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Literary Lives & Landscapes
By David Carroll
The History PressCopyright © 2013 David Carroll
All rights reserved.
BOSWELL AND JOHNSON
A Man led by a Bear
On 16 May 1763, during one of his frequent and protracted visits to London, the future biographer James Boswell was visiting the Russell Street bookshop owned by his actor friend Thomas Davies in the Covent Garden district of the capital, when in through the doorway stepped the illustrious Samuel Johnson, thus setting in train one of the most celebrated of literary friendships in the entire history of English letters. Nearly two and a half centuries later their names are still inextricably linked – Boswell's peerless biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, has been regarded as a literary masterpiece ever since its first appearance in 1791 – but, on the face of it, this was one of the unlikeliest of liaisons: the 22-year-old offspring of a landed Ayrshire family falling under the spell of the Staffordshire bookseller's son who was more than thirty years his senior.
At the time of their first meeting, Lichfield-born Johnson was already a considerable literary celebrity, following the publication of his ground-breaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, a work of enormous scholarship and erudition that had taken him nearly ten years to complete. He was also a poet, critic, biographer, and a dauntingly prolific essayist.
Boswell, on the other hand, had still to make his way in the world. Born on 29 October 1740 in Edinburgh's Parliament Close (later renamed Parliament Square), which lies at the rear of St Giles's Cathedral, he was educated at James Mundell's school in the nearby West Bow but with the added advantage of having private tutors at home. Boyhood illness had sent him south to Dumfriesshire and the famous eighteenth-century spa resort of Moffat which, in those days, was firmly established as 'the Cheltenham of Scotland'. Here, for better or worse, the young Boswell duly 'took the waters' (which, according to one local guide book, tasted like 'the scourings of a foul gun').
The Edinburgh of Boswell's day was much smaller, of course, than the present city. Although the area now known as the New Town, to the north of Princes Street, had begun to be developed during Boswell's lifetime, he was born and grew up in the Old Town. This was a district characterised by tenement buildings and narrow streets and wynds that, in the early eighteenth century, even the mildest of critics would have been forced to describe on the whole as crowded, smoky and above all noisome. 'The city suffers infinite disadvantages', noted Daniel Defoe in his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–6), after visiting Edinburgh in the early 1700s, 'and lies under such scandalous inconveniences as are, by its enemies, made a subject of scorn and reproach; as if people were not as willing to live sweet and clean as other natives, but delighted in stench and nastiness ... Though many cities have more people in them, yet, I believe, this may be said with truth, that in no city in the world so many people live in so little room as at Edinburgh.'
Captain Edward Topham, an army officer serving in the Guards, visited Edinburgh during 1774 and, in a series of letters written to his family at home in England, describes what he saw of the New Town taking shape. 'The greatest part of the New Town is built after the manner of the English,' he observed, 'and the houses are what they call here "houses to themselves". Though this mode of living, one would imagine, is much preferable to the former, yet such is the force of prejudice, that there are many people who prefer a little dark confined tenement on a sixth storey to the convenience of a whole house ... In no town that I ever saw can such a contrast be found betwixt the ancient and modern architecture ...'
Although the age of Edinburgh's great literary celebrity on the international stage – which perhaps reached its zenith with the reign of Sir Walter Scott – was a thing of the future when Boswell was growing up in the city, the poet Allan Ramsay was still alive (living in his octagonal retirement home nicknamed 'Goose Pie House' on Castlehill, where Ramsay Garden can be found today) and, from the group of Court poets who had flourished in Edinburgh during an earlier period, Boswell would have undoubtedly been familiar with the work of William Dunbar.
Little is known about Dunbar's life, except that he was probably born in East Lothian in about 1460 and educated at St Andrews University. He certainly became a well-travelled man for his time, visiting the Courts of England and France and, according to his late nineteenth-century biographer, Oliphant Smeaton, '... travelling all over Europe from the banks of the Tiber ... to those of "cauld Norway over the faem" ...' But, as Smeaton continues, 'Like Samuel Johnson towards Fleet Street, William Dunbar considered the High Street and the Canongate of Edinburgh the fairest spots on earth ... and to [him] the scenes which he daily witnessed in the busy, dirty, crowded malodorous streets of the capital ... had a charm infinitely more fascinating than the matin-song of birds, heard in some leafy grove, [or] than the slumber of the summer sunshine on the green Pentland slopes, over which the cloud-shadows flitted like the voiceless spirits of the past ...'
