Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Boswell's London Romps & Repentance

Tuesday, May 15, 2018
James Boswell 1765 by George Willison
Loretta reports:

James Boswell, famed for his biography of Samuel Johnson, was a piece of work. I’ve posted from his London Journals before.  Please read and form your own conclusions.

Here's another bit from Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, (my Yale University  first edition of 1950). I love that he skipped the countess’s party because his hair wasn’t just right, but it didn’t stop him from heading for the streets, and “fresh, young” girls.
TUESDAY 17 MAY [1763]
I should have been at Lady Northumberland’s rout tonight, but my barber fell sick; so I sallied to the streets, and just at the bottom of our own, I picked up a fresh, agreeable young girl called Alice Gibbs. We went down a lane to a snug place, and I took out my armour,* but she begged that I might not put it on, as the sport was much pleasanter without it, and as she was quite safe. I was so rash as to trust her, and had a very agreeable congress.

Much concern was I in from the apprehension of being again reduced to misery**, and in so silly a way too ...

THURSDAY 19 MAY [1763]
 ... I then sallied forth to the Piazzas in rich flow of animal spirits and burning with fierce desire. I met two very pretty little girls who asked me to take them with me. “My dear girls,” said I, “I am a poor fellow. I can give you no money. But if you choose to have a glass of wine and my company and let us be gay and obliging to each other without money, I am your man.” They agreed with great good humor. So back to the Shakespeare I went. “Waiter,” said I, “I have got here a couple of human beings; I don’t know how they’ll do.” “I’ll look, your Honour,” cried he, and with inimitable effrontery stared them in the face and then cried, “They’ll do very well.” “What,” said I, “are they good fellow-creatures? Bring them up, then.” We were shown into a good room and had a bottle of sherry before us in a minute. I surveyed my seraglio and found them both good subjects for amorous play. I toyed with them and drank about and sung Youth’s the Season, and thought myself Captain Macheath,[9] and then I solaced my existence with them, one after the other, according to their seniority. I was quite raised, as the phrase is: thought I was in a London tavern, the Shakespeare’s Head, enjoying high debauchery after my sober winter.[1] I parted with my ladies politely and came home in a glow of spirits.
A Sketch from Nature (Carey, after Rowlandson) 1784
FRIDAY 3 JUNE [1763]
…I am always resolving to study propriety of conduct. But I never persist with any steadiness. I hope, however, to attain it. I shall perhaps go abroad a year or two, which may confirm me in proper habits. In the mean time let me strive to do my best.
[9] “Youth’s the season made for joys” is a song and chorus in The Beggar’s Opera. Macheath is in a tavern near Newgate, surrounded by ladies of the town.

[1] "High debauchery” is debauchery with genteel ceremonial; “low debauchery” is debauchery without.

*armour = condom
**another bout of venereal disease

Images: George Willison, James Boswell, 1765, painting in the National Galleries Scotland. William Paulet Carey, after Thomas Rowlandson, A Sketch from Nature, 1784, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.


Claire Hadleigh said...

Amazed the gentleman could write, no less remain vertical. But this post reminds me it would be good practice to read actual writings from the period more often -- love the term "sallied"!

Unknown said...

I'm a life-long Johnson devotee and of course that means continual exposure to Boswell-- a mixed blessing, really. We owe so much to him, not only about Johnson, but about the times, the mores, the people. At the same time he is a totally distasteful sex addict, including the exploitation of children -- check the ages of various of his --let's face it, victims. Also, for a medical/psychological perspective on Boswell's behaviour see Dr. William Ober's "Boswell's Clap and Other Essays." Fairly recent.
Am teaching a "life long learning" course on Johnson and his circle for Simon Fraser University here in Vancouver in the Fall - SO HAPPY to have not only this Nerdy posting but so many others I can draw on for the course -- clothing, food, etc. I'm going to do an in-depth review of postings, so thanks so much!

Loretta Chase said...

Marylee, he certainly was a complicated fellow. Thank you for mentioning Dr. William Ober's book. I'll look for it. In Ian Kelley's book about Beau Brummell, he talks about how venereal disease explains some of the stranger aspects of the Beau's behavior.

Unknown said...

Hi, Loretta,
yes, syphillis rots the brain. You'll find Ober's book useful - just the one chapter is about Boswell, but there are a number of other case studies. Yech!

Unknown said...

BTW, I see you write humorous romances. I'm reminded, the main character in Margaret Atwood's 1976 book, Lady Oracle, is a historical romance author. At one point her character is being threatened by some upper class cad and she deals him a blow with a copy of Boswell's Life of Johnson. Given the weight of may editions of it, if she can lift it, she certainly can knock him cold! She does succeed in repelling his nasty advances.

Lucy said...

I have Boswell's Grand Tour of Germany and Switzerland on my bookshelf, and the thing that struck me about the author most was his intense, overwhelming self-focus--I would say narcissism. In some ways, he rather reminds me of Pinnochio: wanting to be real, and never quite figuring the process out. Every social interaction for him means a report card, and he wants to get a high grade on it; but he's either wildly proud of his own imagined success, or he's looking for validation somewhere. Not, on the whole, an attractive character.

Unknown said...

I have that entire series, prepared over many years, right through to his death in 1795. The books are all edited/created by reknowned Johnson/Boswell scholars, all published by Yale University Press over decades. There is a very interesting story about the discovery of many more of Boswell's diaries and other papers in Malahide Castle, in some old cricket bat box or something like that, so there is a huge amount to draw on. If you go to https://boswelleditions.yale.edu/trade-edition you'll find all 12 of them, which cover various stages of his life. the last one, 1789-95, Boswell The Great Biographer, is his tragic final years, working himself nearly to death to finish his life-long project. And these days we would identify Boswell as an extreme narcissist, totally immature, insecure, not really knowing who he was, always desperately trying to find a "self," always hoping to find the powerful loving father figure his own father -- an equivalent of a Supreme Court judge in Scotland -- never was and could never be. My own view is that unless he wrote down what he saw and heard and felt - he simply could not be sure he even existed, much less mattered. Hence the compulsive nature of it. And as I've said earlier, he was a sex addict, as we would think of it today and this included the unconscionable and unconscious exploitation of very young women and girls. He is not attractive, really, one is just morbidly fascinated by him and forever glad that he told us so much about the life and times -- of Johnson for sure, but so many others.

Loretta Chase said...

Unfortunately, many of the most gifted/valuable/remarkable writers (and other artists) were not the finest human beings. Fortunately, it's the work that lives on.

Unknown said...

not you and me, of course. But then, my writing isn't remarkable and it is unlikely to live on.

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket