Books: The Fool's Vindication ; James Boswell's Reputation in Letters Is Outgrowing That of His Mentor, Dr Johnson. Mark Bostridge on a Biography That Helps Explain Why

By Bostridge, Mark | The Independent (London, England), October 29, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Books: The Fool's Vindication ; James Boswell's Reputation in Letters Is Outgrowing That of His Mentor, Dr Johnson. Mark Bostridge on a Biography That Helps Explain Why


Bostridge, Mark, The Independent (London, England)


Boswell's Presumptuous Task

By Adam Sisman

HAMISH HAMILTON pounds 17.99

Publishers really ought to know better. Reviewers do not take kindly to having their opinion of a book "directed" by the type and weight of advance recommendations that come attached to Adam Sisman's latest work. The golden age of book puffery - advertising with exaggerated or false praise - has long since passed, though not apparently at Hamish Hamilton who appear to have ransacked the company address book in order to get comments from the likes of Margaret Forster, Francis Wheen, and Beryl Bainbridge, all of whom sprinkle their praise with words like "terrific", "gripping", and "triumph". Added to which, one of Sisman's friends, Andrew O'Hagan, who is thanked in the acknowledgements, has already contributed a warm but unnaturally premature review of the book to the notoriously tardy London Review of Books.

Why is Hamish Hamilton so nervous about Boswell's Presumptuous Task? Presumably because it was preceded last year by Peter Martin's perfectly respectable life of Boswell, the first single-volume biography for many years. But publicity overkill can harm a book and leave critics irritated and suspicious. In fact, Adam Sisman's retelling of the story behind the writing of one of the most famous books in English literature - Boswell's Life of Johnson - has a lot going for it and should be allowed to stand on its own merits.

It's partly a synthesis of ongoing scholarship from the Boswell industry, the scale of which now easily dwarfs Johnson studies (while Boswelliana continues to pour from American presses, a scholarly edition of Johnson's works was recently blocked by lack of funds). But it is also a lively and engaging study of Boswell's friendship with Johnson, the writing of the biography, its triumphant publication, and the sad, anticlimactic ending to Boswell's life, followed by Macaulay's famous slur on Boswell's character and artistry: that Boswell had written the greatest biography precisely because he was the greatest fool.

Sisman was right not to attempt another biography of Boswell, and get ground down by the burden of minutiae about his life which has resulted from the most extraordinary series of literary discoveries of modern times. In his final chapter, "Posterity", Sisman gives us a mixture of high comedy and tragedy in his account of the treasures of Malahide Castle and Fettercairn House which radically altered the old Macaulay view of Boswell, providing modern scholarship with the opportunity to demonstrate the sophistication of Boswell's biographical approach.

Colonel Isham, a wealthy, "fascinating devil" of a collector, purchased the first haul of Boswell papers from Malahide, which included the journals, in the late 1920s, after carefully courting the Talbot family who owned them.

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Books: The Fool's Vindication ; James Boswell's Reputation in Letters Is Outgrowing That of His Mentor, Dr Johnson. Mark Bostridge on a Biography That Helps Explain Why
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