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Boswell in London: An Eighteenth-Century Soundscape Study

Boswell à Londres : Une étude du paysage sonore au XVIIIe siècle
Laura Davies

Résumés

Les journaux personnels dans lesquels James Boswell relate ses expériences vécues à Londres entre 1760 et 1795 constituent une mine précieuse de renseignements sur les sons qui sont générés par la ville et qui s’y font entendre. Ils sont aussi assez révélateurs de la manière dont une personne en particulier écoutait, pensait aux sons et au bruit, et représentait cette forme d’expérience sensorielle par l’écriture. Le présent article soutient qu’une approche productive consiste à examiner cette documentation en relation avec le concept largement utilisé mais souvent aux définitions floues de paysage sonore. Il fait le lien entre les différentes dimensions de ce concept, notamment les idées d’immersion, de sélection, règlement, manipulation, et d’imagination, et les associe à un dialogue avec les autres travaux d’érudition portant sur la construction du soi de Boswell à travers l’écriture, et sur l’influence du projet Spectator et le rôle qui est attribué aux sens dans les écrits philosophiques de Locke et de Hume, à la fois sur lui personnellement et plus généralement sur la société du XVIIIe siècle. Ce faisant, l’article soutient que nous pouvons nuancer notre compréhension de Boswell par rapport aux autres, à lui-même et au monde, et que nous pouvons dégager des constantes concernant la relation entre les expériences externes et internes de Boswell en fonction de leurs changements au fil du temps.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill and L. F. Powell, 2nd edn, 6 vols, Oxford, Clarendon Pres (...)
  • 2 Ibid.
  • 3 Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, ed. Frederick A. Pottle, Melbourne, London, Toronto, William He (...)
  • 4 Boswell for the Defence 1769-1774, ed. William K. Wimsatt and Frederick A. Pottle, Melbourne, Londo (...)
  • 5 Bertrand H. Bronson, “Boswelll’s Boswell”, Johnson Agonistes and Other Essays, Berkeley, University (...)
  • 6 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 97-98.

1James Boswell had a passion, or what Samuel Johnson describes as a “gust” for London.1 This was the case before they met in May 1763, although his relationship with the great “Doctor” did subsequently contribute to his love for the city. But prior to their meeting this “gust” was fuelled by Boswell’s desire to escape the restrictions of his life of study and his father’s supervision in Scotland.2 It was encouraged too by his reading of The Spectator, whose eidolon Mr Spectator he sought to emulate and who is consistently in his mind during the multiple and protracted visits he made to the capital between his first “wild expedition” of 1760 until his death there in 1795.3 Of the surviving texts that record his experiences, the London Journal 1762-1763 has received the most attention, because it is the most polished and complete. But his later visits are also described and reflected upon, albeit often less fully and sometimes in memorandum form, elsewhere, including in the following published volumes: Boswell for the Defence 1769-1774, Boswell: The Ominous Years 1774-1776 and Boswell: The English Experiment 1785-1789.4 Since Bertrand Bronson’s classic essay “Boswell’s Boswell”, which formulated the idea of Boswell’s “double consciousness” – a simultaneous awareness of himself as both participant and observer – it has been well-established that Boswell’s autobiographical writing is at once the record of his lived experience and the process by which he attempted to construct an identity for himself.5 But it is equally the case that in these journals Boswell’s subject is himself in relation to the places that he visits and the people whom he encounters, and he believes these engagements with the world to take a specific form. “I am,” he observes, “a being vey much consisting of feelings. I have some fixed principles. But my existence is chiefly conducted by the powers of fancy and sensation.”6

  • 7 P. M. Spacks, Imagining a Self: Autobiography and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England, Cambridg (...)

2This article argues that one significant aspect of this interaction of the imaginative and the sensory in Boswell’s experience of London is auditory and that by examining the manner in which he represents sounds, and his experiences of and reflections on hearing, we can deepen our understanding of the nature of eighteenth-century London as a sonic environment, Boswell’s attitudes towards it, and the structural features of his writing. It also seeks to demonstrate that a key concept in sound studies, “the soundscape”, can usefully be brought into dialogue with existing scholarship on the relationship between writing and self in Boswell’s journals, and what Patricia Meyer Spacks terms their “rich investigation of the relation between inner and outer experience.”7 The intention is not to suggest that sight, smell or touch, are unimportant, nor is it to ignore the synaesthetic and multi-sensorial interrelations that are possible between the senses, but rather to posit that a sustained attention to one sense across the range of Boswell’s writing about London reveals patterns that are otherwise widely diffused.

Recording Sounds

  • 8 The Hypochondriack: being the seventy essays by the celebrated biographer, James Boswell, appearing (...)

3The journals establish that Boswell is fascinated by the city and all of its possibilities and is hungry for sensory experiences of it, not just for immediate diversion but in order to build up a store of memories to be laid up for the future. This is because, as he articulates strongly in his two Hypochondriack essays on “Country Life”, he perceives the city, by which he means London, to be the place for stimulation: “Let no man of exuberant vivacity, keen sensations, and perpetual rage for variety, attempt to live in the country.”8 Thus he writes enthusiastically near the start of the London Journal of:

  • 9 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 68-69.

the immense crowd and hurry and bustle of business and diversion, the great number of public places of entertainment, the noble churches and the superb buildings of different kinds, agitate, amuse, and elevate the mind […] Here a young man of curiosity and observation may have a sufficient fund of present entertainment, and may lay up ideas to employ his mind in age.9

  • 10 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), ed. Roger Woolhouse, London, Penguin, 2 (...)
  • 11 Ibid., p. 225 and p. 250-252.
  • 12 David Daiches describes Boswell’s “passion for the stage” in his introduction to New Light on Boswe (...)
  • 13 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 63, 243.

4As suggested by the references to “entertainment” and to “ideas”, this is a matter of both diversion and of Lockean empirical knowledge gathering, and thus perhaps the first indication of the influence upon him of The Spectator’s sustained dissemination of Locke’s arguments against innate ideas.10 In this mode he seeks out new sense experiences, many of which involve exposure to particular sounds. For example, he attends the House of Commons and hears Fox and Pitt in full flow, and visits Newgate prison, where he remarks on the sound of the “chains rattling upon” a prisoner as he walks to the chapel.11 With a long held passion for the theatre, he also attends as many performances as he is able, often more than two a week.12 His experiences of listening to stage music and voices thus range from Terence’s The Eunuch performed “by the King’s scholars of Westminster School”, where he is fascinated to “hear them speak Latin with the English accent”, to the English opera of Artaxerxes, the music of which he “relished.”13

  • 14 Bruce R. Smith, “Tuning into London c.1600”, in The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and L (...)
  • 15 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 291.
  • 16 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 148 and p. 86.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 278.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 253. John Wilkes was the founder of The North Briton, which strongly criticized the gover (...)
  • 19 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 141.
  • 20 Dianne Dugaw, “Theorizing Orality and Performance in Literary Anecdote and History: Boswell’s Diari (...)
  • 21 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 253.

