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In June, 1787, the Gentleman's Magazine displayed on its front cover the following advertisement, under the title, 'Mr. Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson':
The Publick are respectfully informed, that Mr. Boswell's LIFE of Dr. Johnson is in great Forwardness. The Reason of its having been delayed is, that some other Publications on that Subject were promised, from which he expected to obtain much Information, in Addition to the large Store of Materials which he had already accumulated. These Works have now made their Appearance; and, though disappointed in that Expectation, he does not regret the Deliberation with which he has proceeded, as very few Circumstances relative to the History of Dr. Johnson's private Life, Writings, or Conversation, have been told with that authentic Precision which alone can render Biography valuable. To correct these erroneous Accounts will be one of his principal Objects; and on reviewing his Materials, he is happy to find that he has Documents in his Possession which will enable him to do Justice to the Character of his Illustrious Friend. He trusts that, in the mean Time, the Publick will not permit unfavourable Impressions to be made on their Minds, whether by the light Effusions of Carelessness and Pique, or the ponderous Labours of solemn Inaccuracy and dark uncharitable Conjecture.
A number of works about Samuel Johnson had been published during the two and a half years following his death (December, 1784), among them Boswell's own sprightly Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson. This was the first fruits of his vast Johnsonian record which was to prove one of the seven wonders of the literary world; but though the Tour was recognized from the beginning as a unique performance, and though it contained, on the final leaf of advertisement, a detailed announcement of his larger plan, he did not escape very
serious rivalry as the biographer of Dr. Johnson. To the puny crew who thrust upon the public attention the first hasty 'lives' of Johnson, Boswell could afford to be indifferent; but there were two rivals upon whom he looked with some misgiving. Both of them had specific advantages over him. Both were English, and both could claim, and demonstrate, a more intimate acquaintance with the great author than could Boswell, who had not even resided in the same city with him. Sir John Hawkins had known Johnson intimately when James Boswell was but a little boy, who had not even heard his name; Hawkins was a fellow-member of the Ivy Lane Club, one of the executors of Johnson's will, and the official biographer selected by the publishers of London to write the Life for the definitive edition of Johnson's Works. The other rival was Hester Lynch Piozzi, who, as Mrs. Henry Thrale, had certainly known Johnson more intimately than Boswell could ever have hoped to do. As the mistress of a house in London and of a magnificent home at Streatham, in both of which Johnson had an apartment 'appropriated to his use', she had known him in sickness and in health, in his gay moments when he was the pleasantest companion in England, and in those darker ones when the clouds of madness seemed to be louring upon his mind. As a woman of great personal charm and of a certain literary ability, she had so fascinated the old man that, after the death of her first husband, the notion sprang up that Johnson wished to make her his wife. To this notion Boswell helped to give what belated currency he could by the publication in 1788 of his most despicable and unpardonable poem, the Ode by Dr. Samuel Johnson to Mrs. Thrale, upon their supposed approaching Nuptials, dated back to 1784 in order to give it apparent authenticity.
The publication of Mrs. Piozzi's Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. during the last Twenty Years of his Life (1786) was followed after the lapse of a few months by Sir John Hawkins's official biography. Both books contained sneers at Boswell. In a postscript, dated from Naples, Mrs. Piozzi had specifically charged him with misrepre
senting, in his Tour to the Hebrides, her opinion of Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu's Essay on Shakespeare. Sir John's attack was at once subtler and more venomous. The only reference to Boswell in the book is the following (p. 472):
He had long been solicited by Mr. James Boswell, a native of Scotland, and one that highly valued him, to accompany him in a journey to the Hebrides.
Sir John then continues with an account of the islands, quoting liberally from Martin's book on the Hebrides published over eighty years before, and making no reference whatever to Boswell's Tour, which contained not only the most trustworthy account of Johnson's visit, but valuable information about the islands themselves.
The advertisement which I have quoted at the beginning of this paper is, then, the reply of a man who has been insulted by his rivals and wounded in that very part where his sensibilities were keenest. One had accused him of inaccuracy, the other had treated the information which he had gathered and published as negligible. But on looking into their books he saw at once defects which might be held up to public notice. Mrs. Piozzi's slender volume contained many passages which displayed her anger at Johnson's audacity in opposing (with the full force of his emotions and his vocabulary) her marriage. with Piozzi. Her book is therefore characterized as 'the light effusions of carelessness and pique'. Sir John had erred in another way. His stout volume of 600 pages was dull, partly because he was always straying from the subject in hand to incorporate material of an extraneous sort, and partly because his love for Johnson had grown cold. His ponderous labours are therefore described as 'dark, uncharitable conjecture'.
But, in spite of its vivid revelation of the conditions out of which sprang the Life of Johnson, the advertisement would be worthless were it not for its expression of Boswell's ideals as a biographer It is clear that a biographer who hopes to become a great practitioner of the art must, in the first place, have at his disposal a 'large
store of materials'. This was what Sir John had lacked; it was what James Boswell, the 'native of Scotland', could supply. Had he not been through long years a 'collector'? Had he not had, almost from the beginning of his friendship with Johnson in 1763, the intention of writing his life? Of this design Johnson had been well informed, and Boswell had announced as much in that final page of the Tour to the Hebrides of which mention has been made above. How vast was that store of materials we have now, since the discovery and publication of the Boswell Papers from Malahide Castle, some means of guessing, and those who care to pursue the subject will of course consult Mr. Geoffrey Scott's volume (the sixth of Colonel Isham's edition of the Boswell Papers) entitled The Making of the Life of Johnson.
In the second place, this store must be treated with that authentic precision which alone can render biography valuable. It is not to be forgotten, as the Life of Johnson is read, that its author was a lawyer, whose profession required accuracy of statement. As a barrister in Scotland he was particularly concerned with the preparation, interpretation and defence of legal documents. He knew the value of the written word as evidence. Littera scripta manet. He had therefore, through a long career, supplied himself with a mass of reminiscences, written down soon after the event or conversation described. In the preparation of these, as well as in the continuity of his diary or Journal, he had had the practice of a lifetime. It is in this practice that we find a union of the two qualities under discussion. He had the ardour of the collector united to the accuracy of the lawyer, both alike directed towards the trustworthy record of life as he had known it.
In the third place, the biographer must have a certain affection for the character who is to be the subject of his pages. Ideally, he will not employ his biography to gratify his grudges or air his grievances. He will not be, like Mrs. Piozzi, light and occasionally spiteful, nor like Sir John, heavy and occasionally malicious.