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Austen's 'Dear Dr. Johnson'

Eager readers who have already begun delving into our selected edition of Jane Austen's juvenilia, Kathryn Sutherland's edition titled Teenage Writings, may have noted the brief discussion of Samuel Johnson in the introduction. Or you might remember the name from allusions in Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park. Northanger Abbey, of course, hovers on the edge of Austen's juvenilia, written in her early 20s, and Johnson's appearance in the novel is as a dictionary author. It is in that light, therefore, that we will consider Johnson today, though Austen also appreciated his work as a periodical essayist, and he was widely regarded for his literary criticism in those essays and in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81).

A man seated, wearing a brown coat over a vest, both with buttons.  Wears a white wig as well, seems to frown at viewer
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson (1772)

Samuel Johnson, born September 18, 1709, died three days before Austen's ninth birthday, one of the most celebrated figures of English literature. The strength of the connection between Austen and Johnson is suggested by Henry Austen in his "Biographical Notice," in which he claims Johnson was Austen's favorite prose stylist, and continued by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. Scholars have debated the depth of Johnson's influence on Austen, making note of the times she references Johnson in her letters and novels; she certainly knew and admired his work.

The centerpiece of Johnson's fame was the Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. His Dictionary was not, in fact, the first such book in the English language, but it was innovative in a couple of field-defining ways. First, he set the standard for future dictionary authors to break definitions out in itemized lists, like this for pretend:

Visible in this excerpt is his other influential precedent: including quotations from English authors to illustrate the definitions. Above we see John Dryden (Poet Laureate of England under Charles II), John Milton (famed for Paradise Lost), and poet Alexander Pope, keeping company with John Tillotston, Archbishop of Canterbury 1691-1694. Johnson's decision to include illustrative quotations struck a claim for English literature as Literature, on a par with the Greek and Roman classics, which had long been mined for examples in classical dictionaries for scholars. Further, his selection of authors - which by and large echoed the prevailing taste - helped cement the early canon of English letters.

A portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds showing Johnson pulling a book's cover back and concentrating intensely on its words. It also, Johnson felt, shows his weak eyes.
Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, 1775

(Johnson was painted three times by Sir Joshua Reynolds, an indicator of his literary status. Johnson disliked this painting, the third portrait and painted the year of Austen birth, because he thought it emphasized his near-sightedness.)

The catalog of the library at Austen's brother's estate, Godmersham Park (mentioned in Dr. Susan Allen Ford's recent talk for Jane Austen & Co., and which you can enter virtually here), records two separate editions of Johnson's Dictionary. This detail, coupled with Henry Tilney's teasing Catherine Morland about the many definitions of "nice" and Miss Tilney's linking Henry with Samuel Johnson ("we shall be overpowered with Johnson. . .all the way home"), confirms that Austen was familiar with the Dictionary. Thanks to the labor of Dr. Brandi Besalke and others, we can browse through Johnson's Dictionary online, getting a feel for the English language as Austen would have imbibed it.


Readers may recall that "Austen-Curious" Eden Iazeolla raised questions about what Austen meant by "amiable" in Frederic and Elfrida. While many of us might have come up with the first definition offered here by Johnson, the second definition, suggesting that there is a performative quality to amiability, poses some interesting questions. When we look back to "pretend" above, and notice how many of the definitions invoke hypocrisy, amiability seems a little less amiable.


The definition for "friend" likewise runs from the familiar to the now obsolete, such as definition four: "an attendant, or companion." Of more interest, given Austen's notorious orthography in the title of Love and Freindship and fairly consistent across her early writing, is Johnson's remark that "the i is almost totally neglected," which suggests that Austen's spelling is capturing the pronunciation she heard around her and might have been a fairly common error.