He Was a Young and Reckless Libertine with a Taste for Literary Fame as Well as Wine and the Ladies. but He Found Stability with a Womanwho Understood Him; 225 YEARS AGO, JAMES BOSWELL WENT OFF ON A JAUNT WITH DR JOHNSON, WHAT DID HIS WIFE THINK OF IT ALL?

Article excerpt

Byline: JEREMY HODGES

LATE one evening 225 years ago, the lights were still burning in the smart Edinburgh apartment where Margaret Boswell, in her most becoming dress, made nervous adjustments to her hair as she awaited the return of her wayward husband, James, with his distinguished literary guest.

After four years of marriage to the young maverick lawyer whose reputation as a political troublemaker, erotic miscreant and over-enthusiastic bon viveur had driven his Law Lord father to distraction, 'Peggie' Boswell knew her essentially

kind-hearted husband well.

For her, the faults in his character were far outweighed by his generosity of spirit, but she was filled with unease at his literary aspirations which took him away each year to the salons, taverns and flesh-pots of London.

Now she was to meet one of his main reasons for going there - the English literary giant and substitute father-figure on whom Boswell danced attendance like a besotted groupie.

Dr Samuel Johnson, having run the gauntlet of night-soil flung from upstairs windows into Old Town gutters, was relieved to find Mrs Boswell presiding over the best china to offer him his favourite drink of tea.

A few days later, after sensibly relieving Dr Johnson of his pistols, she waved the two men off on their 83-day journey to the Western Isles which has linked them eternally in the public mind.

Yet the real Boswell Peggie knew was far more than Johnson's biographer.

His other, private journals,

unpublished until recent years, reveal a man whose own life was a wild, conflicting mass of sensations, torn between a loving family, a strong sense of duty, and the constant allure of drink and loose women.

In many thousands of handwritten pages, the word 'claret' appears more often than 'Johnson', and voluptuous street girls crop up as frequently as literary giants or English ladies of quality. The one thing that saved him from despair at his own depravity was the constant love of his wife.

The luckiest break of Boswell's life was not the famous London bookshop encounter with Johnson but the meeting of two hearts on an earlier jaunt to Ireland.

The Boswell who crossed the Irish sea to woo a rich 16-year-old heiress was a 28-year-old libertine whose amours ran from an Italian countess to the lowest backstreet whore.

But his travelling companion, Peggie Montgomerie, was not one o f Boswell's conquests. She was his cousin, confidante and lifelong friend who in some ways knew him better than he knew himself.

As they rattled over the rolling Irish countryside, laughing and chatting, he realised he was closer to Peggie than any of the many women he had bedded.

In his teens Boswell had developed a love of the theatre (then barely tolerated in Calvinist Edinburgh) and

revelled in the company of actresses including a Mrs Love, a woman in her middle years who could be very obliging to a young man of spirit.

At 21 he had a brief, less artistic encounter with an Edinburgh servant girl called Peggy Doig, and a far more risky affair with Jean Heron, the 17-year-old married daughter of the 'hanging judge' Lord Kames.

Boswell had the nerve to conduct this liaison dangereuse while visiting Lord Kames's own residence in the Borders. With adultery then still technically punishable by hanging, this was far from safe sex.

HAD they been found out, Boswell's father, the Court of Session judge Lord Auchinleck, would have been apoplectic. As it was, Boswell's riotous behaviour had so scandalised Edinburgh that his father frequently threatened to disinherit him.

Peggy Doig was pregnant, for which Boswell was fined by the Kirk Session.

But by the time she gave birth to his son, Charles, he was living the high life on a visit to London.

By gentry standards of the day, his reaction to unexpected fatherhood was generous - he insisted Charles be given the Boswell surname, had a friend act as godfather, arranged for

the child to be fostered and planned to have him schooled in England. …