts that came his way as for the more lasting intellectual gratifications he encountered. He took his distance from the Enlightenment’s prevailing scepticism, especially where it shaded into downright disbelief; and when it came, the death of Hume the doubter would distress him far more than it appeared to be doing the man himself. Afterwards Boswell could think of nothing to do but drink himself silly and go whoring. Lord Auchinleck had sagely counselled his son as a young man to worry, since he had to worry about something, only where relatively tractable matters were concerned, such as how the Dutch contrived to keep their cattle as clean as they did. It would have been so much more useful than agonising about the meaning of life and the finality of death.
Throughout his existence Boswell suffered from the “black dog” of depression, then generally known as hypochondria. It could be alleviated to a degree by company, and he was generally diligent in seeking this remedy out; yet for someone whose fame would largely rest on a capacity to record what he had listened to other people saying, he was as solitary, as well as gregarious, as he needed to be, always alert to the nuances of other people’s conduct, if often obtuse in analysing his own. Rousseau’s sometimes brute anti-intellectualism may not have shocked him unduly, for he saw the potential dangers of what passed for elegant cleverness in the conversible world, and was proud of a certain Scottish way of plain speaking; but this down-to-earth spirit did not always serve him well in the circles he frequented. When he remarked to Johnson that “I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it” he was referring, apologetically or not, to the national character of pride against the odds as much as to the world’s perception of native unfinishedness. (The habit of rough, plain nourishment to which Johnson would allude in his Dictionary’s sarcastic definition of oats as a cereal eaten in more refined countries by horses, but in Scotland by the natives, was figurative as well as literal. Boswell also, of course, possessed the transmuting Scottish wit.)
Scotland would become in his time the independent-spirited place it has remained ever since, already more European in its allegiance and outlook than Johnson’s England, if generally less sophisticated at living. Boswell was skilful in taking its temperature, resembling the quicksilver Voltaire above all in his ability to turn unoriginal thought into arresting formulation. He might, perhaps, have defended the intellectual integrity of his race more determinedly than he did: it was in Boswell’s age, after all, that the Scottish Enlightenment began to express its scientific as well as literary originality most forcefully. And he may or may not have felt as apologetic about his country’s status in the world as his words about his Scottish origins suggest. The punning title of Zaretsky’s book leaves the matter open.
There can be no doubt, however, that Boswell always believed to a greater or lesser degree in his personal worth. He also felt the depressive’s abiding dissatisfaction with the way his bed had been made, certain that “we never have a large lawn of agreeable life”. Yet he still saw this force of existence as possessing and potentially transmitting the kind of enchantment Rousseau also believed in — a much stronger spirit, Boswell knew, than arid Voltaireanism possessed. It must occasionally have made him feel like Braveheart.