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Boswell knew his own value. He was aware that his method of writing a biography was the best that had yet been devised. He knew that he had a picturesque subject, that Johnson often displayed the sudden and unaccountable ferocity of a beast, and that he often (with no middle flight) soared above philosopher and sage. What more brilliant subject for a biography? Boswell saw his opportunity and seized it. The result, as Mr. Scott has said, is book without a precedent and without a detractor. Besides having a picturesque hero, Boswell had a subject of great contemporary interest. Johnson's reputation, which had risen steadily during the half century of his literary career, made Boswell sure of a hearing for the Tour in 1785; and thereafter the very excitement caused by his own book, and, indeed, the very attacks upon it,-made him confident that his second Johnsonian volume was to be 'the first book in the [literary] world'. Its approaching publication was therefore awaited with many misgivings. Boswell was known to have slight regard for the graces of reticence, and the Four to the Hebrides was remembered as the most audaciously outspoken book of its kind that had ever been published. Readers fastened at once on the new volume, to discover not only what was said of Samuel Johnson but what was said of themselves. There was evidence on all sides of a state of nerves. Even before the appearance of the Life, people began remonstrating with the author. The terror of Fanny Burney and the plea of Hannah More (who wanted Johnson's 'asperities' 'mitigated') are well-known. Ten days after the appearance of the book Horace Walpole wrote to Miss Mary Berry that he had expected to be 'amongst the excommunicated', but on the contrary, found himself 'very gently treated'. Bishop Percy, who succeeded in persuading Boswell to make certain alterations before publication, was nevertheless so indignant that he accused Boswell (after the biographer's death) of having violated 'the primary law of civil society in publishing a man's unreserved correspondence and unguarded conversation', and intimated that the biographer's demise had been caused by his
studious exclusion from all decent society. All this is but a tithe of the evidence that might be cited.
It is essential, in accounting for the contemporary success of Boswell's book, to recall how many of the persons mentioned in it were alive when it appeared. Intimate friends of Johnson: Reynolds, Burke, Bennet Langton, Dr. Burney, Mrs. Piozzi, Miss Carter, Mrs. Lennox, acquaintances like George Steevens the Shakespearian scholar, Charles Dilly the publisher, and even the King himself might read, in these pages, the authentic revelation of what they had said and done many years before. Old rivals and hostile critics, such as Lord Monboddo, John Wilkes, and Adam Smith; indignant bluestockings like Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu and Mrs. Chapone; men who detested Johnson and were detested by him, Gibbon, Robert Potter, and Boswell's friend, Temple, —these were all alive and ready to flame out into abusive retort. Hosts of people close to these were, naturally enough, consumed with curiosity to know whether or not they were themselves mentioned. In a word, the book was well-timed and well-advertised, and the public had been well-prepared to receive it.
In view of all this contemporary interest, it is not surprising that the authenticity of the book should have become almost immediately a topic of discussion. Boswell professed to tell the truth, and boasted of the scrupulous accuracy of the journal wherein he had narrated events of which he had had personal knowledge. But how far had he gone in heightening and colouring the scene?
In a large general fashion the truthfulness of Boswell's portrait may be tested by a comparison of it with the other presentations in biographies, reminiscences, and diaries. There are, besides the two works mentioned at the beginning of this paper, the Diary of Fanny Burney, and that mass of records and recollections out of which Hill made the two volumes of Johnsonian Miscellanies. There are differences among these; but the general testimony respecting Johnson is surprisingly consistent. There have
of course always been critics to impugn the literal accuracy of the book, and one may, without abandoning one's central position, make certain concessions. In respect of scope defects may be found. No amount of belated intimacy could ever supply the knowledge of that half century of Johnson's life in which Boswell had had no acquaintance whatever with him. That portion of the Life which we love, that part upon which its fame reposes, extends from 1763 to the end of Johnson's life, a matter of twenty-one years only. That is the portion which contains the record of Johnson's conversation, and is, as Boswell himself asserts in the opening paragraphs of the work, the distinguishing feature of the whole.
