Skip to main content

The Soul of James Boswell

ISSUE:  Spring 1936

In these last few years, since the publication of Bos-well’s letters and the more recent appearance of his Journal—privately printed after its rescue from long oblivion in an ebony cabinet and a croquet-box at Malahide Castle, Ireland—the famous biographer of Dr. Johnson has begun to share the legend of engaging disreputability which once belonged by popular acclaim exclusively to Samuel Pepys. The common reader is somehow enchanted by the spectacle of these two British worthies, the Secretary of the Admiralty and the Advocate of the Scottish Bar, pompous in their lace cravats as painted by Sir Peter Lely and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and loving the unctuous phrase of civic virtue—who perversely left behind them, in shorthand, records of small vanities, of dalliance with red-cheeked chambermaids, and excursions into mean streets. Perhaps it is fortunate that among the footprints upon the sands of time we are able to discover an occasional pair which are those of neither hero nor demigod, but of a mere mortal. Like Robinson Crusoe, we are heartened and comforted.

This James Boswell of Auchinleck was a very human mixture of self-indulgence, curiosity, and good nature. His behavior was almost daily proof of Sancho Panza’s observation: “Man is as God made him, and often a good deal worse.” A short account of Boswell’s religious opinions, their shiftings and the color which they took from his private life, is a hitherto unwritten chapter probably more interesting to the student of humanity than to the scholar of divinity. Indeed Boswell’s career was spent very largely under the exhilaration of those three strong stimulants which hardy Scots have sometimes mingled to the scandal of milder and more timid people—namely, alcohol, sex, and theology.

James Boswell, born in 1740 to a staunch Presbyterian barrister, passed through the usual period when the religious faith of one’s family is accepted as naturally as the shelter above one’s head. Boswell’s earliest document which has been preserved, written at the age of fourteen, is full of the Calvinistic language of the Kirk—the work of an imitative pen always so easily “impregnated with the aether” of any strong idiom. Ten years later, after Boswell had already passed through several varieties of religious experience, he found in an hour of naive introspection that he could even recapture the frisson of those hell-fire sermons of his boyhood. During his Grand Tour of 1764 he notes in his Journal: “Lest I may have forgotten it in its place, I now record that when at Berlin I made a most extraordinary experiment. I composed a discourse against fornication quite like an old Scots Minister. I said to myself, what damned stuff is this! and was clearly convinced that what I said was certainly true. I then read it aloud with the Presbyterian tone, and upon my word frightened myself. Ought not this to prevent me from being any more rendered dismal by a Dominie? No, for, as My Lord Marischal said, ‘A sermon is to me a dolefull tune which I cannot resist.’ ” And during this same visit to Berlin he wrote to one of his recent flames, a belle and bluestocking of Utrecht who took her deism very seriously: “I hope, you shall be a Christian. But, my dear Zelide! worship the sun rather than be a Calvinist. You know what I mean.”

The manner in which Boswell left the flinty path of John Knox, traveled briefly the glamorous road to Rome, and ended up on the broad highway of Canterbury, has to be pieced together from various scraps of evidence. His entry into the Catholic Church is a fact not widely known—indeed, until his private papers came to light it was little more than a morsel of obscure gossip, which is now verified. The mature Boswell took great pains to hide this bit of juvenilia, the sowing of his spiritual wild oat, and probably it remained unknown to his great “guide, philosopher, and friend” Samuel Johnson for more than ten years, until they were touring the Hebrides together—under that long intimacy of sharing bed and board. It never became public knowledge, as had been the youthful Popery of Gibbon, Boswell’s bete noire, who also fell away under a little persuasion, and left us that monument of cold agnosticism, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” In fact, the turn of the eighteenth century in Britain saw a good deal of tentative attraction toward Rome, in part at least the result of the Gothic Revival—that half-fearful fascination with holy water, monks, and ruined abbeys, which winds from Strawberry Hill to “The Mysteries of Udolpho” and even down to the Tracta-rian Movement and the English Catholic Renaissance.

