When I got offered a copy of The Brothers Boswell by Philip Baruth by Sarah at Soho Press, I knew that this would be a great book for the Historical Fiction Lovers Book Club. I responded back that I would love a chance to read it and then make that our September selection. The Brothers Boswell was published this month and its author, Philip Baruth, graciously wrote a guest post for us. I hope that this makes you as excited as I am to read this novel!
Writing THE BROTHERS BOSWELL
I first read James Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763 when I was twenty-one. I was in college, plotting to be a writer and all the while telling my father I would go to law school. To my astonishment, Boswell was also 21 and a would-be writer, also pretending to be preparing for a career in the law. So I felt an immediate, electric kinship, across the centuries.
We didn’t mesh on everything, of course. Boswell trolled the brothels and associated with Dukes and Countesses, so I never reached as high or as low as he typically did. Still, I had the immediate and lasting impression that here was a character worth a novel, and two decades later I sat down to write it.
My thought was that I’d sketch the famous friendship between Johnson and Boswell from the inside, from Boswell’s point of view. In 1763, Johnson is the undisputed literary lion of England; Boswell is little more than a boy from a good Scottish family — not much in the way of a recommendation in London high society. Yet they become fast friends almost from the moment they meet. It seemed like a natural. Except that when I sat down to write, nothing came.
The problem, I think, was that I knew the Boswell-Johnson story far too well: I wrote about it for my Honors thesis as an undergraduate, and my Ph.D dissertation, and I’d published several articles on the topic for good measure. And of course Boswell’s London Journal describes that year in painstaking detail.
But I knew the key must lie in the London Journal itself, and so I sat down to read it for the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth time, determined to search the background for what I’d previously missed. And there, in a footnote to January 5 1763, it was: I’d forgotten that John Boswell, James’s younger brother, visited him in London for several weeks, following a brief bout of insanity at the end of 1762. I noticed something else as well — John appears almost not at all in Boswell’s journal entries, with the exception of a line like “Had tea with my brother John.” In most cases, that was the extent of the reference.
The more I thought about it the stranger that reticence seemed to me. Boswell wrote and thought a great deal about madness. It was a topic that consumed him, partially because a strain of melancholia ran through his own family, and his uncle had spent the last part of his life in a strait-waistcoat. Boswell asked everyone about madness, friends, strangers, even Johnson, in their first conversations. So here was a visitor fresh from the madhouse, and a brother no less — but almost complete silence from Boswell on the topic, silence from a man who happily recorded everything, from prostitutes to venereal disease.
There was no avoiding the conclusion: Boswell wanted desperately to hide his brother’s madness, from London society, from the friends reading the manuscript pages of his journal, and mostly from himself. It was repression of a very high order.
From that point, the rest fell directly into place. John, in my novel, stumbles on the Journal and discovers how systematically he has been hidden away from the great and powerful by his brother, and that knowledge reactivates his madness. He is so jealous of James’s budding friendship with Johnson that he either begins or imagines his own deeper relationship with the author of the Dictionary. And when he cannot reconcile his brother’s London with his own, John acquires two golden pistols, and sets out to trap Boswell and Johnson, to force them to acknowledge the relationships they’ve kept secret from one another. A tangled web, admittedly, but one that made emotional sense.
And I could tell immediately that I’d hit on something, because suddenly the writing of the novel became great fun, something I looked forward to, rather than daily misery, which is always a good sign, of course.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Philip!
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