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Boswell’s first meeting with Dr Johnson

This is 8 Russell Street, leading to London’s Covent Garden. It was a bookshop in 1763. On Monday, 16 May of that year, Dr Samuel Johnson dropped in to see the bookseller, who was a friend of his. He didn’t know it, but he was about to meet James Boswell for the first time, his lifelong friend and biographer.

Newly arrived in London, Boswell had been hanging around for weeks, hoping to catch a glimpse of the great man. He got his chance at last:

‘On Monday, theĀ  16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr Davies’s back-parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us, he announced his awful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost, ‘Look, my Lord, it comes.’

I found that I had a very perfect idea of Johnson’s figure, from the portrait of him painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds soon after he had published his Dictionary, in the attitude of sitting in his easy chair in deep meditation…

Mr Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, ‘Don’t tell where I come from.’ – ‘From Scotland,’ cried Davies roguishly.

‘Mr Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.’ I am willing to flatter myself that I meant this as light pleasantry to soothe and conciliate him… but this speech was somewhat unlucky; for with that quickness of wit for which he was so remarkable, he seized the expression ‘come from Scotland’… and retorted, ‘That, Sir, I find is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.’

Thus was born a lifelong literary friendship.


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