James Boswell’s adventures in Holland begin where his London Journal 1762-1763 finished.
These accounts were not published until 1952, and many of the papers for this journal were lost in Boswell’s own lifetime. As yet, they have never been recovered.
When Boswell left Holland in June 1764, he packed his journal and left them with a friend, the Reverend Robert Brown. They were to be sent back home to Auchinleck, the family estate in Ayrshire, Scotland. Boswell then finished his travels.
The Reverend Brown entrusted the parcel to a young Army officer who took them as far as London. On Boswell’s return to Auchinleck, he checked the papers and realised that the Dutch Journal was missing…Desperate appeals by Boswell to his friend the Reverend and others failed to retrieve them. Lost forever.
In 1952 when the academic editors of Yale University produced Boswell in Holland, they compiled it mainly from the correspondence between Boswell and his friends and they pieced together Boswell’s life in Holland. Through memorandums Boswell addressed to himself, and counsels for his day ahead, they became trustworthy substitutes for his lost journal. The result was the publication of the book in 1952.
Why did Boswell go to Holland?
Boswell initially went to London to transform himself into a high-bred, established gentleman of pleasure, to experience life as a young man.
In May of 1763, he met someone he had long admired for his writing— Samuel Johnson.
It was a relationship that would grow over the years, with Johnson acting as a mentor to Boswell.
James drew on the immense religious strength he saw in Johnson, and with a bad conscience, he began to realise the errors of his ways in all that he was experiencing in London. Boswell became tired of his lifestyle and ambition to gain a commission to join, His Majesty’s Foot Guards and decided to study.
Together, Johnson and Boswell drew up a plan for regular study, at which point Boswell discussed with his father to take up the study of the law. Therefore, it was agreed that Boswell would spend the winter in Utrecht, Holland and on completing this, he could then travel to Paris and some parts of the German courts.
So…Boswell arrived in Holland.
The fact that Boswell went to Utrecht to study law was not unusual. Scots law, which was different from English law, was based on Roman law. It just so happened that the Dutch were experts in Roman law.
Boswell sailed from Harwich and states that he had ‘a good passage’. Next on to Rotterdam, after this to Leyden, where he tells us he ‘passed some days’.
He comments now on his mood; ‘I began to turn low-spirited and set out for Utrecht’.
The next piece of information is an insight to how you would have travelled in the eighteenth century in Holland.
‘I travelled between Leyden and Utrecht nine hours in a sluggish trekschuit without any companion, so that I brooded over my own dismal imaginations. I arrived in Utrecht on a Saturday evening.’
(Trekschuit – or draw boats, covered boats drawn by horse at the rate of three miles an hour- Ref: Thomas Nugent, The Grand Tour.)
Boswell had arrived.
James Boswell was a prolific writer, and even without the missing journal, a picture can be painted of his time in Holland. In addition, he leaves us with an impression of day-to-day observations.
He accounts for his dislike of the weather, saying, “Holland certainly has brought a very harsh climate, dangerous to strangers who have been brought up in a temperate region. There are horrible fogs and excessive cold, but especially a continuous dampness, except in the summer months.”
And fashion as he works out what to do with his worn-out breeches, “I should like to know what is the best material to make them of. I am now wearing a kind of black stuff made, I think at Utrecht. It is composed of linen and silk, but is extremely thin and does not wear well.”
His keenness to learn the French language, “It is certain that I have the greatest desire to learn French, but I fear that I am not learning it quickly.“
Boswell’s doubts are a small part of what makes him so relatable, so human.
His interest in learning French may have had something to do with a particular lady he met whilst in Holland and whom he would continue his correspondence with long after this trip.
Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tyll or Belle de Zuylen or Zelide belonged to a very old Dutch family. On Boswell’s arrival in Utrecht, she was only twenty-three years old, the same age as James. She was unconventional and bright. Belle had by this time written and published on topics of the day, and it was felt at the time, she talked inappropriately for her sex and years.
I think we can understand why Boswell was drawn to her.
On finding her life full of tedium, she scanned the horizons in Utrecht, “for any object that might be moving, animated or odd.”
In the autumn of 1763, Boswell was introduced to Belle through a circle of friends in society by Count Nassau. He arrived, “dressed in silver and green”, and commended himself to her with his originality; perhaps this was the odd she had been looking for.
They often conversed in French and wrote to each other long after Boswell visited Utrecht. Fair to say they appreciated each other in a plutonic way and acknowledged their differences.
Boswell’s honesty is also conveyed in his letters, especially regarding how he felt. They reveal a physical and mental undress as they are private letters, and he holds nothing back. He speaks of “a deep melancholy seized upon me” and “Miserable wretch that I am”.
Boswell had been subject to fits of depression from when he was seventeen years old and struggled with it throughout his life. He often records these feelings, and although he appeared physically to be robust, his mental health suffered, believed to be born of frustrations. Taught to try and “be good, be prudent, be sober, be reserved, be industrious and you will be happy”, his father said to him.
Just like today, life’s pressures and expectations can be a lot to take on board.
This is why I find Boswell such an intriguing read, and he bares his soul to us, as well as general day to day observations. As a writer, all that he imparts is a vast resource to draw on when taking the reader back to the past.
Through the words of James Boswell, we are allowed to travel back in time — to experience those moments captured with his pen and crafted onto paper. Thank goodness his diaries, memoirs, journals and letters were eventually published, even it was a century and a half later.
Enjoy writing your diary, and wonder who in the future might read it and what they might think or feel…
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