5Bearing this in mind one approach that can be adopted in terms of examining Boswell’s descriptions of London is to take note of the specific details that he records as evidence of the sounds that were produced and heard in London during the eighteenth century and thus to follow scholars such as Bruce R. Smith and Emily Cockayne in what Smith terms the “project of historical recovery.”14 This kind of analysis focuses primarily on the sense of hearing, but recognises that often more than one sense is involved, and that the effects of different senses may be experienced simultaneously or synaesthetically. As a mode of investigation, it can most certainly yield some interesting insights: for example, that Garrick used to perform a skit where he imitated Dr Johnson in pronouncing, “Who’s for poonch?15; that “gilded chariots” on the way to Court to celebrate the Queen’s birthday “rattled”, and that at a cockfight the “uproar and noise of betting is prodigious.”16 Through his description of a “quarrel between a gentleman and a waiter” at Vauxhall pleasure gardens, furthermore, we learn of how bystanders would encourage a fight: “A great crowd gathered round and roared out, ‘A ring - a ring,’ which is the signal for making room for the parties to box it out.”17 We are also privy to the sounds that greeted “the famous Wilkes” on the morning of the 6th May 1763 when he was “discharged from his confinement and followed to his house in Great George Street by an immense mob who saluted him with loud huzzas while he stood bowing from the window.”18 Conversely, it emerges that there were pockets of quiet to be found in the city: “Langton and I walked near an hour in Somerset Gardens, where I had never been before. It was very agreeable to find quietness and old trees in the very heart of London. My dissipation and hurry of spirits were cured here.”19 As Dianne Dugaw has shown, Boswell’s journals also “supply a prolific and varied panorama of the oral circulation of songs and the vibrancy of oral performance in eighteenth-century Britain.”20 Often these songs are recorded by name, as for instance, when Boswell describes what happens on a coach journey to London from Oxford in March of 1776: “They sang, And A-hunting We Will Go, and I joined in the chorus. I then sung Hearts of Oak, Gee Ho, Dobbin, The Roast Beef of Old England, and they chorused.”21

  • 22 Paul J. Korshin, “Johnson’s Conversation in Boswell’s Life of Johnson”, in ed. G. Clingham, op. cit (...)
  • 23 Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O Factor, Chicago, Lon (...)

6Clearly, this is valuable historical information. But such an approach also has its limitations. Not least of which, as Paul J. Korshin has observed in relation to Boswell’s attempt in these journals (and later in the Life of Samuel Johnson) to capture both the content and the manner of Johnson’s speech, is the fact that aside from details that have the potential to be verified such as song names, these descriptions rely on linguistic description that is both insufficient to fully capture the experience of hearing sounds and highly subjective: “We may know that Johnson’s voice was sonorous, that he spoke with a pronounced Staffordshire accent, that he had a ‘bow-wow’ method of speaking, but we cannot know how he sounded.”22 In reflecting on how to respond to this difficulty, it is helpful to consider further how, through a study of Boswell’s writing, we can make use of the key term that Smith employs in his now canonical study The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: soundscape.23

Immersion

  • 24 R. Schafer, The New Soundscape: A Handbook for the Modern Music Teacher, Don Mills, Ont., BMI Canad (...)
  • 25 Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity, Cambridge, MA, London, MIT Press, 2002; John Picker, V (...)
  • 26 Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside, trans. (...)
  • 27 Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, op. cit., p. 44.
  • 28 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 5; The Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston of (...)
  • 29 The Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston, ed. cit., p. 43.
  • 30 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 211.

7The term was first brought to wide scholarly attention by the composer Murray Schafer via a short pamphlet The New Soundscape (1969), and later in his book The Tuning of the World (1977), which was republished in 1993 as The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World.24 From this point on it spread rapidly and has subsequently been invoked frequently, including in addition to Smith, by Emily Thompson in The Soundscape of Modernity (2002) and John Picker in Victorian Soundscapes (2003).25 Alain Corbin in his study of nineteenth-century France, Village Bells, employs the alternative but related term, “auditory landscape.”26 Turning first to how the term can help us to analyse Boswell’s experience of London, it is clear that the concept of immersion, of being in a sonic environment is central both to the existing definitions of soundscape and to how Boswell perceives himself in relation to London. For Schafer the term soundscape is a framework through which to analyse the relationships that can exist between sounds and places. Building on this, in Smith’s definition a soundscape “consists […] not just of the environment that the listener attends to but of the listener-in-the-environment.”27 This formulation is entirely congruent with Boswell’s representation of his relationship to the city. Writing in 1762 to his friend John Johnston, to whom he would later send the London Journal in weekly sections, he depicts this metaphorically as a kind of immersion: “I intend to keep a journal in order to acquire a method, for doing it, when I launch into the Ocean of high life.”28 Once there he writes again to report on how he is faring “amidst all the hurry and gayety of the Metropolis.”29 He also returns to this figure later. For example, after five weeks of confinement due to sickness, he describes returning to participation in the life of the city by leaving his lodging thus: “But now I launched into the wide ocean.”30

  • 31 Ibid., p. 49. This speech was for the opening of Parliament. The King discussed the Peace, which wa (...)

8This sense of immersion also structures many of the observations Boswell makes about his hearing, where he emphasises how happy it makes him that he is physically present within specific environments and therefore able to hear sounds and voices first hand. For instance, he is thrilled to be invited to the House of Lords by Lord Eglinton and to hear the King at the opening of Parliament: “I accordingly went and heard the King make his speech. It was a very noble thing. I here beheld the King of Great Britain on his throne with the crown on his head addressing both the Lords and the Commons.”31 On a later visit, although he records a combined multi-sensory experience, the sound of the clock of St. Paul’s functions as what Smith following Schafer terms a “soundmark” – it signals Boswell’s location within a particular space in the city, and is for him an audible signal that he is part of the life of London:

  • 32 Bruce R. Smith, “The Soundscapes of Early Modern England”, in Hearing History: A Reader, ed. Mark M (...)

I was a man of considerable consequence. The place of our meeting, St. Paul’s Churchyard, the sound of St. Paul’s clock striking the hours, the busy and bustling countenances of the partners around me, all contributed to give me a complete sensation of this kind. I hugged myself in it.32

  • 33 Emily Cockayne, op. cit., Sean Shesgreen, Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of Lon (...)
  • 34 Dana Brand, The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Cambridge, Cambri (...)

9However, whilst these examples of Boswell’s self-conscious positioning of himself within the spaces of London where particular sounds can be heard are positive, in the sense that they generate in him feelings of awe and pride, in fact if we examine the journals further, it becomes apparent that actually the matter of immersion is fraught for Boswell. A clue that suggests this is the fact that despite Boswell’s interest in sounds, his descriptions of the city are not overwhelmingly cacophonous in the way that is suggested by William Hogarth’s etched engraving The Enraged Musician (1741) or later, as is depicted in Tobias Smollett’s, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771). The contrast is immediately apparent if a comparison is made between Boswell’s journals and the details of “filth, stench and noise” that Cockayne identifies in a large body of earlier writing about the city, and in Sean Shesgreen’s study, Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London.33 One reason for this lies with the influence of The Spectator on Boswell’s thoughts of, and writing about, London. As Dana Brand has argued, its authors, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, deliberately present a different idea of London from the urban literature of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which focused on what was riotous, dirty and dangerous about city. In her words, “it is necessary to recognise that the original readers of the Tatler and the Spectator cannot help but have been aware that what they were reading was a cleaner, a more dignified, and more edifying version of the kind of urban literature that was most popular at the time.”34

  • 35 Jon Klancher, The Making of English Reading Audiences 1790-1832, Madison, University of Wisconsin P (...)
  • 36 Anthony Pollock, “Neutering Addison and Steele: Aesthetic Failure and the Spectatorial Public Spher (...)
  • 37 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 76.
  • 38 Ibid., p. 244.

10In this interpretation Brand is in alignment with other scholars who have argued that The Spectator inculcates in its readers the necessity for self-regulation, in response to the perceived disorder of the world. Jon P. Klancher, for example, makes the case that the periodical writers of the early eighteenth century, including Addison and Steele, attempted to “regulate an expanding cultural economy whose sense of order they must somehow provide”.35 More recently, although he argues for the centrality of detached vision within The Spectator, Pollock has described this as a reaction to a public sphere that its authors recognise as “disorderly” and “in desperate need of regulation.”36 Since Boswell first reads about London as a youth in The Spectator and repeatedly draws our attention to the parallels between himself and Mr Spectator, it is reasonable to suspect that he is influenced by this concern with order and regulation. Examples of his conscious associations with the periodical include his remarks of Child’s coffeehouse that this was a place frequented by Mr Spectator, “which makes me have an affection for it. I think myself like him, and am serenely happy there.”37 Similarly, when he later embarks on a trip to Oxford he comments: “I imagined myself as the Spectator taking one of his rural excursions.”38

  • 39 Ibid., p. 43-44.
  • 40 D. Brand, op. cit., p. 28-29.
  • 41 The English Lucian: or, weekly discoveries of the witty intrigues, comical passages and remarkable (...)

