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The following Volumes are now ready : —


ALLAN RAMSAY. By Oliphant Smeaton.

HUGH MILLER. By W. Keith Leask.

JOHN KNOX. By A. Taylor Innes.

ROBERT BURNS. By Gabriel Setoun.


RICHARD CAMERON. By Professor Herkless.

SIR JAMES Y. SIMPSON. By EvE Blantyre Simpson.

THOMAS CHALMERS. By Professor W. Garden

JAMES BOSWELL. By W. Keith Leask.


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The designs and ornaments of this
volume are by Mr Joseph Brown,
and the printing from the press of
Messrs TumbuU & SpeArsi Edinburgh.


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D.CL. ;

M.A. Pembroke (Johnson's) G>llege, Oxford;




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The literature of the Johnsonian period has assumed,
in spite of the lexicographer's own dislike of that
adjective, prodigious dimensions. After the critical
labours of Malone, Murphy, Croker, J. B. Nichols,
Macaulay, Carlyle, Rogers, Fitzgerald, Dr Hill and
others, it may appear hazardous to venture upon such
a well-ploughed field where the pitfalls are so numerous
and the materials so scattered. I cannot, however, re-
frain from the expression of the belief that in this
biography of Boswell will be found something that b
new to professed students of the period, and much to
the class of general readers that may lead them to re-
consider the verdict at which they may have arrived
from the brilliant but totally misleading essay by Lord
Macaulay. At least, the writer cherishes the hope that
it will materially add to the correct understanding and
the enjoyment of BoswelVs great work, the Life of Johnson,

My best thanks are due to J. Pearson & Co., s Pall
Mall Place, London, for the use of unpublished letters
by Boswell and of his boyish common-place book. And
if " our Boswell " could indulge an honest pride in avail-
ing himself of a dedication to Sir Joshua Reynolds, as
to a person of the first eminence in his department, so
may I entertain the same feeling in inscribing this sketch
to Dr Hill who, amid the pressure of "Other Johnson
labours, has yet found time to revise the proof sheets
of my book.

W. K. L.

Abbrdbbn, December 1896.


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Early Days— Meets Johnson— 1740-63 • 9

The Continent— Corsica — 1763-66 . . . 35

Edinburgh Bar— Stratford Jubilee— 1766-69 . 54

Love Affairs— Literary Club— 1766-73 . 76

Tour TO THE Hebrides- 1773 . . 88

Edinburgh Life— Death OF Johnson— 1773-84 . 113

The English Bar— Death— 1784-95 . . .122

In Literature .••••• 143


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• Behind yon hills, where Lugar flows.' — Burns.

'Every Scotchman,* says Sir Walter Scott, *has a
pedigree. It is a national prerogative, as inalienable as
his pride and his poverty. My birth was neither dis-
tinguished nor sordid.' What, however, was but a
foible with Scott was a passion in James Boswell, who
has on numerous occasions obtruded his genealogical
tree in such a manner as to render necessary some
acquaintance with his family and lineage. The family
of Boswell, or Bosville, dates from the Normans who
came with William the Conqueror to Hastings. Enter-
ing Scotland in the days of the sore saint, David I.,
they had spread over Berwickshire and established
themselves, at least in one branch, at Balmuto in Fife.
A descendant of the family, Thomas Boswell, occupies
in the genealogy of the biographer the position of
prominence which Wat of Harden holds in the line of
the novelist He obtained a grant of the lands in Ayr*
shire belonging to the ancient house of Affleck of that
ilk, when they had passed by forfeiture into the hands
of the king. Pitcaim, in his Collection of Criminal



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Trials is inclined to regard this ancestor as the chief
minstrel in the royal train of James IV.; but, as he fell
at Flodden, this may be taken as being at least not
proven, nor would the position of this first literary man
in the family have been quite pleasing to the pride of
race so often shewn by his descendant A Yorkshire
branch of the family, with the spelling of their name as
Bosville, was settled at Gunthwait in the West Riding,
and its head was hailed as 'his chief by Bozzy, whose
gregarious instincts led him to trace and claim relation-
ship in a way even more than is national. By marriage
and other ties the family in Scotland was connected
with the most ancient and distinguished houses in the

