In October 1759 James Boswell (1740-95) half-stepped, half-collapsed from the coach that had just plied a 12-hour journey over rutted roads from his hometown of Edinburgh to Glasgow. The city's centre, known as the Trongate, was impressive: the English novelist Daniel Defoe (c. 1661-1731) had marvelled a few decades earlier over its broad avenues and stone buildings, the bustle of commerce and construction. Surely, he exclaimed, Glasgow was 'the cleanest and beautifullest, and best built city in Britain, London excepted'.
For the 18-year old Boswell, though, Glasgow was the emptiest city in Britain--empty of the arts, empty of culture, empty of all interest. While Defoe saw this city on the river Clyde as a stage for the romance of trade, the young Scot found it the scene for the tragedy of exile. All the fine buildings and Doric columns in the world could not make up for the numbing absence of theatre. As he stared glumly at the exchange houses and merchant booths Boswell must have considered stepping back into the mail coach.
But the prospect of confronting his father was even more daunting than that of remaining in Glasgow. Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, 8th Laird of Auchinleck (1706-82) had packed his son off to Glasgow precisely because it was not Edinburgh. During the four years he had spent there as a university student, Boswell spent more time around the Canongate, the neighbourhood that housed the city's theatre, than at the library. Jamie's reluctance to learn the law was a source of despair for his father, one of Scotland's most respected judges. More than once Auchinleck muttered to friends in his broad Scot's accent: 'There's nae hope for Jamie, mon ... Jamie is gane clean gyte.'
Jamie's love of theatre was even more disconcerting for his deeply devout mother. Had not Euphemia Boswell (1718-66), raised under the dour regard of the Church of Scotland, or Kirk, collapsed in tears when she had been forced as child to attend a play? Along with her piety Euphemia passed her darkest fears on to her son. While his mother, Boswell later noted, inspired him with devotion, she also 'unfortunately taught me Calvinism'. As a result, the eternity of punishment was the 'first great idea' he ever formed: 'How it made me shudder; he recalled. Typically, he envisaged the scene in theatrical terms:
I imagined that the saints passed the whole of eternity in the state of mind of people recently saved from a conflagration, who congratulate themselves on being in safety while they listen to the mournful shrieks of the damned.
Theatre, so tar as Scottish Presbyterians were concerned, was a dress rehearsal for eternal damnation. The reformer James Burgh (1714-75) spoke for many when he lambasted 'the Lewdness or Impiety of most of the Plays themselves, or the infamous Characters of the Actors and Actresses'. It is impossible to enter the theatre, he thundered, 'and not come out the worse for having been in it'. In 1752 enraged Glaswegians tore down the temporary theatre constructed for Boswell's friend West Digges (1720-86), an actor famed for his portrayal of Macheath in John Gay's The Beggars' Opera. In an encore performance shortly after Boswell's stay in Glasgow the locals burnt down yet another building where the actress Anne Bellamy (1727-88), the greatest Juliet of the age, was slated to appear. While Bellamy was no stranger to the rough and tumble world of Georgian theatre--she had been knifed on a London stage the year before by a jealous rival--Glasgow proved too tough an audience even for her.
Few places seemed better suited to cure a young man of the theatre bug, but even fewer men were so deeply stricken by an obsession with the stage. As a child Boswell walked through the Canongate and, he later recalled, thought 'of players with a mixture of narrow-minded horror and lively-minded pleasure; and used to wonder at painted equipages and powdered ladies'. Obviously the charms of the actresses he met in Edinburgh--who frequently acted offstage as courtesans--played no small role in Boswell's infatuation.
In particular, Boswell had fallen into the orbit of the actress Mrs Cowper. The gossip reached as far as distant Cambridge and Boswell's friend William Temple. In a letter Temple marvelled that Boswell was 'continually in the Playhouse' and warned that he had heard 'an odd story here of you and one Mrs Cooper [sic]'. The news eventually reached his parents, who were not amused. Mrs Cowper represented an infernal trifecta: as well as being an actress, she was also a widow and a Roman Catholic. Sentiments at Boswell's ancestral home of Auchinleck were divided over which was the greater sin: attending mass or going to the theatre.
