James Boswell lived from 29 October 1740 to 19 May 1795. He was a lawyer, a diarist, and an author. He was also a man whose dissolute lifestyle led to a premature death from the effects of venereal disease and alcohol, yet whose two volume biography of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791, was viewed in its day - and remains - a classic contribution to the art of the biographer.
James Boswell was born in a house in Blair's Land, Parliament Close, near St Giles' Cathedral in the old Town of Edinburgh. This was the Edinburgh house of his parents, Alexander Boswell, 8th Laird of Auchinleck and his wife Euphemia Erskine, Lady Auchinleck. The Boswells maintained their Edinburgh house to allow Boswell's father to carry out his role as a high court judge. Boswell's mother was descended from a minor branch of Scottish royalty. The family estate was at Auchinleck in Ayrshire.
Boswell's childhood was not a happy one: he wrote later of his mother's suffocating Calvinism and his father's coldness. At the age of 13, he was sent to study law at Edinburgh University, and at 19 was moved by his father to study under Adam Smith at Glasgow University: apparently because his father wanted to split up a relationship Boswell had formed with an actress.
In 1762 Boswell obtained his father's permission to go to London to try to obtain an army commission. He failed, but stayed in a city he saw as offering a far more attractive lifestyle than staid and stuffy Edinburgh. In May 1763 Boswell met Samuel Johnson, one of England's greatest literary figures, and the two struck up an immediate and lasting friendship. In August 1763, Boswell departed for Holland to study law, returning to Britain only in February 1766 having travelled as far afield as Rome and Corsica. He returned in the company of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's mistress. Shortly afterwards he returned to Edinburgh to take his final law exam, and set up practice as an advocate.
Boswell married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, in November 1769. He published successful accounts of his European travels, but was much less successful as an advocate. Each year Boswell would return to the bright lights of London for a month to stay with Samuel Johnson, and the two would travel extensively together.
In 1773, Boswell and Johnson set out to travel the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. This led to the publication in 1775 by Johnson of his A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Boswell's own book of the journey, A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was published in 1786 as a precursor to his The Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D.
After Johnson died in 1784, Boswell moved to London to try his hand as a barrister there. He was, if anything, even less successful there than he had been practising law in Scotland. He also tried, and failed, to gain the support necessary to become an MP. He spent the latter part of the 1780s writing his biography of Samuel Johnson, all the time increasingly suffering from addictions to alcohol, gambling and prostitutes. When Boswell died in 1795 he left behind him one of the greatest works of English Literature, a long-suffering wife, and five surviving children.
In the 1920s a huge cache of Boswell's private papers was discovered at Malahide Castle, north of Dublin, and purchased by American collector Ralph H. Isham. These have since passed to Yale University and as a result Boswell's life is perhaps one of the best documented of his age.