human kindness, curdled
We disputed about some poems. Sheridan said that a man should not be a poet except he were excellent; for that to be a mediocris poeta was but a poor thing. I said I differed from him. For the greatest part of those who read poetry have a mediocre taste; consequently one may please a great many. Besides, to write poems is very agreeable, and one has always people enough to call them good; so that a man of a tolerable genius rather gains than loses.
(18 January 1763)
Dialogue in the Sitting Room
PF. If you don’t like Boswell, why would you waste your time reading his diaries?
MFC. One learns so much in the encounter, and time spent in learning is never wasted.
PF. Huh. Are there any muffins left?
Before I started reading Boswell’s London Journal, I knew it would irritate me. I’m not quite sure why I picked it up. Byron’s letters I got because I started reading them in the library (remember going to the library?) and was so tickled by them I purchased a copy to read at my leisure. Part of me wants to believe something similar happened with Boswell, but I suspect I was at the large and local bookstore, browsing the B section in the blue room, and saw a copy with a ratty dust wrapper and was amused. I was ready to be irritated, too, which is a good way to approach a writer with a prickly personality. No reader approaching Boswell in this way will be disappointed.
Her marrying him was just to support herself and her sisters; and yet to a woman of delicacy, poverty is better than sacrificing her person to a greasy, rotten, nauseous carcass and a narrow vulgar soul. Surely she who does that cannot properly be called a woman of virtue. She certainly wants feeling who can submit to the loathed embraces of a monster. She appear to me unclean: as I said to Miss Dempster, like a dirty table-cloth. I am sure no man can have the gentle passion of love for so defiled a person as hers — O my stomach rises at it!
(2 December 1762)1
Dialogue on the Stairway
MFC. He’s just so self-centered. He never acknowledges his privilege and is always complaining that no one does him any favors. He has no sympathy for what other people feel or think. He never stops to consider the limited opportunities available to others – especially women – but is entirely wrapped up in the confines of his own perspective.
PF. It’s Boswell’s diary. What did you expect?
When a man is out of humour, he thinks he will vex the world by keeping away from it, and that he will be greatly pitied; whereas in truth the world are too busy about themselves to think of him, and ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
(12 March 1763)
If there is something to be said for allowing oneself to be irritated by one’s reading, there is also a point at which one must decide to forgo the dubious pleasure.2 After the last conversation (mentioned above), I was forced to acknowledge that my irritation with Boswell was a piece of affectation: I had decided to be irritated and so construed everything in the worst possible way. The London Journal is an amusing, charming piece of work. While I might personally prefer to read Boswell’s memoranda, which appear (from the samples provided by that officious editor, Pottle) to be more pleasingly Pepys-ian, the journals provide a snap-shot of experiences and feelings with which it is impossible to argue.3 One is consoled in face of the temptation to argue, however, by the recollection that he probably wouldn’t have listened anyway.
- I happened to read this passage shortly after that part in Pride and Prejudice where Charlotte Lucas decides to marry Mr. Collins. The chapter in Jill Heydt-Stevenson’s Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History is particularly illuminating on the plight of such ‘unclean’ gentlewomen. I will make no substantial remark about Boswell’s plebeian philandering and his superficial understanding of recurrent venereal diseases: dirty linen indeed. I would like to note, however, that he gave two guineas as a loan/gift to a woman who became his mistress, although this meant he had to limit some of this expenditures until the date of his next allowance; in the meantime, he went around to booksellers to whom he had paid a deposit for borrowing privileges and reclaimed his deposits (a total of just over two guineas as I recall); when he found he had another dose of the clap (despite not performing concubinage [his term] with anyone else in the meantime), he sent his mistress packing – and sent a note ’round to reclaim the two guineas (which she returned a day or so later without comment). [↩]
- This was the case with Agamben, for example, which I tried to read, setting aside my annoyance at his constant reference only to ‘men’ or ‘man’ as actors in life’s drama – he’s just an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, I thought, and uses the masculine in a general sense; then I encountered his first (and only) inclusion of women as actors (in Infancy and History) – as participants in pornography (though he politely, coyly includes the possibility of male-identifying participants as well) – and realized that, no, perhaps I could embrace the state of exception (I am misusing this phrase out of spite) and not bother with someone who succumbed to the habit of thinking in this way. This, though not entirely relevant here, is a minor rant I have been brooding on for quite some time; I felt Boswell deserved the opportunity to shine in comparison (although this goes in a footnote, because I am not quite sure he deserves to shine too much). [↩]
- Although one cannot quite wholly approve of everything he recounts: one feels sympathy when he is pranked by his friends, and one cringes slightly at his jocular letter to Hume. [↩]