Quoted in Frank Brady's James Boswell: The Later Years 1769-1795 (McGraw-Hill, 1984), p. 132, from R. W. Chapman's edition of Samuel Johnson's Letters, ii 131 n. 2.

The Stuarts, hereditary rulers of Scotland, succeeded the Tudors as English monarchs. When Queen Elizabeth died without heir in 1603, James VI of Scotland (son of Mary Queen of Scots) was crowned King of England. The Stuart line ruled until the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The House of Hanover succeeded the Stuarts, ruling throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century.

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An Alternate History of Dialogue in Eighteenth-Century English Literature

To appreciate Boswell's skillful and innovative use of dialogue, we need briefly suggest some of the various uses of dialogue during the century. Boswell's understanding of its use is influenced by the development of two different forms of dialogue during the first third of the century: narrative and dramatic. The two are not wholly unrelated, but different impulses drive them. Both forms differ from modern dialogue in a variety of ways. Most significant is the fact that verisimilitude, while recognized as useful, is not the chief aim when writing dialogue. Early eighteenth-century authors appear to view narrative dialogue as a versatile literary technique, but they do not seem concerned with portraying accurate speech using it. Authors writing dramatic dialogue are concerned with adherence to conventions. Both forms are less concerned with an accurate representation of speech and characterization in print. Boswell's use of dialogue is also influenced by the innovations introduced by the mid-century novelists. During the 1740s and 1750s, the novels of Richardson and Fielding represent a movement toward realistic characterization through dialogue, as does the work of their successors; still they are not able to exploit dialogue to its full potential.

Of the early eighteenth-century prose writers read widely today, it is Daniel Defoe whose works combine, in a representative way, contemporary influences and antecedents to eighteenth-century narrative dialogue. A study of his works, not just the novels but his other prose writings as well, shows that his use of dialogue seldom has verisimilitude as its primary aim.

The switch from catechetical dialogue (question and answer dialogue) back to non-dialogic prose is obvious, but the switch between non-catechetical dialogue and narration is not always clear. Defoe may use dialogue to give weight to a scene or to a particular sentiment--the words of warning from the old captain to young Crusoe are an example of this--but his reasons for choosing dialogue over narration (or vice versa) are often more elusive. Both dialogue and narration can achieve similar ends, and Defoe often uses them, apparently indifferently, in comparable contexts. At times he presents the plot through dialogue, at other times through simple first-person narration. Defoe may also employ, or fall into, an indirect discourse which looks and reads much like dialogue. The following passage from Religious Courtship conveys the sentiments of the father and of the gentleman who is courting the youngest daughter.

The Father oppos'd his Proposal a little at first, as a Slight offer'd to his eldest Daughters; but the Gentleman told him, That he hop'd, if he accepted his Design of coming into his Family, he would give him leave to take the Person his Judgment had made choice of, and that he thought he might be happy with: That it would be a very hard Circumstance to him, and what he could not think of with Patience, to marry one of his Daughters, and be in love with another: That he was very far from offering any Slight to the eldest, letting them know, that happening to see the youngest first, he found such a Suitableness, and something so agreeable in her to him, that he resolv'd to look no farther. (pp. 4-5)

Apart from changes in tense and pronoun form, Defoe provides few narrative signals which label this as indirect discourse. After the clause, "but the Gentleman told him," the discourse moves through several lengthy sentences with no further description.

After the youngest daughter has rejected the gentleman's suit because of his lack of religious principles, she recounts to her sister her final conversation with him. Rhythm and tone are comparable with those of the quotation above.

I told him, I thought he did not treat me fairly; that it was saying nothing at all, to say I would not have this Man, or that Man, who never made any Pretensions to me; it was enough to me, that I would let him know, I would refuse all the Men in the World, that should ever come to me, unless I found a Reverence of God, a Sense of Religion, and a Profession at least of the Duty we all owe to our Maker, had made some Impressions on them: That I might be deceived indeed with a Hypocrite, for it was not in me to judge of the Heart, and as the world was now stated, it was but too probably I should; but then it should be my Misery, not my Fault; and that since he seemed to insinuate, that I did not act in that Affair with Sincerity, I had no better Specimen of my Resolution than this. . . . (pp. 46-47)
This is clearly direct discourse, though it is not differentiated by italics or other dialogic signals. These examples of indirect and direct discourse suggest how little Defoe cared to differentiate between the two. He may recognize them as separate narrative devices, but they receive similar treatment throughout his works. He is concerned both to convey a message and move the story along; either form will serve his purpose. His use of indirect and direct discourse is not always calculated, but it is functional. Defoe seems to have an innate sense for what his writing needs. If it lacks the authority of a quotation, he know the way to add the perception of authority. He is aware that dialogue is one technique among many, with which to add effectiveness to his writing. He does not seem aware, or concerned, that consistency in its use might invest his writing with even greater realism and effectiveness. It is this lack of differentiation of dialogue from other narrative elements that sets apart later dialogue, found in the novel and biography, from dialogue as used by Defoe and most of his contemporaries. I do not mean to suggest that examples of dialogue in Defoe's works cannot be identified that characterize effectively or read like authentic speech. I do mean to stress the other inclinations of early-century dialogue.