The circumstances of Boswell’s conversion seem to have been as follows. After a pretty hard course of studies at Edinburgh under the surveillance of his father, young Boswell left home around his nineteenth birthday and went to the University of Glasgow, to study civil law and read moral philosophy under Adam Smith. A lad with Boswell’s animal spirits was quick to relax from a discipline which had counted a walk ‘on Saturdays’ as an indulgence to the flesh. This young man, who later sought out the society of the notorious Mrs. Rudd and rode to the gallows with a condemned murderer, was already hankering after bohemian friends, especially from the green-room, like James Love the elocutionist and theatre-manager in Edinburgh, and the actor Francis Gentleman in Glasgow. Having exposed himself even in Edinburgh to the play-house—that manifest snare of Auld Nickie—Boswell grew more and more reckless, and all the moral philosophy of Adam Smith availed him nothing. He wrote the prologue to a play, adapted from Thomas Cor-neille by Lady Houston, with the somewhat raffish title of “The Gallant in the Closet,” and a little later—evidently in March, 1760—ran off to London with an actress. Probably Boswell had met her in Edinburgh during his Christmas holidays or at some other time, because, according to the reliable biographer John Ramsay, the Edinburgh theatre-manager James Love—to whom the actress may have been under contract—informed the old laird of his son’s misbehaviour, “telling him at the same time that the connection was not perhaps the more safe that the woman was a Papist, and reputed virtuous among them.” If he ever learned of the officious turn which his friend had served him, Boswell bore no lasting grudge and later lent to Love sums of money, which he was finally obliged to recall in 1763 for the support of Boswell’s illegitimate son Charles—who, ironically enough, may have been the unwanted pledge of his affection for the actress.

At any rate, the young prodigal and his mistress eloped to London, where he found lodgings in the house of a wig-maker named Egan, who was also a Roman Catholic. Boswell began visiting the Bavarian Chapel, where for the first time in his life and “with a wonderful enthusiasm” he heard the office of the Mass. That he should have made this exuberant discovery in the midst of a sensual adventure is not really surprising, if one takes into account Boswell’s volatile character and his Calvinist upbringing. Perhaps like the youthful Bunyan he thought, “I can but be damned, and if I must be so, I had as good be damned for many sins, as be damned for a few.” In fact, the idea that Catholicism and license were very close neighbors had been bred into him; it reappears in the Journal of his tour through Italy some five years later, when on the same day he passionately wooed Madame Sansedoni and then, repulsed, “went into a Church and kneeled with great devotion before an Altar splendidly lighted up.” He talks in the same breath of Augustinian monks and amours with handsome wenches, of the Holy Wafer at Turin and bold advances made in an opera-box; later harks back in memory to “the frame of mind I had in Italy, amorous and pious”; and calls a Continental acquaintance “the true bon Catholique, for he talked with ease of having women, and yet told me of a distemper he had brought on himself by fasting.” After his dour Northern boyhood, Boswell never quite understood the anima naturaliter catholica, though with his lifelong hankering after it, he liked to think that he did.

In a fine rapture at these splendors of the Catholic rite which he first beheld in the spring of 1760, the impressionable Boswell went much further than had been foreseen by his mistress, whom he probably now repudiated. Not only did he embrace the communion of Rome, but, as he later confessed to Rousseau, entertained ideas of entering a monastery in France, doubtless with the view to becoming a monk. James Boswell in serge would have been even more restive than Fra Lippo Lippi; indeed after flirting briefly with the fancy he was ripe for dissuasion. Several stories are told about persons commissioned by Lord Auchinleck to rescue his son from the delusions of Popery—notably Sir John Pringle, Sir David Dalrymple, and the Rev. Dr. Jortin— but from Boswell’s own Journal it now appears that he was plucked from the burning by the Earl of Eglinton, a notorious rake and crony of the young Duke of York. Shrewdly sizing up Boswell and his weaknesses, Lord Eglinton speedily turned the prospective monk into a man about town. An introduction into the beau monde of London and the sporting gentry of Newmarket, and a hint that Boswell might join up with the Guards and wear their dazzling scarlet uniform, appear to have done the trick. Like that famous exquisite of a later century, Boswell could resist everything except temptation.

