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Lytton Strachey Explains What a Strange, Marvelous Creature the Inventor of Modern Biography Was

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It would be difficult to find a more shattering refutation of the lessons of cheap morality than the life of James Boswell. One of the most extraordinary successes in the history of civilization was achieved by an idler, a lecher, a drunkard, and a snob. Nor was this success of that sudden explosive kind which is frequent enough with youthful genius—the inspired efflorescence of a Rimbaud or a Swinburne; it was essentially the product of long years of accumulated energy; it was the supreme expression of an entire life. Boswell triumphed by dint of abandoning himself, through fifty years, to his instincts. The example, no doubt, is not one to be followed rashly. Self-indulgence is common, and Boswells are rare. The precise character of the rarity we are now able, for the first time, to estimate with something like completeness. Boswell’s nature and inner history cannot be fully understood from the works published by himself. It is only in his letters that the whole man is revealed. Professor Tinker, by collecting together all that is known of Boswell’s correspondence and editing it with scholarly exactitude, has done a great service to English literature. There is, in fact, only one fault to be found with this admirable book. Professor Tinker shows us more of Boswell than any previous editor, but he does not show us all that he might. Like the editor’s of Walpole’s Letters and Pepys’s Diary, while giving himself credit for rehabilitating the text of his author, he admits in the same breath that he has mutilated it. When will this silly and barbarous prudery come to an end?

Boswell’s career was completely dominated by his innate characteristics. Where they came from it is impossible to guess. He was the strangest sport: the descendent of Scotch barons and country gentlemen, the son of a sharp Lowland lawyer, was an artist, a spendthrift, a buffoon, with a passion for literature, and without any dignity whatever. So he was born, and so he remained; life taught him nothing—he had nothing to learn; his course was marked out immutably from the beginning. At the age of twenty-three he discovered Dr. Johnson. A year later he was writing to him, at Wittenberg, “from the tomb of Melancthon”; “My paper rests upon the gravestone of that great and good man…. At this tomb, then, my ever dear and respected friend! I vow to thee an eternal attachment.” The rest of Boswell’s existence was the history of that vow’s accomplishment. But his connection with Dr. Johnson was itself only the crowning instance of an overwhelming predisposition, which showed itself in a multitude of varied forms. There were other great men, for instance—there was Mr. Wilkes, and General Paoli, and Sir David Dalrymple. One of Professor Tinker’s most delightful discovers is a series of letters from the youthful Boswell to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in which the writer’s most persistent qualities—his literary skill, his psychological perspicacity, his passion for personalities, and his amazing aptitude for self-revelation—are exquisitely displayed. “Dites-moi,” he asked the misanthropic sentimentalist, “ne ferai-je bien de m’appliquer véritablement à la musique, jusque à un certain point? Dites-moi quel doit être mon instrument. C’est tard je l’avoue. Mais n’aurai-je le plaisir de faire un progrès continuel, et ne serai-je pas capable d’adoucir ma vieillesse par les sons de ma lyre?1 Rousseau was completely melted. The elder Pitt, however, was made of sterner stuff. When Boswell appeared before him in the costume of a Corsican chieftain, “Lord Chatham,” we are told, “smiled, but received him very graciously in his Pompous manner”—and there the acquaintance ended; in spite of Boswell’s modest suggestion that the Prime Minister should honor me now and then with a letter…. To correspond with a Paoli and with  Chatham is enough to keep a young man ever ardent in the pursuit of virtuous fame.”

Fame—though perhaps it was hardly virtuous—Boswell certainly attained; but his ardent pursuit of it followed the track of an extraordinary zigzag which could never have had anything in common with letters from Lord Chatham. His own letters to his friend Temple lay bare the whole unique peregrination, from start to finish. To confess is the desire of many; but it is within the power of few. A rare clarity of vision, a still rare candor of expression—without these qualities it is vain for a man to seek to unburden his heart. Boswell possessed them in the highest degree; and, at the same time, he was untroubled by certain other qualities, which, admirable though they be in the other connections, are fatal for this particular purpose. He had no pride, no shame, and no dignity. The result was that a multitude of inhibitions passed him by. Nevertheless he was by no means detached. His was not the method of the scientific observer, nothing his introspections with a cold exactness—far from it; he was intimately fascinated by everything to do with himself—his thoughts, his feelings, his reactions; and yet he was able to give expression to them all with absolute ingenuousness, without a shade of self-consciousness, without a particular of reserve. Naturally enough the picture presented on such circumstances is full of absurdities, for no character which had suppressed its absurdities could possibly depict itself so. Boswell was ex hypothesi absurd: it was his absurdity that was the essential condition of his consummate art.

