I am finally ready to give this one back to the library, it having lulled me to sleep many nights over many months. A unique pairing of Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands Scotland with Boswell’s much more entertaining Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, two works that cover the same trip the two of them undertook in 1773. I had to shove my way through Johnson’s prose, lines not holding up well to the inspection of modern times. Boswell much more lively, giving bursts of personality throughout. On the whole it made me dread less the reading of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, since most of the laughable bits were those of quoting dialog straight from SJ’s mouth, including frequent coining of new words. Their journey seemed arduous, plagued by rain and wind, and resulted in several cozy fireside chats about God and sundry.
Perhaps this should be called The Genitals of Boswell instead of The Heart. I’d forgotten that Jamie Boswell was such a distasteful horny cad/ spoiled trustfund kid and that Samuel Johnson was an idiotic misogynist (“a woman’s preaching like a dog walking on hind legs… not done well but surprised to find it done at all”). Thank god for this distillation of his six volume diary into one, although perhaps the editor Mark Harris only wanted to include his racier bits, through which I have developed an antipathy towards Bos. This book covers the 12 years between 1762 and 1774, beginning with Bos as a 22 year old who matures under our very eyes, the result perhaps of rubbing elbows with so many illustrious men like Johnson, Rousseau, Voltaire? He ends by settling down in Scotland, marrying, and practicing law, all while continuing the journal and grabbing bits for the Life of Johnson (and the Hebrides journal) he’d later publish.
On his liaisons with prostitutes
“I had now been some time in town without female sport. I determined to have nothing to do with whores as my health was of great consequence to me… I was really unhappy for want of women. I picked up a girl in the Strand; went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour. But she had none. I toyed with her. She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.” A few days later, he’s entertaining lewd thoughts in church: “what a curious, inconsistent thing is the mind of man! In the midst of divine service I was laying plans for having women, and yet I had the most sincere feelings of religion.”
He then lays his plans to entrap an actress, woos her for a few weeks, loans her money, has several missed opportunities for consummation but the actress’s landlady or brother approaches, then lies to a friend and says he’s married and that he’s bringing his wife to the inn. They eventually have a night of it at the inn, and a few days later his old friend Gonorrhea is back. He storms into the actress’s house and accuses her of giving it to him, then writes a letter demanding his loaned guineas back. This is his third bout with it, and he’s lain low for weeks recovering; his doctor bleeds him as part of the treatment. Then he’s up and about, a few weeks later taking to prostitutes again, for the first time with “armour” (protection?) which he “found but a dull satisfaction. She who submitted to my lusty embraces was a young Shropshire girl, only seventeen, very well-looked, her name Elizabeth Parker. Poor being, she has a sad time of it!” After this he’s gathering up “little girls” for rendezvous all the time, “dipping his machine in the Canal,” and “gaining entrance.” He dresses up like a miscreant and attends to various prostitutes sometimes trying not to pay them. Someone steals his handkerchief (“I was shocked to think that I had been intimately united with a low, abandoned, perjured, pilfering creature”). Walking home, he’s tapped on the shoulder by a “fine fresh lass” who he went home with, excusing his behavior since she was already an abandoned woman. All of these liaisons are carefully detailed, and surprise surprise, a bastard son is born who later dies when he’s in Utrecht. There, a doctor convinces him that once you’re used to having sex then it’s necessary, otherwise “retention will influence the brain.”
While he’s hatching his plans for sex, he’s busy nosing into drawing rooms of the upper class, scouting out potential widows to have assignations with, and plotting on how to get a commission to the Guards because he doesn’t want to study law. He calmly takes his allowance of £200 a year and saunters around town.
“I do think the keeping of a journal a very excellent scheme if judiciously executed.” Later, he determines to show respect to the journal, to “never set down the mere common trifling occurrences of life, but say nothing at all, except when I have something worth while.” Hilariously, his next entry is “I just read, eat, drank, and walked.”
“I had sitten up all night to journalize. As usual I felt myself immediately bettered by it.”
Odds and ends
- Another word found appropriate for our time: rhodomontade (or rodomontade) – bragging speech, a vain boasting or bluster.
- Sometimes there are clever bits: “I got up as dreary as a dromedary…”
- One of his dress suits is a “suit of flowered velvet of five colours” which I wish desperately for a photo of.