11Evidence that Boswell does indeed follow the lead of The Spectator in terms of presenting sensory experiences in the city in a more moderate fashion can be found if we compare the opening vignette of the London Journal, in which Boswell reports how his arrival in London began with surveying the city from the top of Highgate Hill, singing “all manner of songs”, giving “three huzzas” and then going “briskly in”, with an earlier periodical description of a traveller entering the city in the same manner.39 This earlier version of the Highgate Hill scene appears in The English Lucian, one of the texts Brand references as exemplary of the urban literature that proved popular for its “carnivalesque” representations of the city as chaotic, vice-filled and the source of overwhelming sensory stimulation.40 Boswell follows the basic structure of this earlier entrance: the English Lucian is introduced as a philosopher who appears on the Hill after release from Hell, and surveys the city with admiration before descending into it in the belief that it will be a heaven by comparison.41 This heaven/hell contrast is also how Boswell understands the city.

  • 42 Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. cit., Vol I, p. 179.

I had long complained to him [Johnson] that I felt discontented in Scotland, as too narrow a sphere, and that I wished to make my chief residence in London, the great scene of ambition, instruction, and amusement: a scene, which was to me, comparatively speaking, a heaven upon earth.42

12The texts diverge, however, in terms of what happens next. The English Lucian proceeds immediately to document how the philosopher’s disillusionment is prompted by sounds:

  • 43 The English Lucian, ed. cit., p. 1.

But I had not stay’d long in this Place before I found my mistake […] For I had no sooner Bustled through the Crowd, and reach’d the Exchange; but the Humming and Buzzing of an infinite Number of Peripateticks, or Walking Traders […] made me believe I was got into the midst of a Hive of Bees, or rather a Nest of Hornets.43

  • 44 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 44-45.

13By contrast, Boswell is not disillusioned, discomforted or distressed by what he experiences. Instead he claims that “The noise, the crowd, the glare of the shops and signs agreeably confused” him and he then goes on to present his first day as one in which he receives useful local information, meets his friend Douglas, and finds himself in the evening sensorially and intellectually content: “snug in a theatre, my body warm and my mind elegantly amused.”44

  • 45 The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond, 5 vols, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987, Vol II. p. 474-475.
  • 46 Ibid., IV, p. 104-105.
  • 47 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 126.
  • 48 Ibid., p. 222.

14The difference between these two accounts is striking, and at the mid-point between them again appears The Spectator. The English Lucian is threatened by the intensity and multiplicity of the sounds of the trader “Hornets”, but when The Spectator twice reports a similar scene at the Exchange, it downplays its acoustic excess, diminishes its urban novelty, and defuses its power to overwhelm or intimidate. First, in Essay 251, Addison achieves this by explaining that whilst these urban cries may “astonish” or “Fright” a “Foreigner” or “Country Squire”, to Will Honeycombe (the member of his fictional club most closely associated with life in the city) they are the “Ramage de la Ville”, and as such are preferable even to the “Sounds of Larks and Nightingales”. This understanding of the street cries as akin to “the Musick of the Woods” is then extended by the efforts of a certain Ralph Crotchett, whose letter comprises the remainder of the letter, to categorise the different calls into “Vocal” and “Instrumental” types.45 Later, in Essay 454, Steele does not retreat into analogy, and instead is explicit in describing the “well-disposed” streets as a source of joy and the exchange itself as the bustling epicentre of trade and commerce. In this context the sounds of the traders appear to his narrator as benign, merely a “confused humming”, which far from unsettling the narrator (who has ascended to the balcony to imperiously survey the scene), instead causes him only to reflect: “What nonsense is all the hurry of this world, to those who are above it?”46 Boswell’s journals then take this move one step further, by making no mention of the cacophony of cries at all, commenting on the Exchange only in passing, unconcerned, terms, and nor does he resort to visual representations of elevation above the melee. Instead his references merely record that remaining firmly on the street he “took a whim that between St. Paul’s and the Exchange and back again, taking the different sides of the street, I would eat a penny Twelfth-cake at every shop where I could get it.”47 And then three months later that he “Walked to the Exchange, and sauntered into Guildhall […] in good London humour and comfortable enough.”48

  • 49 R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape, op. cit., p. 183; Peter Bailey, “Breaking the Sound Barrier”, in (...)
  • 50 See for instance, P. M. Spacks, op. cit.; Felicity A. Nussbaum, The Autobiographical Subject: Gende (...)
  • 51 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 86-87.
  • 52 Ibid., p. 109.

15If we follow Schafer’s characterisation of noise as “unwanted sound”, or its more recent definition by Peter Bailey as the “broad yet imprecise category of sounds that register variously as excessive, incoherent, confused, inarticulate or degenerate”, the case of the cries of the London exchange are representative of the fact that more broadly in Boswell’s records of London there is less noise than one would expect.49 Given that multiple other sources, such as those described by Bruce R. Smith, Cockayne, and Shesgreen, testify to the fact that this cannot literally have been so, we must conclude that this is a choice. One contributory factor here is that, as is well-established, the journals reveal Boswell to be continually torn between his desire to be a man of order and moderation and his propensity for excess and dissipation.50 As a consequence of this battle, and the resultant instability of his character, there is something of a split quality to his experiences in London, which does to a degree map onto his experiences of, and attitudes towards his sounds. For instance, it is on the day that he “resolves to be a true-born Englishman” that he deliberately attends the cockfight where he hears the “uproar and noise of betting.”51 Conversely, when in a more regular frame of mind, and keen to be admired and judged a gentleman of elegance and wit, he naturally finds himself in quieter and less riotous places, most commonly private homes, where “genteel company, tea and cards” are the entertainment.52 Since, proportionately, the latter receives much more attention in the journals, it is not surprising that they generate an overall impression of London as a city of talk rather than of noise. But, over and above this, it is equally apparent that even when Boswell does describe noises such as the “huzzas” earlier noted to have accompanied the release of Wilkes, or the shouting of men gambling at a cockfight, he does intermittently, and provides no elaboration, exaggeration or aggregation. Instead he attends to single sounds, which he identifies precisely.

Orchestration

  • 53 The Hypochondriack, ed. cit., Vol II, p. 42.
  • 54 S. Manning, “This Philosophical Melancholy”, in ed. G. Clingham, op. cit., p. 126-140, here p. 128- (...)

16One reason for this is that in shaping his journal accounts, Boswell is concerned to present to himself, and to his friend Johnston, the impression that he is not overwhelmed by the sensory stimulation of the city, and thus by inference that he is a natural if not a native inhabitant of it, rather than an outsider, and a mere visitor. He wants, in other words, to mimic the response of Mr Spectator, or perhaps more realistically, Will Honeycombe. However, his description of the experience of hypochondria (depression), with which he was regularly plagued throughout his life, also suggests that he also does not want to experience or represent scenes or sensations of overwhelming sensory stimulation because of the similarity of this state of being to that of his darkest periods of mental suffering; a state involving “an uneasy perturbation of spirits”, and characterised by him in terms of “multitude, disorder, fluctuation and tumult” which render the world “one undistinguished wild.”53 As Susan Manning has discussed, this bleak vision is deeply troubling for Boswell because in it he confronts the implications of David Hume’s philosophical argument in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738) that there is no external existence aside from our perceptions: “not only is knowledge of the external world limited to what we perceive of it, but the sense of identity, selfhood itself, appears at its most irreducible nothing more than impressions of sensations and reflection.”54

17Is the self extinguished then, he wonders, if the mind is disordered and unable to build a picture of the world beyond that of an “undistinguished wild”?

  • 55 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 39.
  • 56 The Spectator, ed. cit., Vol 1, p. 6, Essay No. 1.
  • 57 Jon Mee, Conversable Worlds: Literature, Contention and Community 1762-1830, Oxford, Oxford Univers (...)

18Partly as a hedge against the sense of isolation these episodes of hypochondria bring with them, but also because of his desire for intellectual stimulation, he announces at the start of the 1762 London Journal that he is interested in a different kind of auditory experience: “I shall mark the anecdotes and stories that I hear” and the “instructive or amusing conversations that I am present at.”55 In the value that he places on conversation Boswell once again reveals himself to be a devotee of The Spectator, in the sense that he appreciates and wishes to experience for himself the conversational culture of the “club” that provides one of the periodical’s central structuring devices.56 As Mee has observed, Boswell is not unique in his recognition of both the currency and the significance of this mode of interaction, largely because periodicals such as The Spectator were responsible for shaping eighteenth-century understandings of the significance of “the conversational paradigm” and through this “made their own contribution to the idea that culture was the product of processes of exchange between participants.”57

  • 58 The Hypochondriack, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 26.

19In this conceptualisation of conversation, speaking, listening and hence sound, play a secondary role to the central trope of exchange but, nonetheless, the necessity for individuals to meet physically in a location and to rely on mouths and ears, rather than paper and ink, remains a factor. Boswell recognises this when he adds the clarification “instructive or amusing conversations that I am present at”. It has already been established that he imagines himself “launching into the ocean” of London, and here he reinforces this desire to be in the social and cultural life of London, and, therefore, “amongst people assembled together, and having their powers and faculties excited.”58 Thus although he is keen to record the conversations of the great and the good of eighteenth-century urban society, including Sheridan, Garrick and of course Samuel Johnson, he is equally interested in those of less well known figures with whom he is able to meet more regularly.

  • 59 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p.75. These dialogues appear at p. 94, 105, 115, 144,146, 221.
  • 60 A full list of these coffee-houses, eating houses, taverns and societies is provided in Boswell’s L (...)

20But in order to hear and then record such oral exchanges effectively, when they generally take place on the street or in public places such as coffeehouses and taverns, Boswell must attend carefully to only some of the sounds around him and must filter out the background noise when he records them in his journals. This is certainly what we see in his use of dramatically cast dialogues to capture conversations that he ostensibly listened to at Child’s, and which he decides shall appear in the Journal every Saturday.59 The effect of these inserted dialogues, which will later be used to great effect in his Life of Johnson, is to drop the reader into a particular auditory environment, which is not identical to that which Boswell would have heard when present there in person, but rather one in which the speakers do not mumble, ramble or bore, and where the ambient noise of other conversations and of the clattering of cups, and all the paraphernalia of coffee roasting and brewing, has been muted, to enable the isolation and amplification of single voices. This effect is created by every “cleaned up” conversation he presents. But in addition, taken together, the repeated insertion of conversations from numerous different coffeehouses, taverns and clubs creates a cumulative impression of London as a place dominated by the sound of speaking voices.60 Of course there were indeed innumerable conversations taking place in multiple public locations, but nonetheless it is notable that this dominance is replicated in the journals, when we have seen that this is not necessarily the case with other sources of sound or noise.

  • 61 Paul K. Alkon, “Boswell’s Control of Aesthetic Distance”, in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of B (...)
  • 62 Ari R. Kelman, art. cit., p. 214, 218.

21The effects of Boswell’s textual structuring have been insightfully discussed by Paul K. Alkon in the more visually and spatially oriented terms of “scenes” and “the control of aesthetic distance.”61 But it remains significant that the basic material on which Boswell draws is derived from his attention to voices. It is also the case that his reliance on selection and arrangement replicates the idea which is central to Schafer’s understanding of the soundscape; as Shelman has observed, this is the process of tuning out certain sounds in order to attend to others, which enables a “kind of audition the organizing principle of which is not total sonorous engagement, but orchestration.”62

22It is not only in relation to conversation, however, that the concept of orchestration drawn from Schafer’s conception of the soundscape is a useful point of reference. Boswell’s admiration for the city (a “heaven upon earth”) is manifested through highly aestheticized visual descriptions that suggest a silent soundscape that cannot have existed. For instance, at the close of the London Journal, Boswell reports an excursion with Johnson thus:

  • 63 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 329-330.

Mr. Johnson and I took a boat and sailed down the silver Thames […] We landed at the Old Swan and walked to Billingsgate, where we took oars and moved smoothly along the river. We were entertained with the immense number and variety of ships that were lying at anchor. It was a pleasant day, and when we got clear out into the country, we were charmed with the beautiful fields on each side of the river.63

23This description captures Boswell’s contentment at spending time alone with the man he so admired in the city that both men loved, and also with his own measured conduct. For these reasons the scene is shown to be beautiful, harmonious, ordered and ideal. And on their return, his “warm comfort at being again at London” is captured by a quotation from Johnson’s “London” poem of 1738, which again celebrates the beauty of London and admits no disturbances.

On Thame’s banks in silent thought we stood,
Where Greenwich smiles upon the silver flood;
Struck with the seat which gave Eliza birth,
We kneel, and kiss the consecrated earth.

  • 64 Boswell for the Defence, ed. cit., p. 225.

24To a degree, descriptions of this sort are exercises to enable Boswell to improve his skills as a writer. Additionally, the fact that the river is described by Boswell as “silver” in echo of the lines from Johnson’s poem suggests that he is also keen to emphasise his connection to the great man. By recording the scene then he reveals his pride in their friendship and in himself for gaining Johnson’s approbation. But most importantly, he is here putting into practice the advice given to him by Johnson to keep a journal in order to record how his experiences in the world affect him: “Mr Johnson said that the great thing was to register the state of my mind.”64 In the context of this intention both the inclusion and the exclusion of information are significant and thus the absence of sound is as important as the provision of visual detail. It marks a point of contact between the two men in that the absence of sound references in Boswell’s description means that his prose echoes Johnson’s poem (“in silent thought we stood”) and thereby reinforces the association between them. Additionally, it contributes to the creation of an idealised scene of uninterrupted beauty and harmony, in which we cannot hear the sounds of the Thames as a busy thoroughfare and site of work. The greatness of London as a city of trade is gestured towards by reference to an “immense number and variety of ships”, but they are lying at anchor and are silent and do not disturb the scene. Taken together then, these details represent Boswell’s attempt to both record details of an excursion that actually happened and to document figuratively the state of his mind both during the experience and afterwards, and he recalls and reflects upon it with pride and pleasure.

  • 65 E. Thompson, op. cit., p. 1.
  • 66 J. Picker, op. cit., p. 14.

25It is to this state of affairs that the idea of the soundscape attends, because it acknowledges rather than resists the constitutive role of the subjective listener. This is clearly articulated by Thompson in The Soundscape of Modernity: “the soundscape [is] an auditory or aural landscape. Like a landscape, a soundscape is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment.”65 The value of exploring this dual nature of the soundscape with reference to particular accounts of listening is further emphasised by Picker in his study Victorian Soundscapes: “It seems appropriate to steer away from a monolithic conception of a single […] soundscape toward an analysis of the experiences of particular individuals listening under specific cultural influences and with discernible motivations, if that is the word, for hearing as they did.”66 Together these two engagements with the concept of the soundscape suggest the value of attending more precisely than may at first seem necessary to what and how Boswell hears.

Regulation

  • 67 Brian Cowan, “Mr Spectator and the Coffeehouse Public Sphere”, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37, 2004 (...)
  • 68 The Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston of Grange, ed. cit., p. 43.

26The Spectator is clearly one such “discernible cultural influence” upon Boswell’s listening. The connection between The Spectator’s moderated representations of the sights and sounds of London and Boswell’s own has already been observed, but the influence of its regulatory project in fact extends further than this. As has been commonly observed The Spectator project involved the transference of “the burden of responsibility for controlling the public sphere from the repressive vigilance of the servants of the state to the self-awareness of the individual.”67 It is this “self-awareness” that Boswell takes on in London. In a letter to Johnston at the very start of his visit in 1762 he explains that: “I have determined to keep a daily journal in which I shall set down my various sentiments and my various conduct, which will be not only useful but very agreeable. It will give me a habit of application and improve me in expression.” But even more than this, he claims that the habit of writing will positively influence how he behaves in the city: “knowing that I am to record my transactions will make me more careful to do well.”68 Primarily here he is referring to the hope that the journal will discourage him from improper conduct and in this way the journal represents his internalisation of the Spectator’s insistence on the need for self-regulation. But this resolution also has implications for how he experiences London. It suggests that what he attends to is shaped not only by immediate influences acting at the moment of stimulation, but also by the knowledge that what he experiences will be recorded. It may well have been, therefore, that whilst on the boat with Johnson, Boswell was particularly alert and responsive to the kind of details that he could envisage incorporating into his journal record not just to “register” his state of mind but to improve both his character and his writing. Obviously, he does later shape the scene through writing, but this does not detract from the fact that the physical act of his hearing (along of course with his other senses) and not just the record of what he has heard, needs to be understood within this wider context of self-awareness and self-regulation.

  • 69 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 47, 65.
  • 70 Ibid., p. 113. Digges was a close Scottish friend and a successful actor in Edinburgh.

27The journals record the battle with himself that ensues from this desire to control and improve himself. He embarks on a regime of self-improvement designed not merely to distance himself from his Scottish roots, but to transform his character and conduct entirely: “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.” In order to achieve this, he admits that he “regulate[s] everything in the most prudent way.”69 His speech is just one aspect of this effort, which also involves his finances, eating, drinking, and sexual behaviour, but it is an extremely important one. Frequently, therefore, Boswell attempts to fit himself for the day ahead with more detailed instructions regarding his oral utterances. Before an imminent meeting with his actress-lover “Louisa”, for instance, he writes himself a memorandum: “be warm and press home, and talk gently and Digges-like. Acquire an easy dignity and black liveliness of humour like him. Learn, as Sheridan said, to speak slow and softly.”70 In these instructions to himself we can see The Spectator’s legacy of “self awareness” in action: he has made a determined effort both to imagine how he will sound to others, and has reflected upon how particular modulations of voice and tone (in combination with the multi-sensorial dimension of his overall manner) generate reactions in the listener. Moreover, he does this on the basis of what he has learnt through careful attention to his own experiences as a listener and observer of others.

  • 71 Ibid., p. 257.
  • 72 Ibid., p. 68.

28His successes he records proudly: “I talked really very well […] The degree of distance due to stranger restrained me from my effusions of ludicrous nonsense and intemperate mirth. I was rational and composed, yet lively and entertaining.”71 His failures, on the other hand, are perceived as evidence of his lack of self-control: “I let myself out in humorous rhodomontade rather too much.”72 As such they become associated with other lapses of self-regulation, each reinforcing the other and generating in Boswell a deep feeling of disgust:

They insisted that I should eat a bit of supper. I complied. I also drank a glass of punch. I read some of Pope. I sung a song. I let myself down too much. Also, being unaccustomed to taste supper, my small alteration put me out of order. I went up to my room much disgusted. I thought myself a low being.

  • 73 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 272.

29Through these efforts, we see that for Boswell the production of certain types of sounds is understood not only in terms of cultural norms of politeness and his own desire to be a man of moderation, but also in bodily terms; the sound of his own voice let out with too much abandon is aligned with his weakness before the temptations of food and drink. Each is deemed to be potentially damaging to his nascent new character on the grounds that they should be subject to the iron rule of his will, and yet all too often both slip out of his control: “I am always resolved to study propriety of conduct. But I never persist with any steadiness.”73

  • 74 Ibid.
  • 75 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 94.

30In addition to concerns about the volume, nature and timing of his oral utterances, he understands his Scottish accent as unacceptable and its sound as evidence of his lack of self-control, politeness and even moral probity: “the Scotch tones and roaring freedom of manners which I heard today disgusted me a good deal. I am always resolving to study propriety of conduct.”74 The binding together of these three aspects of concern is even more forcefully expressed in a later reflection from his 1774-1776 journal, in a section that is cut when it is reformulated for the Life of Johnson: “I was disgusted by [Dr George] Fordyce, who was coarse and noisy: and, as he had the Scotch accent strong, he shocked me as a kind of representative of myself. He was to me as the slaves of the Spartans, when shown drunk to make that vice odious. His being a member lessened the value of the Club.”75

  • 76 P. Rogers, “Boswell and the Scotticism”, in ed. Clingham, op. cit., p. 57-63.

31This attitude towards the sound of Scottish speech was not unique to Boswell. Indeed, even in Scotland, as Pat Rogers has discussed, David Hume’s compilation of a list of banned Scotticisms and the work of the Select Society (which Boswell joined in 1761) to improve standards of English indicated the strength of contemporary awareness that “anti-Scottish sentiment could be whipped up simply on the basis of their peculiar, or at least readily identifiable manner of speech”. This antagonism was only heightened by the contentious appointment of the Scottish Earl of Bute as Prime Minister, in the very year that Boswell made his journey down to London.76 Yet still the intensity of his reaction is noteworthy. Beyond alerting us to the fact that Boswell’s hearing is particularly attuned to pick up accents, both proper and improper, it also reveals that his motivation in recording his responses to voices is to turn the transient sounds of speech into a permanent record through which to either confirm his superiority to the speaker in question or, as in the case of Fordyce, to punish himself by association.

  • 77 A. Kelman, art. cit., p. 214; R. M. Schafer, The Soundscape, op. cit., p. 181.

32Again here Boswell embodies precisely the kind of hearing Schafer advocates as the means by which individuals can regulate their sonic environment. Just as Schafer recommends, Boswell is a discriminating listener, with clear “preferences for certain sounds over others”, and an understanding that sounds have cultural and moral qualities as well as acoustic ones.77 Moreover, Schafer and Boswell both recognise that although the sounds produced by the world cannot generally be prevented, the individual can regulate their experience of it. As has been explored this is achieved in part by a process of “orchestration”. But where Schafer also advocates the attempt to avoid or resist unwanted sounds (what he terms “noise”), for Boswell, the regulation takes place primarily at the point of record and reflection and relies on confrontation as well as with selective omission. Even if his encounters with noises, such as the voice of Fordyce, are unplanned and unavoidable, he chooses to rehearse the experience of listening to them by recording them in his journal for the benefit of registering and then reflecting on the response such noises have prompted in him.

Manipulation

  • 78 Katherine Ellison, “Erotic Death Machines: Sex and Execution in James Boswell’s Writing”, in Sex an (...)
  • 79 Ibid., p. 193.
  • 80 Ibid., p. 184, 186, 191.

33Clearly, then, multiple factors influence the nature of Boswell’s listening, the kinds of sounds he notices, and the effect that sounds have on him. The concept of the soundscape has thus far been valuable in demonstrating the need to attend to how he perceives his relationship to London and the various places within it as well as to the influence of wider cultural forces and his personal motivations for listening. It has also brought to our attention the fact that what we find in the London journals is a record of two processes of selection and arrangement: one that takes place before or at the moment of hearing, and one that is concerned with the transformation of memory and memoranda into the written pages of the journals. Recent work by Katherine Ellison on the representation of sensation in Boswell’s journals, however, has demonstrated, that the analysis here has not yet gone far enough. Ellison argues that to understand the journals we also need to acknowledge “Boswell’s obviously conscious manipulation of sensory experiences.”78 This manipulation, she demonstrates, has a dual target: “By manipulating the senses in narrative […] Boswell as narrator can more effectively control his own reaction to a scene and the reactions of his readers.”79 In alignment with Joan Pittock’s insistence that what we find in Boswell’s autobiographical writing is a “sensationalism of experience,” Ellison’s analysis focuses on how in his journal accounts of London he “repeatedly uses body temperature to mark moments when he feels under the control of a woman” and she also examines the manner in which he records the visual and oral dimensions of “execution scenes” in order to “freeze and unfreeze his subjects in a way that he cannot in real life.”80 What I hope to demonstrate next is that drawing on this approach in combination with the insights already gained through the concept of the soundscape is productive.

  • 81 Boswell for the Defence, ed. cit., p. 41.
  • 82 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 260.

34Even brief and apparently incidental moments can be usefully opened up in this way. For example, when Boswell describes a visit to Johnson’s house, the awe and respect that he feels for him at the time of writing (when they had been friends for nine years) is conveyed by infusing his description of an otherwise ordinary meeting with a sense of Johnson’s gravity and his own feelings of anticipation. This is rendered entirely through a reconstruction of how he heard Johnson’s footsteps: “[I] heard the great man coming upstairs. The sound of his feet upon the timber was weighty and well announced his approach.”81 Over and above this economical capturing of the dynamic of their relationship, this description creates the sense of an appropriate first encounter, which dignifies both men, and in this way compensates for the rather less promising occasion that it was in reality: a chance meeting in a bookshop where Boswell is mocked for his Scottishness and Johnson’s person jars with his reputation and his genius: “[He] is a man of the most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king’s evil. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice.”82

  • 83 Ibid., p. 347.

35Two years later, Boswell again invokes the sound of footsteps, this time in his account of the execution of John Reid, the first client for whom Boswell acted as an advocate, and who was found guilty of sheep stealing and hanged in 1774. In this instance the sound of the steps reflects the gravity of the impending scene of punishment and the finality of the death towards which Reid walks: “There was dead silence all waiting to see the dying man appear. The sound of his steps coming down the stair affected me like what one fancies to be the impression of a supernatural grave noise before any solemn event.”83 Ellison is right to observe that this reference to what Boswell heard is not presented in isolation from both what he saw (“a number of prisoners formed a kind of audience”), but I would add that this effect is augmented by the association of the sound of the steps with an imaginary sound that seems to emanate from beyond the grave, as well as by a tuning out of background noise, in the manner that has been previously discussed.

  • 84 K. Ellison, art. cit., p. 192.

36Furthermore, whilst Ellison considers only this final execution scene, in fact it can be better understood by exploring the persistent and striking engagement with sound that characterises Boswell’s meeting with Reid two weeks prior to this moment.84

  • 85 Boswell for the Defence, ed. cit., p. 319.

I had wrought myself into a passion against John for deceiving me, and spoke violently to him, not feeling for him at the time. I had chosen my time so as to be with him when two o’clock struck. “John,” said I, “you hear that clock strike. You hear that bell. If this does not move you, nothing will. That you are to consider as your last bell. You remember your sentence. On Wednesday the 7 of September. This is the day. Between the hours of two and four in the afternoon; this is that very time.85

  • 86 Ibid.

37Convinced that Reid has lied to him, Boswell here reveals that he deliberately arranged their meeting so as to harness the power of the striking clock to shake Reid into admitting his guilt. This he goes on to state directly: “The circumstances of the clock striking and the two o’clock bell ringing were finely adapted to touch the imagination.”86 Given this, whilst striking and ringing may be generic descriptions of the sounds of clocks and bells, they function here in a particular way because of their relation to Boswell and Boswell’s relation to Reid. This is the case both at the level of how Johnson hears them at the time and how he represents the scene later. Clearly this is a more complex form of “manipulation” than Ellison posits because Boswell’s listening at the time of his meeting with Reid takes place as a consequence of his prior setting up of the scene, and must therefore have been influenced by his hopes for what the arranged encounter would achieve. In addition, the insertion of his own rhetorical efforts to persuade Reid – the repetition of “you hear”, the abbreviated and concatenated sentences, and the insistent references to time – aims at more than just an intensification of the drama. It means that the journal also functions as record of his efforts to help Reid. There is a tone of regret in his admission that he “spoke violently to him, not feeling for him”, but the fact that he records the speech, and that it is clearly skilfully composed, counterbalances this. In life the sounds of his speech would have been lost as soon as they were uttered, but in the journal they can be recalled to mind as testimony to the fact that, despite the guilty verdict and the pain this caused him, Boswell had done his best.

38If we return to London and to a moment that appears, initially, to be far less dramatic, we can see further evidence of complexity in Boswell’s engagements with sound. It emerges when we learn that his decision to emerge back into society after his five weeks’ confinement due to venereal disease was prompted not by the advice of his doctor, but by the sound of a visiting military battalion whose drums he hears outside his lodgings:

  • 87 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 205.

This day the sun shone prettily, yet I doubted as to going abroad. However, a battalion of the Guards from Germany were this day to march into town; and when I heard the beat of their drums, I could not restrain my ardour, and though this was the happiest occasion for me to emerge from obscurity and confinement, to light and to life […] I was much obliged to my soldiers for bringing me fairly out.87

39The effects of this description are multi-layered. Most simply we are alerted to a particular sound that was heard on the streets of London in the 1760s. But the description also works by implying that the thought has occurred to Boswell that the drum beats are for him, and thus that his return to the world merits such a ceremonial marking. This is reinforced by possessiveness of the claim “my soldiers” and by the obligation he expresses to them, neither of which is in any formal sense appropriate. Thus the scene captures the particular quality of Boswell’s self-reflection at this moment; he is caught between a recognition of his whimsical fancy and an acknowledgement that the sound of the drums genuinely did influence his decision. It also offers a further insight into his listening. The description suggests simultaneously that the sound of the drums worked immediately on Boswell’s undecided mind at the moment of their beating, but also, since he records that he knew in advance that they “were to march into town,” that they were not an interruption at all, but an expected signal for which he waited. The likelihood of this latter possibility is strongly supported by the fact that the rest of the journal charts Boswell’s repeated, but futile, attempts to gain a commission in the Guards. And this of course also means that the sound of their drums would have been particularly meaningful for him.

  • 88 K. Ellison, art. cit., p. 193.
  • 89 E. Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity, op. cit., p. 1.

40These representative rather than isolated examples relating to sound and hearing confirm Ellison’s argument that Boswell manipulates sensory experiences in his journals to “magnify or amplify certain moments or elements of a scene that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.”88 They also bear out her view that Boswell always has a potential reader in mind and that his writing is intensively self-aware. What they additionally establish, however, is that we need to understand any “manipulation” at the point of writing in light of Boswell’s intentions and expectations at the point of listening, and, because he admits that he seeks out experiences in order to fill the pages of his journal, vice versa. By drawing together the foundational idea of the soundscape – “a listener’s relationship to their environment” – with the attention to sensation and conscious crafting of his writing demonstrated by Ellison, we are better equipped to undertake such analysis.89

Imagination

  • 90 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 202.
  • 91 Ibid., p. 130.
  • 92 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 141.

41There is though one further aspect of Boswell’s relationship with sound that needs to be considered more directly. It is vital to address the imaginative dimension because he consciously understands both the city and his journals in this way and we have seen glimpses of it at work in nearly all of the examples previously discussed. In the first London Journal, he pronounces that his “journal, letters and essays” are “all works chiefly of the imagination” and we know that to him London is an idea and an ideal long before he visits.90 It is also a city known to him through his reading, and via The Spectator in particular. This periodical continues to shape his relationship to the city once he is finally there and, significantly, he recognises that it has set up for him an imagined London. For example, he writes: “As we drove along and spoke good English, I was full of rich imagination of London, ideas suggested by the Spectator and such as I could not explain to most people, but which I strongly feel and am ravished with.”91 It is perhaps not surprising that this should be the case during his first extended stay in the capital in 1762, but the influence does not wane over time. In 1775 it still dictates how he thinks about a discussion he has with his friend Langton on the subject of religion, outside in Somerset Gardens: “It was quite such a scene as The Spectator pictures.”92

42These remarks about The Spectator are evidence of Boswell’s interest in moments of juncture between his imagined London and the one that he experiences in person. On these two occasions, the two are congruent, but this is not always the case, and often the divergence between the two is prompted by an auditory experience. For example, where the accent and manners of his companions interrupt his view of himself as a London gentleman:

  • 93 Ibid., p. 116. Pottle’s footnote here suggests that Niddry’s Wynd was an alley in Old Town Edinburg (...)

After the elegant scene of gallantry which I had just been solacing my romantic imagination with, and after the high-relished ideas with which my fancy had been heated, I could consider the common style of company and conversation but as low and insipid. But the Fife tongue and the Niddry’s Wynd address were quite hideous.93

  • 94 Fran Tonkiss, “Aural Postcards: Sound, Memory and the City”, in eds M. Bull and L. Black, op. cit.,(...)

43In this, Boswell responds to what Fran Tonkiss in her work on the relationship between sound, memory and the city, identifies as a characteristic feature of “the double life of cities – the way they slide between the material and the perceptual, the hard and the soft.”94 Throughout the journals we see further evidence of just such slides and the concept helps to explain what is happening in the moments explored in the previous section; the sounds of footsteps, clock chimes, bell rings, and drum beats both prompt and signal these slides. In these moments there is not a simple one-directional slide, as above where the move is from high to low, but rather a series of slides between “the material and the perceptual” which generates a sense of their interfusion.

  • 95 The Hypochondriack, ed. cit., Vol II, p. 42.

44This imaginative dimension is also key to understanding how Boswell’s attitude to London, and to its sensory stimulations, changes over time. It was observed earlier that in one of his Hypochondriack essays he describes his episodes of hypochondria as being characterised by ideas of “multitude, disorder, fluctuation and tumult,” with the result that the “world” appears to as “one undistinguished wild.”95 When in the later journals he charts the effects of such episodes upon him, in real time as it were, rather than in a published reflection on the topic, it is interesting that he both echoes these ideas but also diverges significantly from them. What we discover in these journal entries is certainly a sense of the world losing its distinction, but this manifests itself not in a sense of wildness, but of emptiness and, in contrast to the internal chaos that he emphasises in the Hypochondriack, there is instead a focus on feelings of bleakness and numbness.

  • 96 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 214.
  • 97 Boswell: The English Experiment, ed. cit., p. 40.
  • 98 Ibid., p. 76.
  • 99 Ibid., p. 196.
  • 100 Ibid., p. 18.
  • 101 Ibid., p. 31.

45In essence he loses all ability to be stimulated by London and all interest in it. Consequently, the attention to its sights and sounds that characterises his earlier visits is much diminished and in its place are descriptions of his suffering. As has been discussed, this suffering takes the form of an awareness of what he has lost and an anxiety about the implications for his sense of self should his sensations be dulled entirely. The idea of “nothingness” hangs heavy over him. This happens first, briefly, during his visit of 1762: “I was very dreary. I had lost all relish of London. I thought I saw the nothingness of all sublunary enjoyments.”96 But it intensifies during his visits between 1785-1789, where we find such statements as: “I am now quite tranquilised as to London.”97 “Walked in the park and was very gloomy. Felt London quite effectual.”98 “[…] had some bad fumes in my head which affected me gloomily, and observed that the high admiration of London went off.”99 Notably, at the beginning of this journal Boswell attempts to present his change of mental state as a positive one, a coming to his senses and a maturation from a youth to a married man of business: “I regretted my feverish fancy for London.”100 Very quickly, however, it becomes apparent that this is not a move towards rationality but the onset of his numbness: “as the changes of fanciful sensation are very painful, it is more comfortable to have the duller sensation of reality.”101

Sound and Self

  • 102 Ibid., p. 221.
  • 103 S. Manning, “This Philosophical Melancholy”, in ed. G. Clingham, op. cit., p. 126-140, here p. 128- (...)
  • 104 Steven Connor, “The Modern Auditory I”, in Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to th (...)

46The contradiction at the heart of this desire for duller sensation is significant. So is the fact that, following the old pattern, his numbness is periodically punctuated by alcohol and sex binges. He describes these as manifestations of his “rage for pleasure”, but admits that they leave him “inwardly shocked.”102 Both underscore the extent to which Boswell’s attitudes towards, experiences within, and representations of London involve a range of complex interactions between sensation, reflection and imagination. They also reinforce the idea that in these journals what is absent is often as significant as what is present. The focus of this analysis on Boswell’s engagement with the specific sense of hearing and the concept of the soundscape has provided a framework through which to examine these interactions in a nuanced manner. This has necessarily involved a certain isolation of hearing from the other senses, which has its limitations. But by the same token, it has emerged that Boswell is well aware of the power of sound and the ways in which it can be both manipulated and manipulative. Whilst Manning has argued that Boswell “puts too much faith in empirical accounts of sensations to add up, cumulatively to the reality of a self” and thus that his “journals create his self retrospectively by fixing the momentary responses of experience as literary poses,” it has emerged here that there is often very little that is “fixed” about his representations of sound experiences.103 Moreover, it is clear that despite the instability of Boswell’s character and psychological state, he does consistently emerge from the pages of his journals as what Steven Connor terms an “auditory self”. In other words, as a self that “discovers itself in the midst of the world and the manner of inherence in it.”104

Haut de page

Notes

1 Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill and L. F. Powell, 2nd edn, 6 vols, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1934-1950, Vol I, p. 179.

2 Ibid.

3 Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, ed. Frederick A. Pottle, Melbourne, London, Toronto, William Heinemann Ltd, 1950, p. 61.

4 Boswell for the Defence 1769-1774, ed. William K. Wimsatt and Frederick A. Pottle, Melbourne, London, Toronto, William Heinemann Ltd, 1960; Boswell: The Ominous Years 1774-1776, ed. Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle, Melbourne, London, Toronto, William Heinemann Ltd, 1963; Boswell: The English Experiment, ed. Irma S. Lustig and Frederick A. Pottle, London, Heinemann, 1986.

5 Bertrand H. Bronson, “Boswelll’s Boswell”, Johnson Agonistes and Other Essays, Berkeley, University of California Press, p. 64.

6 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 97-98.

7 P. M. Spacks, Imagining a Self: Autobiography and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1976, p. 242.

8 The Hypochondriack: being the seventy essays by the celebrated biographer, James Boswell, appearing in the London magazine, from November, 1777, to August, 1783, and here first reprinted, 2 vols, ed. Margery Bailey, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1928, Vol. II, p. 26.

9 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 68-69.

10 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), ed. Roger Woolhouse, London, Penguin, 2004, p. 119: “I see no reason therefore to believe, that the soul thinks before the senses have furnished it with ideas to think on.

11 Ibid., p. 225 and p. 250-252.

12 David Daiches describes Boswell’s “passion for the stage” in his introduction to New Light on Boswell: Critical and Historical Essays on the Occasion of the Bicentenary of The Life of Johnson, ed. Greg Clingham, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 3.

13 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 63, 243.

14 Bruce R. Smith, “Tuning into London c.1600”, in The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Black, Oxford, Berg, 2003, p. 127-135, here p. 128; Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770, New Haven, London, Yale University Press, 2007.

15 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 291.

16 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 148 and p. 86.

17 Ibid., p. 278.

18 Ibid., p. 253. John Wilkes was the founder of The North Briton, which strongly criticized the government of the new Prime Minister, The Earl of Bute, and as a consequence he was accused of seditious libel.

