Boswell knew Wilkes by sight when, on May 5, 1763, he went to The Tower of London to watch his release from prison (he was too late, as it turned out). At this time he was also a frequent reader of The North Briton, which he mailed each week to West Digges in Edinburgh. They may have met as early as November 26, 1762, when Boswell accompanied Lord Eglinton to a dinner in the Beefsteak Club, of which Wilkes was also a member, but from the journals it would seem as if they weren't actually introduced to each other until they met at Bonnell Thornton's on May 24, 1763. Although Boswell isn't explicit about it in his journal, it is evident from letters to William Temple and David Dalrymple that he met and became better acquainted with Wilkes in the ensuing months, and on the day before going into exile in Paris, Wilkes let Boswell have a number of "franks" (i.e. free postage given to Members of Parliament). In a letter to Dalrymple dated August 2, 1763, Boswell writes that "[t]he truth is, Wilkes is a most agreeable companion. He is good-humoured and vivacious, and likes the Scots as well as anybody; only he considers the abusing that nation as a political device, which he must make us of. [...] Wilkes and I are exceeding well, when we meet."
Boswell and Wilkes met again in in Italy during Boswell's grand tour. On January 9, 1765, shortly after his own arrival in Turin, Boswell discovered that Wilkes was passing through that city as well. He therefore sent Wilkes a curious invitation to dine with him:
Sir, I am told that Mr. Wilkes is now in Turin. As a politician, my monarchical soul abhors him. As a Scotsman I smile at him. As a friend I know him not. As a companion I love him. I believe it is not decent for me to wait upon him. Yet I wish much to see him. I shall be alone and have a tolerable dinner upon my table at one o'clock. If Mr. Wilkes chooses to be my guest, I shall by no means oppose it. I may venture to syay he shall be very welcome, and do promise hima a fest of most singular and choice conversation. BOSWELL.1
Wilkes was not at home when the invitation arrived, but later called on Boswell who was, by then, out of his lodgings. In the evening, Boswell went to the opera in the company of Mme. de St. Gilles, and there spotted Wilkes sitting high up in a box, but without being able to talk to him. So, once back at his lodgings, Boswell sent Wilkes another note:
Since Churchill's death, I have had a serious sympathy with you. Has it not made you pause and reflect a little? Might we not have an interview, and continue the conversation on the immortality of the soul which you had with my countryman Baxter many years ago at Brussels? [...] To men of philosophical minds there are surely moments when they set aside their nation, their rank, their character, all that they have done and all that they have suffered in this jumbling world. [...] John Wilkes, the fiery Whig, would despise this sentiment. John Wilkes, the gay profligate, would laugh at it. But John Wilkes, the philosopher, will feel it, and will love it. [...] Perhaps you may come to me tonight. I hope at any rate you will dine with me tomorrow. 2
Unfortunately, Wilkes had gone to bed. They met again on February 15 that same year, when Boswell arrived in Rome and saw Wilkes at the customs. Boswell reports having "[s]eized him, embraced [him]" after which they went to a gloomy café discussing philosophical and other issues.
Their meeting in Rome marked the true beginning of their friendship, and on February 25 Boswell followed Wilkes to Naples, where Wilkes was going to stay for some time with his mistress Gertrude Corradini. They frequently dined together, and on March 14 they ascended Mount Vesuvius. The journal contains numerous extracts of their many conversations in Italy, although some have been difficult to reconstruct from Boswell's notes.
A letter from Boswell to Wilkes from Rome on April 22, and Wilkes reply from Naples on April 27 are telling of their, by then, intimate friendship and intellectual attraction to each other. Boswell wrote, among other things, that "[t]he many pleasant hours which we passed together at Naples shall never be lost. The remembrance of them shall inspirit this gloomy mind while I live." Wilkes returned the compliment by writing in his reply that "I thank you very much for your most friendly letter [...] and still more for the many agreeable hours you favoured me with here [in Naples]. You have made me know halcyon days in my exile, and you ought not to be surprised at my cheerfulness and gaiety, for you inspired them."
