Thursday, 23 March 2017

Boswell's London Journal at the Dr Johnson Book Club


One of the great pleasures in reading a diary is that it is possible to look up what the diarist was doing on the same day. 254 years before the Dr Johnson Reading Group discussed Boswell’s London Journal; Boswell was frantically writing it deep into the night, accidentally snuffing his candle and wandering around, trying to find a light and fighting his deep fear of the dark. (The candle is thankfully ‘relumed’ by a passing watchman calling out the third hour.)

‘The London Journal’ is a bit of a surprise to someone who has mainly met with Boswell through his ‘Life of Johnson’. This Boswell is 22, feckless and desperately self-conscious. He is as eager to please as he is in the ‘Life’ but there he has the Johnsonian goodies and a lifetime of experience, here, he is a wide-eyed boy on the make. 

This is his second London trip. Having gadded about Scotland, got a woman pregnant and generally been a nuisance, he managed to convince his disapproving father to give him a small allowance to go to London with the aim of getting in the guards - a career he chooses because he would get to wear a nice coat and mostly hang about London being dashing. This is his record of his time negotiating that position, enjoying his time in London and trying to meet a few famous people on the way.

Young Boswell is acutely aware of his own self, especially when it comes to the different social characters he can put on. We are constantly reminded that this is the age of politeness and that Boswell would like to see himself as a rational gentleman of sophistication and poise. We are also reminded that Boswell himself is a puppyish young man who seems to cycle rapidly between mania and depression.

He is deeply divided: Not only between his light and dark sides, but between his desire for spiritual sustenance and his desire for bodily expression. He is divided between duty to his family and his duty to his own inclinations and he is divided between England and Scotland. Only 20 years after the ’45, some of his friends had property confiscated after the rebellion and Scotland is still seen by the English as a foreign pest. Johnson’s jabs seem mainly in a spirit of good fun but the heckling of Highland Officers at the theatre show the Scottish to be something like foreigners in the city. Like many immigrants, the Scots seem to club together, many of Boswell’s daily routine is spent with groups of Scottish people, whom he seems to both enjoy the company of but also deride as ‘mameish’ and ‘hamely’. 

So, what does a young man with little to do enjoy in London?

We have the theatre. Nearly all the people Boswell talks to have an opinion of the stage. Boswell and his two mates Dempster and Erskine (as opposed to his friends, Temple and Johnston) write a book where they tear apart a play because they don’t like the author. They also attend the play on the first night to boo it, but can’t get the audience on their side. Boswell also almost gets a chance to write a prologue for a play, and is miffed when it is not used. He gets to eat with Garrick, the most famous actor on the stage and he also dates an actress, Louisa.

The courtship takes a month. An actress is not the same as a trull, she can’t be picked up from the streets and Boswell would rather not spend the money. However, she is not a noble lady either and will ‘put out’ with the correct procedures. After elaborate arrangements involving rented rooms and pseudonyms, Boswell finally has his night of passion with Louisa. He then finds himself going off her, even more so when he contracts gonorrhoea where he writes a truly ugly letter to her, demanding a loan of money back - and proceeds to complement himself on being full of the ‘milk of human kindness’.

It is this sexual side of Boswell that put some of us off. His role playing extends to his sex life and he pretends to be various people - it is when he pretends to be a ‘blackguard’ when he loses sympathy - using the role as an excuse to force himself on women and, at one point, to gather a crowd to shame a prostitute who wouldn’t go with him. 


And here we have the final divide in him; a charming and amusing companion who knows he shall be great if he can only just work out what at - and a pestering, thoughtless craver of sexual pleasure. Can we excuse his youth? The age he lives in? Perhaps… but perhaps being allowed into the real life of Boswell may cost the reader a little more then they bargain for. 


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