But now that his brain had been cleared of all theological maggots, Boswell in his own phrase was “hauled away to the town of Edinburgh” after this spree of three months by his hard father, who set him once more to boning over the Corpus Juris Civilis. Still his aroused appetite for the fleshpots was unappeased; even in Edinburgh he found occasions (as he wrote euphemistically to his young friend Temple) to be “a guest in the mansions of gross sensuality”; and in accord with this life he seems to have devised a philosophy of libertinism and irreligion which he fancied came from the tenets of David Hume. But upon his second and approved visit to London he met the great and sainted Samuel Johnson in May, 1763, and this event—memorable in so many ways—anchored him forever in the Christian faith, as he himself declared. All his life Boswell remained an ‘enthusiast’ for religion, who enjoyed Mass, Quaker meetings, and Methodist rallies almost impartially. In one of his essays, after reviewing various creeds Boswell writes: “The truth is, that there is to me something very pleasing in the mysticks of all denominations.” To James Boswell religious emotion was always something like a moral equivalent for brandy. But for his own profession he chose at last the Anglican faith, which under Johnson’s influence came to assume the coloring of High Churchmanship. The social Boswell was at heart a conformist, who had in him little of the stuff from which martyrs and even minorities are made.

Of course, being a born reporter, Boswell struck frequent attitudes of doubt or polite dissent—prone to be a sceptic among believers and a believer among sceptics, as when he argued with Voltaire about the immortality of the soul “with a great Bible before us,” yet often invited his clerical friends to settle his perplexities about this very dogma. But in all his questionings more flattery was implied than opposition. Every reader of “The Life of Johnson” knows how often Boswell plied the Doctor with inquiries about purgatory, prayers for the dead, invocation of the saints, free will, and the Real Presence—meanwhile affecting just a shade of Protestantism himself in order to lead his oracle into endorsing his own secret Catholic bias. And though Dr. Johnson, out of his stout English independence, sometimes growled at the Papists, nobody can doubt the essential Catholicism of Johnson’s soul—the spirit which breathes through his “Prayers and Meditations” is that of a Thomas a Kempis in a dry place. One remembers that Johnson ridiculed the young lady of excellent principles who became a Quaker, applauded the expulsion of Methodists from Oxford, but spoke of the “laceration of mind” suffered by apostates from Rome, and called down the blessing of God upon the Anglican clergyman who deserted a good living to follow his conscience into the fold of St. Peter.

And despite the brevity of Boswell’s holiday excursion into Romanism, after his fashion he remained a Catholic in petto until his death. His keen interest in the unheroic life of Sir Robert Sibbald, a convert who had lapsed because he found fasting irksome, sprang (as we may now suppose) from its analogy to his own. In seasons of grief or distress Boswell turned vaguely and instinctively to Catholic practices. In Paris upon his Tour he read of his mother’s death in a casual newspaper, rushed forth in a kind of panic to a gay dinner-party and a brothel, and then crept home and prayed to her “like the most solemn Catholick to a Saint.” Many years later, when his wife lay in the agony of childbirth, he made petition “to the Virgin Mary, to my dear Mother, to my Grandfather and hers, and to her Father and Mother for their intercession.”

Boswell liked to argue in favor of transubstantiation, and wished to believe in purgatory; in his Will of 1785 he requests “the prayers of all my pious friends for my departed soul, considering how reasonable it is to suppose that it may be detained some time in a middle state.” So meticulous was Boswell’s respect for these Catholic beliefs that in October, 1774, he passed through ten days of blue funk at the thought that from political necessity he might have to take the Parliamentary oath expressing abhorrence of such doctrines; if on the other hand he made a scene and refused the Formula, his darling ambition of sitting some day in the House of Commons would be ruined. Unable to make up his mind, he fortified himself for the ordeal by dressing in his crimson and silver suit and drinking several drams of brandy; when the crucial moment came Boswell found that everybody else had forgotten about the Formula. Vexing himself over quibbles and scruples was one of Boswell’s typical weaknesses; Johnson detected it early in their friendship, and once pointing to a moth burnt in a candle-flame, remarked: “That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was Boswell.”

