Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Some letters, some ghosts, and other Boswell odds and ends

{James Boswell by Thomas Lawrence, ca. 1790-95}

There's just so much good stuff in Boswell's London Journal that I can't help but share a bit more.

1 Though Boswell as a young man had met David Hume, a fellow Scot who was at that time known better for his History of England than for his philosophy, their acquaintance was slight. So when Boswell's friends played a prank on him by forging a letter from Hume inviting a regular correspondence, Boswell's excitement at the prospect made the joke a grand success. Boswell decided that the best way to get back at his friends would be to succeed in striking up an actual epistolary friendship with Hume. What he failed to realize was that Hume, though barely remembering Boswell, was peeved at him, for in a pamphlet Boswell and friends had recently published for the purpose of slagging playwright David Mallet (known as Malloch) they had quoted derogatory comments about Mallet that Hume had made to them in a private conversation long ago. Got that? All of that is utterly unimportant three hundred and fifty years later except that it sets the scene for this bristling, astonished letter from Hume:
You must know, Mr. James Boswell, or James Boswell, Esq., that I am very much out of humour with you and your two companions or co-partners. How the devil came it into your heads, or rather your noddles (for it there had been a head among you, the thing had not happened; nor are you to imagine that a parcel of volatile spirits enclosed in a skull, make a head)--I repeat it, how the devil came it ito your noddles to publish in a book to all the world what you pretend I told you in private conversation? I say pretend I told you; for as I have utterly forgot the whole matter, I am resolved utterly to deny it. Are you not sensible that by the etourderie,, to give it the lightest name, you were capable of making a quarrel between me and that irascible little man with whom I live in very good terms? Do you not feel from your own experience that among us gentlemen of the quill there is nothing of which we are so jealous (not even our wives, if we have any) as the humour of our productions? And that he least touch of blame on that head puts us into the most violent fury and combustion? I reply nothing to your letter till you give me some satisfaction for this offence, but only assure you that I am not, Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant,
The sputtering anger brings Hume to life in a way that the metaphysical rigors of his philosophy can never come close to doing I particularly like the way that he turned the period's formulaic string of meaningless pleasantries on its head at the letter's close.

In the face of what must surely have been a shocking rebuff, however, Boswell demonstrated his usual quick wit. Though he opened his response with a fairly lame joke about having written about a different man named David Hume, he followed it with a much stronger effort:
As to the consequences of this affair, we are very sorry that you live in good terms with Mr. Malloch, and if we can make a quarrel between you, it will give us infinite pleasure. We shall glory in being the instruments of dissolving so heterogeneous an alliance; of separating the mild from the irascible, and the divine from the bestial.

We know very well how sore every author is when sharply touched in his works. We are pleased with giving acute pain to Mr. Malloch. We have vast satisfaction in making him smart by the rod of criticism, as much as many a tender bum has smarted by his barbarous birch when he was janitor of the High School at Edinburgh.

As to the giving you satisfaction for the offence, you may receive full gratification by reading the Reviews on our performance [that is, their pamphlet]. You will there find us held forth both as fools and as knaves; and if you will give us any other abusive appellations, we shall most submissively acquiesce. I hope this affair is now perfectly settled. I insist upon your writing to me in your usual humane style, and I assure you most sincerely that I am, my dear Sir, your most obedient humble servant,
That brashness--the vigorous confidence of a smart young man finding his feet in an exciting and challenging world--runs throughout the London Journals and provides a good deal of its charm.

2 Given all the ghost stories I've featured lately, I couldn't very well not share this one with you, from the entry for March 12, 1763:
I stayed supper, after which we talked of death, of theft, robbery, murder, and ghosts. Lady Betty and Lady Anne declared seriously that at Allanbank they were disturbed two nights by something walking and groaning in the room, which they afterwards learnt was haunted. This was very strong. My mind was now filled with a real horror instead of an imaginary one. I shuddered with apprehension. I was frightened to go home. Honest Erskine made me go with him, and kindly gave the half of his bed, in which, though a very little one, we passed the silent watches in tranquility.
Even better, editor Frederick Pottle notes:
In the sketch of his life which he wrote later for Rousseau, Boswell confessed that he had been so much afraid of ghosts that he could not sleep alone until he was eighteen. The fear, though somewhat moderated, persisted throughout his life.

3 Speaking of the editorial notes: following an evening at Lord Advocate's, Boswell complains:
Mrs. Miller's abominable Glasgow tongue excruciated me. I resolved never again to dine where a Scotchwoman from the West was allowed to feed with us.
To that statement, Pottle appends what must surely have been the most fun note to write in the whole book:
Yet he later married one.
It shows admirable restraint not to end that sentence with an exclamation point.

4 Also in the notes, taken from Boswell's other papers, is this bit of dialogue between Boswell and his erstwhile (though dissipated and unreliable) patron, the Earl of Eglinton, revealing the Earl's unfavorable reaction to the recent publication of Boswell's correspondence with his friend Erskine:
EGLINTON Upon my soul, Jamie, I would not take the direction of you upon any account, for as much as I like you, except you would agree to give over that damned publishing. Lady N___ would as soon have a raven in her house as an author. . . . By the Lord, it's a thing Dean Swift would not do--to publish a collection of letters upon nothing. Nor Madam Sevigne either.

BOSWELL My Lord, hers are very fine.

EGLINTON Yes, a few at the beginning; but when you read on, you think her a d__nd tiresome bitch.

5 I'll close with the journal's most famous episode (aside perhaps from the time Boswell has sex with a prostitute on Westminster Bridge?)--and the one towards which, from our distant vantage point, the whole journal is building: the fateful meeting with Samuel Johnson on May 16, 1673:
Mr. Davies introduced me to him. As I knew his moral antipathy at the Scotch, I cried to Davies, "Don't tell where I come from." However, he said, "From Scotland." "Mr Johnson," said I, "indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it." "Sir," replied he, "that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help." Mr. Johnson is a man of a most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king's evil. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge and strength of impression command vast respect and render him very excellent company. He has great humour and is a worthy man. I shall mark what I remember of his conversation.

And with that, what can I do but pull down the Life of Johnson from the shelf? I think that's next . . . though there's a chance Jane Austen might intervene.

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