Dramatic dialogue during the first third of the century was far more sophisticated than the dialogue of Defoe's narratives, yet it was limited by conventions. Tragedy and comedy both called for specialized dialogue. Tragic dialogue was highly stylized to achieve emotional effect. Comic dialogue used dialect and catch-phrases to support dramatic types rather than realistic characterization. The constraints of conventions allowed authors to concentrate their artistry on a limited number of dramatic effects. With undivided attention, playwrights could adjust the presentation of character types, plots, and emotions that audiences had come to expect. The same constraints, however, made innovative use of dialogue difficult, if not impossible. Other literary genres certainly looked to drama as the principal source for examples of usage, but drama could not reform its own use of dialogue into what might be considered modern usage. That was left to the genres that borrowed and recombined its conventions and techniques: the novel and, later biography.

The most significant characteristic of tragic dialogue in works by authors such as Rowe, Addison, Cibber, and Lillo, is its formulaic stability. Tragic presentation remains tightly focused on universal emotions, not individual characterization. Tragic dialogue often makes use of elevated diction, versification, and rhetorical devices. To contemporary audiences, such dialogue displayed the beauties of language and invention; just as importantly, such dialogue was fashioned and tempered within the mold of expected conventions. Much like readers appreciated the genius of Pope for working within the tensions and complexities imposed by heroic couplets, audiences appreciated authors who successfully worked within dramatic conventions. To work outside of them was not only sloppy but also iconoclastic, threatening the high stylistic order with which much of the eighteenth century was concerned.

Nicholas Rowe's dialogue is typical of the more skillful tragic dialogue. Despite being formal and stylized, it effectively conveys great emotions. In The Fair Penitent (1703), Altamont's introductory speech on the day he is to wed Calista typifies Rowe's workmanlike tragic dialogue. It sets the high emotional tone of the work.

          Alt.   LET this auspicious Day be ever sacred,

          No Mourning, no Misfortunes, happen on it;

          Let it be markt for Triumphs and Rejoycings;

          Let happy Lovers ever make it holy,

          Chuse it to bless their Hopes, and crown their Wishes,

          This happy Day that gives me my Calista.

The hortatory impulse of this dialogue in blank verse, its resonance and rhythm, betray its roots in tragic poetry. Diction and rhetorical style convey tone and meaning as well as the content of dialogue. Phrasing such as "Let this auspicious Day," "markt for Triumphs," "Crown their Wishes," and "my Calista" provide an obvious tension to the reversals that the audience has come to anticipate. The language prepares us for a day of high emotion and high tragedy.

One of the weaknesses of tragic dialogue is its inability to convey effective characterization. A reading of Addison's Cato makes this clear. Rowe's ability to differentiate characters through dialogue is not great; Addison's ability is even less apparent. In the following speech, Portius, son of Cato, delivers what seems to be an uncharacteristic militaristic outburst before Sempronius:

          I'll animate the Soldier's drooping Courage,

          With Love of Freedom, and Contempt of Life.

          I'll thunder in their Ears their Country's Cause,

          And try to rouse up all that's Roman in 'em.

          'Tis not in Mortals to Command Success,

          But we'll do more, Sempronius; we'll deserve it.

Portius, the philosophizing and priggish son of Cato, was born to ponder rather than to fight; yet Addison provides him with a speech far more appropriate for the hawks of the play, Juba or Marcus. The fact is that everyone sounds the same in Cato. Addison has traded realistic characterization for emotional effect, achieving a tone of high moral seriousness through the use of formal diction and stylized rhetoric. Eighteenth-century audiences and readers applauded the purity with which emotions were conveyed in Cato. They perceived no untoward tension between conventions and dialogue.

The novelists of the 1740s and 50s, of course, began to explore the full potential of dialogue as a tool to further realistic characterization. Henry Fielding was especially influential, in part because of his background as a comic dramatist. In his farces and burlesques, produced during the 1730s, he took extraordinary liberties with the conventions of dramatic comedy. Indeed, his success as a dramatist lies in his ability to manipulate conventions so that they display their technical absurdities. Fielding brought his spirit of iconoclastic experimentation to his novels; his influence on contemporaries and successors is incalculable.

By the time a second generation of novelists began to publish, dialogue had evolved into essentially the literary technique we understand it to be today. Frances Burney, writing in the 1780s provides a good example of how skillfully dialogue and narrative could be employed. The following is an example of Burney's seamless integration of narration and dialogue. Evelina is describing her meeting at the ridotto with a stranger. She has tried to avoid dancing with him by stating that she is engaged to dance with another. The stranger, who is later identified as Sir Clement Willoughby, believes the engagement is a fiction and remains persistent.

     I felt extremely foolish, and begged Mrs. Miran to lead to a seat, 

     which she very obligingly did.  The Captain sat next her, and, to my 

     great surprise, this gentleman thought proper to follow, and seat 

     himself next to me. 

          "What an insensible!" continued he, "why, Madam, you are 

     missing the most delightful dance in the world!  The man must be 

     either mad, or a fool--Which do you incline to think of him 


          "Neither, Sir," answered I in some confusion.

          He begged my pardon for the freedom of his supposition, saying, 

     "I really was off my guard, from astonishment that any man can be 

     so much and so unaccountably his own enemy.  But where, Madam, 

     can he possibly be?--has he left the room?--or has not he been in 


          "Indeed, Sir," said I peevishly, "I know nothing of him."

          "I don't wonder that you are disconcerted, Madam, it is really 

     very provoking.  The best part of the evening will be absolutely lost.  

     He deserves not that you should wait for him."

          "I do not, Sir," said I, "and I beg you not to----"

                         (i. pp. 57-58)

Burney's use of dialogue is confident and natural. The blending of influences from earlier narrative fictions with those of drama has been successfully completed, at least in this work. Boswell's use of dialogue in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and The Life of Johnson is the final step, during the eighteenth-century, in the evolving use of dialogue as consciously manipulated literary technique.