Moreover, it may be conceded without doing any injustice to Boswell, that he preferred to exhibit his hero in the full vigour of his faculties, drinking the delight of battle with his peers, and that, as a result, there is more of the grand manner' in Boswell's biography than we find in certain other records. Miss Burney, for example, saw and delighted in the more playful manner of Johnson, when he, with great gusto, devoted himself to the entertainment of the ladies. Mrs. Thrale saw and emphasized the casual, informal, and domestic side of Johnson. It is all a matter of emphasis and general atmosphere. Boswell did not neglect these sides of the subject, but the very largeness of his plan imposed upon him a more heroic presentment. It was only thus that he could make good his boast that in his book the man was seen 'more completely than any man who has ever yet lived'.
Any discussion of the accuracy of such a record as Boswell's leads us at once to the method by which he attained it. Conversation is the most perishable of commodities. The circumstances out of which it rises, and the moods which it engenders, are as difficult for an author to represent as for a reader to enjoy. The recorded conversation of most other men is nothing more than a handful of epigrams or bon mots, and forms a diet of hors d'œuvres of which the appetite quickly wearies. Boswell, however, gives us not merely the jewel but its setting, not
merely the incident but its background. How did he accomplish the feat?
The method by which he worked was in part explained by himself. He was the master of a form of rapid, abbreviated writing (not to be confused with stenographic writing properly so-called), such as is familiar to anyone who has ever acted as clerk or secretary to a body in which business must be recorded with a certain dispatch. The notes of such a scribe are filled with abbreviations of his own making, catch-words, and scraps of phrases designed to recall whole sentences to the mind. These rough notes, if written up soon after, form, and are generally accepted as, a satisfactory record of what actually happened and of what was actually said. The original jottings, though not beyond the conjecture of a person with no knowledge of the business transacted, are to be fully understood only by the man who has set them down; whereas the 'minutes' which he has made out of them are intelligible to everybody.
This twofold method was used by Boswell in recording the scenes given in the Life. About a hundred pages of the original manuscript of the book have survived, and whole masses of notes and of the 'journal' based on them have come down to us, so that we may now know Boswell's activity in its various stages. What he himself never divulged was that he had been engaged in journal-writing of one sort or another ever since he was a boy in his teens. When he first met Johnson, in May, 1763, at the age of twenty-two and a half, he was already a master of this practice. He had formed the habit of recording anecdotes, partly, no doubt, that he might be qualified as a raconteur of renown, and partly to train himself in accuracy of statement. The manuscript of this collection, covering the period to 1785, oddly entitled Boswelliana, has survived in a fairly complete form. Certain pages have been removed (for use, no doubt, in printed works, and afterwards discarded), but the records extend from 1762 to 1785. These anecdotes (sometimes written over more than once) are specimens of a Boswellian record in its second
stage-that is, a finished record, drawn from rough notes or written without their use. But, at the end of the sheets which form the MS, is a group of the rough notes themselves, forming of course a specimen of a Boswellian record in its first stage.
Similar to these are quantities of jottings preserved among the Boswell Papers. A large and connected group of them form a diary of the youthful Boswell's trip through Italy in 1765. Other notes are found on scraps of paper, on the blank leaves of pocket notebooks, backs of letters, and the like. Sometimes the Journal tapers off into mere notes. Some of them are easy to interpret; others elude such analysis. For example, the following (from the manuscript of Boswelliana), contains nothing that need detain an editor. more than a moment:
Sir A Dick said of his Nephew Chas. Dalrymple a most good-humoured Man he had a great deal of Blanc Mange in him. This is thicker than the milk of human kindness.
Another requires some study:
Sir Jo Wemyss to R. Colville in Abbey a few weeks after losing £500 by him. Offer of tune on fiddle.-Stay till ye rest of Credrs to get share.
And happy conjecture can even extract the meaning from this:
In going to Grassmarket-I know-but I did not think this your day.
Such, then, are examples of Boswell's notes in an early, undeveloped state.
The author's next step was to transfer such material to the more intelligible form which we have called the 'second state'. Sometimes the first rough jottings could be dispensed with, since the author had the leisure to write up his reminiscences in a more finished form. A few famous anecdotes about Johnson are preserved, in this second state, in Boswelliana, and many more from the