It was in the description of his love affairs that this truly marvelous capacity found its fullest scope. The succession of his passions, with all their details, their variations, their agitations, and their preposterousness, fill the letters to Temple (a quiet clergyman in the depths of Devonshire) with a constant effervescence of delight. One progresses with marvelous exhilaration form Miss W—t (“just such a young lady as I could wish for the partner of my soul”) to Zelide (“upon my soul, Temple, I must have her”), and so to the Signora, and the Moffat woman (“can I do better than keep a dear infidel for my hours of Paphian bliss?), and the Princess (“here every flower is united”), and the gardener’s daughter, and Mrs. D., and Miss Bosville, and La Belle Irlandaise (“just sixteen, formed like a Grecian nymph, with the sweetest countenance, full of sensibility, accomplished, with a Dublin education”), and Mrs. Boswell (“I am fully sensible of my happiness in being married to so excellent a woman”), and Miss Silverton (“in the fly with me, an amiable creature who has been in France. I can unite little fondnesses with perfect conjugal love”), and Miss Bagnal (“a Ranelagh girl, but of excellent principles, in so much that she reads prayers to the servants in her father’s family, every Sunday evening. ‘Let me see such a woman,’ cried I”), and Miss Milles (“d’une certaine âge, and with a fortune of £10,000), and—but the catalogue is endless. These are the pages which record the sunny hours of Boswell’s checkered day. Light and warmth sparkle from them; but, even in the noon of his happiness, there were sudden clouds. Hypochondria seized him; he would wake in the night “dreading annihilation, or being thrown into some horrible state of being.” His conscience would not leave him alone; he was attacked by disgraceful illnesses; he felt “like a man ordered for ignominious execution”; he feared that his infidelities to Mrs. Boswell would not be excused hereafter. And then his vital spirits rushed to his rescue, and the shadow fled. Was he not the friend of Paoli? Indeed he was; and he was sitting in a library forty feet long, dressed in green and gold. The future was radiant. “My warm imagination looks forward with great complacency on the sobriety, the healthfulness, and the worth of my future life.” As for his infidelities, were they so reprehensible after all? “Concubinage is almost universal. If it was morally wrong, why was it permitted to the pious men under the Old Testament? Why did our Saviour never say a word against it?”

As his life went on, however, the clouds grew thicker and more menacing, and the end was storm and darkness. The climax came with the death of his wife. Boswell found himself at the age of fifty alone in the world with embarrassed fortunes, a family of young children to bring up, and no sign that any of the “towering hopes” of his youth had been realized. Worse still, he had become by this time a confirmed drunkard. His self-reproaches were pitiable; his efforts at amendment never ceased; he took a vow of sobriety under “a venerable yew”; he swore a solemn oath that he would give up drinking altogether—that he would limit himself to four glasses of wine at dinner and a pint afterwards; but it was all in vain. His way of life grew more and more disorderly, humiliating, and miserable. If he had retired to Scotland, and lived economically on his estate, he might have retrieved his position; but that was what he could not do: he could not be out of London. His ambitions seemed to multiply with his misfortunes. He exchanged the Scotch bar for the English, and lost his professional income at a blow. He had wild hopes of becoming a member of Parliament, if only he toadied Lord Lonsdale sufficiently; and Lord Lonsdale promised much, asked him to his castle, made a butt of him, hid his wig, was gravely concerned, and finally there whim off after “expressing himself in the most degrading manner in presence of a low man from Carlisle and one of his menial servants.” Consolations now were few indeed. It was something, no doubt, to be able to go to Court. “I was the great man at the late drawing-room in a suit of imperial blue lined with rose-colored silk, and ornamented with rich gold-wrought buttons. What a motley scene is life!” And at Eton, where he was “carried to dine at the Fellows’ table,” it was pleasant enough to find that in spite of a Scotch education one could still make a creditable figure. “I had my classical quotations very ready.” But these were fleeting gleams. “Your kindness to me,” he burst out to Temple, in April, 1791, “fairly makes me shed tears. Alas, I fear that my constitutional melancholy, which returns in such dismal fits and is now aggravated by the loss of my valuable wife, must prevent me from any permanent felicity in this life. I snatch gratifications; but have no comfort, at least very little…. I get bad rest in the night, and then I brood over all my complaints—the sickly mind which I have had from my early years—the disappointment of my hopes of success in life—the irrevocable separation between me and that excellent woman who was my cousin, my friend, and my wife—the embarrassment of my affairs—the disadvantage to my children in having so wretched a father—nay, the want of absolute certainty of being happy after death, the sure prospect of which is frightful. No more of this.”

The tragedy was closing; but it was only superficially a sordid one. Six weeks later the writer of these lines published, in two volumes quarto, the Life of Dr. Johnson. In reality, Boswell’s spirit had never failed. With incredible persistence he had carried through the enormous task which he had set himself thirty years earlier. Everything else was gone. He was burnt down to the wick, but his work was there. IT was the work of one whose appetite for life was insatiable—so insatiable that it proved in the end self-destructive. The same force which produced the Life of Johnson plunged its author into ruin and desperation. If Boswell had been capable of retiring to the country and economizing we should never have heard of him. It was Lord Lonsdale’s butt who reached immortality.

  1. "Tell me," he asked the misanthropic sentimentalist, "wouldn't I do well to really apply myself to music, up to a certain point? Tell me what my instrument should be. I admit that it's late. But will I not have the pleasure of making continual progress, and will I not be able to soften my old age with the sounds of my lyre?"