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The Birth of a Boswellian Book Lover

Updated on August 19, 2013

The Chance Christmas Gift

Ten years ago my mother gave me a bunch of books for christmas. One of them was a cheap Danish translation of the personal journal of a young Scot in the hustles and bustles of 1760s London. She bought it for me because she knew about my love for London. None of us knew anything about the author, James Boswell, though. But that was about to change!

Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763

Two editions of Boswell's London Journal - the left is the Danish translation which I was given by my mother back in 2003, the right one is one of the most recent and most authoritative international editions dating from 2011.
Two editions of Boswell's London Journal - the left is the Danish translation which I was given by my mother back in 2003, the right one is one of the most recent and most authoritative international editions dating from 2011.

The book, Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763, was written by James Boswell (b. 1740) during his stay in London from November 1762 until August 1763. He was the eldest son of a Lord in the Court of Session (basically a senior judge in the supreme court of Scotland), and it had virtually been decided years before, that Boswell himself was to become a respected advocate and eventually a judge like his father and grandfather before him.

The young Boswell, however, had other dreams and after lengthy discussions with his father, he was - in the fall of 1762 - finally allowed to go to London in the vain hope of securing a commission in the guards (i.e. becoming an army officer). To become an officer in a respected unit took money and connections and Boswell's father, Lord Auchinleck, probably suspected that his son would not succeed and so would return to his studies the next year after having sown his wild oats in London for a bit.

Eventually Boswell had a great time in London; he met and got well acquainted with politician John Wilkes, actor David Garrick and author and critic Samuel Johnson, whose lifelong friend and biographer he became. He didn't get the commission in the guards, however. Boswell described all of this, as well as his occassional troubles, money worries, visits to prostitues, disappointments of not getting a commission, his conquest of a young actress, etc. in many and very private details in his journal, which was never intended for publication. He continued keeping a journal for most of the rest of his life.

Following Boswell's death in 1795 the journal was thought lost, but in the 1930s it was re-discovered at Fettercairn House in Scotland. It eventually ended up at Yale University, who in 1950 published the London Journal as the first installment in a series of Boswell's journals and other personal papers, which had come to light in large amounts since the 1920s.

A proof copy in my possession of the third volume in the Yale editions of Boswell's journals
A proof copy in my possession of the third volume in the Yale editions of Boswell's journals

My story

After having read the London Journal, I was hooked. Not just because of Boswell's description of 18th century London, the social life and his personal observations on famous (and unknown) persons of the day. But also because of his extreme honesty about his own feelings, his dreams and his ambivalent relation to religion, politics and his Scots heritage of which he alternated between being proud and ashamed.

So I went to eBay and online bookstores to see if I could find any more volumes of his journal, which luckily proved quite easy. Especially the first 3-4 further volumes, covering his year long stay in Utrecht (1763-64), his travels through present-day Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Corsica and France (1764-66) and the volume covering his first years as an advocate and his quest for a suitable wife (1766-1769) were easily obtainable. And while these volumes were probably somewhat less entertaining to the general public, it was interesting to follow the personal development of Boswell from being a young and immature young man in London to become an advocate, a husband and the respected author of a book about Corsica which he published in 1767.

jamesboswell.info

Eventually I felt a need to structure my knowledge about Boswell and I wanted to get to know more about many of the persons with whom he socialized and met throughout his life. So in December 2004 I created the website jamesboswell.info, where I began to publish my findings, and I invited other interested parties to join in on a discussion forum, etc.

The site grew and grew, as I minutely read through the journals and made a note of each and every individual mentioned by Boswell. When I had found a new person, I began researching on online databases, reference works and genealogical sites to get more information, and I published it all on jamesboswell.info.

Eventually people started noticing the site, and just a few years after launch, it was mentioned in the revised edition of Adam Sisman's book "Boswell's Presumptuous Task". I also began receiving questions and information from all sorts of book collectors, Boswellians, genealogists and scholars, including news about possible and hitherto unknown portraits of Boswell family members, personal papers of Boswells which had been discovered in the strangest places and were not registered with Yale, etc. All of this just added to my motivation to keep developing the site, although at this time I had completed my studies and had gone on to a full-time job in government.

Some of my Boswell collection
Some of my Boswell collection

My collection today

Today I have a few shelf meters of books just by or about Boswell (see image) and an additional 20-25 books about 18th century London and Scotland and/or biographies about some of his friends, fx the actor and teacher of elocution Thomas Sheridan.

The Boswell books include the complete series of Boswell's journals as published by Yale University in so-called "trade editions" (as opposed to research editions, which are more thoroughly annotated), most books in the Yale research editions, a proof copy of the Grand Tour journal volume published in 1953, a numbered volume from a rare, privately printed facsimile edition of Boswell's papers, which was done by the collector Ralph Isham in the 1930s (before he sold the papers to Yale), a 1874 print of Boswell's commonplace book named Boswelliana, exhibition and auction catalogues, etc.

I am still collecting and on the lookout for more, but it is quite rare that I find something new these days.

Boswell on Amazon

Most volumes of the Yale editions of Boswell papers are available from Amazon. Some of the most popular volumes are mentioned here.

London Journal 1762-1763 (Penguin Classics)
London Journal 1762-1763 (Penguin Classics)

The first and most popular of Boswell's journals

 
The Life of Samuel Johnson (Penguin Classics)
The Life of Samuel Johnson (Penguin Classics)

The classic biography written by Boswell about his friend Samuel Johnson

 
A Life of James Boswell
A Life of James Boswell

Probably the best and most comprenhensive biography of Boswell not aimed at an academic audience

 
The Journals of James Boswell: 1762-1795
The Journals of James Boswell: 1762-1795

A single volume combining the highlights from Boswell's journals

 

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    • profile image

      Colin323 3 years ago

      Very interesting lens, and your passion for and commitment to your subject has resulted in a well-deserved Purple Star.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 4 years ago from New Zealand

      No I don't know that author, but you sure have a great collection of them.

      Your review about Boswell's books will be very interesting and helpful for lovers of these books.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 4 years ago from Albany New York

      Wonderful review. I would certainly love to read these books. I liked your personal story of how you came about your interest in James Boswell.