The great grandfather of the biographer was the Earl
of Kincardine who is mentioned by Gilbert Burnet in
his History of His Own Time. He had married a
Dutch lady, of the noble house of Sommelsdyck who
had once held princely rank in Surinam. With that
branch also of the name did Boswell, in later years,
establish a relationship at the time of his continental
tour, when at the Hague he found the head holding
'an important charge in the Republick, and is as
worthy a man as lives, and has honoured me with his
correspondence these twenty years.* From the Earl
Boswell boasted 'the blood of Bruce in my veins,' a
descent which he seizes every opportunity of making
known to his readers, and to which we find him
alluding in a letter of loth May, 1786, now before us,
to Mickle, the translator of the Lusiad^ with a promise
to 'tell you what I know about our common ancestor,
Robert the Bruce.' When Johnson, in the autumn of
1773, visited the ancestral seat of his fiiend, Boswell,
' in the glow of what, I am sensible, will in a commercial
age be considered as a genealogical enthusiasm,' did not

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forget to remind his illustrious Mentor of his relation-
ship to the Royal Personage, George the Third, * whose
pension had given Johnson comfort and independence.'
It would have required a much greater antiquarian than
Johnson, who could scarcely tell the name of his own
grandfather, to have traced the well-nigh twenty genera-
tions of connecting links between Bruce and the third
of the Guelph dynasty on the throne.

From Veronica Sommelsdyck, the wife of this royal
ancestor (whose title is now merged in the earldom
of Elgin), was * introduced into oiu: family the sainfs
name,* born by Boswell's own eldest daughter, and
other consequences of a much graver nature were
destined to ensue. 'For this marriage,' says Ramsay
of Ochtertyre, * their posterity paid dear,' for to it was
due, increased no doubt as it was through the inter-
marriages in close degrees between various scions of the
house, the insanity which is now recognised by all
students of his writings in Boswell himself, and which
made its appearance in the clearest way in the case of
his second daughter. His grandfather James adopted
the profession of law in which he obtained some dis-
tinction, and left three children — ^Alexander, the father
of the subject of this sketch, John, who followed the
practice of medicine, and a daughter Veronica, married
to Montgomerie of Lainshaw, whose daughter became
the wife of her cousin Bozzy.

Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchmleck, married his
cousm Euphemia Erskine. In the writings of the son
the father makes a considerable figure, while his mother,
'of the family of Buchan, a woman of almost un-
exampled piety and goodness,' as he styles her, is but
a dim name in the background, as with John Stuart
Mill who has written a copious autobiography, and left it
to the logical instincts of his readers to infer that he had a


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mother. The profession of law was adopted by tiie
father, who, after a residence abroad at Le jden where he
graduated, passed as advocate at the Scottish bar in 1 7291
from which, after a distinguished career, he was appointed
to the sheriffdom of Wigton, and ultimately raised to
the bench in 1754, with the title of Lord Auchinleck.
He possessed, says his son, ' all the dignified courtesy
of an old baron,' of the school of Cosmo Bradwardine
as we may say, and not only was he an excellent
scholar, but, from the intimacy he had cultivated with
the Gronovii and other literati of Leyden, he was a
collector of classical manuscripts and a collator of the
texts and editions of Anacreon. His library was rich in
curious editions of the classics, and was in some respects
not excelled by any private collection in Great Britain,
and the reputation of the Auchinleck library was greatly
increased by the black-letter tastes and publications of
his grandson. A strong Whig and active Presbyterian,
he was much esteemed in public and in private life.
The son had on his northern tour the pleasure to
note, both at Aberdeen and at Inverness, the high regard
in which the old judge was held, and to find his name
and connection a very serviceable means of introduction
to the travellers in their 'transit over the Caledonian
hemisphere.* Like the father of Scott, who kept the
whole bead-roll of cousins and relations and loved a
funeral. Lord Auchinleck bequeathed to his eldest son
at least one characteristic, the attention to relatives in
the remotest degree of kin. On the bench, like tiie
judges in Redgauntlet^ Hume, Kames, and others, he
affected the racy Doric; and his * Scots strength of
sarcasm, which is peculiar to a North Briton,' was on
many an occasion lamented by his son who felt it, and
acknowledged by Johnson on at least one famous
occasion. In the Boswelliana are preserved many of

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old Auchinleck's stories whiqh Lord Monboddo says he
could tell well with wit and gravity — stories of the
circuit and bar type of Braxfield and Eskgrove, such as
Scott used to tdl to the wits round the fire of the
Parliament House. In his younger days he had been
a beau, and his affectation of red heels to his shoes and
of red stockings, when brought under the notice of his
son by a friend, so affected Bozzy that he could hardly
sit on his chair for laughing. A great gardener and
planter like others of the race of old Scottish judges
he had extended, in the classic style of architecture
then in fashion, the family mansion, and had, as Johnson
found, 'advanced the value of his lands with great
tenderness to his tenants.' Past the older residence
flowed the river Lugar, here of considerable depth, and
then bordered with rocks and shaded with wood — the
old castle whose 'sullen dignity' was the nurse of
^oswell's devotion to the feudal principles and 'the
grand scheme of subordination,' of which he lets us
hear so much when he touches on 'the romantick
groves of my ancestors.'

