Biography 26.1 (2003) 160-165
[Access article in PDF]
Dr. Johnson's Women is aimed at a broad audience interested in the eighteenth-century British literary world, and especially in women writers of that period. Norma Clarke's preface clearly announces her purpose and approach. She terms the book "an attempt at collective biography which is also, in part, collective criticism." Her stated goal is to explore "the conditions of female authorship at a particular time, the mid eighteenth century, and in a particular place, England, meaning mostly London" (ix). The opening chapter ("AtMrs Garrick's") focuses on Samuel Johnson, and each of the succeeding chapters is centered around one or more women writers and intellectuals who were acquaintances or friends of Samuel Johnson. Covered, in this order, are Elizabeth Carter, Charlotte Lennox, Hester Thrale and Elizabeth Montagu (sharing a chapter largely focused on literary patronage), Hannah More, and Fanny Burney. Of these, only Hannah More has received steady attention over the past two hundred years, primarily in her role as social reformer. Of the remaining subjects, who with the rise of feminist and new historical studies have received increased attention over the past several decades, Burney has probably received the most serious critical attention. The chapters present the subjects in approximate chronological order, with Elizabeth Carter coming first, as not only the first born but also an important available model for later women writers.
The focus on Johnson in the opening chapter and in the title of the book itself gives the impression that he will figure more importantly in the following chapters than is actually the case. The use of the possessive form in the title also hints misleadingly at the personal more than the professional: the category "Dr. Johnson's women" here does not include his wife, his mother, Anna Williams (a member of his household for many years), or most of the women he at one time or another regarded with romantic or sexual feelings—with of course the noteworthy exception of Hester Thrale. [End Page 160] After the opening chapter, Clarke sporadically returns to Johnson, too often merely to rehearse commonplace details about his life. Fortunately, however, Clarke's book is not really about Johnson. Altogether the title of the book, the initial emphasis upon the imposing figure of Johnson, and chapter headings that suggest discrete brief biographies may make it more difficult for readers to recognize the distinctive contribution of this valuable book. For the single most important feature of this study is its foregrounding of the lives and careers of its women subjects apart from the predominantly male literary establishment: the clear demonstration of the influence, not of Johnson or other male publishers, writers, and patrons, but of women—women friends (romantic or otherwise), women patrons, women literary models.
While exploiting the scholarly and still existing popular interest in the figure of Samuel Johnson, Clarke struggles with the necessity of justifying a title that from the beginning places Johnson at dead center of her discussion. As her real goal is to present her female subjects not as protégées or friends of Johnson but as writers, intellectuals, and public figures in their own right, the bulky Johnsonian machinery, however useful or even necessary given her subject and available source materials, regularly gets in the way. But despite some rather clumsy shifts of focus, and rather puzzling forays into areas of Johnson's life that do not seem particularly germane to Clarke's argument (a detailed recounting of Boswell's famous first meeting with Johnson, for instance, evidently for its entertainment value), the readability in the main of the sections devoted to the individual women subjects, their relationships with one another, and the personal and professional challenges they faced ensures an appeal and accessibility to a general as well as a scholarly audience. Clarke succeeds in her main enterprise: to demonstrate the remarkable degree of freedom, independence, and personal autonomy available to women in eighteenth-century...