James Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763 was originally published as a scholarly volume by Yale University Press in 1950, but its reputation for scandalous depictions of sexuality and sex acts catapulted the trade edition (by McGraw-Hill) to the top of the best-seller lists. It was a commercial triumph to match the unparalleled discovery of an immense trove of Boswell manuscripts, mainly at Malahide Castle, earlier in the century. The history of these papers, how they survived in near-total obscurity for more than a century to be unearthed by collectors and scholars, the quirks of the family, the sale, the winding way to the library at Yale University and the creation of the “Boswell factory” to edit and publish them (a task that is still ongoing)–all of this makes for a helluva yarn. A good place to start is Frederick Pottle’s Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers (1979).

Let’s take a look at one of them there salacious paragraphs:

Macbeth was played by Holland, who played it poorly and affected us little. I went home with Temple and sat till near twelve, and was very happy. I should have mentioned last night that I met with a monstrous big whore in the Strand, whom I had a great curiosity to lubricate, as the saying is. I went into a tavern with her, where she displayed to me all the parts of her enormous carcass; but I found that her avarice was as big as her a–, for she would be no means take what I offered her. I therefore with all coolness pulled the bell and discharged the reckoning, to her no small surprise and mortification, who would fain have provoked me to talk harshly to her and so make a disturbance. But I walked off with the gravity of a Barcelonian bishop. I had an opportunity tonight of observing the rascality of the waiters in these infamous sort of taverns. They connive with the whores, and do what they can to fleece the gentlemen. I was on my guard, and got off pretty well. I was so much in the lewd humour that I felt myself restless, and took a little girl into a court; but wanted vigour. So I went home, resolved against low street debauchery.

As sex, that’s more on the prudish side these days. You can do better than that on the afternoon soaps. We’d be most upset by his objectification of the prostitute. We might also tut a little over his lordly attitude towards the waiters–though it must be remembered that Boswell was a young lord, and he was being cheated–and over his snide jokes about the size of the woman.

Although not a terribly earth-shattering point to make, it’s interesting to see that Boswell’s capacity to scandalize has a history.

It also makes me a bit sad, to think that no eighteenth-century volume would be likely to make the best-seller lists today. (I have a hard time interesting students in Rochester, for Pete’s sake!)