Boswell's Wretched Register:Hypochondria and Confession In the Journals of Jjames Boswell

Boswell was a compulsive and life-long recorder. ‘For my own part’, he wrote in 1783, ‘I have so long accustomed myself to write a Diary, that when I omit it the day seems to be lost, though for the most part I put down nothing but immaterial facts which it can serve no purpose of any value to record’ 1. He first began to keep a journal in 1758, when he was seventeen, and from 1762 until his death in 1795 he maintained, more or less consistently, the habit of writing up, often in minute detail, and often after a delay of days or even weeks, the events, thoughts, conversations and transactions of his life. ‘I should live’, he observes in his journal during an optimistic period in his mid thirties, ‘no more than I can record, as one should not have more corn growing than one can get in. There is a waste of good if it be not preserved.’ 2 Over a lifetime, naturally, there is great variety in the mood and materials that are gathered into Boswell’s journal, but two features persist, often in inverse relation to each other: his exuberance, and his depression. For Boswell was also a life-long hypochondriac.

Hypochondria, melancholy, depression, pervaded every aspect of Boswell’s life and of his writing, manifesting itself as a sense of personal worthlessness, as excruciating guilt for things done, or not done, or simply as an undeniable awareness of the futility of human existence, often accompanied by religious doubts. As he writes to his friend John Johnston from Holland in 1764, ‘I saw all things as so precarious and vain that I had no relish of them, no views to fill my mind, no motive to incite me to action…. Black melancholy again took dominion over me.’ 3 Moreover, as the existence of this letter indicates, Boswell also felt the overwhelming urge to tell others of his depression, an instinct that, he feared, laid him perpetually open to ridicule or to censure. In London, in 1786, he talks of his low spirits to his fellow bar counsel, adding in his journal account: ‘This was imprudent. But mental pain could not be endured quietly.’ 4

Boswell never endured mental pain quietly, but he did find ways of sharing it that reduced the risk of ridicule. He talked with and exchanged letters with friends, especially those of a hypochondriac tendency — with John Johnston; with Bennet Langton, with whom he agreed on the ‘deceitfulness of all our hopes of enjoyment on earth’ 5; or with Andrew Erskine: ‘On comparing notes, I found he differed from me in this: that he at no time had any ambition or the least inclination to distinguish himself in active life, having a perpetual consciousness or imagination that he could not go through with it.’ 6 The need for such safe intimacy was also a motive behind his writing a series of essays, published as The Hypochondriack in the London Magazine between 1777 and 1783, a series in which Boswell, writing anonymously, offered advice and distraction to fellow sufferers. But the main means whereby he confessed the forms and frequency of his hypochondria, and thereby reined in what he refers to as ‘a kind of strange feeling as if I wished nothing to be secret that concerns myself’ 7, was in the privacy of his journal.

Journalistic confession, for Boswell, covered a range of activities and needs apart from his recurring depression, though some of these also had the tendency to feed that depression. This is particularly the case in respect of his frequent promiscuity, when his behaviour is recalled sometimes with relish, sometimes with regret, and often with a mixture of both. A sequence of events that took place in Edinburgh between November and December 1776 is illustrative. On Monday 25 November, Boswell, who should have been working at law-papers, instead argues with his wife, Margaret, and leaves the house. Later, ‘coming home at five,’ he writes, ‘I met a young slender slut with a red cloak in the street and went with her to Barefoots Parks and madly ventured coition. It was’, he adds, ‘a short and almost insensible gratification of lewdness. I was vexed to think of it.’ Vexed or not, two evenings later, in the High Street, he ‘met a plump hussy who called herself Peggy Grant’ and ‘went with her to a field behind the Register Office, and boldly lay with her. This was desperate risking.’ It was, Boswell interjects, ‘one of the coldest nights I ever remember’. Even more ‘desperate’ information is revealed in the following day’s entry:

The girl with whom I was last night had told me she lodged in Stevenlaw’s Close, and at my desire engaged to be at the head of it generally at eight in the evening, in case I should be coming past. I thought I could not be in more danger of disease by one more enjoyment the very next evening, so went tonight ; but she was not there.

He finishes the day by observing: ‘I was shocked that the father of a family should go amongst strumpets; but there was rather an insensibility about me to virtue, I was so sensual. Perhaps I should not write all this’ — ‘all this’, from Monday through till Thursday, in fact being written on Friday 29 November. On Sunday 1 December, however, a crisis is reached. Boswell, listening to a sermon, is already sketching out his evening:

I must confess that I planned, even when sober, that I would in the evening try to find Peggy Grant, and, as I had risked with her, take a full enjoyment…. About eight I got into the street and made Cameron, the chairman, inquire for Peggy Grant…. He brought her out, and I took her to the New Town, and in a mason’s shed in St. Andrew’s Square lay with her twice.

