"I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am. "
James Boswell was born in Edinburgh 29th October 1740, the son of Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, and his wife, Euphemia Erskine. The eldest son of Alexander, a judge, James inherited his father’s estate Auchinleck in Ayrshire.
Boswell was a sickly child, and suffered from a nervous ailment which would affect him sporadically throughout his life. At the age of five he was sent to attend James Mundell’s Academy, where he studied English, Latin, writing and arithmetic. He was unhappy at the academy and suffered from night fears and extreme shyness.
Due to his unhappiness at the James Mundell Academy, at the age of eight Boswell was removed, and was taught by a string of private tutors. One of these tutors, John Dunn, sparked Boswell’s interest in religion.
At the age of thirteen, Boswell enrolled on an arts course at the University of Edinburgh and stayed there for some five years. Twice during his adolescence, Boswell suffered with nervous illnesses and was sent to Moffat Spa to recover. It was after the second visit to Moffat Spa that Boswell began to rebel against his strict upbringing and developed aspirations to be a writer and published author. Whilst travelling with his father in Autumn 1758, Boswell began to keep a journal, a habit he would keep for many years.
When he was nineteen, Boswell was sent to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow. It was during this time that Boswell decided to convert to Catholicism and become a monk. When his father heard about this, Boswell was summoned back home. However, rather than returning as ordered, Boswell ran away to London and spent the next three months living the life of a libertine. After his father brought him back to Scotland, he forced Boswell to sign away his inheritance in return for an allowance of £100 a year. Boswell then returned to Edinburgh University to continue his studies. Boswell was not enthusiastic about his studies and continued to keep a journal and write poetry and prose, some of which he published anonymously.
Boswell took his oral law exam in July 1762 and showed promise as a lawyer. As a consequence, his father increased his annual allowance to £200 and allowed Boswell to return to London. Upon returning to London, Boswell wrote his London Journal. He also persuaded his friend Andrew Erskine to join him in correspondence which would later be the first of his publications to bear his name; Letters between the Honourable Andrew Erskine and James Boswell, Esq. (1763).
It was whilst living in London that Boswell first met Samuel Johnson on 16th May 1763. Johnson warmed to Boswell’s sincere admiration and wish for guidance and the two quickly became firm friends, with Johnson affectionately nicknaming him “Bozzy”. Johnson was also a dedicated diary-keeper and encouraged Boswell to continue with his journal.
Some three months after his first meeting with Johnson, Boswell travelled to Europe to continue his law studies at Utrecht University. He spent a year there, during which time he fell in love with a girl named Isabelle de Charrière, but she refused to marry him. He spent the following two years travelling the continent, during which time he met Jean-Jacques Rousseau, made a pilgrimage to Rome and travelled to Corsica to meet the independence leader Pasquale Paoli. The diaries Boswell kept during this time were used to compile his books Boswell in Holland and Boswell and the Grand Tour.
In February 1766, Boswell returned to London with Rousseau’s mistress. After spending a few months in London, he decided to return to Scotland to take his final law exam. He passed the exam and became an advocate. Boswell spent most of his adult life in Scotland, but would return to London regularly to spend time with Johnson and his literary crowd. His first important work, An Account of Corsica, the Journal of a Tour to that Island and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, was published in February 1768.
Boswell married Margaret Montgomerie, his cousin, in November 1769. His father, Lord Auchinleck, did not approve of the marriage, and Boswell chose to marry Margaret on the very day he knew his father was remarrying (his mother having died in 1766). The marriage produced four sons, two of whom died in infancy, and three daughters; Alexander, James, Veronica, Euphemia and Elizabeth. Boswell is well documented as having numerous affairs and regularly visiting prostitutes, which led to at least two illegitimate children and in excess of seventeen cases of venereal disease! Boswell would usually confess his infidelities to Margaret, begging forgiveness and promising to reform. By the late 1770s, Boswell had also developed alcohol and gambling addictions, which exacerbated the severe mood swings that he suffered from.
Boswell and Johnson went on a number of travels together, including seven weeks spent travelling about the highlands and the Inner Hebrides in 1773, which led to the publication of The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in 1785. This tour, which has become one of the most famous literary journeys, strengthened the friendship between the pair and left Johnson encouraged at the prospect of Boswell as a future biographer. In 1776, the pair travelled to Oxford, Stratford upon Avon, Birmingham, Lichfield and Ashbourne, in order that Boswell could study Johnson in the scenes of his youth.
Boswell had his final meeting with Johnson on 30th June 1784, and on 17th December 1784 he learned of Johnson’s death, noting in his journal “I was stunned, and in a kind of amaze... My feeling was just one large expanse of stupor. I knew that I should afterwards have sorer sensations”.
Shortly after Johnson’s death, Boswell once again moved to London, this time to try and further his law career. Unfortunately, this proved even more unsuccessful than his career as an advocate in Scotland. Boswell had great political aspirations and even offered to stand for Parliament. However he failed to get the necessary support.
Boswell spent his final years writing the Life of Samuel Johnson, whilst his health began to fail due to venereal disease and years of excessive drinking. The first mention of Boswell starting work on Life of Samuel Johnson was on 5th June 1786, when he noted in his journal that he was ‘sorting materials’ for it. He began to write the biography on 9th July 1786. The biography was finally published on 16th May 1791, on the twenty-eighth anniversary of Boswell’s first meeting with Samuel Johnson.
Boswell is best known for his biography of Johnson, which was considered revolutionary at the time. The biography included far more personal details than biographies of the time, and paints a vivid picture of Samuel Johnson that has almost certainly contributed to the longevity of Johnson’s fame as an author.
On 14th April 1795, Boswell was taken violently ill and had to be carried to his home in Great Portland Street. He suffered about five weeks of severe pain before dying at 02am on 19th May 1795. It is believed that he died of uraemia, ‘the result of acute and chronic urinary tract infection, secondary to postgonorrheal urethal stricture’. He was interred in the family vault at Auchinleck church on 8th June 1795.
In the 1920s, a number of Boswell’s private papers were discovered at Malahide Castle, near Dublin. The discovery of these papers led to the publication of an extended edition of The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1936), as well as a number of publications by Yale University such as London Journal 1762-63 (1950) and The Great Biographer, 1789-1795 (1989).
Boswell’s surname is used in the English language as a term for a constant companion and observer.