Study Guide

Boswell's London Journal

Boswell's London Journal Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

James Boswell left his family at home near Edinburgh in the autumn of 1762 to spend the winter in London, where he hoped to obtain a commission in the Guards. He was convinced that the military life, which would allow him to live in the city he loved so much, would suit him far better than the legal profession chosen for him by his father, a noted Scottish jurist. He recorded the activities, the hopes, and the disappointments of this year in London in a diary, which he sent in regular installments to a young friend who remained in Scotland. This journal, which miraculously survived for two hundred years and came to light in the twentieth century, is a remarkably revealing document, for reticence was not one of Boswell’s characteristics. The frankness of his account of his activities brings him vividly to life.

Boswell was only twenty-two when he traveled south into England. He passed his legal examinations, and his father at last grudgingly agreed to give his son an allowance to allow him to pursue the career he thought he wanted. Lord Auchinleck’s decision proved to be a wise one, for, after months of discouragement, Boswell finally realized that he was not going to obtain the desired commission, even with the help of noble friends, and he agreed to take up law again, on the condition that he might travel on the Continent before he returned to Scotland to begin his practice.

These experiences were frustrating to Boswell, but they provide fascinating reading. The author’s youth is evident in many of the actions and impressions he records. He went to the city to turn himself into a polished gentleman, and the pages of his diary are filled with resolutions for the improvement of his character and manners. At times this desire for sophistication manifested itself as a rather unattractive snobbery. Boswell records his disgust at the familiarity with which some of his Scottish friends treated him, at the provincialism of their conversation, and at the lack of restraint in their manners. In these moods he overlooked the fact that these hospitable people, especially Captain Andrew Erskine and his sister, did much to alleviate his loneliness.

Boswell was, however, usually perceptive about his relationships. He knew that William Temple, an old comrade from university days and a reserved and studious young man, was a good influence on him and that Lord Eglinton, who introduced Boswell to various dissipations during his first trip to London in 1760, encouraged those vices for which his inclination was already too strong. Toward the end of the journal Boswell comments that Temple and Johnston, the Scottish friend to whom he was sending the diary, were those in whom he could confide his deepest feelings, while he feared to expose his sentiments to Erskine and Eglinton, though he valued their company for amusement. Boswell did, on occasion, lay himself...

(The entire section is 1178 words.)