In the end, Auchinleck's son and the estate's future laird did both.
The world is a theatre: such was the immodest claim of the great arbiters of social mores in early 18th-century England, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, editors of the immensely influential periodicals the Tatler and the Spectator. But the essayists carried this metaphor so far that the distinction between actors and audience, scripted and sincere language, more or less disappeared. Polite society was, as Addison held, a 'Fraternity of Spectators', consisting of 'every one that considers the World as a Theatre, and desires to form a right Judgment of those who are the Actors on it'.
To a degree extreme even in this age of self-fashioning, Boswell threw himself into this hall of mirrors. In his journal and letters, with his friends and teachers, he gazed at himself, seeking to achieve the right tone, the right gesture, the right sentiment. The rule, Steele reminded Boswell, was to keep 'your Desires, your Words, your Actions, within the Regard your Friends have for you'. While the longing for admiration might strike some observers as vanity, Boswell no doubt recalled Addison's tut-tutting: don't pay them heed. Such passion, the Englishman declared, 'is not wholly to be discouraged, since it often produces very good Effects'. The 'commerce of discourse; in Steele and Addison's eyes, was designed both to impress others and impress ourselves; by acting well, we pleased others and thus pleased ourselves.
We see Boswell struggling with his self-image in his letters. Shortly after he settled into his exile on the banks of the Clyde Boswell wrote to his bosom friend from Edinburgh, John Johnston (c. 1730-86). In this letter, he dwells on the theatrical world from which his father had just expelled him. With stoic understatement he tells Johnston that the sudden and forced departure from Edinburgh 'made me not a little uneasy at first: Yet he dipped into his reserve of strength and was 'resolved to bring my mind to be contented with the Situation which was thought proper for me'.
Boswell nevertheless wrestled with the brute fact that Glasgow, for him, might just as well have been one of the Outer Hebrides. Not only was theatre banned from the city: conviviality itself led a spectral existence. Literary clubs were few, taverns were little more than extensions of the brokerage houses whose clients would say grace over glasses of claret or mugs of ale. At the midpoint of the Age of Enlightenment the street gaslights were rarely lit. As a local historian noted: 'It was presumed that no one would be out of his own house after sunset; the indulgence, and the innocent amusements of life were either unknown or were little practiced'.
Staring out the window of his lodgings Boswell frequently rattled his chains. In January 1760 he begged Johnston to send him news of 'theatrical passions that were running so high in Edinburgh: such crumbs, at least, will afford me some entertainment, when deprived of the exalted pleasures of the Stage'. Boswell concluded the letter with an ode; its last stanza carried the lament:
Unhappy me, who, in the bloom Of youth, must bear the heavy gloom Of a grief-clouded mind.
Yet there was one ray of light that pierced Boswell's overcast thoughts. Every weekday morning, after a breakfast of herring, porridge and ale, Boswell crossed the Trongate with its dung heaps and food stalls, its knots of pedestrians and stands of itinerant salt and peat sellers, fishwives and scissor-grinders, its porters hunched under great barrels of fresh water, its women pushing low carts filled with yellow sand, shouting 'ye-sa' and doling out their goods to servants and wives to clean their stone floors, its carriages splashing through the puddles reflecting the dull sky and the occasional squealing pig or stray chicken darting in front of the narrow and severe faces of grey stone residences. His path led him to the University of Glasgow, a massive freestone pile whose clock tower dominated the cityscape. As the clock reached half past seven, Boswell quickly made his way to the large room where nearly a hundred students were preparing for the arrival of their professor, Adam Smith (1723-90).
Since 1752, when he assumed the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, Smith had become a celebrity. It was less his flair than lack of it that attracted his students. He would begin his class by reading from a set of prepared notes, but gradually, as one student noted, the subject matter 'seemed to crowd upon Mr Smith [and] his manner became warm and animated, and his expression easy and fluent: As he followed his thoughts, Smith seemed to forget his students; instead, having 'conceived an opposition to his opinions', he argued as with himself. But appearances were just that, appearances: Smith was acutely aware of his audience. Like Boswell most of the students were still in their teens. Rather than offering dry commentary on ancient texts, Smith instead rummaged about in the contemporary world to illustrate his arguments. The manners and customs, social ideals and foibles of his students and he himself were all for the taking. An accomplished storyteller, he insisted that his students attend to his performance, shouting at those busy taking notes that he hated 'scribblers: He was equally alive to the bored and listless--should he see a student whose eyes were closing: 'I felt at once that all was wrong, and that I must change either the subject or the style of my address.'
