CC Spin #35: London Journal

It's Spin day!  I finished my book in good time, and it was a very interesting read.  

Boswell's London Journal, 1762 - 1763, by James Boswell, ed Frederick A. Pottle

James Boswell was the son of the laird of Auchinleck, and he was on the outs with his father.  Lord Auchinleck wanted his son to study law and generally act like a responsible adult, and James wanted to live an exciting life in London, maybe join the Guards -- as long as he didn't have to actually leave London and do anything military -- hang out with literary types, and write poetry.  So they made a deal: Jamie's dad gave him an allowance that was enough to live on as a gentleman, but not enough for living large, and let him spend some time in London to see how he liked it.  (This was pretty nice of Dad, considering that a couple of years before, young Jamie had announced a desire to become a Catholic monk and then ran off to London for a few months of serious debauchery.  The Laird must have been pretty exasperated!)

Jamie accordingly finds lodgings and sets off to have a good time.  He calls on Scottish friends living in town, gets some invitations, hangs around in coffee shops, and so on.  Jamie decides to keep a detailed journal in which he will not only write his experiences so he can remember them, but also for self-development.  He is very interested in improving himself so as to be respected and respect himself; in the past, he and his friends enjoyed being rattles -- generally saying whatever came into their heads, being as silly and loud as possible.  (Remember that really irritating guy in Northanger Abbey -- he's a rattle.)  He wants to leave that behind and cultivate a persona that is a little more dignified and sensible, while also being friendly and relaxed in company.  Every day, he writes down a list of things to do and admonitions to himself on how to behave.

Young Boswell enjoys meeting people, and is naively pleased with his nice clothes and social successes.  He visits a lot of influential people, hoping they'll help him to get that coveted spot in the Guards, but he doesn't have much luck.  It really doesn't help that he doesn't want to join any other branch of the military or leave London!  Eventually he gives up on this idea, and reconciles with his father enough to plan to study law in Utrecht.

James Boswell in 1765
One of Jamie's problems is that he really, really likes the girls.  He's prone to picking up street girls, which he's not super proud of, mostly because he feels that it's not classy and he's worried about getting sick.  He's already had a couple of bouts of gonorrhea (and an illegitimate son as well, who he pays for).  So he comes up with a plan; he'll find some nice lady who will be his girlfriend, and then he won't have to resort to brothels or worry about infections.  He meets a sort of actress, who is only 24 but has already been married a couple of times, and spends a lot of time courting her.  Alas, soon enough he realizes that he's got gonorrhea, again, which he blames her for very much.  She defends herself, saying that she hasn't had symptoms in years and she's just fine.  (Of course, the modern reader realizes the poor girl's innards are being silently destroyed, and feels just terrible.)  So Jamie dumps the lady and embarks on a 5-week course of treatment, after which he makes sure to 'go armored' when he picks up girls.  Mostly.

This, of course, raises all sorts of questions in the modern reader's mind.  What was the 18th-century treatment for gonorrhea, and did it work at all?  Has Jamie been going around merrily infecting every girl he meets, or is he really having separate bouts of illness?  The internet was not a lot of help here, so if you know the answers, let me know.

Later on in the diary, Boswell meets the great Samuel Johnson, and they begin the friendship which will be so famous and the entire reason that James Boswell is known to posterity at all.  From the earliest moment, Jamie is writing down everything Doctor Johnson says -- partly because that's what he likes to do anyway, any time he hears a witty conversation.

A final fun fact about our Jamie -- he's terrified of ghosts.  He couldn't sleep alone until he was 18, and even now, a young mid-20s man-about-town, every so often he hears a shivery tale and has to go over to his buddy's house and share his bed (a normal thing to do back then) so he can sleep.  Boswell was afraid of ghosts for his entire life.

This was a very interesting account of life in London in the 1760s.  Everything is so small!  Jamie can go around meeting all sorts of eminent people, even though he's a relative nobody, because society is just small.  Sure, go visit the court and see the king, why not?  Have dinner with Garrick, discuss poetry with Goldsmith, become best friends with Dr Johnson.  I enjoyed it a lot more than my attempt at reading the trip around Scotland.  A nice read for anyone interested in Georgian life and manners.


  1. I'm planning to read his trip round Scotland in the New Year, but this sounds much more fun! I shall have this image of Boswell alternating between girls and gonorrhoea while I'm reading - I'm sure it'll add to the experience... ;)


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