May 29th, 2013


Boswell's London Journal 1762-63

Boswell comes down to London in his early twenties with a view to getting himself a commission in the Guards- an enterprise that is doomed from the start because his father, the judge, is lobbying against it and he doesn't have the money for bribes. He spends his time "sauntering" around London, breakfasting with other young bucks, rogering whores, studying "propriety of conduct" and- when there's nothing better to do- writing up this early masterpiece of self-revelation.

He wants to be a soldier for the sake of the coat and the income and favours the Guards because he is very unlikely to be posted out of London- let alone- oh horrors- on active service.  His ambitions swell and deflate.  "It is very difficult," he says, talking about worldly success, "To be keen about a thing which in reality you do not regard and consider as imaginary."  His ability to stand apart from himself is extraordinary.  He records things most of us would hide, making himself ridiculous and touching- and- every once in a while- detestable.  His account of his affair with Louisa- the actress who gives him the pox- is as truthful- and as wince-making- as it gets. Also remarkably even-handed. He has a wonderful ear for dialogue.

Georgian London is a small world. On the basis of certain connections and some trifling literary achievements he gets to socialize with everybody who is anybody- from "Ossian" Macpherson to David Garrick to the Duchess of Northumberland- who promises to use her influence on his behalf, then avoids him. Towards the end of the Journal Dr Johnson makes an appearance and Boswell, as if sensing his destiny, immediately starts to make notes of his conversation.