At home, sober, by now, but ‘in a confused, feverish frame’, Boswell finds his wife suspicious: ‘My dear wife asked me if I had not been about mischief. I at once confessed it. She was very uneasy, and I was ashamed and vexed at my licentiousness. Yet’, adds Boswell, ending the day’s entry (written the following day, Monday 2 December), ‘my conscience was not alarmed; so much had I accustomed my mind to think such indulgence permitted.’ 8

Telling, for Boswell, was clearly an important dimension of living, as if the actual experience remained incomplete for him until it had also been recreated in writing, within the confessional of his journal. The prose is energetic, active, with an eye for the memorable detail — the ‘young slender slut with a red cloak’. It revives and re-enacts as it goes. And yet it does not simply recreate, for Boswell is also his own moral commentator, his own confessor: ‘I was vexed to think of it’; ‘This was desperate risking’; and especially ‘Perhaps I should not write all this.’ There is a mixing of time scales, with Boswell the writer, the man of words, the confessing voice, looking back on Boswell the actor, the misbehaver, the confessed for, so that the journal reality emerges as a superior, more roundedly truthful reality than a life simply lived with no account kept. Lived reality became, apparently, more real by virtue of giving itself over to language, of conceding its deeds, thoughts, layers, timescales to the written word, of making a perpetual confession of itself.

On this occasion, Boswell’s confession to his wife of his mischief — and again the event is illustrative — was not the end of the matter. The actual confession to Margaret is, of course, itself confessed within the journal, and therefore forms part of the more truthful reality of Boswell’s privately known self. One week later, on Sunday 8 December, Mrs Boswell ‘insisted to read this my journal, and finding in it such explicit instances of licentiousness, she was much affected and told me that she had come to a resolution never again to consider herself as my wife; though for the sake of her children and mine, as a friend, she would preserve appearances. When I saw her in great uneasiness, and dreaded somewhat — though not with much apprehension - her resolution, I was awakened from my dream of licentiousness, and saw my bad conduct in a shocking light. I was really agitated, and in a degree of despair…. At night I calmly meditated to reform.’ 9

In one sense, the two realities have abruptly been brought together, and the private, more truthful reality has been forced to acknowledge itself within the real lived world. It has been exposed for the sham thing it is, a confession with no comeback, no penances, no risk. Boswell is forced to see his conduct, his mental prevarications, his moral shiftiness, as cheap, self-serving and hurtful. He is genuinely moved, sufficiently moved to write up the whole week, from Tuesday till Sunday, on the very evening of the calamity.

In another sense, however, the journal is reinforced as the superior reality, and this happens in two ways. Firstly, Margaret Boswell’s reading actually turns Boswell’s journal into a yet more genuine confession — more genuinely a confession than Boswell intended when he wroe it — and a still more roundedly true confession. Not only does she find out the whole truth, but her reading is also an endorsement, a consummation of one of the deepest instincts behind Boswell’s writing, the ‘strange feeling’ to have ‘nothing to be secret that concerns myself’. She is a third party who brings an outside eye to the confessing voice, the confessed actor, and thereby reintegrates it into the reality of deeds, feelings, people, out from the world of language in which it has been privileged to exist.

But secondly, and inevitably, the journalist goes on. Language can never be outflanked by life. Boswell writes up five days in order to get to the sixth, Sunday 8 December, and to record the catastrophe, to confess his ‘despair’, after which he leaves off writing for another week. The brutal enforcement into the world of Mrs Boswell, the children, appearances, the making of the journal a genuine confessional, is itself in its turn confessed, reincorporated into the more roundedly truthful linguistic reality, even more roundedly truthful, in fact, since the endorsement by Margaret and the outside eye.

Not that Boswell existed easily between these realities. There is, indeed, in his writing a constant ambiguity, a series of tensions between the self that acted and the self that was conscious of having participated in action. The reflective self can reflect at times with satisfaction on the self that has acted, as upon his arrival in London in 1762:

Since I came up, I have begun to acquire a composed genteel character very different from a rattling uncultivated one which for some time past I have been fond of. I have discovered that we may be in some degree whatever character we choose 10.

