23 September 2009

How to get good reviews

SONY DSC Several years ago I read a remaindered hardback biography of the Scottish diarist and wit James Boswell (1740-95), whose most famous exploit was to be the friend and confidant of the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who created the first reliable and popular dictionary of English, and whose tercentennial birthday anniversary was recently celebrated in London.  Boswell published his Life of Samuel Johnson in 1791 when he was in his fifties, and it has been a standard reference on the topic ever since. 

In the 20th century Boswell achieved a certain literary notoriety due to the publication of his personal journals written when he was a young buck in his early twenties, which had lain undiscovered in family archives until the 1920s.  The journals, which were written to be read by Boswell’s close friends, came into the ownership of Yale University, and were particularly popular following the publication by Yale in 1950 of Boswell’s London Journal 1762-63, which went on to sell over a million copies.

In his Journal, Boswell recorded his excitement at an early foray into the publishing world, the issuing of a book of his correspondence with a close friend, Letters between the Honourable Andrew Erskine and James Boswell, Esq. (which the 20th century Yale editor Frederick A. Pottle summarised as being ‘impudent, frothy, and strenuously facetious, [and] will not be found bad reading by those who retain some taste for childish things’. 

Boswell was by no means a modest man and was a keen self-publicist, as can be seen in this extract from the Journals, Professor Pottle’s footnote to the entry for 29 April 1763:

In the memorandum for this day Boswell instructs himself to “buy another Chronicle”: i.e., another copy of The London Chronicle, which in the number for 26-28 April contains a long and highly laudatory review of the Erskine-Boswell Letters.  The concluding paragraph begins, “Upon the whole, we would recommend this collection as a book of true genius, from the authors of which we may expect many future agreeable productions.”  This would fill one with admiration for the perspicacity of a critic who was able thus early to hail the genius of James Boswell if the memorandum did not provide that critic’s name.  Boswell wrote the review himself. 

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The success of the Yale publication was on two accounts.  First, Boswell’s journals are great reading, both for those with a particular interest in 18th century literature, and those readers with a general interest in London in the period.  These are the thoughts of a young man making his way in an exciting city, and Boswell’s scribblings convey the young Scot’s ultimately successful attempts to make a name for himself in the capital city, with plenty of humour and insight on offer.  Second, the reason that the journals lay unpublished for so long is that they include a fair helping of downright rakish behaviour on the part of young Mr Boswell, who writes of his lustful encounters with London prostitutes and details his long campaign to woo and bed the actress Louisa (‘Good heavens, what a loose did we give to amorous dalliance!’), who gives him a venereal disease.  Once Boswell’s children came of age and learned what was contained in the journals, they were consigned to the family archives and were forgotten about for over a century. 

I recently secured a copy of the London Journals at the Wellington Downtown Community Mission book fair, and it was the happiest two dollar purchase I can recall in a long time.  The book uses the same text and the masterful introduction and footnotes by Frederick A. Pottle in the 1950 Yale edition, but was produced by the Reprint Society London in 1952 to bring the Journals to British readers.  It’s a lovely piece of work: its crimson cloth cover is gentle embossed with the Boswell family crest and its motto ‘Vraye Foy’, which is Old French for ‘True Faith’, and the inside covers are adorned with an intricately-detailed maps of Boswell’s London haunts. 

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At the time he was writing the Journal Boswell had rooms in Downing Street, which is of course now the residence of the Prime Minister and Chancellor.  His daily thoughts are still being read, enjoyed and discussed nearly 250 years after they were written.  Truly a fittingly stylish tribute to a man to whom we are greatly indebted for his entertaining and revealing diary, which is still as refreshing and diverting as the day it was written.

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