The usual perception of James Boswell is of a vain, egotistical, amoral, neurotic, buffoonish exhibitionist, a foil to his mentor Samuel Johnson, who appears as the Socrates of the story - erudite, incisive, wise, humane, dignified, witty. To put it another way, Boswell is forever the Watson to Johnson's Sherlock Holmes, the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.
The greatest quality of Peter Martin's impressive revisionist biography is the way it subverts these conventional expectations. He persuades me that Boswell was a better writer than Johnson and had a finer mind. Johnson's reputation is absurdly overblown. He was insanely jealous of all his more gifted contemporaries, and there were many, from Wilkes to Hume. The good doctor did not know how to argue a case, and if Boswell disagreed with him, he lost his temper or sulked. Johnson's idea of conversation was essentially that of the pampered star on a modern chat show. He expected that whatever he said, however fatuous, would be greeted with nods, smiles and laughter.
Where Johnson was riddled with political bigotry (any proposal to narrow the scandalous gap between rich and poor in the 18th century was derided as "levelling down"), misogyny (Martin cites half a dozen shocking examples and suggests that Johnson might have had problems achieving normal orgasm), and racism (with Americans and Scots particularly featuring in his demonology), Boswell was always more alive to nuance, ambiguity and what Keats called "negative capability". Most of all, he was a more complete human being. Maybe at times Martin overdoes this side of Boswell, especially in the meticulous examination of the multitudinous sexual escapades, but he faces his subject's satyriasis with admirable clarity.
Boswell was a writer of genius who wasted much of his talent pursuing a futile career as an advocate in Scotland and a barrister in England. As an advocate he was a highly skilled propagandist for his clients and a courageous, even foolhardy, defence counsel.
Unlike Johnson, who was a trimmer, Boswell was a natural rebel - not a useful characteristic for a lawyer. His zest for life and curiosity about others was inexhaustible. His charm and charisma must have been literally fabulous, for he could win over almost any human being he set his sights on.
Boswell would write to chosen luminaries, asking for an interview and pointing out that he was "of singular merit". Intrigued, the targets would invariably have to meet the boastful young man who penned such words and when they did, they were hooked. Boswell gate- crashed where others feared to tread and successively won the friendship and respect of Rousseau, Voltaire, Paoli, Wilkes, Hume, Lord Kames, Goldsmith and, of course, Johnson. The only literary celebrity to resist the charm was Horace Walpole, possibly because his closet homosexuality could find no common ground with the Scot's rampant heterosexuality. …