Comet Book Report: Dr. Johnson’s Women, by Norma Clarke

I noticed recently that I’ve been very remiss in talking about the books going into the stew that is my next novel. I’m going to try to remedy that with some posts over the next couple of days or weeks, though it’s highly unlikely I’ll go through everything I’ve been reading.


Dr. Johnson’s Women could so easily have been The Dr. Johnson Show Featuring Dr. Johnson and Some Ladies. Thank God this is not that book. The author uses him as her starting point because he was good friends with a great many intellectual women, and occupied a position near the center of that social network, but he is important to this discussion only inasmuch as he was important to the women that are its real focus. Johnson was one of a number of men who served as advocates, patrons, and fans of women’s writing in the eighteenth century; his assistance, however, as well as that of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and other men, is never presented as a gift bestowed by a benevolent (and patriarchal) god. Instead it’s a commodity sought out, managed, and occasionally rejected by women navigating their way through the literary and intellectual sphere.

I am floored by this book. My knowledge of women English writers prior to Jane Austen consisted of maybe half a dozen names, if that, none of them seeming terribly important to literary history. I had no idea of the existence of, say, Elizabeth Carter, who spoke nine languages (including Arabic) and whose translation of Epictetus remained the standard for more than a century. Or Charlotte Lennox, who wrote hugely popular novels that grappled actively with the paradoxes of contemporary female life, and also a scathing feminist critique of Shakespeare. Or Catherine Macaulay, who produced an epic eight-volume history of England. Or Hester Thrale, Hannah More, Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Rowe, Catherine Talbot, or anybody mentioned in the second half of this book, which I haven’t read yet. I only barely knew of Elizabeth Vesey and Elizabeth Montagu, because I knew the Blue Stocking Society was operational during the period of my novel, and I certainly didn’t realize how far the trend went. These women corresponded, networked, encouraged each other in their efforts, argued bitterly over their divergent opinions, and had a whole world that never seems to appear in the histories I’ve read.

This was the book that sparked my previous post, because I can’t help but contrast this period with the Victorian Age. “Bluestocking” wasn’t a pejorative yet; Johnson was not the only man to think an educated woman was a source of pride for her nation and family. Clarke presents this as the happy consequence of the mind/body dichotomy as it was presented at the time: women’s bodies might be weaker and more fallible than those of men, but the mind was sexless, and it could be disciplined to control the body. The argument that women’s minds are also inherently weaker and more fallible doesn’t seem to have the force that it acquired later. A learned woman may not be a common thing, but she isn’t a freak of nature, either, on par with a dancing bear or a parrot that speaks French.

Which makes this sound like a rosy paradise, free of trouble. It wasn’t. Clarke outlines a triad of vanity-coquetry-power that no woman could entirely escape; even those who, like Elizabeth Carter, repudiated it as much as possible didn’t negate its existence. The publicity attendent upon life as a writer or scholar had to be accompanied, in the female instance, by a lot of self-deprecation and disavowals of one’s own importance. Egotism was most definitely not okay, and it was easy to lose one’s reputation while gaining fame. But Elizabeth Carter was supporting herself as a professional writer at the Gentleman’s Magazine when Johnson was a wet-behind-the-ears newcomer to London, and other women made a living through either patronage or the public sphere, and were respected for it.

I had no idea that was going on in the eighteenth century.

The political dimension seems to have been mostly lacking; Carter apparently disapproved of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Still, it’s a remarkable bit of feminism I was almost completely unaware of. And the book is quite readable, so if you’re interested in literature, feminism, or the ideals of the Enlightenment, definitely take a look at this one.

0 Responses to “Comet Book Report: Dr. Johnson’s Women, by Norma Clarke”

  1. kateelliott

    Thanks for the rec. But I did not need another book to read. . . .

    • Marie Brennan

      And yet they keep piling up. 🙂 One thing that makes me sad about working on this series is that, while I’m getting a wonderfully in-depth understanding of English history, it’s come at the expense of reading about other parts of the world. (I’m hoping to use next year’s Victorian novel as an excuse to jump-start the reading about China that I’ve been wanting to do for about two years now.)

  2. sartorias

    I strongly recommend Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters, and Norma Clarke’s Queen of the Wits, and her The Rise and Fall of the Female of Letters and Mccarthy’s The Female Pen, among others. Fanny Burkey’s diaries are also excellent–there is a new edition. (Though her description of her mastectomy without anesthetic is absolutely harrowing.)

    • Marie Brennan

      (Though her description of her mastectomy without anesthetic is absolutely harrowing.)


      I’ll keep those other books in mind, though I suspect this is going to be the end of the line where this branch of research is immediately concerned — once I’m done with this, I have to go learn about the Ottoman Empire and 1750s chemistry and where exactly Halley’s comet was in the sky.

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