Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1742

Previous -- Contents -- Next
Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
In 17421 he wrote for the Gentleman's Magazine the “Preface,”+ the “Parliamentary Debates,”* “Essay on the Account of the Conduct of the Duchess of Marlborough,”* then the popular topick of conversation. This Essay is a short but masterly performance. We find him in No. 13 of his Rambler, censuring a profligate sentiment in that “Account:” and again insisting upon it strenuously in conversation.”2 “An Account of the Life of Peter Burman,”* I believe chiefly taken from a foreign publication; as, indeed, he could not himself know much about Burman; “Additions to his Life of Barretier;"* “The Life of Sydenham,”* afterwards prefixed to Dr. Swan's edition of his works; “Proposals for printing Bibliotheca Harleiana, or a Catalogue of the Library of the Earl of Oxford.”* His account of that celebrated collection of books, in which he displays the importance to literature, of what the French call a catalogue raisonne, when the subjects of it are extensive and various, and it is executed with ability, cannot fail to impress all his readers with admiration of his philological attainments. It was afterwards prefixed to the first volume of the Catalogue, in which the Latin accounts of books were written by him. He was employed in this business by Mr. Thomas Osborne the bookseller, who purchased the library for 13,000l. a sum which Mr. Oldys says, in one of his manuscripts, was not more than the binding of the books had cost; yet, as Dr. Johnson assured me, the slowness of the sale was such, that there was not much gained by it. It has been confidently related, with many embellishments, that Johnson one day knocked Osborne down in his shop, with a folio, and put his foot upon his neck. The simple truth I had from Johnson himself. “Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him. But it was not in his shop: it was in my own chamber.”

A very diligent observer may trace him where we should not easily suppose him to be found. I have no doubt that he wrote the little abridgement entitled “Foreign History,” in the Magazine for December. To prove it, I shall quote the Introduction. “As this is that season of the year in which Nature may be said to command a suspension of hostilities, and which seems intended, by putting a short stop to violence and slaughter, to afford time for malice to relent, and animosity to subside; we can scarce expect any other account than of plans, negociations and treaties, of proposals for peace, and preparations for war.” As also this passage: “Let those who despise the capacity of the Swiss, tell us by what wonderful policy, or by what happy conciliation of interests, it is brought to pass, that in a body made up of different communities and different religions, there should be no civil commotions, though the people are so war-like, that to nominate and raise an army is the same.”

I am obliged to Mr. Astle for his ready permission to copy the two following letters, of which the originals are in his possession. Their contents shew that they were written about this time, and that Johnson was now engaged in preparing an historical account of the British Parliament.

[No date].


“I BELIEVE I am going to write a long letter, and have therefore taken a whole sheet of paper. The first thing to be written about is our historical design.

“You mentioned the proposal of printing in numbers, as an alteration in the scheme, but I believe you mistook, some way or other, my meaning; I had no other view than that you might rather print too many of five sheets than of five and thirty.

“With regard to what I shall say on the manner of proceeding, I would have it understood as wholly indifferent to me, and my opinion only, not my resolution. Emptoris sit eligere.

“I think the insertion of the exact dates of the most important events in the margin, or of so many events as may enable the reader to regulate the order of facts with sufficient exactness, the proper medium between a journal, which has regard only to time, and a history which ranges facts according to their dependence on each other, and postpones or anticipates according to the convenience of narration. I think the work ought to partake of the spirit of history, which is contrary to minute exactness, and of the regularity of a journal, which is inconsistent with spirit. For this reason, I neither admit numbers or dates, nor reject them.

“I am of your opinion with regard to placing most of the resolutions, &c. in the margin, and think we shall give the most complete account of Parliamentary proceedings that can be contrived. The naked papers, without an historical treatise interwoven, require some other book to make them understood. I will date the succeeding facts with some exactness, but I think in the margin. You told me on Saturday that I had received money on this work, and found set down 13l. 2s. 6d. reckoning the half guinea of last Saturday. As you hinted to me that you had many calls for money, I would not press you too hard, and therefore shall desire only, as I send it in, two guineas for a sheet of copy; the rest you may pay me when it may be more convenient; and even by this sheet payment I shall, for some time, be very expensive.

“The Life of Savage I am ready to go upon; and in Great Primer, and Pica notes, I reckon on sending in half a sheet a day; but the money for that shall likewise lye by in your hands till it is done. With the debates, shall not I have business enough? if I had but good pens.

“Towards Mr. Savage's Life what more have you got? I would willingly have his trial, &c. and know whether his defence be at Bristol, and would have his collection of Poems, on account of the Preface; -- “The Plain Dealer,”3 -- all the magazines that have any thing of his or relating to him.

“I thought my letter would be long, but it is now ended; and I am, Sir,

“Your's, &c.


“The boy found me writing this almost in the dark, when I could not quite easily read yours.

“I have read the Italian: -- nothing in it is well.

“I had no notion of having anything for the Inscription.4 I hope you don't think I kept it to extort a price. I could think of nothing, till to-day. If you could spare me another guinea for the history, I should take it very kindly, to-night; but if you do not, I shall not think it an injury. -- I am almost well again.”


“YOU did not tell me your determination about the Soldier's Letter,5 which I am confident was never printed. I think it will not do by itself, or in any other place, so well as the Mag. Extraordinary. If you will have it at all, I believe you do not think I set it high, and I will be glad if what you give, you will give quickly.

“You need not be in care about something to print, for I have got the State Trials, and shall extract Layer, Atterbury, and Macclesfield from them, and shall bring them to you in a fortnight; after which I will try to get the South Sea Report.”

[No date, nor signature.]
I would also ascribe to him an “Essay on the Description of China, from the French of Du Halde.”+


1. [From one of his letters to a friend, written in June, 1742, it should seem that he then purposed to write a play on the subject of Charles the Twelfth, of Sweden, and to have it ready for the ensuing winter. The passage alluded to, however, is somewhat ambiguous; and the work which he then had in contemplation may have been a history of that monarch. -- M.]

2. Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 3rd edit., p. 167 [Sept. 10, 1773].

3. “The Plain Dealer” was published in 1724, and contained some account of Savage.

4. [Perhaps the Runick Inscription, Gent. Mag. vol. xii. p. 132. -- M.]

5. I have not discovered what this was.