James Boswell died in 1795 and became a literary sensation in 1950!
But how could this be?
Boswell was a prolific writer, and the Boswell Papers were one the most significant finds of English literary manuscripts ever made. They give us a fantastic account of life and events in London between 1762-1763 that augments the history of the man himself and his circle of friends, including Samuel Johnson (Writer 1709-1784), David Garrick (Actor and Playwright 1717-1779) and more.
James Boswell was born in Edinburgh on 29th October 1740, the eldest son of Alexander Boswell, the eighth Laird of Auchinleck, in Ayrshire, Scotland. The Boswell family was an old and well-respected one.
Boswell attended elementary school in Edinburgh and was tutored by James Mundell, who taught him to admire prose and write English fluently. Next, at the College of Edinburgh, he had solid training in Latin and read Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Juvenal. Finally, he studied the theory of poetry and the history of criticism. His teachers thought him to be very promising as an author.
However, his father wanted him to become a lawyer, as expected of his position.
These two differences of opinion are something that James and his father would struggle with within his early years.
Boswell attended the University of Edinburgh and met many interesting people from Edinburgh society. One such person was James Lord Somerville, who introduced Boswell to the lifestyle he desired and commented highly on Boswell’s literary talents. Somerville also delighted Boswell in the notion of ‘the felicity of London‘, as Boswell commented. James was desperate to engage with the gaiety of literary and theatre society.
It is in this desperation, on his 21st birthday, Boswell agreed with his father that if he passed ‘the trials in civil law‘ examination, he should be allowed to go to London.
Boswell passed the exam. His father arranged a small allowance to assist, and Boswell keenly set off for London and his adventure.
The result was a fascinating account of London life. It gave the highs and lows of the eighteenth century. His journal ranged from events of national importance to conversations he overheard in coffee houses and local taverns. It also offered an entertaining insight into Boswell’s amatory adventures as a young Scot set out to explore London society.
So, why was his journal not published until 1950?
When Boswell died in 1795, it was clear he had amassed an extensive collection of papers. These ranged from the many letters he had written alongside his very private journals. He was also a resolute collector and preserver of documents.
All these treasures were of his life, he entrusted to his literary executors Sir William Forbes, Edmond Malone and the Rev. William Johnson Temple. Boswell’s letters and those from various persons and manuscripts of his hand were to be published to benefit his children at the discretion of his three friends.
The three friends then decided that the papers were perhaps a ‘little too risky‘ to publish until the eldest son came of age. These were, after all, many varied experiences that Boswell wrote of not only about himself but of others and frequently accounted for his undignified activities, especially his amorous adventures.
The papers were then deposited in the ‘archives at Auchinleck’. But, for some time, they were believed to have been destroyed.
The first clue they still existed popped up in 1857. These were a series of letters that Boswell had written to his dear friend William Johnson Temple. Mysteriously they had been found in Boulogne. It was believed a family member had fled to France to avoid their creditors.
Major Stone of the East India Company discovered a package that he bought was wrapped up in one of Boswell’s letters. On recognising what it was, he quickly purchased all the sheets, and the collection was published.
Silence once again fell over the whereabouts of Boswell’s other documents.
Then in 1905, a member of the Boswell family, a Mrs Mounsey, died, leaving Auchinleck to her sisters’ son. The son was the heir to Malahide Castle in Dublin. In 1917 all miscellaneous contents from the Auchinleck Estate were sent to the castle.
Next, a Professor Chauncey B. Tinker of Yale, with a new attitude toward Boswell’s literary works requested further information from Lord Talbot at Malahide Castle. The reply was a simple’ no‘.
Later, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph H. Isham, an American collector of eighteenth-century rarities, persuaded the Lord to sell them. The six volumes were last edited and finished by Professor Frederick Pottle in 1929.
Then in 1930, a Professor C.C Abbott of Aberdeen University searching for material on another subject found among papers belonging to Sir William Forbes at Fettercairn House, Kincardineshire, found two of Boswell’s journals, more than a thousand letters. William, whom Boswell had initially entrusted to look after his estate upon Boswell’s death, had kept these.
Lastly, after the outbreak of the war in 1939, an outbuilding at Malahide Castle was lent to the Parish Council for the storage of grain. In a loft filled with old furniture, the last set of papers were discovered.
Colonel Isham finally bought these in 1949.
The London Journal 1762-63 is the first of the letter series by Boswell and was published in 1950, over a century and a half after the author’s death.
The realism of the time captured by Boswell within his diaries and letters allows us today to step back into the past. To be the person, step back into Georgian society in London and witness even his undignified activities or many amorous challenges. To meet many famous people of the time either in high society or connected to the theatre.
But more than that, to discover the day-to-day life moments. Where a young man loose on the town spent his time in chop houses, coffee houses or visited the two licensed theatres in London, Drury Lane and Covent Garden where his friend David Garrick was manager. Or how he saw the new ‘Fire of London’ monument that was too high for him.
Boswell tells us he lodged in Downing Street, near St James’s Park, wherein the evening after sundown; the park ‘was given over to ladies of a different kind.’
Boswell quote: ‘I should live no more than I can record.’
I think he succeeded in doing this. His books are well worth a read, and I am using another book of epistolary to help with my research for the second novel…
An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used.
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