The pair met again in Paris almost nine months later on January 19, 1766. Since they had taken leave of each other in Naples, Boswell had travelled with Lord Mountstuart, had an amourous affair with Girolama Piccolomini, and he had, not least, travelled to the island of Corsica where he met an befriended the leader of the Corsican independence movement on the island, Pasquale Paoli. Therefore, Boswell did not feel the same awe for Wilkes, when they met again, writing in his journal that "[y]ou felt yourself above him."3. They soon resumed their friendship, however, and it was in Wilkes' lodgings in Paris, that, on January 26, Boswell received the news about the death of his mother a few weeks earlier, when he saw a notice of it in St. James's Chronicle.
Boswell stayed in Paris until January 31, and - as one of his last actions in Paris - he took leave of Wilkes on the night before. Wilkes comforted him and told him to "[c]onsider how you have avoided the pain of seeing mother dying, and how you'll go back and comfort father, and amuse him by talking of all you've seen."4
After having been back in his ancestral Scotland for a few months, Boswell wrote again to Wilkes, beginning his letter "I shall never forget your humane and kind behaviour to me at Paris, when I received the melancholy news of my mother's death. I have been doing all in my power to comfort my worthy Father, and I thank God He is now greatly recovered. [...] Indeed I never admired you more than when you tried to alleviate my afflicition; for whether it be from self interest or not, I set a higher value on the qualitys of the heart than on those of the head." Boswell ended the letter my saying, that as he not sure whether Wilkes would receive it at the address to which he would send it, "I think it would be improper for me to write to you with our usual freedom, till I am sure that my letters can go safe."5
[Entry to be expanded with the later stages of their friendship]
John Wilkes has been the subject of nearly a dozen biographies, some scholarly, others intended for a wide readership. This one by Professor Cash falls into the latter category, as the author candidly states. 'I have written this book for a general audience of well-read intelligent people' (p. 395): but he does supply copious endnote references for the benefit of scholars. Cash is not an historian, but an American specialist in eighteenth-century English literature. His book is a product of his retirement. It has been 15 years in the making, and his age at publication is 83. The research has been assiduous and wide-ranging. In addition to his perusal of all the Wilkes manuscripts and printed records Cash has visited several locations associated with Wilkes. On his own terms he has been largely successful, producing the biggest biography to date, informed and readable, with abundant detail on the life and career of Wilkes, that rascal and radical. It was the blatancy of his sex life that gave Wilkes his notoriety, for, boasting he had no small vices, he did not indulge in such pursuits of his time as gambling, excessive drinking, and gluttony. His political fame arose from his mostly successful championship of 'liberty', notably that of parliamentary electors, and more generally that of the individual against state power. All this is conveyed in a chatty writing-style, with Wilkes often referred to familiarly as 'Jack'. The political terminology, indeed, is rather too colloquial and modernized: the contrast of 'right' and 'left' does not fit easily into the Georgian scene. And the last 15 years, which saw a late flowering ofWilkes as a classical scholar, are passed over quickly. Cash, too, can be perverse, as in claiming that John Wilkes was probably born on 17 October 1726 (p. 7), exactly a year after the date now accepted. Yet his younger brother Heaton [End Page 418] was born on 9 February 1727, and John, at the time of his marriage on 23 May 1747, had attained the legal age of majority, 21. Nevertheless, there has been no biography on this scale since the 1917 one by Horace Bleackley, and as a very full account of John Wilkes, with much new detail, it replaces that book as the best general life.
But historians will not be happy with this book. It is unfortunate that neither the author nor his publisher saw fit to have the text vetted by a historian, for it contains a myriad of triling errors of fact and misconceptions about the British political and social system. A duke is not the same as an earl (p. 33); the Elder Pitt was not wealthy (pp. 38-9); Lord North was not 'a little man', nor was he called George (p. 146); Lord Egremont may have been a chief persecutor of Wilkes, but he was not a Scot (p. 103); and so on. Cash is often careless about chronology, misdating when men held office or acquired titles. His summaries of political events tend to be confused and inaccurate. More disturbing than this propensity to error is the political interpretation of the period. Although Cash occasionally cites the work of Sir Lewis Namier he has failed to grasp the overthrow of whig historiography. He follows 'the great historian George Otto Trevelyan' in asserting that George III's political aim was to establish 'a personal government', an attempt foiled by the failure of the American War (pp. 57, 369). Fortunately he does not apply this interpretation in detail, but here is his summary of the 1774 general election: 'George III kept his control over Parliament in this election. . . In the rural areas and small boroughs the radical opposition to the war did not go down well, and the people voted overwhelmingly for the court candidates' (p. 310). A...