James Boswell’s Grand Tour

Beginning late in the 17th century, The Grand Tour—the extended journey through Europe undertaken by young British gentlemen to finish off their education—became popular and fashionable for many young British sons of the aristocracy. Typically, the young men already had a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin literature and some interest in art. Two to three years spent living abroad, accompanied by their tutors, offered them the opportunity to absorb the art and cultures they were visiting and improve their language skills. An added benefit was the greater freedom the young travellers experienced on the Continent, where their involvement in drinking, gaming and romantic liaisons posed as little inconvenience to their families as possible.

In terms of sheer reading pleasure and attention to detail, perhaps no accounting of The Grand Tour is more fascinating than that of James Boswell.

George Willison, “James Boswell,” Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Painted in Rome while Boswell was on The Grand Tour in 1765.

Boswell, best known as the author of The Life of Johnson, what many consider the greatest biography in the English language, first visited London from his native Edinburgh in 1760 at the age of 20. The city’s culture—and its women—dazzled him and he began a three-year struggle with his father, an eminent judge, to remain permanently in the capital. Father and son ultimately worked out a compromise and just before his second London visit in 1762 where he was first introduced to Johnson in a bookseller’s back parlor, Boswell began keeping a diary, London Journal, 1762-1763, a practice he would continue for 33 years.

From these voluminous entries The Journals, 1762-95, we are able to vicariously follow Boswell’s adventures through Germany, Switzerland and Italy as he embarks on his Grand Tour. Travel in the 18th century was both difficult and expensive, and travellers typically carried little money. Instead, they took letters of credit from their London banks, which they then presented in major cities. After a year of studying law in gloomy Utrecht, the sunny climes and independence must have been irresistible to the twenty-four year old Boswell as he departed for Holland in 1764, escorted off by none other than Johnson himself. Whether due to cost or preference, he travelled without a tutor. The freedom this afforded him and Boswell’s own somewhat pompous self-image only adds to the appeal of his journal entries.

Yet Boswell did truly possess a genuine interest in the sites of European learning and classical antiquity. After leaving Johnson behind, he set his sights on and aggressively pursued obtaining interviews with two other great thinkers, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, both of whom were living in exile near Geneva. Although ill, Rousseau agreed to dine with him. Boswell, always the able conversationalist, rose enough to the occasion—talking of books, religion, art and of course, women—that he was invited to return. Voltaire was slightly less accommodating, but Boswell’s earnestness ultimately earned him the great writer’s grudging respect.

Boswell’s journals record these unforgettable dialogues in detail, but he also gives equal attention to less scholarly intentions. He wrote down everything that happened to him, what everyone said, what they ate, what they drank, how they dressed, how they travelled, along with plenty of descriptions of his meetings with all the pretty maids, wealthy wives, and available streetwalkers.

Boswell then continued his tour down to Italy, where he was the first Englishman to visit the interior of Corsica. The account of his visit here describes this little known land to Europeans in the 18th century in meticulous detail. As well as discussing the history, politics and culture of Corsica, Boswell writes about the land, the animals, the language and the people, even comparing the small stature and hard working nature of the Corsicans to the Highland Scots. His meeting with Pasquale di Paoli, the island’s leader, results in a lifelong friendship and helps to later spread Paoli’s revolutionary fervor to England through pamphlets and other writings.

By 1766, Boswell’s Grand Tour was nearing completion. As a favor to Rousseau, he agreed to accompany Rousseau’s mistress to London before returning to Scotland to take his final law exam. “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life,” Johnson famously said. Boswell, apparently never tired, and his short stop in London allowed for a brief affair with the philosopher’s mistress.

A little over ten years later, in 1773, Boswell finally succeeded, after many tries, in enticing his famous friend Dr. Johnson, who was by then in his mid-sixties, to accompany him on a tour through Scotland. Setting out from Edinburgh, the two men skirted the eastern and northeastern coasts of Scotland, passing through St. Andrews, Aberdeen and Inverness, and then on into the highlands where they spent several weeks on various islands in the Hebrides, including Skye, Coll and Mull.

Our own grand tour of Scotland and the Hebrides follows much of the same route that Boswell and Johnson trekked, and includes a stay at the Taychreggan Hotel in Kilchrenan, the actual site where the pair stopped for refreshment over 200 years ago. Boswell’s account of the journey, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, became the precursor to his famous biography. Whether experienced in person or from the comfort of your living room, it might just be the perfect accompaniment for interested readers to recreate such a storied trip.

