Books: From Bozzy the Boozer to Literary Great A Life of James Boswell by Peter Martin Weidenfeld Pounds 25
Bostridge, Mark, The Independent (London, England)
`He had, indeed, a quick observation and a retentive memory," the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote of James Boswell in his infamous 1831 essay on Boswell's Life of Johnson. "These qualities, if he had been a man of sense and virtue, would scarcely of themselves have sufficed to make him conspicuous; but, as he was a dunce, a parasite, and a coxcomb, they have made him immortal."
Macaulay's paradoxes about Boswell - in essence, that if he had not been a great fool, he would never have been a great writer - contributed to Boswell's posthumous reputation as a buffoon. Bozzy the boozer, the libertine, the sot had nonetheless managed to write one of the literary wonders of all time. This was the view which held sway until the 1930s, when a batch of Boswell's papers was uncovered at Malahide Castle outside Dublin, which immediately began to transform posterity's understanding of Boswell's character and his work.
As Peter Martin remarks in his preface, Boswell is the best example in the history of English literature of how the discovery of personal papers after an author's death can radically alter that person's reputation. The story of the recovery of Boswell's archive is worthy of fiction. Thousands of pages of manuscript letters, journals and drafts of books kept surfacing, and each time a discovery was made, a still more significant one was waiting in the wings. Another massive Boswell treasure trove was found at Fettercairn House in Kincardineshire. Letters were discovered wedged between pieces of furniture, or in old sacks and mailbags stuffed tight with stout wads of Boswell papers. Among them was Boswell's London journal of 1762-63, which when published became a runaway bestseller.
Scholars like the delectably named Frederick Pottle and Chauncey Tinker worked hard at this material to bring a new Boswell to light. Theirs was a more complex character who was often dissolute, but who also suffered a lifetime's affliction from melancholy which encouraged the confused and contradictory elements in his personality. Theirs too, was a writer who far from having produced a masterpiece by accident, was in fact revealed to have perfected the method of truthful portraiture and realistic biography by sheer brilliant artistry and aesthetic control.
Peter Martin's biography of Boswell is the first authoritative single- volume life for many years, based on the Yale Research Edition of his papers (a project which is still ongoing). At just over 600 pages it is too long and frequently becomes oppressive in its weight of detail. Any reader acquainted, for instance, with Boswell's account of The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson (1785), will baulk at Martin's own lengthy summary of that famous trip, while anyone else will want to turn to Boswell himself. Martin takes about a third of the book to get into his narrative stride, and the absence of coolheaded analysis in place of the relentless chronological pace is at times keenly felt. By page 255 (at which point Boswell is still only 29) and the painstaking record of Boswell's 10th gonorrhoeal infection, even the most stout- hearted of readers might be inclined to wilt.
That said, Martin's portrait of a Boswell at times attempting to cope with his depressive temperament, while at others trying to control the spontaneity that led to his roistering behaviour, is a powerful and convincing one. "The black demon" (or "hypochondria" as Boswell himself called it) pursued him all his life, and was a "kind of madness" which he shared with Dr Johnson, though Boswell believed he understood it better than his great friend and mentor. …