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Like Fred Bayham he felt he was in for a good thing, and he meant to make the very most of it. He saw his way to write a great book, to do something which, despite the sneers of Gibbon and the patronage of Burke, no other member of the club could do one half or one-quarter as well. He was to prove himself a greater portrait painter than Sir Joshua himself. The careful reader of the dedication and of the first pages of the biography cannot fail to see with what confidence, as well as with what determination, Boswell approached his great task.
Boswell's oddities and absurdities need not interfere with the frankness of our recognition of his superlative talent. The pains he took to collect material exposed him to ridicule. In that strange book, which ought at least to be in the usually small library of every owner of racehorses, the Memoirs of Thomas Holcroft, the author records how Mr. Lowe (who will be found mentioned in the biography) told him the following story: Lowe had requested Johnson to write him a letter, which Johnson did, and Boswell came in while it was writing; his attention was immediately fixed. Lowe took the letter, retired, and was followed by Boswell. "Nothing," said Lowe, "could surprise me more. Till that moment he had so entirely overlooked me that I did not imagine he knew there was such a creature in existence, and he now accosted me with the most overstrained and in
sinuating compliments possible. 'How do you do, Mr. Lowe? I hope you are well, Mr. Lowe? Pardon
my freedom, Mr. Lowe, but I think I saw my dear friend Dr. Johnson writing a letter for you.' 'Yes, sir.' 'I hope you will not think me rude, but if it would not be too great a favour, you would infinitely oblige me if you would just let me have a sight of it; everything from that hand, you know, is so inestimable.' 'Sir, it is on my own private affairs, but—' 'I would not pry into a person's affairs, my dear Mr. Lowe, by any means. I am sure you would not accuse me of such a thing, only, if it were no particular secret- 'Sir, you are welcome to read the letter." 'I thank you, my dear Mr. Lowe, you are very obliging. I take it exceedingly kind.' (Having read.) 'It is nothing I believe, Mr. Lowe, that you would be ashamed of— 'Certainly not.' 'Why, then, my dear sir, if you would do me another favour you would make the obligation eternal. If you would but step to Peele's coffee-house with me and just suffer me to take a copy of it I would do anything in my power to oblige you.' I was so overcome," said Lowe,"by this sudden familiarity and condescension, accompanied with bows and grimaces, I had no power to refuse. We went to the coffee-house. My letter was presently transcribed, and as soon as he had put his document in his pocket Mr. Boswell walked away as erect and as proud as half an hour before. I ever after was unnoticed. Nay, I am not certain," added he sarcastically, "whether the Scotchman did not leave me, poor as he knew I was, to pay for my own dish of coffee.'
How all this painstaking and drudgery contrasts with the Doctor's own sublime indifference to material if he were not in the mood for it. 'Elated with the success of my spontaneous exertion to procure material and respectable aid to Johnson for his very favourite work, The Lives of the Poets, I hastened down to Mr. Thrale's at Streatham, where he now was, that I might ensure his being at home next day, and after dinner, when I thought he would receive the good news in the best humour, I announced it eagerly. "I have been at work for you to-day, sir. I have been with Lord Marchmont. He bade me tell you he has a great respect for you, and will call on you to-morrow at one o'clock, and communicate all he knows about Pope." Here I paused in full expectation that he would be pleased with this intelligence, would praise my active merit, and would be alert to embrace such an offer from a nobleman. But whether I had shown an over-exultation which provoked his spleen, or whether he was seized with a suspicion that I had obtruded him on Lord Marchmont and humbled him too much, or whether there was anything more than an unlucky fit of ill-humour, I know not, but to my surprise the result was.-JOHNSON: I shall not be in town tomorrow. I don't care to know about Pope. Mr. THRALE (surprised as I was and a little angry): I suppose, sir, Mr. Boswell thought that as you are to write Pope's life you would wish to know about him. JOHNSON: Wish! Why, yes. If it rained knowledge I'd hold out my hand, but I would not give myself
the trouble to go in quest of it. There was no arguing with him at the moment.'
Boswell is good enough to express a regret that Dr. Johnson had not written his own life, but all subsequent generations of English readers have good cause to rejoice that he did nothing to put Boswell off the track. Johnson soon got sick of a subject, and of no subject sooner than himself. He is indeed a splendid writer of biography, but his methods are not Boswellian, nor is the result by any means the same. life, written by himself, would have been a gloomy, though majestic, fragment-a few peals of thunder and a heavy torrent of rain, and then some wearied exclamations and a frigid dismissal.
It is fair to remember that Boswell enjoyed to the full one enormous advantage. He had an absolutely free hand. Johnson left neither wife nor child. I do not suppose Black Frank, his servant and residuary legatee, ever read a line of the great biography. There was no daughter married to a well-to-do tradesman to put her pen through the pathetic passages relating to old Michael Johnson, who, once a week, kept an open bookstall in Birmingham. There was no grandson in holy orders to water down the witticisms that have reverberated through the world. were no political followers, no party associates, fearful of their own paltry reputations, to buzz like flies about the ears of the biographer. None the less, Boswell is entitled to the praise of a glorious intrepidity.
But what was Boswell's method? The question is
made difficult by the fact that Boswell's enormous success has been found to depend almost as much upon his own personality as upon Johnson's. It is the conjunction of the two that so tickles the midriff. This is well illustrated by the Lord Marchmont incident already quoted. Without Boswell's eagerness, fussiness, snobbishness, we should never have got the sublime, 'I don't care to know about Pope.' But though Boswell's personality, delightfully obtrusive as it is and provocative of a thousand humours, is inextricably mixed up with his success, he yet had a method which he has done his best to make plain to us, both in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (a book every bit as valuable and almost as amusing as the biography), and in his Dedication of the Life to Sir Joshua Reynolds, and in the Advertisement to, and the first few pages of, his Magnum Opus itself.
The motto on the title-page reveals the whole scheme
'Quo fit ut omnis
Votiva pateat veluti descripta tabella
But again I ask what is the method? In the Dedication Boswell tells us that in his Tour he had been almost unboundedly open in his communications,' his desire being 'to display the wonderful fertility and readiness of Johnson's wit,' and he tells that inimitable story, so full of the marrow and fatness of our life here below, how the great Dr. Clarke ceased his merriment when he saw Beau Nash approaching.