James Boswell, the immortal biographer of Johnson,
was bom in Edinburgh on October 29, 1740. The
earliest fact which is known about him is one which
he himself would have described as 'a whimsical or
characteristical ' anecdote, and which he had told to
Johnson: — 'Boswell in the year 1745 was a fine boy,
wore a white cockade, and prayed for King James, tUl
one of his uncles. General Cochrane, gave him a shilling
on condition that he would •pray for King George,
which he accordingly did. So you see that Whigs of all
ages are made the same way.' It may have been these
early signs of perversity that led his father to be strict
in dealing with him, for we cannot doubt that Boswell
in the London Magazine for 1781, is giving us a picture


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of domestic life when he writes as follows : — ' I knew a
father who was a violent Whig, and used to upbraid his
son with being deficient in "noble sentiments of liberty,"
while at the same time he made this son live under his
roof in such bondage, that he was not only afraid to stir
from home without leave, but durst scarcely open his
mouth in his father's presence.' For some time he was
privately educated under the tuition of the Rev. John
Dun, who was presented in 1752 to the living of
Auchinleck by the judge, and finally at the High School
and the University of Edinburgh. There he met with
two friends with whom, to the close of his life, he was
destined to have varied and close relations. One was
Henry Dundas, first Lord Melville, and by "Harry the
Ninth " Bozzy, in his ceaseless attempts to secure place
and promotion, constantly attempted to steer, while
that Pharos of Scotland, as Lord Cockbum calls him,
was as constantly inclined to be diffident of the abilities,
or at least the vagaries, of his suitor.

The other friend was William Johnson Temple, son
of a Northumberland gentleman of good family, and
grandfather of the present Archbishop of Canterbury.
Temple was a little older than Boswell, who for upwards
of thirty-seven years maintained an uninterrupted corre-
spondence with him. As he is the Atticus of Boswell,
we insert here a detailed account of him in order to avoid
isolated references and allusions in the course of the
narrative. On leaving Edinburgh he entered Trinity
Hall, Cambridge; after taking the usual degrees, he
was presented by Lord Lisburne to the living of
Mamhead in Devon, which was followed by that of St
Gluvias in Cornwall. Strangely enough for one who
was an intimate friend of Boswell, he was no admirer
of Johnson (whose name, by a curious coincidence, was
a part of his own), and a strong Whig and water-drinker,

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*a bill which,' says Bozzy humorously, *was ever one
which meets with a determined resistance and opposi-
tion in my lower house.' As the friend of Gray and of
Mason, he must have been possessed of some share of
ability, yet over his moral character the admirers and
critics of Boswell are divided. To some he appears
as the true and faithful Atticus to the Cicero of his
friend, the Mentor and honest adviser in all times of
danger and trial. To others he seems but to have
possessed, in a minor degree, all the failings of Boswell
himself, and it would appear the most natural inference
to believe that, had Temple been endowed with greater
force of mental or moral character, the results would
have been seen in many ways upon the actions of his
friend. In his wife he was unfortunate, and, at one
time at least, he attempted to secure a colonial chap-
laincy in order to effect a separation. He was the
writer of an Essay on the Clergy ; their Studies and
Recreations, 17 74; Historical and Political Memoirs,
1777; Abuse of Unrestrained Power, 1778; all of
which have completely passed from the memory of
man. But he lives with a fair claim to fame, as the
correspondent of Boswell, who calls him 'best of
friends' to *a weak distemper'd soul that swells in
sudden gusts, and sinks again in calms.' A chance
memorandum by Temple, on the death of Gray, dis-
playing considerable felicity of phrase and insight, was
sent by Boswell to the London Magazine of March
1772, from which it was copied by Mason in his Life
of Gray^ and in an adapted form it was used by
Johnson himself in his sketch of the poef s work, in
his Lives of the Poets. The discovery of the Letters to
Temple is one of the happiest accidents in literature,
and without them the true life of Boswell could not
be written. To neither Macaulay nor Carlyle were they


