About this Recording
NA237012 - BOSWELL, J.: Life of Johnson (A) (Abridged)

James Boswell
A Life of Johnson


Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield in 1709 and died in London in 1784 aged 75. He came from a modestly middle-class background, but his father’s bookselling business failed and his Oxford education was abruptly terminated for want of funds. In spite of this, he became the greatest English scholar and man of letters of his day, a man of enormous learning but equally a man who loved life in all its variety.

Having married, in 1735, Mrs Elizabeth Porter, a widow almost twice his age, and having had little success in running a school with only three students, Johnson moved to London—accompanied by his pupil David Garrick. Both found fame in the capital, Garrick more rapidly as the greatest actor of his time, and both remained lifelong friends. Johnson’s literary career began humbly enough, producing hackwork for various journals, but it was the publication of his Dictionary in 1755 which really set the seal on his reputation. The Dictionary was the result of nine years’ labour, in conditions of some poverty, and in the teeth of the terrible depressions which frequently afflicted him.

In 1762 Johnson was granted a crown pension; in 1763 he met James Boswell, so that from this time we have the full and wonderfully vivid account of his life given by the latter. Johnson’s acquaintance was wide and included such eminent men as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Fox: all were members of the Literary Club founded in 1764. Other of Johnson’s works include his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, his edition of Shakespeare, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, The Lives of the English Poets and Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

Johnson was a man of huge personality—almost terrifying to behold, with his scarred face, massive frame and eccentricities of word and movement. He could be a loyal friend and a formidable opponent; he loved to talk and held in thrall a large circle of admirers who contradicted him at their peril. He had read voraciously and could talk on almost any topic; his politics were Tory, yet he abhorred slavery, condemned the English treatment of the Irish and attacked religious complacency—perhaps because his faith in the divine was coloured by a profound terror of death. His generosity to the poor and willingness to provide a home for some of those who had enjoyed little worldly success are touching testimonies to his deep humanity. It was, above all, Johnson’s love of society, conversation and friendship which gave Boswell the material for his biography—described by Macaulay as the best ever written.

James Boswell (1740–1795) was born in Edinburgh and studied law, but was really more interested in travel, writing and politics—not to mention what he would have called the ‘dissipation’ of his London life. His Journals give an extraordinarily lively and intimate impression of this excitable, enthusiastic and energetically philandering character. His Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791, took him many years to compile and was mainly based on the extensive conversations and travels he enjoyed with his subject, for whom he had an affection bordering on worship.

Notes by Perry Keenlyside


The music on this CD is taken from the NAXOS catalogue

HANDEL Famous Organ Concertos

Johann Aratore, organ
Handel Festival Chamber Orchestra
John Tinge, conductor

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