Dunbar's most famous work was possibly 'The Thrissil and the Rois' (1503), an allegorical poem relating to the marriage of Margaret Tudor and James IV, but his hard-hitting 'Address to the Merchants of Edinburgh' evokes the city he loved so well:
Quhy will ye merchantis of renoun,
Lat Edinburgh, your nobil toun,
For laik of reformatioun
The commone proffeitt tyine and fame?
Think ye not schame,
That onie uther regioun
Sall with dishonour hurt your name ...
By the time he met Johnson, Boswell had been a student at both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, and was then studying the law under the supervision of his father, the Scottish judge Lord Auchinleck (the name derived from the family estate), although his heart leaned more towards literature and the theatre. He had already started to write and publish ephemeral verses, and had also befriended a number of actors and writers. These included Thomas Davies, the Russell Street bookseller, and, by coincidence, one of Johnson's former pupils from his early days as a schoolmaster, the actor David Garrick. As Davies and Johnson were friends, it is not entirely surprising that the great man should put in an appearance at the bookshop while Boswell was present.
At first, Boswell was made slightly apprehensive by the knowledge that Johnson harboured a prejudice against Scotland and its people, but in the event this proved no barrier to their forming a friendship. 'I was highly pleased with the extraordinary vigour of [Johnson's] conversation,' Boswell confided to his journal after their initial meeting, 'and had ventured to make an observation now and again which he received very civilly; so that I was satisfied that though there was a roughness in his manner, there was no ill-nature in his disposition. Davies followed me to the door and when I complained to him a little of the hard blows which the great man had given me [on account of being Scottish] he kindly took upon him to console me by saying, "Don't be uneasy. I can see he likes you very well."' Boswell also described Johnson's 'most dreadful appearance ... He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy and the King's Evil [scrofula]. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect and render him very excellent company.'
A few months later Boswell left London, bound for Holland. From there he travelled in Germany and subsequently visited Italy and Corsica before returning to Edinburgh in 1766 and passing his examination in Scots law. For almost the next twenty years he practised diligently in the city as an advocate at the Scottish Bar. In the meantime, however, he retained his keen interest in all things theatrical and literary and, during his almost annual visits to London, his friendship with the irascible Johnson strengthened. From almost the first time they met, Boswell had been urging the famous lexicographer to master his self-confessed antipathy to Scotland and come and view the country for himself. Ten years were to elapse, however, before Johnson could be finally prised from the taverns and coffee-houses that were among his favourite London haunts to make the long journey north in the summer of 1773; at the age of sixty-four it was the first time he had ventured so far from home.
By now, Boswell was married to his cousin Margaret Montgomerie and living in a well-appointed flat in James's Court (the birthplace in the 1960s of the Traverse Theatre) in Edinburgh's Lawnmarket. Their daughter, Veronica, was just five months old, but neither marriage nor the novelty of fatherhood had done much to change Boswell's habitual lifestyle. His new status as a family man signally failed to dampen his casual interest in other women, nor did it curb his frequently recurring bouts of heavy drinking, as his diary from that period amply testifies. 'A great deal of wine was drank [sic] today,' runs one typical entry. 'I swallowed about a bottle of port, which inflamed me much, the weather being hot ... [Later] I devoured moor-fowl, and poured more port down my throat. I was sadly intoxicated.' The following day's entry is all too predictable. 'I was very sick and had a severe headache, and lay between ten and eleven, when I grew better.' On another occasion, after drinking heavily, 'I ranged the street and followed whores ...', although contrition had set in by the next morning. 'My riot had distressed me terribly ... I was so ill today that I could not rise.'
On 3 August 1773 Johnson informed Boswell: 'I shall set out from London on Friday the sixth of this month, and purpose not to loiter much by the way. Which day I shall be at Edinburgh I cannot exactly tell. I suppose I must drive to an inn, and send a porter to find you ...' Johnson was as good as his word and, after travelling by way of Berwick-upon-Tweed, he appeared in the late evening of Saturday 14 August at Boyd's Inn off the Canongate. Boswell duly describes his friend's long-awaited arrival in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), his account of their subsequent three months' Scottish journey together: 'I went to him directly. He embraced me cordially; and I exulted in the thought that I now had him actually in Caledonia ... He was to do me the honour to lodge under my roof ... and [we] walked arm-in-arm up the High Street to my house in James's Court. It was a dusky night; I could not prevent his being assailed by the evening effluvia of Edinburgh. I heard a late baronet ... observe that "walking the streets of Edinburgh at night was pretty perilous, and a good deal odoriferous." The peril is much abated, by the care which the magistrates have taken to enforce the city laws against throwing foul water from the windows; but from the structure of the houses in the old town, which consist of many stories [sic], in each of which a different family lives, and there being no covered sewers, the odour still continues. A zealous Scotsman would have wished ... Johnson to be without one of his five senses upon this occasion. As we marched slowly along he grumbled in my ear, "I smell you in the dark!" But he acknowledged that the breadth of the street, and the loftiness of the buildings on each side, made a noble appearance.'