The reflective self can even reflect with satisfaction on its existence within the reflective medium, on its own facility with language:

How easily and cleverly do I write just now! I am really pleased with myself; words come skipping to me like lambs upon Moffat Hill; and I turn my periods smoothly and imperceptibly like a skilful wheelwright turning tops in a turning-loom. 11

But more often the reflective self is forced to respond with distress, shame, censure at what it is obliged to record. So, in Scotland in March 1777, he ‘drank outrageously at Whitburn and at Livingstone and at some low ale-house, and arrived at Edinburgh very drunk. It was shocking in me to come home to my dear wife in such a state.’ 12 Or in London in March 1776 he finds my ‘moral principle as to chastity was absolutely eclipsed…. I was in the miserable state of those whom the apostle represents as working all uncleanness with greediness…. This is an exact state of my mind at the time. It shocks me to review it.’ 13 Even in the generally buoyant record that is the London Journal, Boswell has to observe: ‘I now see the sickly suggestions of inconsistent fancy with regard to the Scotch bar in their proper colours. Good heaven!… I shudder when I think of it. I am vexed at such a distempered suggestion’s being inserted in my journal….’ 14

Part of this tension is to do with his desire to preserve ‘good’ in the journal, to make a genuine harvest of his life. More deep-seated, though, is Boswell’s confusion over the relation between two dimensions of reality — between action and reflection, between the world as lived and the world as confessed. Where, in particular, is there any security in identity when the recording self is constantly to be appalled by the active self, is obliged, in fact, to set down actions and moods that would be better, safer, though less truthful, if let go into oblivion? This confusion is particularly acute for the hypochondriac who, as Boswell writes in The Hypochondriack, is perpetually in need of reassurance about his own stability:

Nothing is more disagreeable than for a man to find himself unstable and changeful. An Hypochondriack is very liable to this uneasy imperfection, in so much that sometimes there remains only a mere consciousness of identity. His inclinations, his tastes, his friendships, even his principles, he with regret feels, or imagines he feels are all shifted, he knows not how. This is owing to a want of firmness of mind. 15

When there are two realities, for the hypochondriac the question that most acutely demands answering, and which never can be answered, is not which is the more real, but which is the more sane.

These uncertainties make the journalistic confession of hypochondria particularly distressing. Early in his life, Boswell looked optimistically even on this aspect of keeping a journal. Not only will he ‘preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion’ but he will ‘find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen’ 16. Elsewhere, he speculates as to whether writing might not actually transplant depression from his mind to the page: ‘Lord Monboddo said on Saturday that writing down hurt the memory. Could I extract the hypochondria from my mind, and deposit it in my journal, writing down would be very valuable.’ 17 More often, though, Boswell resents the constant, and increasingly frequent, presence of depression in his journal, not least because recording, he feels, gives validity to what should not be acknowledged: ‘I really believe’, he writes from Holland in 1764, ‘that these grievous complaints should not be vented; they should be considered as absurd chimeras, whose reality should not be allowed in words.’ 18

The relation between depression and writing is acutely problematic. Hypochondria was a condition that was for Boswell an undeniably real feature of his life, yet to be always recording it was perhaps to offer it an endorsement that it did not deserve. But the urge to tell was itself a powerful factor within the hypochondriac temperament. Moreover, if confession of so major a part of his existence was to be denied, then where was the truth of the journal to be found?

These issues, always underlying Boswell’s attitudes towards his journal and its writing, are especially accentuated in the recording of the final years of his life, from the mid 1780s until 1795, following the death of Johnson, Boswell’s own move from Scotland to London, and the death in 1789 of his wife. Boswell, while working on the Life of Johnson, experienced almost unrelieved depression:

What sunk me very low was the sensation that I was precisely as when in wretched low spirits thirty years ago, without any addition to my character from having had the friendship of Dr. Johnson and many eminent men, made the tour of Europe, and Corsica in particular, and written two very successful Books. I was as a board on which fine figures had been painted, but which some corrosive application had reduced to its original nakedness. 19

He castigates the journal he is keeping: ‘What a wretched Register is this! «A Lazarhouse it seem’d.» It is the Journal of a diseased mind.’ 20 The mentality that had been in doubt over so many years of recording, held in check or endorsed in words, is revealed for what it is. The ambiguities have cleared: confirmed by the journal, he has a diseased mind.

