Open main menu

Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/19

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

not official utterances, and discursive "laxity of talk" is not to be tested by rule and square.

That this is no exaggerated description of his system is shown by the editor's own testimony. When lying ill in a foreign country, "in the sleepless hours of many a night," he tells us, "I almost forgot my miseries in the delightful pages of Walpole, and, with pencil in hand, managed to get a few notes taken." We may pity as well as admire this honest ardour: but the "getting a few notes taken" from "old Walpole" in the belief that you are "editing" your "Boswell" is but a sad delusion. 'Again he tells us, "everything in my reading that bore on my favourite author was carefully noted," and then—supreme delusion of all!—he fancied that, having gathered a mass of materials "from all sides," they were sufficient to "shield me from a charge of rashness if I began to raise the building"—the "building," by the way, commonly supposed to be Boswell's.

The editor describes how he "discovered Boswell." When he first went to college, "by a happy chance he turned to the study of the literature of the eighteenth century," owing to a sort of theme, set regularly every week, and which consisted in turning into Latin a passage from The Spectator. From Addison, in the course of time, he "passed on to the other great writers of his and the succeeding age"; in fact, pursued the ordinary college education. But a solemn moment was at hand. "A happy day came just eighteen years ago, when in an old shop, under the shadow of a great cathedral," our doctor was enabled to secure that uncommon stall-book, "a second-hand copy of a some what early edition of the 'Life' in five well-bound volumes." The discovery of this rarity produced quite a revolution. As he made his way through it, astonished and pleased, he began almost unconsciously, as it appeared to him, to edit. And how? "Before long I began to note the parallel passages and allusions, not only in their pages, but in the various authors whom I studied. Yet," adds the future editor, naively enough, "in these early days I never dreamed of preparing a new edition." And on what trifling things do events turn! Why, who knows that but for that happy day, just eighteen years ago—and that second-hand copy—we might, at this hour, be wandering about without our editor!

The true system of dealing with Boswell's great book goes much deeper than the mere illustrating it with extracts. In one sense it is a great psychological book—a book full of all the various "anfractuosities " of character. It helps us to read off "Jamie's" own nature in a most curious and even piquant fashion. To give one instance. A popular idea is that he was merely the "ambulatory reporter" of the sage's sayings and doings, the exact recorder of his wisdom. But the truth is, that this great "Life" was intended, in a secondary way, as a regular Apologia for "Bozzy's " own private failings and weakness, which, as I fancy, he thought he could in some way shelter under the moralities of his great friend. With these he was constantly identifying himself, for he felt the application which his friends would naturally make of Johnson's opinions to his own conduct. The inconsistency of his life and habits with the society and teaching of a great moralist, his constant discussions on religious and moral topics he felt would excite the ridicule of his friends, and this he ingeniously met by the implied confession that he was often but "a weak vessel," but with good purposes and good instincts. He put Johnson forward as making allowance for such failings. This is indeed the general effect left upon the reader, and the result is that Boswell's character comes before us as a