James Boswell

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James Boswell

James Boswell (October 29, 1740 - May 19, 1795) was a lawyer, diarist, and author born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the eldest son of a judge, Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck, Lord Auchinleck. He is best known as the biographer of Samuel Johnson. His name has passed into the English language as a term (Boswell, Boswellian, Boswellism) for a constant companion and observer.

Boswell is known for taking voluminous notes on the grand tour of Europe that he took as a young nobleman and, subsequently, of his tour to Scotland with Johnson. He also recorded meetings and conversations with eminent individuals belonging to The Club, including David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith. His written works focus chiefly on others, but he was admitted as a good companion and accomplished conversationalist in his own right.


Early Life

Boswell was born near St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. He was educated at James Mundell's academy followed by a string of private tutors before being sent at the age of thirteen to the city's University by his father to study law. Upon turning nineteen he was sent to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow, where he was taught by Adam Smith. Whilst at Glasgow Boswell decided to convert to Catholicism and become a monk. Upon learning of this Boswell's father ordered him home, instead of obeying Boswell ran away to London.

Boswell spent three months in London, where he lived the life of a libertine, before he was taken back to Scotland by his father. Upon returning Boswell was re-enrolled at Edinburgh University and was forced by his father to sign away most of his inheritance in return for 100 a year allowance. On July 30 1762 took his oral law exam, which he passed with some skill. Upon this success Lord Auchinleck decided to raise his son's allowance to 200 a year and allowed him to return to London. It was during this spell in London that Boswell met Johnson for the first time, on May 16 1763, the pair became friends almost immediately.

European Travels

It was around three months after this first encounter with Johnson that Boswell departed for Europe, with the initial goal of continuing his law studies at Utrecht University. However, Boswell spent most of the next two and a half years travelling around the continent. During this time he met such people as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an made a pilgrimage to Rome. Boswell also travelled to Corsica to meet one of his heroes, the independence leader Pasquale Paoli.

Mature life

Boswell returned to London in February 1766, accompanied by Rousseau's mistress. After spending a few weeks in the capital he returned to Scotland to take his final law exam. He passed the exam and became an advocate, he practiced for over a decade (during which time he spent no more than a month every year with Johnson).

Boswell married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, in November 1769. She remained faithful to Boswell, despite his infidelities, until her death of tuberculosis in 1789. Despite his relative literary success, with his accounts of his European travels, Boswell was an unsuccessful advocate and by the late 1770s he descended further and further into alcoholism and gambling addiction. James and Margaret had 4 sons and 3 daughters. Two sons died in infancy; the other two were Alexander (1775-1822) and James (1778-1822). Their daughters were Veronica (1773-1795), Euphemia (1774-ca. 1834) and Elizabeth (1780-1814). James also had at least two illegitimate children, Charles (1762-1764) and Sally (1767-1768?).

After Johnson's death in 1784, Boswell moved to London to try his luck at the English bar, which proved even more unsuccessful than his career in Scotland. He also offered to stand for Parliament, but failed to get the necessary support. He spent the final years of his life writing his Life of Johnson, which at once commanded an admiration which has suffered no diminution since, whilst his health began to fail due to his years of drinking and venereal disease.

The question has often been raised how a man with the characteristics of Boswell could have produced so unique a work, and has been discussed at length by Macaulay and by Carlyle, the former paradoxically arguing that his supreme folly and meanness themselves formed his greatest qualifications; the latter, with far deeper insight, that beneath these there lay the possession of an eye to discern excellence and a heart to appreciate it, intense powers of accurate observation and a considerable dramatic faculty.


"For my own part I think no innocent species of wit or pleasantry should be suppressed: and that a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation."

"We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over. So in a series of kindnesses there is, at last, one which makes the heart run over."

Discovery of Papers

In the 1920's, a great part of his private papers were discovered at Malahide Castle north of Dublin. They were sold to American collector Ralph H. Isham and have since passed to Yale University which has published general and scholarly editions of his journals and correspondence. His London Journal 1762-63 was published in 1950.



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