An encore would take place in early afternoon when a few of the most promising students called on Smith at his manse on Professors' Court. The setting was less formal: Smith's mother, who kept house for her bachelor son, often greeted the students at the door. (It was common knowledge among his students that the best way favourably to impress their professor was through either his philosophy or his mother.) While these sessions were not, like his lectures, staged, Smith nevertheless remained attentive to his audience. One former student recalled that from the turn of a conversation Smith tried to 'discover the bents and extent of their faculties [and] adapting his hints to their plans of life'.
One of Smith's fiercest fans, Boswell quickly became a regular at the afternoon sessions. In a letter to Johnston he declared that Smith was a truly amiable sort, treating his students 'with all the easiness and affability imaginable'. His review grows even more emphatic: the sentiments Smith expressed at these gatherings 'are striking, profound and beautiful, the method in which they are arranged clear, accurate and orderly, his language correct, perspicuous and elegantly phrased'. Though far from Mrs Cowper at the Canongate, Boswell at least had a box seat for Mr Smith at the Professors' Court.
But Mr Smith understood that he, too, had a box seat for the performances of his impressionable student. Author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which he had published in 1759 shortly before Boswell's arrival in Glasgow, Smith must have marvelled at how this young man devoured his book chapter and verse. If life is a stage and Boswell one of its apprentice actors, Smith was its greatest theorist. With him, we move from the fraternity of spectators to the impartial spectator.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, based on Smith's lectures, quickly became a bestseller. 'The Public seems disposed to applaud it extremely', David Hume (1711-76) wrote from London and 'the Mob of Literati are beginning already to be very loud in its praises'. No less enthused was Edmund Burke (1729-97), who described the book as ingenious, elegant, lively and, yes, sublime. The philosophes in Paris were enthusing over it at the cafes and salons, while in sleepy Cambridge Boswell's friend Temple, who had not even read it, nevertheless reported that the book had won 'immortal honour'.
If Boswell had asked Smith how it felt to be famous the older man would have directed him to the opening lines of the book:
As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in a like situation.
In a word, as a spectator to Smith's situation all Boswell needed to do was exercise his imagination in order to know the answer.
Indeed The Theory of Moral Sentiments is an ingenious theory of spectatorship. In his effort to answer the perennial question 'what makes human beings good?' Smith replied that others do. Or, rather, the gaze of others. Others make us good not by threatening punishment or pain, but instead by promising applause. This is the source of the human faculty of sympathy, or what Smith called 'fellow feeling'. Sympathy, for Smith, is the work of our imagination: we flex our intellectual muscles in order to recreate and react to another's situation. The other is me--or, more precisely, what I would be were I in their situation.
Look around, Smith asked his students: could anything please you more than to see in your classmates the same fellow feeling swelling in our own breast? Of course not. We place our own self in that situation and respond accordingly. Just as Lear is the creation not just of Shakespeare but of each and every one who has seen a performance of the play, so too is the other the creation of our own imagination.
Yet Lear is not alone on that blasted heath: or, rather, he is alone but we are not. We are watching him but we also are watching one another as each of us responds to that tragic figure. We rejoice, Smith insists, whenever we observe that the others adopt our own passions; the others rejoice, in turn, upon seeing our own response of joy. We long for that relief, Smith writes, which nothing can give us but 'the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with [our] own'. As a result, when we find ourselves at the theatre, our eyes are not just on the stage but also on our fellow spectators. Of course we do our best to contain our sympathetic sorrow as the staged tragedy unfolds. But when the events finally overtake us and our eyes fill with tears, 'we carefully conceal them, and are afraid, lest the spectators, not entering into this excessive tenderness, should regard it as effeminacy and weakness'.
