Glory of a Gossip; A LIFE OF JAMES BOSWELL by Peter Martin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, [Pounds Sterling]25)
Byline: PETER LEWIS
THE SURPRISING thought that occurs more than once in reading this rich and racy biography is that - dare one say it? - Boswell was more interesting than Dr Johnson, his subject.
He was certainly more approachable, in life and print. He was absurdly pleased with himself and quite unconscious of his complacency: 'We talked entirely in the way of geniuses . . .
Oh, what a fertile imagination I have!' But despite being such an impudent, conceited, pushy young pup, everyone he met warmed to him. They included all the great personalities of his age - David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, David Hume, John Wilkes, Joshua Reynolds. Only Horace Walpole and Fanny Burney were proof against his charm.
If he were living now he would be on television interviewing the great and famous David Frost, Parkinson and the rest would have to start looking for other work.
'You have a method of making people speak,' said the prickly Oliver Goldsmith who, like his friend Johnson, took an instant liking to Boswell.
Why? It wasn't his cleverness or his wide reading Johnson urged books upon him, but he never read them. He knew how provincial he was ('I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it,' he told Johnson).
He behaved badly, always drinking and making up to any pretty woman, as well as sallying forth to 'rage' among the prostitutes of the Strand or St James's Park - two at a time. There was no satisfying him.
Though he made his living as a Scottish lawyer - and hated it because it kept him from his beloved London - he longed to be a person of consequence: a guard's officer, judge, MP. All in vain. Powerful men were his friends, but none would advance him.
Obviously they thought he was too risky. He might get drunk and say something about them or their friends that was hugely embarrassing and no doubt true. So he was a deeply disappointed man. His true talent was that of a brilliant reporter and celebrity hunter. On his tour of Europe, he cornered Rousseau and Voltaire, both notoriously resistant to visitors.
BOSWELL sent Rousseau a letter in French introducing himself: 'Believe me, you will be glad to have seen me.' It worked.
He put on his scarlet waistcoat with gold lace and a top coat lined with fox fur. Rousseau was ill - in pain and needing a chamber pot every minute.
He told Boswell to make it quick: 'Now go away.' Two days later Boswell was still beside him, claiming another 25 minutes. At Voltaire's chateau, everyone went into supper except the host. …