Writers who keep diaries surely have at least one eye on posterity. They are confident that people will be interested in them after their deaths--even, in these days of letting it all hang out, before their death. But the best of them are so confident that they don't mind our seeing them en deshabille. Are they self-pitying, malicious about others, nakedly ambitious, slapdash in their choice of words? Still they have enough esteem for their raw selves to present them to us ungarnished. The recently published diaries of journalist Malcolm Muggeridge (with its threats of suicide and admissions of callous neglect of his wife and family) and of Sir Peter Hall, director of Britain's National Theatre (with its agonizing over bad reviews and its devilish side-swipes at colleagues), are good examples; and both men emerge from the confessional as more endearing figures, perhaps by the very fact that they have let us tour their traumas--admittedly for an admission fee, the price of the book.
Even in Boswell's majestic "Life of Samuel Johnson," he is never ashamed to show himself in a bad light, or in a foolish moment; his betises add to the luster of, are foil to the wisdom of, his subject. Not surprisingly, then, Boswell's diaries are supreme examples of let-it-all-hang-out. But he was too conscious of his dignity as ninth laird of Auchinleck, Scotland, to anticipate the Duke of Wellington's advice to Harriette Wilson: to publish and be damned.
This particular slice of the diaries is brought to us around 200 years after the events it describes. In fact, as I start writing this review, it is 200 years to the day (editor's note: publication of this book was delayed for several months) since July 30, 1786--a day when Boswell ate turtle and venison with the radical John Wilkes at the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the artist. "I recollect none of the conversation," Boswell wrote, "except Wilkes' maintaining that matter of fact was of little consequence, even in history. He wished to have entertaining accounts--a sad, shallow taste." One suspects that Wilkes was teasing Boswell, just saying something provocative to get the conversation going. Boswell's naively outraged reaction is significant: He himself has a religious respect for the truth, even when that means he must show himself as a four-letter man.
The diaries would be damning evidence in a modern divorce court. (In Boswell's time, a Scottish laird could do more or less whatever he liked to his wife, including soundly beating her with a stick, and getting away with it.) Boswell went with prostitutes. Though his wife Margaret was ill with tuberculosis (she dies before this volume is done), he would invariably accept a tempting dinner invitation rather than stay at home with her; and when he arrived home in the small hours after a drunken carouse, he would find her forlornly waiting up for him. For long periods, he left her languishing on his estates in Scotland while he pursued the will o' the wisp of success at the London bar--the "English Experiment" of the volume's title.
In indulging his ambitions in England, Boswell hitched himself to the glittering chariot of Lord Lonsdale, a fabulously rich, bullying, boorish politician who had much patronage to distribute. Failing to impress anybody in London, Boswell decided to accompany Lonsdale north in the bitter winter of 1787-88 in a bid (ultimately successful) to obtain the Recordership of the city of Carlisle, a senior, if provincial, law appointment. By far the most entertaining part of the volume is Boswell's description--published here for the first time--of that journey in Lonsdale's entourage, with all its harassments, discomforts, slights and snubs.
Eventually, Boswell became so furious at his treatment by Lonsdale that he tried to sneak away from the party, with his bags, to return to London; but in the nearest town, he bumped into someone else from the group, and was persuaded to rejoin Lonsdale. (I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh's swimming out to sea to commit suicide, then being deterred by an encounter with jellyfish.)