Johnson and Boswell: The Transit of Caledonia

By Pat Rogers | Go to book overview
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Boswell and the Scotticism

About four years after undertaking his journey to the Hebrides, Johnson wrote a letter in which he renewed his acquaintance with the members of Boswell's family, whom he had met in Edinburgh in 1773. Almost at once he took up the issue of the accent which young Veronica Boswell was acquiring: 'As to Miss Veronica's Scotch, I think it cannot be helped. An English maid you might easily have; but she would still imitate the greater number, as they would be likewise those whom she must most respect. Her dialect will not be gross. Her Mamma has not much Scotch, and you have yourself very little' ( L ii. 164). The passage serves to remind us of the concern which men and women felt at this time about audible or visible signs of 'Scottish' usages in the English language. Boswell's complicated feelings about his own national origin underlie the enquiry which he had obviously made of Johnson. Words, syntax, pronunciation might all reveal an identifiably Scottish identity--something which could induce discomfort, puzzling to us, even among citizens of the Athens of the north during the heyday of the Enlightenment. In the case of Boswell himself, this common anxiety translated itself into a wider uncertainty than the merely linguistic. One of Boswell's motives for conducting Johnson around the Highlands and Islands may have been a desire to reassert his own Scottishness in a way which was impossible in the Lowlands, and especially in the quasi-metropolitan and sophisticated surroundings of the capital. To direct the travels of an elderly Englishman who had never been north of the Tweed before was one means of regaining an acceptable and, as it were, a 'willed' Scottish identity, instead of the imputed nationality assigned on the basis of language.

A well-known passage in Humphry Clinker ( 1771) serves to focus linguistic issues which bear on the Scottish Enlightenment, and which help to illuminate Boswell's attitudes in relation to the dominant intellectual movement of his time. At Durham Smollett's party of travellers have encountered the eccentric, indeed consciously Quixotic, figure of Lismahago. Soon afterwards, on 13 July, Jery


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