October 22, 2014


Boswell's London Journal

Boswell's London Journal covers the period from November 1762, when he left Edinburgh, to August 1763, when he left London to study at Utrecht. This was his second visit to London, the first being in 1760, but his journal of his second visit is the most popular volume.

I want to comment on several aspects of the journal rather than trying to give a blow by blow account of the events in it.

Military Commission—Boswell went to London because he did not like the idea of becoming a lawyer, and who can blame him. He wanted a commission in the army, but not in any part of the army, in the Guards. The apparent advantage of a Guards commission is that he would have been able to stay in London, and would be unlikely to see action. So he would have the best of both worlds, a lively time in the capital, and a secure income. This involved him in a number of relationships with nobles, such as the 10th Earl Eglinton who introduced him to London.

It seems rather strange that Boswell would seek an army commission while having no great desire to lead men in combat, but as I say he seems to have regarded as more of a society thing than anything else.

Boswell is unsuccessful in his quest for a commission, and decides to go to Utrecht to study law there.

The conflicted sinner—St. Paul says For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do (Rom. 7:19). Boswell has ample experience of this. In one of his early entries he records attending church and being moved by the sermon. He then records contemplating a lady and entertaining lewd thoughts about her. He falls quite often into intercourse with prostitutes, and then regrets it, primarily over the prospect of disease.

The opposite sex is a frequent distraction in church, whether they are attired in t-shirts and short shorts, or in the more voluminous attire of the 18th century.

Boswell the lover—Boswell was introduced to the pleasures of the flesh on his first visit to London. In the course of his second visit he makes the acquaintance of an actress and pursues her. He is remarkably frank for his age. Not as explicit as de Sade's pornographic writings, but still honest. He recounts his pursuit of the actress, and when success is almost in his grasp, he experiences what is best termed equipment failure. Here is how I described Boswell's pursuit in an e-mail I sent to a friend:

"When Boswell came to London in 1762 he was enamored of an actress whom he names “Louisa.” This is all that he records of her name. There may be more known about her, but I don’t recall if she was ever fully identified by later scholars. In any case he pursued her for several weeks, and one time apparently suffered a malfunction, possibly ejaculatio praecox, possibly a temporary weakness. When he finally achieves his goal, he scores not once, but five times upon her tender flesh. Once he has achieved his goal his feelings begin to wane, but she has left him a painful reminder of their passion. He has what was called “gleet.” The clap. He reproaches her with infidelity, which she denies, and he breaks it off with her.”
" Boswell's reproach that Louisa has been unfaithful or promiscuous may well be unfair. Approximately 50% of women are asymptomatic for gonorrhea. The editor of the Penguin edition of the journal refers to William Ober's Boswell's Clap and Other Essays: Medical Analyses of Literary Men's Afflictions as a source for observing that gonorrhea can hide in various places in the female anatomy.

Boswell also seemed to believe that nice, clean looking ladies could not carry STIs, while prostitutes did. He procures one or more condoms from a shop in Half Moon Street for use with prostitutes. Unlike a modern condom, which is not supposed to be re-used, he appears to have stored and reused his. He encounters several prostitutes after he has recovered from the clap, and indulges with them, in all cases armoured, except in one instance, which he then proceeds to worry about.

Witness to an Execution—Boswell paid a visit to the condemned cell during his visit here. The condemned man frequently played a bit of a role, and put on a display of bravado, which the poor sap in Boswell's case did. There are descriptions of the condemned being greeted by the crowds, and perhaps being given a bit of ale to help him along his journey. The crowds of onlookers seem to have had a jolly good time of it, and a hanging was a bit of fun for all concerned, except the poor devil left kicking his feet in the air.

I've discussed hanging before, and the difference between the short drop (strangulation) and the long drop (neck breaking) methods. Boswell saw an execution by the short drop method, and it caused him severe distress. He records about a week of emotional distress over witnessing the execution.

Boswell & Johnson—Boswell doesn't meet Johnson until the middle of May, and provides a record of several of their early meetings. Johnson and Boswell appear to have developed a deep friendship, one that was not due to mere toadyism and sycophancy on Boswell's part.

London—One of the pleasures, for me, of the journal is encountering passages about parts of London that I'd visited. Neither the journal nor Dickens's Sketches by Boz will serve the current visitor as a guidebook. Much has changed; even in the course of the two years since our last visit there have been numerous changes. However, some things have remained the same. The parks that Boswell visited are still there, notably Green Park and St. James's Park, though some of the shops, such as the one on Half Moon St., where he bought his condom, are gone, and others have been cleaned up a bit. (I believe he encountered a prostitute in St. James's Park. As far as I know it's no longer a popular spot for working girls.) With a little imagination it might be possible to imagine Johnson and Boswell walking those streets.

Next up, Dickens first book Sketches by Boz.