Since nature, Smith observes, makes us so that we are repulsed by excess and attracted to restraint we spend our lives 'tuning up' or 'tuning down' our expressions and emotions in order better to win the world's applause. What happens, though, if we are alone? Can one be good, Smith wondered, 'in a solitary place'? The answer is yes--at least if we have spent enough time in the world in order to internalise it. We take the world--or, rather, its audience--with us by means of the 'impartial spectator'.
What is it, Smith wonders, that moves us, whose passive feelings are usually sordid and selfish, to sacrifice our own interests for the sake of our fellow beings? Can the distant call of benevolence ever overcome the din of our self-seeking desires? Do the abstract lessons we learned as children--what Smith calls the 'abstruse syllogisms of a quibbling dialectic'--tame our deepest impulses?
Hardly, Smith replies. Instead, there is a far more powerful agent on which we, and society, depend; it is, he declares, 'the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct'. The inevitably distorted view we have of ourselves, according to Smith, 'can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator'. The good man is the man forever aware that he is on stage, forever alive to the eyes fixed on his actions, forever seeking the approbation and applause of others. This man 'has never dared to suffer the man within his breast to be absent one moment from his attention. With the eyes of this great inmate he has always been accustomed to regard whatever relates to himself.'
Yet even Smith feared that prolonged isolation would weaken the voice of our 'great inmate'. In solitude, he warned, 'we are apt to feel too strongly whatever relates to ourselves'. We will exaggerate the good acts we have done others as well as the unjust acts others have done to us; we will too quickly be buoyed by our good fortune, just as we will be sunk by our bad luck. As a result, to maintain our self-command, the impartial spectator 'requires often to be awakened and put in mind of his duty by the presence of a real spectator'.
Far from his friends and family, living in a city empty of Edinburgh's intimacy and sociability, Boswell had few real spectators to call upon. It was a propitious time for the Roman Catholic faith to call upon him.
Kept to his lodgings by the grim winter weather, Boswell paced his rooms when not attending classes or Smith's intimate gatherings. His attention drifted from his dry legal texts to a small pile of Catholic works given to him in Edinburgh by a Jesuit, Pere Duchat, who had been introduced to him by Mrs Cowper. Propelled by his need for resolution and action, Boswell concluded that the sole spectator who now seemed to count was God. In early March 1760 he sent a letter to his father in which he announced his plan to convert to Roman Catholicism. Posting the letter Boswell then bolted from Glasgow. Scarcely three days later, he arrived in London and, through the medium of Catholic booksellers, made contact with the city's small Roman Catholic community.
The Catholic Church in Britain was no less a fringe event than the theatre. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had been anything but glorious for Catholics, who were subject to a variety of civil and legal handicaps. While Boswell no longer risked his life or freedom by converting to Catholicism--being hanged or drawn and quartered had fallen out of use--he would be immediately removed from his father's will, banned from the bar and military. Worst of all, as a Catholic, Boswell would be barred from polite society in both London and Edinburgh.
In a word Boswell seemed determined to create for himself an existence that was as marginal as the actor's. One, moreover, without the compensatory joys, especially if he joined the priesthood, as he declared to his shocked father. Yet this made both the stage and the Catholic Church equally attractive for the increasingly restless and rebellious Scot. That both institutions specialised in the staging of spectacle further eased their merging into a single goal in Boswell's imagination.
Aided by the writings of the French Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704), Boswell took the art of acting to an eschatological level. Bossuet's Exposition of the Doctrine of the Catholic Church (1671) was among the books Boswell carted off to Glasgow. As Boswell must have known Bossuet had helped engineer a far more famous conversion just a few years earlier. Upon reading the Exposition while at Oxford in 1753 Edward Gibbon (1737-94) fell victim (in his words) 'to the noble hand' of the author and became a Roman Catholic. It may have been the scandal of Gibbon's conversion--short-lived--that attracted Boswell. During his son's stay at Auchinleck during winter break Lord Auchinleck found him reading deeply in the Exposition: so much so that he began to worry in earnest.