Books We Like: St. Petersburg, Russia

There are several good guidebooks to choose from for Russia and St. Petersburg. These we like best:

Eyewitness Travel Guides: St. Petersburg, DK Publishing, 2015
Very popular guides, well laid-out, heavily illustrated, color photos and plans, excellent maps.
Also by the same publisher: Top 10 St. Petersburg; Moscow

Fodor’s Moscow & St. Petersburg, 2013
Good selection of sites, history, hotels & restaurants

Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook & Dictionary, 2012

(alpha by author)

James Billingham, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, 1970
Somewhat dated but still considered a masterpiece by the later Librarian of Congress

Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, 2002
Examination of the cultural movements of the country in search of the meaning of “Russianness” in the lives of artists, musicians, writers and intellectuals.

Geoffrey Hosking, Russia: People and Empire, 1552 – 1917, 1998
Recommended scholarly pre-revolution history

Laurence Kelly, A Traveller’s Companion to St. Petersburg, 2003
Chapters on early days, palaces, museums, politics, iconic places.

Adrian Levy & Catherine Scott-Clark, The Amber Room, The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure, 2004
A gripping investigation of the disappearance of the intricately carved amber panels sent by Frederick I of Prussia to Peter the Great, during the Nazi siege.

W. Bruce Lincoln, Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia, 2001
Highly accessible account of the city’s history by a prominent Russian scholar

Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great: His Life and World, Knopf, 1980
Pulitzer Prize-winning popular history. By the same author: Catherine the Great

Suzanne Massie, Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia, 1980
Colorful, comprehensive history of pre-Revolutionary Russia

Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, 2015
Former NYT Moscow bureau chief describes a man of few scruples

David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb, 1994
An eyewitness account of the collapse of the Soviet Union, by a then Washington Post reporter

Harrison E. Salisbury, 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, 1969
The Nazi siege of Leningrad from 1941-44, one of the most gruesome episodes of WW II, told by a distinguished journalist and historian long with the New York Times

Douglas Smith, The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, 2008
The love affair between Count Sheremetev, the richest artistocrat in Russia, and whose palace we will visit, and his serf, Praskovia Kovalyova, the greatest opera diva of her time.

Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, 2016
Called a definitive biography which debunks many of the myths which surround this fascinating character.

Joseph Brodsky, Less than One, Selected Essays, 1987
Insights into the Russian and non-Russian literary traditions by the famed émigré poet.
Guide to a Renamed City is a poignant account of Leningrad/St. Petersburg

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966
Brilliant memoir by the renowned ex-pat and author of Lolita, of growing up in St. Petersburg ― his house is open to the public― and country villa.

David Brown, Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music, 2009
The author’s one volume condensation of the definitive 4-vol. biography

Colin Eisler, Paintings in the Hermitage, 1990

Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life, 2005
Meticulously documented bio of an elusive artist, a search for truth among conflicting   resources.

George Heard Hamilton, The Art and Architecture of Russia, 1954, rev. 1992
Informed and engaging survey, goes beyond Moscow and PetersburgDimitri Shostakovich

Soloman Volkov, Testimony, 1957
Provocative, controversial “memoir” by the composer allegedly based on notes from interviews taken by Volkov, an émigré musicologist. Its authenticity has long been questioned.Igor

Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Memories and Commentaries, 2003
One-volume edition taken from the notable collection of talks between the two

Richard Taruskin, On Russian Music, 2010Mercurial American musicologist and formidable specialist in the subject. Also: Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through Mavra, 1996 (2 vols); Defining Russia Musically, 2001 Controversial when it first appeared; the battle between European and Asian influences for Russia’s “soul”

(set wholly or partially in St. Petersburg)

Feodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, 1866. Also: The Idiot, The Double, Poor Folk
There is a Dostoevsky Museum in his house, and you can trace the 730 steps from Raskolnikov’s apartment to the pawnbroker’s

Aleksander Pushkin, “The Bronze Horseman,” 1833. Brilliant narrative poem nominally about the giant statue of Peter the Great overlooking the Neva. Also: Eugene Onegin The Queen of Spades (both made into operas by Tchaikovsky), The Moor of Peter the Great, other stories Arguably the greatest figure in Russian literature.

Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat, 1836; The Nose, 1842
Both satirical and witty short stories from Tales of Petersburg. Shostakovich’s opera of the latter was written in 1928.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1867; Anna Karenina, 1877
Central works of world literature.

Andrei Bely, Petersburg, 1913
Modernist masterpiece about a young revolutionary ordered to kill his own father.

J.M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg, 1994
Mystery novel based on a vision of Dostoevsky’s obsession with his stepson’s ghost.

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes, 1911
Set in a world of Tsarist repression and revolutionary intrigue in St. Petersburg and Geneva

The Russian Ark, (Alexander Sokurov, 2002)
Shot in one continuous, unbroken take through the Hermitage Museum

White Nights, Luchino Visconti, 1957)
Based on a short novel by Dostoevsky, though not actually shot in the city. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau star.

The Captivating Star of Happiness (1975)
Costume drama about 1825 Decembrist uprising in SPB.