Boswell’s Drinking Ledgers


Yes, that Boswell. I guess he wrote a good biography or something. I’ve never read Life of Johnson. Has anyone? Anyway—from Standpoint, some excerpts from his journals:

A great variety of other company was at [his home] Auchinleck. I felt the entertaining of them in general as a laborious and anxious task. I several times drank too much wine, and suffered severe distress after it. I was quite averse to writing. I was exact only in keeping my Book of Company and Liquors, in which I marked with more regularity than I supposed possible for me all the company with us at dinner in one column, and all night in another, with the different liquors drank each day in separate columns…

He understood his weakness perfectly well, having described himself in verse as a “virtuous man who is inclined to drink; | Who feels an inward suction in his breast, | A raging vortex”.

This dude really gets into it:

The levels of consumption were at times prodigious. On October 13, 1783 there were three men at dinner at Auchinleck, and between them they polished off three bottles of claret, two bottles of port, two bottles of Lisbon, three bottles of Mountain and one bottle of rum. Three days later six men sat down to dinner, but did not rise until they had emptied seven bottles of claret, two “Scotch pints” of claret (each of which was equivalent to three English pints, and thus to approximately two normal bottles), three bottles of port, one bottle of Lisbon, two bottles of Madeira, one bottle of Mountain and one bottle of rum.

You might think that, after such indulgence, a day or so of dry toast and herbal tea might be just the thing. But the following day seven men were at table, and if anything they exceeded the potations of the previous evening. They again drank seven bottles of claret, two Scotch pints of claret, and three bottles of port, before varying the conclusion of the entertainment with two bottles of Lisbon, one bottle of Madeira and no fewer than three bottles of rum. Boswell’s journal entry after this debauch says something for his stamina:

I drank a great deal of wine without feeling any bad effect…While I kept the highest pitch of jollity, I at the same time maintained the peculiar decorum of the family of Auchinleck.


On one occasion he had given a dinner for some friends to whom he had lost a bet that he would not get a dose of the clap while travelling in Europe. Overwhelmed with drink, he became confused on his way back to his lodgings, and wandered instead into “a low house in one of the alleys in Edinburgh where I knew a common girl lodged, and like a brute as I was I lay all night with her”.

The next morning he showed clear signs of the pox. Five weeks later he repeated the frolic, spending the night with “a whore worthy of Boswell, if Boswell must have a whore”.


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