But what weapon, precisely, did Bossuet's hand carry in Boswell's case? The 17th-century cleric had written the Exposition in order to win back those who had strayed from the true Church. As with Bossuet's celebrated sermons the book's prose is powerful and clear. On the question of justification, so close to Boswell's heart, Bossuet agrees with Protestant controversialists on the central roles divine grace and charity play in our salvation. Yet Bossuet, unlike his Protestant challengers, does not stop with this severe and bleak assessment:
It is but too true that 'the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh' and that 'in many things we all offend': so that though our justice be real, it is not perfect justice on account of the assaults of concupiscence. Wherefore the constant sighs of a soul afflicted at its faults are the most essential duty which Christian justice can discharge.
The humane middle ground that Bossuet stakes out--namely that the awareness of our inevitable imperfections itself represents the individual's effort to act with God for his salvation--deeply appealed to Boswell. The young Scot was torn between his desire for spiritual reassurance and his love of earthly delights. But he was also ever the actor in pursuit of an audience. Here Bossuet promised the greatest of prizes: 'We must work our salvation by the movement of our will, aided by the grace of God.' By winning applause from the greatest spectator of all we win not just his praise but also our salvation. Little wonder, then, that when he attended his first mass Boswell was filled with 'wonderful enthusiasm'. He had embarked, he felt, on the greatest show in the world.
Boswell's new role lasted just a few weeks. He tried to live incognito at the ramshackle residence of a Catholic wigmaker; the only people who knew of his presence were the bookseller and the 'Romanish clergy' who visited from time to time. But the tension between his reclusive and clandestine life and the dramatic role for which he was now rehearsing grew too great. No doubt deliberately, Boswell became careless in covering his tracks and, in a matter of weeks, was found by a fellow Scot and associate of Lord Auchinleck, the Earl of Eglinton.
While a severe man, Auchinleck, who had asked Eglinton to find his son, was hardly foolish: rather than having Eglinton bundle Boswell up and return him to Scotland he instead asked the nobleman to keep an eye on him. The strategy worked: within days Boswell had moved into Eglinton's elegant quarters in London and dropped his plans to convert and join a monastery in France. A libertine, Eglinton made certain Boswell would not again venture down the path marked by Bossuet. As Boswell himself noted a few years later Eglinton's method worked wonders, ridding him of the 'load of serious reflection which then burdened me; namely his trial run of Catholicism. After a pause he added: 'Although it led me to the other extreme.'
Did Boswell think back to his afternoon teas at Smith's house? Did he hear the same voice that issues from the pages of The Theory of Moral Sentiments? 'Are you in adversity?, Smith asks. 'Do not mourn in the darkness of solitude', he urges: instead 'return, as soon as possible to the daylight of the world and of society: A few years later, in his reflections on his 'wild expedition' to London, Boswell certainly seems to echo his old professor. 'The great art of living easy and happy', he wrote in his journal, is to live 'in society [and] study proper behaviour.' And he had already chosen his role models: 'Mr. Addison's character in sentiment, mixed with a little of the gaiety of Sir Richard Steele and the manners of Mr. Digges.'
Boswell would never escape the mimetic pull of the debonair actor best known for his role as the amoral Macheath. Yet he would never truly free himself of the deep unease that led him to Rome: Boswell would remain forever torn between being a character in pursuit of his proper role and a soul in search of salvation. In 1765 he found himself at Saint Peter's in Rome. It was Easter and he attended the ceremony in the Sistine Chapel where the pope washed the feet of 13 poor priests, then served them wine. The Vicar of Christ, Boswell thought, 'looked like a jolly landlord'. The next day, this same jolly landlord led a most remarkable coup de theatre: 'Immense crowd, fine day. Superb high mass ... Most grave and pious, quite sure there must be some truth beyond the skies.'
To the end of Boswell's days Roman Catholicism held an allure that the stage of society simply could not: a run for all of eternity.
Further Reading Peter Martin, A Life of James Boswell (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999); Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Penguin Classics, 2010); Nicholas Phillipson, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Allen Lane, 2010); Ryan Patrick Hanley, Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue (Cambridge University Press, 2009); Adam Sisman, Boswell's Presumptuous Task: Writing the Life of Dr Johnson (Harper Perennial, 2009).
For further articles on this subject, visit: www.historytoday.com/glasgow
Robert Zaretsky is Professor of History at the University of Houston. His book Boswell's Enlightenment will be published by Yale University Press in 2012.…