Wednesday 21 June 2023

A glimpse into Boswell's Corsica book.

 One of the subplots in Andrew McConnell Stott’s book about the Shakespeare Jubilee, What Blest Genius? is about James Boswell. Presented as the ideal audience member for such a piece of dramatic street theatre, Boswell used the Jubilee to promote himself and the book he had written the year before. That book was An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to That Island; and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, published and reprinted in 1768. He attended the masked ball in a rather rushed approximation of a Corsican rebel’s outfit, tried to get people to call him ‘Corsica Boswell’ and gave out poems about how much the Corsican people loved Shakespeare.

I was lucky enough to look through a first edition of this book while volunteering at Dr Johnson’s House. It’s a slim work, bound in a glossy, brown leather and contains a beautiful and very detailed fold-out map of the island at the front. The book is printed in a rather large print and spaced out - it’s a beautiful object but there’s a sense of a student trying to hide the short length of an essay by printing it out in larger text. It begins with a geographical survey of the island, a lengthy section of Corsica in the classical era, focussing on the island’s long history of rebellion and bolshiness before moving on to the current fight against the Genoese. 

I wasn’t able to look at the book for very long so I went straight to the element that interested me most, Theodore Von Neuhoff, first and only King of Corsica. It’s a story that really interests me and Neuhoff is definitely a man“whose singular story has made so much noise”.  Neuhoff was a German spy and gunrunner who’d lingered around different Italian states, looking to make a quick buck. Boswell describes him as someone with a “strange, unsettled, projecting disposition”, and it’s true he was always moving from one place to another and getting involved in projects which might have made him rich.

The rebellion in Corsica was hitting an impasse. The island was home to a number of powerful families (Paoli being one of them) with long histories of blood-feuds and disagreement. It was decided that bringing a figure from outside the island would be the best idea, as he would have no bias and carry no long-standing hatred from any of these families. Neuhoff was decided upon because he also promised to arm them. Boswell gets his information about this period from General Paoli, who later became a long-standing friend and member of Johnson’s Club. It’s clear that Paoli felt that Neuhoff had conned them, or at the very least overpromised. The guns were delayed time and again. What’s more, Neuhoff had rather let the whole ‘king’ thing go to his head. 

“He was a man of very stately appearance” and he also adopted a Turkish dress which made him seem vain and silly. What’s more, “Theodore assumed ever more royal dignity. He had his guards, and his officers of state. He conferred titles of honour.” It seemed to the islanders, that there new King was more interested in his state of royalty then in helping them fight the Genoese. After a few months, things got to hot and Theodore left the island and ‘abdicated’ his throne. Interestingly, Boswell sees this as a chump move, believing that he should have held on longer. 

He therefore chose to relinquish his throne, and give up his views of ambition for safety, furnishing a remarkable example, how far a desperate spirit may go. For, had Theodore gained a little more prudence, and some better fortune, he, and his posterity, might have won the crown of Corsica, upon the generous title of having delivered the island from oppression.”

Eventually, Theodore found himself in England where he was imprisoned for debts and placed in jail in Soho. His debts were paid by Horace Walpole and Robert Dodsley, former footman who was instrumental in commisioning Johnson’s Dictionary. 

In retrospective, Paoli felt that, for all his faults, Theodore Von Neuhoff had revived and re-invigorated the island’s fight for freedom, a fight that Paoli then took over until he too was brought to heel, not by the Genoese, but by the island’s new masters, France. Those of a military inclination would then be brought into the French army and for Napoleon Bonaparte, one such Corsican, things went very well. Indeed, for a while, rather than there being a foreign king of Corsica, there were Corsican Bonapartes put on thrones in Italy and Spain. 

Boswell sums Neuhoff like this;

“Theodore was a most singular man, and had been so beaten about, by change of fortune, that he left the common sentiments of mankind and viewed things as some one who is mad, or drunk, or in a fever. He had nothing to lose and a great deal to win.”

It’s a rather dismissive summary of the man, but Boswell had a habit of dismissing things he didn’t understand (see his whole relationship with Oliver Goldsmith).

I didn’t get a chance to read the rest of the book but I felt very privaleged to read the part I had. It’s a very smooth and easy read, there’s very little Boswellian show-offness in it and if I can find a copy somewhere, I’d look forward to reading the rest.

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