Edward Topham, who stayed in Edinburgh the following year, graphically described how, away from public view in the narrow wynds leading off the High Street, many citizens, despite the threat of fines or harsher punishments, persisted in defying the magistrates' ruling. 'Many an elegant suit of clothes has been spoiled,' he lamented, 'and many a well-dressed macaroni sent home for the evening and, to conclude ... in Dr. Johnson's own simple words "many a full-flowing periwig moistened into flaccidity."'
Johnson was a self-confessed 'hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for many years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who, with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnights, and with tea welcomes the morning'. Bearing this in mind, Boswell had made certain that his wife would be ready with the teapot to welcome their distinguished guest on his arrival in a fashion that he would appreciate. '[Johnson] showed much complacency upon finding that the mistress of the house was so attentive to his singular habit,' recorded Boswell, 'and as no man could be more polite when he chose to be so, his address to her was most courteous and engaging ...'
The Boswells' flat was a positive hive of activity during the four days that Johnson made it his headquarters before setting out with his friend on their long journey to the Hebrides. Johnson's national celebrity meant that he was fêted wherever he went in the country and Edinburgh proved no exception. Johnson, much to Mrs Boswell's dismay, it seems, was 'at home' to a constant stream of visitors, many of whom were drawn from Edinburgh's literati, and who wished to pay their respects in person to the man who was widely known as 'Dictionary Johnson'.
Mrs Boswell, it has been suggested (not least by Johnson himself), did not greatly relish the company of her husband's highly respected friend, whose brief – but, as far as she was concerned, all too lengthy – presence could hardly have done other than to dominate the James's Court flat. When at home in London, Johnson habitually lived in a state of domestic chaos; he was a large man whose ungainly body with its host of tics and involuntary movements was best given free rein in the great outdoors, rather than in the confines of someone else's home. Not surprisingly, he jarred Mrs Boswell's nerves and threw more than one spanner in the works of her domestic arrangements. His tendency to upset candles and spill wax on the carpets was, according to Boswell, the habit that annoyed her most of all.
It must have been the source of some relief to the beleaguered Mrs Boswell, therefore, when her husband occasionally winkled the portly Johnson out of their home to view some of Edinburgh's finer sights, including the Parliament House, St Giles's and, inevitably, the castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the last two being ports of call that no present-day tourist worth their salt would ever leave Edinburgh without visiting. Almost wherever Johnson went a knot of interested spectators gathered around him and followed where he led. Calling upon his deepest reserves of stamina, he also made his way to the top of Edinburgh's tallest building, which was thirteen storeys high.
On the morning of Wednesday 18 August, Boswell and Johnson left Edinburgh at the start of their epic tour; one that would take them – among other places – as far north as the Moray Firth and westwards to the Inner Hebridean islands of Skye, Raasay and Coll. Their journey, frequently made over the roughest of terrain on foot and horseback, carried them to some of Britain's wildest and most remote spots, before leading them back to Edinburgh three months later, on 9 November, when once again Johnson was billeted at his friend's flat in James's Court. This meant a further interlude of general disruption to her household for Mrs Boswell, and another procession of visitors dropping in and out all day long to see her famous guest, but she weathered the storm stoically if not altogether silently. In a widely quoted remark, she waspishly declared that she had 'often seen a bear led by a man but I never before saw a man led by a bear', an observation that leaves no doubt about her feelings on the subject of her husband's friendship with Johnson.
The social whirl, of which Johnson formed the epicentre, continued unabated. 'On the mornings when he breakfasted at my house,' recorded Boswell, 'he had, from ten o'clock till one or two, a constant levee of various persons, of very different characters and descriptions. I could not attend him, being obliged to be in the Court of Session; but my wife was so good as to devote the greater part of the morning to the endless task of pouring out tea for my friend and his visitors. Such was the disposition of his time at Edinburgh.' Johnson complained at one stage of having been 'harassed by invitations' before acknowledging 'how much worse it would have been if we had been neglected'.
Johnson, perhaps keen to return to London before the worst weather of the winter set in, left Edinburgh in late November, never to return. Surprisingly, in his own account of his Scottish jaunt, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), he dismissed Edinburgh out of hand in the second paragraph as 'a city too well known to admit description'.
Excerpted from Edinburgh by David Carroll. Copyright © 2013 David Carroll. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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