The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell.

Boswell's Life of Johnson (first published in 1791) is one of the most intimidating books I've read to date. I've been meaning to read it for about three years now, and as it happens it's an absolute fluke that I managed it. Firstly I listed it in my Classics Club Spin, partly hoping it might come out, but mostly hoping it wouldn't - and it did, and secondly - well, this is a story I don't come out too well in so I'll be sparing on the details and tell you a few weeks ago I had to myself five hours where my only option was to read (I was avoiding someone). As I felt guilty for avoiding this 'someone', instead of reading a pleasant book I thought I'd make myself work a little and read Boswell. Before then I'd managed two hundred pages and decided I wanted to give up, but those five hours took me up page 600. Over half-way through, I decided to keep going over the weekend, and that is how I read The Life of Samuel Johnson: absolute chance and a peculiar circumstance. 

Is it as intimidating as I thought? Yes and no. There's no denying its length - the Penguin edition is 1006 pages (with very small print), followed by an appendix, notes, and two sets of indexes that take the page count up to 1245. It's divided not into chapters but years - "Ætats.", which is an abbreviation for the Latin ætatis, meaning in this instance "in the year of his age". Samuel Johnson, born 18th September 1709 and died 13th December 1784 at the age of 75, thus there are 75 'ætats". The biography is, because of this approach, very linear: after a short introduction, Boswell simply writes about the events in each year of Johnson's life: a logical approach, but not quite what I'm used to from a biography - usually the different focuses are, for example, events, and the biographer in writing about various events may be going every so slightly back and forward in time. But not Boswell, he starts at the beginning and finishes at the end! 

A younger Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds
(date unknown).
The biography, after the introduction, begins,
Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, in Staffordshire, on the 18th of September, N.S. 1709; and his initiation into the Christian Church was not delayed; for his baptism is recorded in the register of St. Mary's parish in that city, to have been performed on the day of his birth: His father is there stiled Gentleman, a circumstance of which an ignorant panegyrist has praised him for not being proud; when the truth is, that the appellation of Gentleman, though now lost in the indiscriminate assumption of Esquire, was commonly taken by those who could not boast of gentility. His father was Michael Johnson, a native of Derbyshire, of obscure extraction, who settled in Lichfield as a bookseller and stationer. His mother was Sarah Ford, descended of an ancient race of substantial yeomanry in Warwickshire. They were well advanced in years when they married, and never had more than two children, both sons, Samuel, their first-born, who lived to be the illustrious character whose various excellence I am to endeavour to record, and Nathanael, who died in his twenty-fifth year.
He goes on to write about Johnson's boyhood, covering his first twenty years in a brief 40 pages; his ill-health, his "tic" (Johnson most likely had Tourette syndrome), his schooling, and years at Oxford University (Johnson left early due to financial problems, but was eventually awarded a degree in 1755 (Master of Arts), then an honorary doctorate in 1765 by Trinity College Dublin, and in 1775 an honorary doctorate by Oxford University. These early years do fly by rather fast in the biography: Samuel Johnson didn't meet his biographer Boswell until 1763 - Ætats. 54 - which begins on page 203: I feel I must observe then that The Life of Johnson is mostly concerned with Johnson's final 20 or years, which take up the remaining 800 pages. What follows from there: well, this is the easy element of Boswell's Life of Johnson: there are a great many anecdotes, vast amounts of witticisms, details of dinner parties and various other social gatherings, and diaries and letters to fill in the blanks: Johnson is almost like a hyper-intelligent Oscar Wilde (and I'm not suggesting that Oscar Wilde lacks intelligence), and I wondered if "The Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson" or "Funny Things Doctor Johnson Said" might not have been more appropriate titles.

James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1785).
We're left with a portrait of Samuel Johnson as a genius, a wit, and a gentleman, and for that I would say this biography did feel rather 'managed'. But this is not a criticism: it made for a fun and almost light read (I say "almost" because there was still in me that feeling of fear of reading Boswell!): it seemed an age of intelligence, wit (as I say) and sophistication, and Johnson's humour was acerbic. One of my favourite portions refers to the 'Henry Fielding / Samuel Richardson debate' (which is what has motivated me to read Fielding's Tom Jones and Richardson's Clarissa this autumn):
Fielding being mentioned, Johnson exclaimed, 'he was a blockhead;' and upon my expressing my astonishment at so strange an assertion, he said, 'What I mean by his being a blockhead is that he was a barren rascal.' Bᴏsᴡᴇʟʟ. 'Will you not allow, Sir, that he draws very natural pictures of human life?' Jᴏʜɴsᴏɴ. 'Why, Sir, it is of a very low life. Richardson used to say, that had he not known who Fielding was, he should have believed he was an ostler. Sir, there is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson's, than in all Tom Jones. I, indeed, never read Joseph Andrews.' Eʀsᴋɪɴᴇ. 'Surely, Sir, Richardson is very tedious.' Jᴏʜɴsᴏɴ. 'Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.'
As you'd expect, there are a great many literary discussions, and for that it is interesting although there were many books and authors I hadn't read or even heard of. Boswell presents an admirable portrait of his friend, but it is only an aspect: a part of his character and a part of his life. This is not then, I would say, a biography to inform but to simply enjoy. Samuel Johnson was a great man and a key figure in English literature - it is good to know a little about him: to know more about his life and read a balanced biography would be a good thing indeed, but I do think for the casual reader, perhaps Boswell's Life of Johnson is the best even though it's biased, even if it was written by one of his best friends, even if one doesn't come away a good deal more informed, and even if it is ever so long!

