Biography

Biographies about James Boswell, the Great Biographer

Four Portraits

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Four Portraits

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Year of 1st publication: 

1945

Book description: 

This book contains biographies, about 70 pages each, of James Boswell, historian Edward Gibbon, novelist and clergyman Laurence Sterne and politician John Wilkes, all of whom, each in their own way, made a distinct mark on late 18th century UK.

The Boswell biography in Four Portraits is, as most biographies of Boswell published prior to 1950, somewhat faulty due to a lack of sources. Quennell seems to draw heavily on Vulliamy's 1932 biography for at least some of his information, which doesn't help much. James Boswell's relationship with his father is (correctly) described as somewhat difficult, but then Quennell states that Boswells first visit to London in 1760 had been permitted by his father, and that his 1762-3 stay in the city was the beginning of his grand tour, also agreed to by his father. Alexander Boswell actually did not permit James' 1760 stay in the city, and called on his Ayrshire neighbour Lord Eglinton to check up on him - he then allowed James to stay a bit with the Lord. Alexander Boswell also only grudingly accepted that James stayed in London for a bit in 1762-3 to try to get a commission in the guards, and it was only in the spring of 1763 that any mention of a Grand Tour came up. Another typical misconception is Quennell's belief that Boswell obtained leave to dedicate The Cub at Newmarket to the Duke of York, which was not the case. James is said, by Quennell, to have been born at Auchinleck, while most scholars today agree that he was born in the Edinburgh home of Alexander Boswell, who had not yet inherited Auchinleck in 1740.

Most of the biography of Boswell deals with his relationship with Dr. Johnson, and in that it seems to be mostly correct - probably because it draws mainly on Boswell's own Life of Johnson, published in 1791.

The book is interesting, however, and the biographies of Gibbon, Sterne and John Wilkes seem much less inaccurate than the one about Boswell. Boswell became a good friend of Wilkes' and may also have met Sterne in London in 1760. 

Editions: 

The book was first published by Wm. Collins Sons and Company in 1945.

Availability: 

The book is always available very cheaply via AbeBooks.com.

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James Boswell

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James Boswell

Author: 

Year of 1st publication: 

1932

Book description: 

This is a critical, moralizing, incomplete and incorrect biography, the latter owing to the fact that the greater part of Boswell's papers were either unknown to Vulliamy or had not been read by him. The famous London Journal had not yet been made public at the time, hence Vulliamy's writing that "[i]t is impossible to follow in detail the course of his life between the end of 1762, and his meeting with Johnson on the 16th of May 1763". Actually, that exact period of time is, today, one of the best documented periods of Boswell's life at all.

Vulliamy is extremely critical of some of Boswell's acquaintances as well, especially the unpleasant group, to whom he was introduced on May 24, 1763, at Bonnell Thornton's. John Wilkes is described as "one of the worst and most amusing men of his age [...] presid[ing] over the tavern revels of those who were classically indecent and wittily blasphemous." Charles Churchill was "the most profligate rogue who ever wore the dress of a clergyman, who died at Boulougne in 1764, burnt out by all the disorders of a vicious life." Robert Lloyd "fortunately extinguished himself when he was thirty-one, ruined by his friendship with Churchill."

With this in mind, it isn't difficult to imagine what Vulliamy thought about Boswell's going to prostitutes and drinking with Johnson and others.

The book has some historical value, and offers a somewhat (unintended) entertaining view of Boswell, but Vulliamy didn't have as much information available as we do today, and so the book isn't in any way to be deemed a reliable source for information about Boswell's life.

Editions: 

James Boswell by C. E. Vulliamy was first published in 1932 by Geoffrey Bles, Pall Mall, London.

Availability: 

Usually and cheaply available from AbeBooks.com.

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James Boswell: The Earlier Years 1740-1769

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James Boswell: The Earlier Years 1740-1769

Author: 

Year of 1st publication: 

1966

Book description: 

This is the first volume of two of what is by many considered the definitive biography of James Boswell. This first volume was published in 1966, written by the foremost Boswellian scholar of the 20th century, the longtime editor of the Yale Boswell papers, Frederick Pottle. The volume covers Boswell's life from his birth in 1740 until his marriage with Margaret Montgomerie in 1769. It was followed in 1984 by a second volume (James Boswell, the later years: 1769-1795), written by Frank Brady, detailing his life as a married man and - later - a widower and author of The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ending with his death in May, 1795. 

Compared to other biographies about Boswell, this two volume series is at the same time well written and thoroughly annotated. This first volume contains more than 100 pages of extensive end notes. 

Those looking for a more condensed, noteless but still major biography should probably go for Peter Martin's A Life of James Boswell (1999) instead

Editions: 

James Boswell, The Earlier Years 1740-1769 has been reprinted at least once, in 1985, and is always available from various bookstores via AbeBooks.com

Literature: 

A Life of James Boswell

Long title: 

A Life of James Boswell

Author: 

Year of 1st publication: 

1999

Book description: 

Peter Martin's A Life of James Boswell has been hailed as the definitive biography of the great biographer. This may be a bit of an exaggeration as the two volume biography by Frederick Pottle and Frank Brady (volumes published in 1966 and 1984 respectively) is more detailed and much better annotated.

Still, Martin has drawn fully on previous research and has written a biography which is both interesting and entertaining, without all those small details which a casual reader might find tedious.

Editions: 

A Life of James Boswell was published in Hardcover in 1999 and in Paperback in 2000, and it has been reprinted at least once, in 2002.

Availability: 

This book should be available from all major online bookstores, and used copies are readily available from AbeBooks.com.

Literature: 

The Moth and the Candle

Long title: 

The Moth and the Candle - A Life of James Boswell

Author: 

Year of 1st publication: 

1984

Book description: 

The Moth and the Candle is probably one of the best "short" biographies about James Boswell. It is well-researched and well-written, but with its 277 pages it is far shorter than Peter Martin's A Life of James Boswell or the authoritative two-volume biography by Frederick Pottle and Frank Brady.

At the same time it is so new that it has included most of the modern research which has been done into the life of James Boswell in the 20th century, which makes it somewhat better than other well-written biographies of equal size from the 1940s and earlier.

The book also contains a number of illustrations (paintings and drawings) of Boswell and his friends and relatives.

The title of the book is a reference to a conversation between Boswell and Johnson, related by Boswell in the Life of Johnson as follows:

I teized him with fanciful apprehensions of unhappiness. A moth having fluttered round the candle, and burnt itself, he laid hold of this little incident to admonish me; saying, with a sly look, and in a solemn but quiet tone, 'That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was BOSWELL.'

Availability: 

Although out-of-print The Moth and the Candle is usually widely (and cheaply) available via AbeBooks.com.

Literature: 

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