In my previous blog post, I mentioned two books that changed my view of the Regency period. The first of these was The Heart of Boswell: Highlights from the Journals of James Boswell, edited by Mark Harris. I bought it for $.75 at my local used bookstore, thinking it would be a good introduction to the Georgian era, which includes the Regency. My hunch proved true. The Heart of Boswell is a fascinating read, not only for its many wonderful words—rope-dancing, hippish, negus, rhodomontade—but also for its scenes of mid-18th century life and its surprising (some might say shocking!) candor. By page 16 my long-standing view of the Regency’s refined, elegant world began to tilt.

James Boswell, author of The Life of Samuel Johnson (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

James Boswell, author of The Life of Samuel Johnson (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Boswell’s Life

James Boswell was the eldest son of the Scottish judge Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck. Although his father pressured him to practice law, young Boswell wished to be part of the literary world and to befriend the great thinkers of his day: Samuel Johnson, the essayist and lexicographer; the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau; the writer Oliver Goldsmith; and the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, among others. Although Boswell eventually worked as a lawyer, he found success and happiness enjoying “the company of actors and other low people.”1

Boswell’s Claim to Fame

Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Boswell’s singular success was his biography of the great man Samuel Johnson. The first edition of his The Life of Samuel Johnson was published in 1791 and “recognized at once for the supremely great book that it is.”1 Boswell himself said he could not suppress his satisfaction in recording “so considerable a portion of the wisdom and wit of ‘the brightest ornament of the eighteenth century.’”2 (Do you recognize that quip? Yes, Mr. Collins tells the Bennet family that “the British court [has been robbed] of its brightest ornaments” because Anne de Bourgh was not presented at court due to poor health.3 Surely he exaggerated when he likened Anne’s status to that of the great Dr. Johnson.)

Boswell’s Personal Journals

Equally remarkable are Boswell’s journals. Bergen Evans, who wrote the introduction to the 1952 edition of The Life of Samuel Johnson, had this to say about the biographer: “The reader of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, like those who knew its author in life, finds that he cannot respect Boswell but at the same time cannot help liking him. A fool of sorts he unquestionably was. He has an irrepressible frankness.”1

Indeed, Boswell related many shocking episodes in his personal London journal, which covered the years 1762-1774, a time during which he met Johnson, traveled about the continent on his Grand Tour, married his cousin and took up the law. He was a philanderer, even after his marriage, and wrote often of his sexual desires and the hiring of cheap women for a quickie. In London he was surrounded by “free-hearted ladies.” He once strolled into the Park where he copulated with the first whore he met. He also had an affair with a Covent Garden actress, for whom he rented a room at Hayward’s: “Five times was I fairly lost in supreme rapture,” he wrote. The result of this adventure was too plain: “Signor Gonorrhoea.” He was forever succumbing to his sexual desires—“promiscuous concubinage,” he called it —even when he lay a course for abstinence and virtue.4 He endured several bouts of venereal disease. More information about Boswell and prostitution during Jane Austen’s time can be found in Susannah Fullerton’s excellent article published by the Jane Austen Society of Australia.

Boswell’s Glimpse of Georgian Life

A literary party at Joshua Reynold's house (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A literary party at Joshua Reynold’s house. Boswell sits at far left; Johnson is second from left. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) A description of the attendees can be found on Wikipedia.

Boswell’s journals provide a glimpse of a sometimes rugged, sexual, free-wheeling 18th-century life in which a man of fortune could make a name for himself. His journals describe the life of a young aristocrat in London and on Tour: the rounds of breakfasts and dinners with his male friends; routs and balls; discussions about poetry and philosophy, morality and religion, genius, marriage, and death; introductions to ladies of every social strata; and many opportunities for sexual conquest. He was a man of great determination: he introduced himself to both Johnson and Rousseau, even though neither welcomed him. He was not put off by their first snubs and eventually called them friends. Indeed, Johnson endearingly called him Bozzy.4

James Boswell vs Jane Austen

Boswell’s frank confessions about his sexual escapades made me think first of George Wickham, the rogue in Pride and Prejudice whose licentious behavior won Lydia Bennet’s heart. Next, I thought about Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Bingley. Did these men avail themselves of prostitutes and courtesans? Were they virgins when they married? How much did Jane Austen know about the sexual proclivities of young, single Regency men?

We don’t know much about Austen’s understanding of basket-making—a euphemism for copulation5— but we do know she was an astute observer of human nature. She knew about men who kept mistresses; she understood the fear of every poor, unprotected girl who risked getting caught up in the prostitution trade. She knew mercury was often used to cure Signor Gonorrhoea. (She had only to consult Buchan’s popular book, Domestic Medicine,6 for a thorough discussion of venereal disease and its cures.) When Boswell died in 1795 at age 55, Austen is said to have been writing First Impressions (later, Pride and Prejudice). Although they likely never met, both authors drew on their studies of character and manners to write about what they knew. Their views differ because they were standing in different places—an observation that wouldn’t surprise Hilary Mantel in the least.

1Evans, Bergen. Introduction to James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. Roslyn, NY: Walter J. Black, Inc., 1952, pp. v, viii.
2Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson (from the Advertisement to the First Edition). Roslyn, NY: Walter J. Black, Inc., 1952, p. 8.
3Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Kindle location 20148/chapter 14.
4Harris, Mark, ed. The Heart of Boswell: Highlights from the Journals of James Boswell. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981, pp. 16, 31, 33, 38, 58, 86, 247.
5Anon. 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of British Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence. Chalford: Amberley Publishing, 1811/2008, p. 21.
6Buchan, William. Domestic Medicine: or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases. (London, 1798), pp. 489-521 (PDF pp. 530-562).