In regard to the sacrament of confession Boswell did more than speculate; he practised it. His two friends the Rev. William Temple and John Johnston of Grange were the confessors to whom—throughout a span of many years— Boswell poured out his all too human tale of shipwreck between the Scylla and Charybdis of wine and women. If with the greater discretion of Catholic usage, Boswell had made auricular confession alone, we should now lack the sorry but ingratiating testimony of these many letters and memoranda. Boswell’s recital of sins usually closes with excuses and pious vows of amendment; thus in early August, 1775, he writes to Temple from Edinburgh that he has broken the temperance pledge made “under the solemn yew”: “I ask your forgiveness, and I shall be more strictly cautious for the future. The drunken manners of this country are very bad.” And from what we know about the Rev. William Temple, a mild and colorless parson, we may suppose that like Chaucer’s Friar “plesaunt was his absolucioun”—though Nature herself seems to have laid heavy penances of infection upon her poor amorist.

To Dr. Johnson, whom he regarded as the touchstone of morals though not as the indulgent confidant, Boswell solemnly averred: “For my own part, without affecting to be a Socrates, I am sure I have a more than ordinary struggle to maintain with the Evil Principle; and all the methods I can devise are little enough to keep me tolerably steady in the paths of rectitude.” The reader of Boswell’s Journal is amused and occasionally startled by the very queer chiaroscuro of piety and vice found therein. Thus on an August Sunday in 1777 Boswell got “sadly drunk” in good company soon after church: “Went to Mrs. Margaret Pitcairn’s funeral and kissed a girl in open day in the Churchyard. Grange saw it. The people were Methodists. Was much intoxicated.” Even more flagrantly during his earlier Continental frolic, while staying at a German inn, Boswell hastily seduced a chocolate-seller who knocked at his door, and then jotted down this entry: “Should I now torment myself with speculations on Sin, and on losing in one morning the merit of a year’s chastity? No, this is womanish. Nay, your elegant mysticks would not do so. Madame Guion was of opinion that Sin should be forgotten as soon as possible, as being an idea too gross for the mind of a Saint, and disturbing the exercise of sweet devotion. Her notion is ingenious. I’ll think no more of it. Divine Being! Pardon the errors of a weak Mortal. Give me more steadiness. Let me grow more perfect.” But Boswell was never able to banish from his conscience what he elsewhere described as “remorse rising like a black cloud”; again and again he teased Johnson and other sober friends with carefully worded questions about the morality of “patriarchal extensiveness” as allowed in the Old Testament. The Hebrews had a word for it— “concubinage”—and although poor Boswell did not begrudge Solomon all his glory, he did envy him his seven hundred wives.

Boswell depended pathetically upon the inspiration of friends in his feeble battle against the Evil Principle; often he hinted at frailties and elicited good advice—not so much to follow it as to feel by radiation, as it were, the glow of sainthood, and also that he might set down these counsels of perfection for others more capable of applying them than himself. He even tried to believe that his delight in the company of men like Temple and Dalrymple was “proof that I am at bottom a sober and grave man myself.” Yet he could not help drawing painful comparisons: on at least two occasions he confesses to Temple that his sexual indulgences are “unworthy the friend of Paoli,” the Corsican patriot who was one of Boswell’s heroes; on the road to Ashbourne in 1777 he notes in his Journal: ” ‘How inconsistent/ thought I, ‘is it for me to be making a pilgrimage to meet Dr. Johnson, and licentiously loving wenches by the way.’” And even of the spiritual milksop Temple, Boswell speaks with veneration—”whose worth my popish imagination cannot help somehow viewing as a kind of credit, on which I may in part repose.” Among Boswell’s private memoranda are such self-exhortations as: “Be Erskine.” “Be Sir D. Dalrymple.” “Be Father.” “Be Johnson (You resemble him).” “Be Rock of Gibraltar.”

Besides his friends, Boswell clung for moral stamina to books of piety, especially volumes of sermons which he sometimes drew from his pocket with great eclat in the presence of Dr. Johnson, His favorite apparently was Samuel Og-den’s “Sermons,” of which the Second and Ninth, he remarks, “with their other distinguished excellence, have the merit of being short.” He owned two editions of the “Imitation of Christ”—a small one to carry about his person, and the great Louvre folio of 1640, “which I keep for my old age, in case I shall be permitted to arrive at that state.” Boswell seems to have planned rather grandly upon the solaces of his sunset years—to Rousseau he once expressed the resolution of applying himself to music in order “to sweeten my old age with the sounds of my lyre.”

