Today ,as most are aware is the 250th anniversary of Samuel Johnston meeting James Boswell in the book shop in Covent Garden. The beginning of one of the most successful love affairs in literature. Boswell’s Life of Johnston is considered the father of modern biography and so that meeting is to be celebrated, I will for instance be spending the day at a symposium organised by the Kings College and the Johnston Society.
But although Boswell’s Johnston has a reputation as one of the great books of the English language its author generates mixed opinions.
Lord Thomas Macaulay ,that major Victorian historian, wrote that “Of the talents which ordinarily raise men to eminence as writers, Boswell had absolutely none”, “Many of the greatest men that ever lived have written biography. Boswell was one of the smallest men that ever lived, and he has beaten them all. He was, if we are to give any credit to his own account or to the united testimony of all who knew him, a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect.” and “and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman”.
Elsewhere the good Lord says “That Boswell was a coxcomb, and a bore,weak, vain,pushing, curious, garrulous was obvious to all. That he could not reason,that he had no wit, no humour,no eloquence is apparent from his writings.”
Lord Macaulay was not the only Victorian heavyweight to disapprove. Chelsea’s volcanic Thomas Carlyle had this to say
“BOSWELL was a person whose mean or bad qualities lay open to the general eye; visible, palpable to the dullest. His good qualities, again, belonged not to the Time he lived in; were far from common then; indeed, in such a degree, were almost unexampled; not recognizable therefore by every one; nay, apt even (so strange had they grown) to be confounded with the very vices they lay contiguous to and had sprung out of. That he was a wine-bibber and gross liver; gluttonously fond of whatever would yield him a little solacement, were it only of a stomachic character, is undeniable enough. That he was vain, heedless, a babbler; had much of the sycophant, alternating with the braggadocio, curiously spiced too with an all-pervading dash of the cox-comb; and in short, if you will, lived no day of his life without doing and saying more than one pretentious ineptitude: all this unhappily is evident as the sun at noon. The very look of Boswell seems to have signified so much. In that cocked nose, cocked partly in triumph over his weaker fellow-creatures, partly to snuff up the smell of coming pleasure, and scent it from afar; in those bag-cheeks, hanging like half-filled wine-skins, still able to contain more; in that coarsely protruded shelf-mouth, that fat dewlapped chin: in all this, who sees not sensuality, pretension, boisterous imbecility enough; much that could not have been ornamental in the temper of a great man’s overfed great man (what the Scotch name flunky), though it had been more natural there? The under part of Boswell’s face is of a low, almost brutish character.”
But in the end it is Boswell who makes Johnston and gives us one of the great characters of not only our literature but our history. The reputation of both Macaulay and Carlyle may still be high but they are covered in dust. John Wain in his biography of Johnson states “ This like so many of Macaulay’s remarks begins with a base of sound understanding and slices into the rough because of Macaulay’s journalistic propensity for exaggeration…. With his high stepping mind he was the last person in the world to have understood Boswell.”
But it is the man who liked to “roger” who has the last laugh. While few if any read either Carlyle or Macaulay ,Boswell’s Life of Johnston is still read, admired, loved and most of all quoted. There will be no celebrations for the 250th anniversaries of either Carlyle or Macaulay. A W Jackson Bate states in his definitive Johnston, Boswell was “drastically underrated” as well as being “romantically imaginative, sexually promiscuous, impulsively idealistic ,open natured and pliable”.
C. E. Vulliamy’s 1932 biography of Boswell – Vulliamy himself was very critical of Boswell and condemned the smallest of his weaknesses, but still wrote the following:
“A very little reflection is enough to shatter the extremely crude hypothesis of Macaulay. Johnson talked freely and well to this young man, not only because he liked him, but because the young man had the liveliest appreciation of conversational episode and the happiest way of playing suggestively or provokingly with a new theme. These are not the gifts of a great man or of an eloquent man, but they are not those of a fool. To suppose that we owe the most astonishing literary portrait in the world to the random jottings of an irresponsible ass is clearly absurd.”