James Boswell in London again: the last volume of his papers

Boswell: The English Experiment, 1785-1789, Edited by Irma S. Lustig and Frederick A. Pottle. McGraw-Hill Book Company. $24.95. Thirty-six years ago, a publishing event aroused the English-speaking world. That year (1951) book publishers in New York and London offered an unsuspecting public the first of a series of 13 private journals of a man not unknown on either side of the Atlantic, James Boswell, author of one of the best selling biographies in the English language. Boswell's ``Life of Samuel Johnson,'' published in London in 1791, is still in print some 50-plus editions later.

One hundred and sixty years were to pass before transatlantic publishers would make available ``Boswell's London Journal, 1762-63,'' the first supplement to what has become the Boswell saga. Subsequently, 12 more books or journals drawn from unpublished - indeed, long lost - records and jottings of Boswell have appeared. The last of these, ``The English Experiment, 1785-1789,'' is now available.

The title refers to the period when Boswell transferred his family from its ancestral home, Auchinleck, in the Scottish village of that name, to central London. His intellectual and social interests were stimulated there; his passion for friendship found its most rewarding outlets there; temptations were more enticing there; most of all, Samuel Johnson was there. Johnson was the central interest, intellectual guide, and inspiration for Boswell. He seldom, if ever, missed an opportunity of complying with Johnson's advices. ``A man sir, should keep his friendships in constant repair,'' was one of them. With Johnson, Boswell did. That in part was why in 1786 he moved his wife and five children to London.

This was not an auspicious event. Perhaps the central reason was Mrs. Boswell. She had come to a new home in a strange metropolis where she knew virtually no one. As her husband, Boswell understood her worth and had a strong affection for her. But he had a variety of competing interests and passions. He was drawn away from the new home by suggestions or invitations much of the time for he was an emotional man, inclined to act on the spur of the moment. And so it was that he and Mrs. Boswell lived rather separate lives under the same roof, she, meanwhile seldom being physically strong and gradually declining.

So, ``the English experiment'' appeared doomed from its start. There were additional complications. Boswell's sources of income at this period were shrinking. His family expenses were increasing.

As an advocate at the bar, Boswell was equipped to supplement his income through services to those embroiled with English civil law, rather different from the Scottish Roman law. The making of money was not the gadfly that drove Boswell. It was to live and mingle with the great and the near-great. From his youth, he sought the acquaintance and, if possible, the friendship of great men and he frequently succeeded. Now, however, he found himself in his mid-40's encumbered by a large family and competing in the practice of law with other younger, more aggressive, lawyers.

At the same time, he found that, socially speaking, many doors were open to him. This was the London that he had started with as a young man, before he and Johnson met. Even in those earlier days, he had his struggles as titles to two of his books, created from his papers by Yale scholars, proclaim: ``The Ominous Years'' (1763) and ``Boswell in Extremes'' (1770). The title under review here, ``The English Experience'' suggests calm and stability.

But the reader soon discovers that Boswell's venture in moving his family to London was not all that. He found it difficult to obtain clients. So it was that he applied to the Earl of Lonsdale for the position of Recorder to the city of Carlisle. Lonsdale, a wealthy politician in the north of England, played with him, putting off a decision for many months. But in the end, when Bozzy was ready to withdraw his application, the appointment was arranged.

If Boswell was comforted somewhat by this, his wife was becoming increasingly ill and the doctors considered her case terminal. Boswell became resigned to the situation. For the children - at various levels of education - the London years were happier, as indeed they were for Boswell himself despite money troubles. They all remained in London until the summer of 1788. By then Mrs. Boswell's condition mandated her return to Scotland and Auchinleck.

Within another year, the time had come for her. The story is told in this book through Boswell's journals and letters to many others, all successfully amalgamated by the editors in what has long been known at Yale as ``the Boswell factory.'' Boswell as a much younger man formed a lasting friendship in his school years with ``a man of spotless purity of morals'' having the ``tastes of a scholar.'' He was or became the Rev. William Temple. He was introduced to the English literary world through Boswell's ``London Journal'' of 1762. Temple comes into this current book as the recipient of a letter from Boswell subsequent to his wife's death. He writes: ``Oh, my friend! this is affliction indeed! My two boys and I posted from London to Auchinleck night and day in 64 hours and a quarter, but alas! our haste was all in vain.''

So we are left in this final volume of the Boswell papers with Boswell becoming a widower, his huge manuscript of Johnson's biography yet unfinished, but with the good Malone pressuring him and supporting him in a final endeavor to complete the great undertaking. One of these days ``The Life'' will reappear, containing all the editorial corrections and refinements that present scholarship can contribute. Even so it remains Boswell's book, the book Johnsonians speak of when they refer to ``the immortal memory.''

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