Boswell’s impulsiveness flung him upward on the crest of boyish enthusiasm and foolish self-esteem, and then cast him headlong into the slough of despond. Rightly he said of himself: “My existence is chiefly conducted by the powers of fancy and sensation.” He was easily stirred by solemnity or liturgical pomp—as in the Great Church of Magdeburg where, he declared, he was “fit to enter into the society of blessed spirits,” and in St. Peter’s at Rome, or when he attended the Chapel Royal and saw King George III at his devotions, or that June morning in 1781 when he received the Sacrament at Southill Church and boasted fatuously about his goodness to Dr. Johnson. At such high moments Boswell gained at least a passing victory over his dark fears, especially the dread of annihilation at death which this creature of the joie de vivre could never quite rout, and which always returned in moods of remorse and gloom, especially after conversation with sceptics like Hume and Beauclerk. To a pure sensationalist like Boswell the anguish of hell-fire would have been perhaps more tolerable than the dull extinction of the tomb. Eagerly he seized all chances to convince himself of the survival of the soul, and sometimes even in the presence of death itself he managed to win a temporary assurance. Thus when his son David died in the spring of 1777, “I cried over my little son and shed many tears. At the same time I had really a pious delight in praying with the room locked, and leaning my hands on his alabaster frame as I knelt. I prayed for his spirit, but chiefly to it as in the region of felicity, looking to a beautiful sky.”

At times one cannot help suspecting a certain element of pose, perhaps even unconscious, in the low spirits and ‘hyp-ishness’ which Boswell constantly bewails in his letters and his diary. Hypochondria in his day was the fashionable equivalent of that melancholy which had brooded over Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne, or the spleen and vapours which the Augustans had regarded as the malady of the gently bred. The reader of Boswell’s Journal occasionally doubts the sincerity of all this introversion a la mode. Yet such an assumption cannot explain everything—Boswell did indeed have his genuine and severe attacks of the blues. Some were probably headaches of the morning after or the rebound of his ebullience; others may have had some obscure nervous origin; and still others arose from that habit of self-torment and scrupulosity which Boswell—for all his emancipation—never escaped as his Scotch heritage. His interest in the knotty problem of predestination and free will, his morbid zeal in collecting case histories of suicide, and the prayer of his youth—”guard me from myself”—suggest a fear that he might be foredoomed, in some such mood of desperation, to take his own life.

Normally these fogs of depression quickly evaporated; thus in 1776 in a brief passage of his Journal we find him on a Sunday dejected by a stern sermon of Dr. Blair, but presently singing “Hearts of Oak” and “The Roast Beef of Old England” from the box of a stage-coach. However, as the years passed, especially after the death of Samuel Johnson in 1784 and of his own wife in 1789, Boswell succumbed to longer attacks of self-pity. “Years of life seem insupportable,” he writes. More and more often he sought the bottle as a nepenthe, and only the stamina lent him by a few wise friends like the scholar Malone enabled him to finish “The Life of Johnson” and fulfil his manifest destiny. After these years of such quaint and ragged inconsistency, Boswell perhaps met the Everlasting Mercy resting in the comfort Dr. Johnson once gave him, that God “would not take a catch of him.”

Upon reviewing this private record which Boswell left behind—hinted obliquely in the biography of Johnson, conventionalized in the essays called “The Hypochondriack,” and bared with shameless naivete in the letters to Temple and the Journal—one feels above all else Boswell’s intense curiosity about himself, an almost impersonal relish in his own pageantry of sinning and repentance, exuberance and despair. His own life, like the lives of his contemporaries, held for Boswell the enchantment of an ever-continuing romance. On one occasion when describing his perplexities of heart he speaks of being “entertained with this dilemma like another chapter in my adventures”—a state of mind which he brought to his spiritual vicissitudes as well. In accord with his own pious wish, let us hope that the soul of James Boswell has gone at length once more on his adventure brave and new.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading