Boswell on the grand tour : Italy, Corsica and France, 1765-1766

by James Boswell

Other authorsFrederick A. Pottle (Editor), Frank Brady (Editor)
Hardcover, 1955

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Available

Publication

London : Heinemann, 1955.

User reviews

LibraryThing member thorold
We left Boswell at the end of 1764 and the previous volume after his triumph in getting to spend quality time with both Rousseau and Voltaire in Switzerland. He was under strict instructions from Auchinleck Castle to return home after that, but he somehow managed to negotiate permission to spend another four months away visiting Italy (not that his father could see how spending time in Italy could conceivably be of any use to a young lawyer...).

Needless to say, April came and went without young James showing up in Ayrshire. Braving the inevitable paternal wrath, he succeeded in hanging about in Italy until October, and then, instead of Scotland, he headed for Corsica for a few months. From there, he makes a leisurely tour back through France and England, not getting back home until early March of 1766.

So what was he up to in Italy? Well, basically the usual: "sex, religion and politics", as Brady summarises it in his introduction. And in all of these he manages to be gloriously inconsistent in the way only a Boswell can be.

"Politics" covers Boswell's flirtations with the exiled Jacobites in Rome, Avignon and Paris, as well as his meeting and forming a close friendship on the opposite side of the political spectrum with the radical politician John Wilkes, also in exile at the time. But bizarrely, at the same time as becoming genuinely close to Wilkes, Boswell was also making friends with Lord Mountstuart, a wealthy young man on the Grand Tour, who just happened to be the eldest son of Wilkes's worst enemy, the Prime Minister Lord Bute. He travelled with Mountstuart and his entourage for a couple of months, whilst exchanging gloriously flippant and intimate letters with Wilkes.

Politics becomes a bit more serious when he goes to Corsica, where Rousseau had encouraged him to go and meet the rebels who were setting up an independent state in opposition to their nominal Genoese overlords (who had been obliged to allow French peacekeepers in, with the inevitable consequences of that...). He meets and makes friends with the Corsican leader Pasquale de Paoli, and learns about his struggle to turn Corsica from a backward feudal society into a modern state worthy of its status as poster-child of the Age of Enlightenment. But more importantly, he seems to go through a sort of revolutionary transition himself, as the serious man-to-man attitude Paoli adopts towards him gives him a new kind of adult self-confidence at last (and makes him a bit less entertaining as a writer...).

"Religion" isn't quite so much at the forefront this time, but we do see Boswell having serious discussions with everyone from radical deists and atheists to Dominican and protestant theologians. And attending services in Rome without the usual obligatory protestant expressions of disgust at the showiness of Catholic worship.

As far as "sex" goes ... well, Italy had a good supply of clever, attractive, aristocratic ladies who were said to be not too literal in the way they interpreted their marriage vows. Boswell was keen to test this hypothesis, and generally had two or three promising experiments on the go at once. Needless to say they didn't all end well: at one point a lady rather humiliatingly tells him that she wouldn't engage a good cook if she knew he was going to leave in ten days. But there's one Sienese lady who is still sending him teasing letters in Italian a couple of years after his return to Scotland. The correspondence seems to have petered out after Boswell made the sort of error that normally only happens in stage-plays: Girolama got a dull note intended for the English Chaplain in The Hague (which she had to have translated), whilst the Chaplain got a love-letter in Italian...

Meanwhile, of course, Boswell had evenings when all his fine ladies were busy, the consequences of which we see in his account books — he carefully recorded what he spent on prostitutes, condoms, and treatment for venereal infections.

And at the same time as all this, he's still thinking about settling down and getting married: there's the mad project of marrying Belle van Zuylen (which we already know about, because the letters concerned, although dating from the end of 1765, were printed in Boswell in Holland), there is mention of a London cousin, then another cousin in Ireland, and then yet another cousin who was on the trip to Ireland with him...

But his most spectacular and unlikely sexual exploit is saved for the end of the book. He finds himself travelling from Paris to London together with Rousseau's partner, Thérèse le Vasseur (45 at the time, and mother of five children), on her way to rejoin Rousseau there after he was forced to flee from Switzerland. One thing leads to another as if we were in a Smollett novel, and they soon find themselves sharing a bed. Thérèse is by no means satisfied with his performance, and insists on giving him a course of lessons. Boswell notes that they have "done it" thirteen times by the time they get to Dover. Not surprisingly, his awe of Rousseau is slightly diminished after this...

So there's a lot going on in this book, but it's also a bit trickier to keep a sense of Boswell's voice here than in some of the earlier parts because there are so many different kinds of texts that the editors have had to put together. The Corsican part of the journal was published in 1768 and made Boswell's name as a writer; the Italian and French journals (not only called that: for the most part they were written in those languages too, as language-practice) keep stopping and starting, so the editors have to pad out the gaps with letters (also in three languages) and excerpts from Boswell's "memoranda" (rough "notes-to-self"). And the "cross-channel" passage was apparently so sexually-explicit that it was destroyed by a Boswell descendant, and the editors have had to reconstruct it from the recollections of another family-member who had read it...
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