19 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 141.

20 Dianne Dugaw, “Theorizing Orality and Performance in Literary Anecdote and History: Boswell’s Diaries”, Oral Tradition, 24.2, 2009, p. 415-428, here p. 426.

21 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 253.

22 Paul J. Korshin, “Johnson’s Conversation in Boswell’s Life of Johnson”, in ed. G. Clingham, op. cit., p. 174-193, here p. 174. He is referring to a comment by Lord Pembroke, which prompts Boswell to make an exhortation in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides: “While therefore Johnson’s sayings are read, let his manner be taken along with them.” See Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, London, Penguin, 1985, p. 164.

23 Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O Factor, Chicago, London, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

24 R. Schafer, The New Soundscape: A Handbook for the Modern Music Teacher, Don Mills, Ont., BMI Canada, 1969; R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the World, New York, Knopf, 1977; R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and The Tuning of the World, Rochester, VT, Destiny Books, 1993. Schafer was not the first to use the term. For discussion of its earlier use, see J. Douglas Porteous, Landscapes of the Mind: Worlds of Sense of Metaphor, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1990, p. 50.

25 Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity, Cambridge, MA, London, MIT Press, 2002; John Picker, Victorian Soundscapes, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003.

26 Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside, trans. M. Thom, London, Papermac, 1999, p. 3-44. For a critique of usages of the term soundscape since Schafer, see Ari Kelman, “Rethinking the Soundscape: A Critical Genealogy of the Term in Sound Studies”, Senses and Society, 5.2, 2010, p. 212-234.

27 Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, op. cit., p. 44.

28 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 5; The Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston of Grange, ed. Ralph Walker, London, Heinemann; New York, McGraw Hill, 1966, p. 23.

29 The Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston, ed. cit., p. 43.

30 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 211.

31 Ibid., p. 49. This speech was for the opening of Parliament. The King discussed the Peace, which was to conclude the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

32 Bruce R. Smith, “The Soundscapes of Early Modern England”, in Hearing History: A Reader, ed. Mark M. Smith, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 2004, p. 85-111, here p. 88-89; Boswell for the Defence, ed. cit., p. 104.

33 Emily Cockayne, op. cit., Sean Shesgreen, Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 110-113.

34 Dana Brand, The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 31.

35 Jon Klancher, The Making of English Reading Audiences 1790-1832, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, p. 19.

36 Anthony Pollock, “Neutering Addison and Steele: Aesthetic Failure and the Spectatorial Public Sphere”, English Literary History, 74.3, Fall 2007, p. 707-734, here p. 708, 709.

37 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 76.

38 Ibid., p. 244.

39 Ibid., p. 43-44.

40 D. Brand, op. cit., p. 28-29.

41 The English Lucian: or, weekly discoveries of the witty intrigues, comical passages and remarkable transactions in town and country, with reflections on the vices and vanities of the times, Jan 17th, 1698, p. 1.

42 Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. cit., Vol I, p. 179.

43 The English Lucian, ed. cit., p. 1.

44 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 44-45.

45 The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond, 5 vols, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987, Vol II. p. 474-475.

46 Ibid., IV, p. 104-105.

47 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 126.

48 Ibid., p. 222.

49 R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape, op. cit., p. 183; Peter Bailey, “Breaking the Sound Barrier”, in ed. Mark M. Smith, op. cit., p. 23-35, here p. 23.

50 See for instance, P. M. Spacks, op. cit.; Felicity A. Nussbaum, The Autobiographical Subject: Gender and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century England, Baltimore, Md., Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989; ed. G. Clingham, op. cit.

51 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 86-87.

52 Ibid., p. 109.

53 The Hypochondriack, ed. cit., Vol II, p. 42.

54 S. Manning, “This Philosophical Melancholy”, in ed. G. Clingham, op. cit., p. 126-140, here p. 128-129.

55 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 39.

56 The Spectator, ed. cit., Vol 1, p. 6, Essay No. 1.

57 Jon Mee, Conversable Worlds: Literature, Contention and Community 1762-1830, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 8 and 21. An earlier argument regarding “processes of exchange” and the maintenance of “social order” can be found in Michael G. Ketcham, Transparent Designs: Reading, Performance and Form in The Spectator papers, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1985, p. 2-3, 61.

58 The Hypochondriack, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 26.

59 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p.75. These dialogues appear at p. 94, 105, 115, 144,146, 221.

60 A full list of these coffee-houses, eating houses, taverns and societies is provided in Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 361.

61 Paul K. Alkon, “Boswell’s Control of Aesthetic Distance”, in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Boswell’s Life of Johnson: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. James L. Clifford, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1970, p. 51-65.

62 Ari R. Kelman, art. cit., p. 214, 218.

63 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 329-330.

64 Boswell for the Defence, ed. cit., p. 225.

65 E. Thompson, op. cit., p. 1.

66 J. Picker, op. cit., p. 14.

67 Brian Cowan, “Mr Spectator and the Coffeehouse Public Sphere”, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37, 2004, p. 345-366, here p. 351.

68 The Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston of Grange, ed. cit., p. 43.

69 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 47, 65.

70 Ibid., p. 113. Digges was a close Scottish friend and a successful actor in Edinburgh.

71 Ibid., p. 257.

72 Ibid., p. 68.

73 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 272.

74 Ibid.

75 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 94.

76 P. Rogers, “Boswell and the Scotticism”, in ed. Clingham, op. cit., p. 57-63.

77 A. Kelman, art. cit., p. 214; R. M. Schafer, The Soundscape, op. cit., p. 181.

78 Katherine Ellison, “Erotic Death Machines: Sex and Execution in James Boswell’s Writing”, in Sex and Death in Eighteenth-Century Literature, ed. Jolene Zigarovich, London, Routledge, 2013, p. 183-199, here p. 185.

79 Ibid., p. 193.

80 Ibid., p. 184, 186, 191.

81 Boswell for the Defence, ed. cit., p. 41.

82 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 260.

83 Ibid., p. 347.

84 K. Ellison, art. cit., p. 192.

85 Boswell for the Defence, ed. cit., p. 319.

86 Ibid.

87 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 205.

88 K. Ellison, art. cit., p. 193.

89 E. Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity, op. cit., p. 1.

90 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 202.

91 Ibid., p. 130.

92 Boswell: The Ominous Years, ed. cit., p. 141.

93 Ibid., p. 116. Pottle’s footnote here suggests that Niddry’s Wynd was an alley in Old Town Edinburgh so that this “probably” means “Edinburgh Society Manners”.

94 Fran Tonkiss, “Aural Postcards: Sound, Memory and the City”, in eds M. Bull and L. Black, op. cit., p. 303-309, here p. 303.

95 The Hypochondriack, ed. cit., Vol II, p. 42.

96 Boswell’s London Journal, ed. cit., p. 214.

97 Boswell: The English Experiment, ed. cit., p. 40.

98 Ibid., p. 76.

99 Ibid., p. 196.

100 Ibid., p. 18.

101 Ibid., p. 31.

102 Ibid., p. 221.

103 S. Manning, “This Philosophical Melancholy”, in ed. G. Clingham, op. cit., p. 126-140, here p. 128-129.

104 Steven Connor, “The Modern Auditory I”, in Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present, ed. Roy Porter, London and New York, Routledge, 1996, p. 203-223, here p. 219.

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Laura Davies, « Boswell in London: An Eighteenth-Century Soundscape Study », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 29 | 2016, mis en ligne le 21 juin 2016, consulté le 20 septembre 2017. URL : http://episteme.revues.org/1046 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.1046

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Laura Davies

Laura Davies is a lecturer in eighteenth-century British literature at the University of Southampton (UK) and a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture, University of Oxford. She gained her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2009 and has published articles and chapters on life-writing in a range of forms, both secular and spiritual.

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