Boswell’s Commonplace Book and Locke’s Index

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it”
Samuel Johnson

Like many of us when we start writing in a fresh exercise book, James Boswell – Dr Johnson’s biographer – had high hopes when he began his commonplace book. A note by Boswell’s son on the front paste-down states that the book is from ‘a very early period in his life’, to which another hand has suggested a date of about 1750.

All images from Folger M.a.6

However, the first article commonplaced – a passage from William Kenrick’s Epistles Philosophical and Moral – dates the book at no earlier than 1759, the year Boswell turned 19.

Boswell’s first marks in the book, however, have nothing to do with Kenrick’s or anyone else’s poetry. His first step, on the first two pages, was to plot out an index to be filled in each time he added an excerpt to his book. This is a lovely, clear example of John Locke’s New Method of Making Common-Place Books (first published in English in 1706).


As Richard Yeo has noted, Locke’s ‘New Method’ was recommended in Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1728), but it’s still interesting to see that it was well-known enough that a Scottish student should be using it half a century after it Locke’s death. In fact, the next thing Boswell does in his new book is to copy out the exact passage from Locke about how to draw it up.


Unfortunately, as with so many of our best intentions when it comes to new exercise books, Boswell didn’t get very far with his early foray into commonplacing. Of course, we could have guessed as much just by looking at the index – a paltry three entries, two of them pointing to the same article on page 4: DE for death and IO for immortality (Locke’s method involves taking the first letter and the next vowel). This is the extract from Kenrick, which Boswell has tagged with the headwords Death and Immortality.


Worse still, six out of the eight excepts copied out by the young Boswell don’t make it into the index at all. In all probability, he simply forgot.

There are a few nice things to note, however. I like the way Boswell includes catchwords (copying the first word of one page on the bottom line of the page that precedes it – a trick to help printers or binders get their sheets in order) even tho’ he’s writing his book out by hand and it’s already bound. It reminds me of the way that Jane Austen’s juvenilia also plays with imitating publishing formats.

Also, given that in my last blog I noted the use of pencil lines to create grids that would later be erased, it’s interesting that we find this again here: on some pages – ‘Death and Immortality’, for instance – the pencil marks forming the margin and aligning the title are still present; on others, however, they have clearly been used but subsequently erased:


Another curious feature is that, despite Boswell’s commonplacing having not really taken off, the book is far from empty. Starting about half way through are forty-four pages of heraldic crests, cut out from another book and carefully pasted four-to-a-page, 176 of them in total:


As a commonplace book, it’s not much; as an index, it’s barely more than the blind impression of a grid I posted last week. Still, I’m quite charmed by Boswell’s commonplace book. I like the fact that he’s still abandoning notebooks in his late teens: if the dating written inside the book had been correct, Boswell would be another of those prodigies who litter the annals of literary history, reading Locke aged ten, yadda yadda. As it is, this is literary juvenilia that doesn’t make one feel too bad about one’s own teenage fecklessness


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