Back in September 1777, on a trip to Ashbourne in Derbyshire with Dr Johnson, Boswell had recorded a conversation concerning death and futurity, concluding the journal entry by observing of himself:

I felt my own mind much firmer than formerly, so that I was not depressed tonight; and even the gloom of uncertainty in solemn religious speculation, being mingled with hope, was much more consolatory than the emptiness of infidelity. A man can live in thick air, but perishes in an exhausted receiver. 21

The same image, the ‘exhausted receiver’, recurs two years later, in August 1779, in Boswell’s Hypochondriack essay ‘On Reserve’. ‘An Hypochondriack’, he writes, ‘is sometimes… totally incapable of conversation, having a mind like an exhausted receiver, and organs of speech as if palsied….’ 22 However, an important slip has taken place in those two years. Where in Ashbourne the image referred to an intellectual and spiritual milieu, religious non-belief, in The Hypochondriack the ‘exhausted receiver’ is an image of the mind itself, and in particular of the mind in relation to language.

Less than a decade later, not only is the mind confirmed as exhausted, but Boswell’s journal writing is so palsied by depression that language itself can scarcely be brought to persist in giving an account of it. Boswell resident in London, for so long the absolute height of his ambitions, is unrelievedly miserable. At last, after weeks of dreariness, he finally makes, in what is virtually a footnote to his journal entry, the confession that in effect concedes defeat. Wednesday 10 October 1787: ‘N.B. Understood not well till a change is marked.’ 23 The moment is crucial. The lifelong battle to keep pace in language with the events of his life, to live no more than he could record, has been lost, not because Boswell has been living too much, but too little. Language, after all, was outflanked by life, the confessor by the confessed, the recreative energies of the world of language by the inertness, the exhausted capacities of habitual depression.

If Boswell’s journal had been a place for confessional recreation, in all the variety of his life’s activities, this defeat has other implications, for confession, especially of the order of Boswell’s, depends on language telling more truthfully, in its privileged space, than deeds, actions, appearances can. But language, now, for Boswell, has nothing to tell, or rather what it tells is nothing pertinent to what is really the case. It is appearance that is given over to the language of the journal, while confession is reduced to silence. That which is more roundedly true is to be marked not in language but by the absence of language, ‘understood’ until ‘a change is marked’. Silence, when all is said and done, is conceded to be the appropriate medium for a state of mind ‘whose reality should not be allowed in words’.

In 1793, several hundred miles away, in Scotland, Andrew Erskine, Boswell’s lifelong friend and fellow hypochondriac, finally gave up his struggle against depression. The news of Erskine’s suicide was entered into Boswell’s journal: he had received, he said, ‘an intimation from Sir William Forbes that my old friend _______ had killed himself’ 24. Boswell and Erskine, when young, had published together, including the playful Letters Between the Honourable Andrew Erskine and James Boswell, Esq. Later letters, not written for publication, had contributed to the safe confession of hypochondriac suffering, evidence of a relationship which was founded upon the word. But here, in the blank that Boswell could not fill, where Andrew Erskine’s name should be, we read a fitting testimony to the man with whom depressive intimacies had been shared, and a fitting epitaph on the language of confession. Identity has been reduced to anonymity, feeling to emptiness. Reality is elsewhere, beyond the confessional word, while the language that once, apparently, gave truth and life, that redeemed from oblivion, is replaced by a confessional space.

  • [1] Boswell’s Column (The Hypochondriack), ed. Margery Bailey, London, 1951, p.336.
  • [2] Boswell: the Ominous Years, 1774-1776, ed. Charles Ryskamp and F.A. Pottle, New York, 1963, p.265.
  • [3] Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, ed. F.A. Pottle, London, 1952, p.206.
  • [4] Private Papers of James Boswell from Malahide Castle, ed. Geoffrey Scott and F.A. Pottle, New York, 1928-34, 18 volumes, xvi, 202.
  • [5] Private Papers of James Boswell, xvi, 203.
  • [6] Private Papers of James Boswell, xv, 105.
  • [7] Boswell: the Ominous Years, 1774-1776, p.214.
  • [8] Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778, ed. Charles McC. Weis and F.A. Pottle, London, 1971, pp.61-3.
  • [9] Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778, pp.64-5.
  • [10] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, ed. F.A. Pottle, London, 1951, p.74.
  • [11] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, p.211.
  • [12] Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778, p.102.
  • [13] Boswell: the Ominous years, 1774-1776, p.306.
  • [14] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, p.229.
  • [15] Boswell’s Column (The Hypochondriack), p.325.
  • [16] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, p.67.
  • [17] Boswell: the Ominous Years, 1774-1776, p.240.
  • [18] Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, p.207.
  • [19] Private Papers of James Boswell, xviii, 70-1.
  • [20] Private Papers of James Boswell, xviii, 66.
  • [21] Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778, p.155.
  • [22] Boswell’s Column (The Hypochondriack), p.142.
  • [23] Private Papers of James Boswell, xvii, 47.
  • [24] Private Papers of James Boswell, xviii, 221.

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