To finish, here's a few of Samuel Johnson's major works:

A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
Full title:
A Dɪᴄᴛɪᴏɴᴀʀʏ of the Eɴɢʟɪsʜ Lᴀɴɢᴜᴀɢᴇ,
in which
The Wᴏʀᴅs are deduced from their Oʀɪɢɪɴᴀʟs,
Iʟʟᴜsᴛʀᴀᴛᴇᴅ  in their Dɪғғᴇʀᴇɴᴛ Sɪɢɴɪғɪᴄᴀᴛɪᴏɴs
Exᴀᴍᴘʟᴇs from the beſt Wʀɪᴛᴇʀs.
To which are prefixed,
A Hɪsᴛᴏʀʏ of the Lᴀɴɢᴜᴀɢᴇ,
and Aɴ Eɴɢʟɪsʜ Gʀᴀᴍᴍᴀʀ.
By Sᴀᴍᴜᴇʟ Jᴏʜɴsᴏɴ, A.M.
In Tᴡᴏ Volumes


The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759)


The Rambler (1750-52)The Adventurer (1753-54), and The Idler (1758-60)


London (1738), The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749)


A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765)

Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets:

including John Milton, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, 
Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, and Thomas Gray.


  1. I was puzzled by all of the "intimidation" talk. This book is such fun. Boswell is a huge goofball.

    His journals are if anything more fun, especially the London Journal. You would never guess that that guy was going to write the all-time great literary biography, even though you can see him in the process of doing it.

    1. You're right - it is fun. Only thing intimidating is its length, but no one should let that put them off :)

      I'll check out the London Journal - you'll no doubt know my 18th Century reading experience is somewhat limited!

  2. If you want Boswell (and Johnson) unencumbered by even the intimidation of length - although if I read at the pace of 120 pages an hour - well, never mind that - the two books, Johnson's (1775) and Boswell's (1885), about their Scottish vacation are wonderful, and together only 400 pages.

    You will have noted that in Life of Johnson Boswell skips the Scottish visit because he already covered it in the earlier book.

    1. 120 pages an hour! I wish :) I wasn't clear in what I wrote - I meant I'd read 200 pages already, and in the five hours got up to page 600, so I read 400 pages in 5 hours (about 80 pages an hour). I must correct the post...

      I did notice the Scotland visit skip - I must read those two books. I've owned them a few years now...

  3. The Life of Johnson may well be Boswell's masterpiece, but I far prefer his "Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson LL.D (1785), along with Boswell's private journals and correspondence that have been discovered and published over the past half century or so.

    The journals especially seem to have allowed Boswell to experiment in fascinating ways as to how he recorded events, and are very useful if you wish to "decentre" Johnson from Boswell's life. :)

    1. Yes, I was saying to Tom above I must get to those journals.

      Boswell's methods - these notes he took - it's a very interesting way of doing things! But I'm glad he did! :)

  4. Oh yes, Boswell's journals are terrific. The London Journal in particular is an inadvertent masterpiece. But it was a treat - a hugely informative treat - to read them all the way through.

    1. I'll see if I can get a copy somewhere. Hopefully Amazon or Abe have it :)

  5. Like Tom I'm impressed with your reading speed. I'm lucky to read 40 pages an hour.

    I remember reading Boswell's Life of Johnson a few years ago and really enjoying it. I think I also read some of Boswell's diaries. I was surprised to see your copy having 1000+ pages as my Penguin version was only about 300-ish. It almost makes me want to read the full version now.

    1. I'm afraid I'm not as fast as I've led everyone to believe! It was a sloppy sentence I'm about to correct - I meant to write "I got up to page 600", meaning I read 400 pages in five hours :)

      Boswell's diaries would be most interesting - I would really like to read those too (I hadn't realised they were available, so thanks for mentioning that!)


Post a Comment