A Sentimental Education: James Boswell, Samuel Johnson's Future Biographer, Found Glasgow a Dull Place. Yet It Was at the City's University That He Came into Contact with the Political Economist Adam Smith, Whose Insights Forced the Student to Grapple with Competing Claims on His Conscience, as Robert Zaretsky Explains

By Zaretsky, Robert | History Today, April 2011 | Go to article overview

A Sentimental Education: James Boswell, Samuel Johnson's Future Biographer, Found Glasgow a Dull Place. Yet It Was at the City's University That He Came into Contact with the Political Economist Adam Smith, Whose Insights Forced the Student to Grapple with Competing Claims on His Conscience, as Robert Zaretsky Explains


Zaretsky, Robert, History Today


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.

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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'. …

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A Sentimental Education: James Boswell, Samuel Johnson's Future Biographer, Found Glasgow a Dull Place. Yet It Was at the City's University That He Came into Contact with the Political Economist Adam Smith, Whose Insights Forced the Student to Grapple with Competing Claims on His Conscience, as Robert Zaretsky Explains
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