Saturday, April 27, 2013

James Boswell revolutionised the way we see great men – and women

Ever since the 'Life of Samuel Johnson’, the biography has been a force in British culture, says the authorised biographer of Margaret Thatcher

Biography is on my mind. The single event from which modern biography sprang took place 250 years ago next month.

At about seven in the evening of Monday May 16 1763, a young Scotsman called James Boswell was drinking tea in the back-parlour of his friend, the bookseller Thomas Davies, in Covent Garden. Into the shop came the already legendary writer, Samuel Johnson.

Boswell was at the time keeping a private journal, which would come to light only in the mid-20th century. In it, he described the encounter. Because he knew of Johnson’s “mortal antipathy” to Scots, he cried out to Davies not to tell Johnson where he came from. Davies disobeyed him, so poor Boswell stammered out, “Indeed, I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” Johnson delivered his famous put-down: “Sir, that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”

The 22-year-old was horrified and impressed by the 53-year-old. “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 [scrofula scars]. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect… He has great humour and is a worthy man. But his dogmatical roughness of manners is disagreeable. I shall mark what I remember of his conversation.”

He marked everything. He immediately started to see the sage frequently, and he wrote in his journal that “the friendship of Mr Johnson” had made him give up “promiscuous concubinage” (although he also wrote, in a separate memo to himself, “Swear to have no more rogering before you leave England except Mrs ----- in chambers”).

On the same day as he recorded these noble thoughts, Boswell also wrote up a recent conversation with Johnson in which the great man had advised him to keep a private journal, “fair and undisguised”. Boswell told him that he was already doing so, and half-apologised that he put down lots of little incidents in it. “Sir,” said Johnson, “there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great knowledge of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.”

It is also by studying little things, Boswell instinctively realised, that we come to build up a big picture of great people. Ever since Homer, Western civilisation had told stories of heroes. But in the past, people did not worry whether these tales were strictly, factually true. They were beautiful, cautionary, exemplary, exciting: whether or not, say, Aeneas had really carried his father on his shoulders out of burning Troy was neither here nor there. With the Renaissance, people gradually became more interested in what we recognise as historical actuality.

Boswell was the first biographer to set all this upon a system. Instead of writing a book of mere scattered anecdote, ill-sourced, he drew on his journal and many other materials and testimonies to construct one of the fullest and most fascinating accounts of a writer of genius. He also gave the best non-fictional encapsulation of an extraordinary human character that English literature had yet accomplished. “Dr Johnson”, as he is generally referred to, is as much in the mind of England as Falstaff, or anyone invented by Dickens. Yet Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is what it says it is – a real life.

It is interesting to compare Boswell’s journal account of the first meeting of writer and subject with what he wrote in his biography. In the Life, he removes his unflattering description of Johnson’s appearance (though he does give it, in summary, at the end of his book). Instead he says that Johnson looked just like his portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, sitting in his easy chair “in deep meditation”. He also polishes up the great man’s remarks a little. In his journal he records Johnson as saying that “When a butcher says that he is in distress for his country, he has no uneasy feeling.” In the biography, Boswell replaces “in distress” with “bleeds”, which, since he is talking about a butcher, makes it wittier.

But for the most part, he works as hard as possible to reproduce the tone and manner, and the precise content, of this celebrated talker. He kept notes of what Johnson said. These “minutes”, via the book, have now lasted down two-and-a-half centuries. We can have almost as strong a sense of what Dr Johnson said and thought and was like to be with as did the men who gathered with him in Fleet Street in the 1760s and 1770s. Boswell wanted the reader to be “well acquainted” with Johnson. He even recorded how he said something – “(looking dismally)”, “(passionately and loudly)”. He loved precision.

Ever since Boswell, biography has been a dominant and popular form in the English language, particularly in Britain. This is in sharp contrast to some other cultures. In France, for example, the genre is not much respected. It tends to be considered trivial. French historians wish to make their names with wider sweeps of history and by imposing bold theoretical structures upon the jumble of human events.

There are certainly temptations in the Boswellian biographical method. One, which one sees a great deal in modern times, is the idea that tiny details are automatically interesting. It is a trick of writing about political meetings, for instance, that people often describe what the participants ate and drank at dinner (“over potted shrimps, steak Wellington and chateau-bottled wines…”). This is often stuck in merely to show that the author knows a lot or is trying to relieve the boredom of the official communique. What was eaten is worth knowing only if it tells you something about your subject. If one found Hitler eating steak Wellington, for instance, that would certainly be worth noting, since, like many people who dislike the human race, he was a vegetarian.

Another problem is the change in what bits of a person’s life are now considered permissible to write about. On the whole, I share the modern view that sexual matters should not be automatically off limits and may tell one a good deal. On the other hand, what this means in practice is that publishers tend not to commission books about people whose sex lives were not colourful. It also raises matters of taste that are hard to resolve. In general, the argument is moving more and more in the direction of full exposure. Yet I cannot think that it will be an advance if we feel that each biography must carry a photograph of how its subject looked naked, or his habits when going to the lavatory (unless, like Lyndon Johnson, he deliberately kept the door open and made people talk to him while he sat on it). It is a heresy that the most private aspects of a public person’s life are necessarily the most telling: quite often, notably with actors and politicians, the public aspect is more revealing, because the work has taken over the life.

On the whole, however, the revolution which James Boswell started has been greatly to the good. What can we know of “the crooked timber of humanity” if we do not study its most remarkable branches?

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