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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.


The sense of risk inherent in all of Johnson's definitions of "adventure" may cast the activities of our heroines in a different light - rather than the sense of a courageous expedition that we give the word today, the notion of chance permeates, implying that these women were gambling on a happy ending with less security than we might have thought.

And this sense of risky behavior fits well with Johnson's definition of "romantick," with its connotation of wildness. Instead of meaning what we might describe as "swoony," the sense of romantic Austen knew has an edge of danger to it.


The definition for "condescension" is helpful for modern readers of Pride and Prejudice, of course; Lady Catherine de Burgh fits our modern sense of condescension in her haughty treatment of Elizabeth and others, but looking at Johnson's definition helps us hear the dramatic irony of Mr. Collins' praise of her for what was considered a positive trait.


For some readers, Johnson's surprising renaissance as a meme may be the extent of their familiarity with the former Titan of English letters (you can make your own here!). In his prime, he was referred to as a "Literary Lion," and provoked as much fear as admiration because of his quick and caustic wit. There is an entire book of his insults available, in fact, or this blog about some of his snarkier dictionary entries (personal fave: "lexicographer" - a harmless drudge).

Detail of Picture of Poets' Corner by J. Rennock

Whether or not Henry Austen exaggerated his sister's fondness for Samuel Johnson (she does refer to him as her "Dear Dr. Johnson" in a letter. . .) it's clear she knew and valued his work, and it very likely influenced some of her own precise use of language, witty turn of phrase, moral undercurrent, and self-conscious role as an English Author.

Their proximity in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey might look like the visual set up for a joke about the relative attention paid to male and female authors, and turning one last time to the Dictionary, it does indeed take on an ironic twist, given how much more widely read Austen has been over the last few centuries. . . but let us attribute to him the gallant urge to protect his young admirer.


Spend a Day Out With Emma!

Join us Dec. 3 in Chapel Hill, N.C., as we celebrate "Emma" with a day of presentations, crafts, holiday shopping and more, all leading up to Kate Hamill's new stage adaptation of the novel by PlayMakers Repertory Company. In person and online options available!


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