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  • An Account of Corsica. The Journal of a Tour to that Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli
  • William Doyle
James Boswell: An Account of Corsica. The Journal of a Tour to that Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli. Edited with an introduction and notes by James T. Boulton and T. O. Mcloughlin. Oxford University Press, 2006. lii + 250 pp. Hb £52.00.

This book was James Boswell's literary début, but is surely the least read of his works. It is divided into two parts. The second, a journal of the author's tour to Corsica in 1765 and particularly of his encounters with the leader of the island's resistance to Genoese rule, Pasquale Paoli, has often been reprinted. The historical and topographical first part, the Account proper, has just as often been omitted, and it is easy to see why. Although, as the editors convincingly show, it represented a good deal of work on Boswell's part, exposition and explanation were not his strong points. There is no real analytical profundity and much flashy and superficial classical allusion and quotation. It reads like many another routine eighteenth-century essay in the genre. The second part, by contrast, offers a unique portrait of one of the century's more picturesque and original figures, and its approach foreshadows the techniques made famous in the Tour to the Hebrides and the Life of Johnson. However, the editors argue, Boswell's purpose cannot be fully understood without taking both parts together, and their edition is the first to offer his complete text since 1769. Both parts are necessary to show how a nation of brave and liberty-loving islanders had endured centuries of tyranny but were now poised to make good their independence under a heroic and charismatic leader. Boswell worked hard and unscrupulously to puff his publication in advance, and its appearance caused a sensation. Not only did it bring a remote and unvisited island to public consciousness in Britain and the other countries where it was rapidly translated. It also offered a portrait of the congenitally quarrelsome Corsicans as heroic freedom fighters in a truly Spartan mould, who had chosen as their general a martial but modest and judicious paragon of leaderly virtues. It was a script which the Americans and George Washington would make their own in the next decade. Unlike the American Revolution, however, it came to nothing. Within two years of the Account's publication, Corsica was ceded by Genoa to France, and Paoli was a refugee in England, haunting the circle of Johnson. For that asylum he obviously owed a lot to Boswell's earlier lionization. The editors offer a careful analysis of how Boswell worked on him to get the results he wanted. What is missing (and perhaps the sources do not exist to provide it) is some assessment of how far the general manipulated his young and unexpected visitor for the purposes of his own publicity. If he did, it served him well when his fortunes changed. It seems to have been Rousseau's famous throwaway line in the Contrat social which first put Boswell on to Corsica, but the main way in which this inhospitable island astonished the world was to produce Napoleon as a Frenchman. The main interest of the Account for readers of this journal is to show what it was like on the eve of the French takeover. [End Page 227]

William Doyle
University of Bristol


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