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known for use in their famous reviews. On tiie death
of Temple in 1796, one year after the decease of his
friend, his papers passed into the possession of his son-
in-law, who retired to France, where he died. Some
fifty years ago, a gentleman making purchases in a
shop at Boulogne, observed that the wrapper was a
scrap of a letter, which formed part of a bundle bought
shortly before from a travelling hawker. On investiga-
tion, the letters were found to be the correspond^ice
of Boswell with Temple, and all doubts as to their
genuineness were conclusively set at rest by their bear-
ing the London and Devon post marks, and the franks
of well known names. But the internal evidence alone,
as we shall see, would be sufficient to establish their
authenticity. Published in 1857 by Bentley, imder
the careful editorship of Mr Francis, they constitute,
along with the no less happy discovery in 1854, behind
an old press in Sydney, of Campbell's Diary of a Visit
to England — though Professor Jowett was inclined to
doubt the authenticity of tiie latter — the most valuable
accession of evidence to the Johnsonian circle of in-
terest, and they shed on Boswell and his method a
light which otherwise would leave much in darkness,
or, at least, but ensure a geheral acceptance of the
harsher features in the criticism by Macaulay. From
the remark by Boswell to Temple — 'remember and put
my letters into a book neatly ; see which of us does it
first,' it has been inferred that he meditated, in some
sort of altered appearance, their republication. That
Temple entertained the same idea on his part we know
from his own words, and from the title under which
Boswell suggested their issue — Remarks on Various
Authors^ in a Series of Letters to James Boswell, Esq.
But that Boswell himself ever did intend the publica-
tion of his own must be pronounced, by all that know


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what lies behind their printed form, a moral impossi-

The first preserved letter is dated from Edinburgh,
July 29, 1758. It reveals at once the historic Boswell,
sudi as he remained to the close, the cheerful self-
confidence, the gregarious instincts, the pleasing air of
moralizing, and the easy flow of style. 'Some days
ago I was introduced to your friend Mr Hume ; he is
a most discreet affable man as ever I met wilii, and
has really a great deal of learning, a choice collection
of books ... we talk a good deal of genius, fine
learning, improving our style, etc., but I am afraid
solid learning is much worn out. Mr Hume is, I
think, a very proper person for a young man to
cultivate an acquaintance with.' Then he digresses

to * my passion for Miss W ^t,' of whom, he assures

his friend, he is 'excessively fond, so doij't be surprised
if your grave, sedate, philosophic friend who used to
carry it so high, and talk with such a composed in-
difference of the beauteous sex, should all at once
commence Don Quixote for his adorable Dulcinea.'
We catch sight of him, at eighteen, going on the
northern circuit with his father and Lord Hailes.
There, by the advice of an Edinburgh acquaintance,
Love, an old actor at Drury Lane, but then a teacher
of elocution in the town, he began * an exact journal,'
and on that journey it was that Hailes made Boswell
aware of the fact that was to henceforward colour the
entire tide of his life, the existence of Dr Johnson as
a great writer in London, * which grew up in my fancy
into a kind of mysterious veneration, by figuring to
myself a state of solemn elevated abstraction, in which
I supposed him to live in the immense metropolis of
London.' Such were the links, the advice of this
obscure player to keep a journal, and the report given


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li FAMOUS scots

to the youth by the judge in their postchaise. As early
as December 1758 we hear of his having 'published
now and then the production of a leisure hour in the
magazines,' and of his life in Edinburgh he writes,
"from nine to ten I attend the law class; from ten
to eleven study at home, and from one to two attend
a class on Roman Antiquities; the afternoon and
evening I always spend in study. I never walk ex-
cept on Saturdays.' A full allowance, surely, all dns
for one who regrets his sad impotence in study, and
writes the letters to Lord Hailes which we shall quote

Even at this period he betrays the fatal defect which
remains with him through life, the indulgence in ' the
luxury of noble sentiments,' and the easy and irritating
Micawber-like genteel roll with which he turns off a
moral platitude or finely vague sentiment, in the belief
that good principles constitute good character. 'As
our minds improve in knowledge,' he writes, ' may the
sacred flame still increase until at last we reach the
glorious world above when we shall never be separated,
but enjoy an everlasting society of bliss. ... I hope
by Divine assistance, you shall still preserve your amiable
character amidst all the deceitful blandishments of vice
and folly.' While still at Edinburgh he produced T%€
Coquettes^ or the Gallant in the Closet^ by Lady Houston,
but it was ruined on the third night, and found to be
merely a translation of one of the feeblest plays of
Thomas Comeille. This play was long believed to be
by Boswell, but his part was merely the providing the
translator with a prologue, nor was the fact revealed
till long after by the lady herself.

In November 1759 he entered the class of moral

lasgow. Perhaps
yet sedate capital


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of the West, and in close propinquity to Auchinleck,

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Online LibraryWilliam Keith LeaskJames Boswell → online text (page 1 of 12)