When young James Boswell arrived in Holland in August 1763 at the age of twenty-two, his first impulse was to commit suicide. When he departed ten months later something much more alarming had occurred: he had fallen in love–or half in love–with a Dutch girl more intelligent than he.

After a respectable education at Edinburgh University, studying under David Hume, Boswell had run riot for a year in London, fathering an illegitimate child and flirting with deism, gambling and dreams of military glory. His redoubtable father, Lord Auchinleck, had called an abrupt halt to this dangerous libertinage and, recalling his own youthful sojourn at Utrecht (the Boswells had distinguished Dutch relatives in their Scottish ancestry), he despatched his prodigal son for a period of moral improvement among the Calvinist worthies, burghers and professors of the United Provinces. He was to acquire tone and intellectual rigour at the famous Law School in the cloisters of the huge, shadowy cathedral of Utrecht.

Breaking In
A Colossal Hoard