Friday, November 16, 2012
Wits and Wives
We think we know where Johnson stood on women, so to speak, don't we? That crack about women preachers and dogs walking ("like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all"). "Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little," is another one. In an argument about religion with one Mrs Knowles, Johnson got into quite a fury, and Boswell murmured an aside: "I never saw this mighty lion so chased before!" But, but … you should also know that Johnson was not so easily pinned down in anything, and certainly not as a misogynist. He entertained women's opinions to a greater degree than many of his contemporaries, and he certainly relished their company. His reputation for this had reached the ears of a young Mary Wollstonecraft, and Kate Chisholm begins her book with a short but well-imagined vignette of the occasion, when the future author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman walked from Newington Green to Fleet Street to get some advice and conversation from the ill and ageing Johnson. She was a feminist avant la lettre; he was a Tory, if an unconventional one; yet it was to him that she turned at the beginning of her career.
There have been not only quite a few books about Johnson already, but a few about his relationship with women. The thing is, though, that most of the contemporary accounts are filtered through the perceptions, and the prejudices, of others. Boswell, our prime source, may well have been jealous of Mrs Thrale's friendship with Johnson; he even seemed to be jealous of his earlier marriage to Tetty (who, when they married, was old enough, at 46, to be his mother). As for modern works concentrating on this aspect of the great man's life and character, they can be either too academic, or not academic enough. Chisholm's book strikes a happy balance. It wasn't always a great deal of fun being a woman in the 18th century, even if you had somehow managed to evade convention and learn something more intellectually challenging than needlepoint. The deck was stacked against women in so many ways. Here's just one: when Elizabeth Carter brought out a translation of Epictetus it sold hugely and was widely praised – but the reviewers expressed either astonishment or disbelief that it had been written by a woman. (It's still in print, by the way; you can even get it in a Kindle edition. So there.) So the fact that Johnson had what we might as well call a coterie of female friends he could converse with on more or less equal terms was, if not extraordinary, certainly worth noting.
Posted by Azra Raza at 06:43 AM | Permalink