A Life of James Boswell
Peter Martin Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 613pp, £25
The proverbial schoolboy recalls two things about James Boswell: he wrote the life of Dr Johnson and, perhaps less importantly but more excitingly, he had a penchant for prostitutes, from whom he caught a barrage of sexual diseases. It's hardly a compelling brace of facts, and in this new one-volume biography, written to scholarly standards but aimed at a more mainstream audience, Peter Martin fleshes out the skeletal frame suggested above with coolly marshalled detail. In the process, he tries to detach the limpet Boswell from the mighty edifice of Johnson - and to furnish an account of Boswell's extravagant and frankly documented sex life that is neither prudish nor indulgent.
Naturally Martin chronicles these less savoury exploits in full. Turn to the excellent index, and the more prominent entries alongside Boswell's name - "affairs", "conversations", "drinking to excess", "executions attended", "flirtations", "hypochondria" - spell out a gaudy story. It's a story that is often winningly droll and yet at other times it generates a troubling pathos. For instance, inspired from a distance by the writings of Rousseau, Boswell sought him out while on his European tour. But the 24-year-old tourist was more intent on impressing his audience than he was on being impressed and he grew bored of Rousseau, choosing instead to focus his attention on his host's mistress, a woman 20 years his senior whose performance he disparaged as "agitated, like a bad rider galloping downhill".
On another occasion Boswell ventured back to his family's ancestral seat, the 27,000-acre estate at Auchinleck, in Ayrshire, and promptly fell in love with the gardener's daughter, a virgin noted for her pretty ankles. "My fancy is inflamed," he told his correspondent William Temple; he foresaw "delightful nuptials". The sentiment seems real, but Boswell had previously imagined himself in love with an extraordinary assortment of unlikely women and, when he finally proposed marriage, a week after discovering his tenth venereal infection, it was to his own impoverished cousin. The marriage was never entirely plausible, and it is no surprise that while she lay in bed, stricken with consumption, he "ranged the streets and followed whores", reflecting unrepentantly that he was too sensual to know better.
Among the large dramas of Boswell's passionately histrionic life, we discover smaller ones. As a young man he spent ten days in Genoa nursing an ingrown toenail; later the pain caused by this toenail interfered not just with his whoring but also with his journal. In February 1780 - nearly 20 years after the initial infection - he finally tried to excavate the nail himself; his first attempt was aborted because it was too painful, but he succeeded a few days later and "was able to wash his foot for the first time that winter".
Such detail may seem paltry, but it was Boswell's mentor, Johnson, who pronounced that the business of the biographer "is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, and lead the thoughts into domestic privacies and display the minute details of daily life". The principle behind this is easily understood: the little quirks of individuals are what make them most accessible. Martin, in telling us about Boswell's toes, the gardener's daughter and her ankles, humanises his subject and suggests that he is one of us; and for all its attention to Boswell's amusing escapades, this biography is emphatic about his complexities and skills.
So we read of his abilities as an advocate, but we also find him fretting about the moral implications of pleading on behalf of a client in whose innocence he does not believe. He is desperate to be at his dying wife's bedside, but persists in his carousing. There is dissipation but also restraint; arrogance but also doubt; wanderlust (he longed to accompany Captain Cook on a journey to Hawaii) but at the same time an attachment to the simple beauty of his home. His entire life appears to have been a perpetual balancing act: he would veer one way, then another, and hope against hope to find his equilibrium somewhere in between.
In conveying a picture of this constant wavering, Martin's treatment of his material is dextrous and assured, and he offers a refreshingly ambiguous portrait of his subject. Still, Boswell emerges unredeemed, and though his misdemeanors may sometimes make him attractive and his self-scrutiny sympathetic, they can never turn him into what he was not, namely a great writer. Boswell may be the perfect guide to a social hinterland at once seedy and significant, but without Johnson's patronage he would have been a mere Gulliver in the Brobdingnagian kingdom of London letters.
In an article published a quarter of a century ago, the American critic Donald Greene complained that work on the definitive edition of Johnson was under threat of enforced termination, whereas the definitive edition of Boswell's "colossal hoard of private papers" proceeded apace. Identifying in this a remarkably skewed sense of cultural priorities, Greene lamented that, while Johnson might be denied his due benison of scholarship, "we can presumably count on being regaled indefinitely with the details of Boswell's claps and hangovers".
What was true in 1974 is no less true today: readers know Johnson through Boswell's fascinating life of him and are much more likely to devote their hours to Boswell's sluttish London journal than to any of his master's less rewarding writings. The appeal of Boswell to a modern audience needs little explaining; his combination of hedonism and anxiety aligns him with millennium man, that amalgam of brash uncertainties. Boswell - so the consensus goes - cuts a remarkably modern figure, and his antics and attitudes chime with those of many a contemporary reader. What is modern is sexy, and what is sexy sells, and Boswell has become a creature of note partly because the common reader (the phrase is Johnson's) wants that heady Boswellian brew of tawdry confession, angst, bibulous excess and rollicking virility. For the record, we should note that Johnson is equally, though very differently, modern; but that is quite another story.