Literary Allusions: Dr. Johnson’s Celebrated Judgment

The living in incessant noise was, to a frame and temper delicate and nervous like Fanny’s, an evil which no superadded elegance or harmony could have entirely atoned for. It was the greatest misery of all. At Mansfield, no sounds of contention, no raised voice, no abrupt bursts, no tread of violence, was ever heard; all proceeded in a regular course of cheerful orderliness; everybody had their due importance; everybody’s feelings were consulted. If tenderness could be ever supposed wanting, good sense and good breeding supplied its place; and as to the little irritations sometimes introduced by aunt Norris, they were short, they were trifling, they were as a drop of water to the ocean, compared with the ceaseless tumult of her present abode. Here everybody was noisy, every voice was loud (excepting, perhaps, her mother’s, which resembled the soft monotony of Lady Bertram’s, only worn into fretfulness). Whatever was wanted was hallooed for, and the servants hallooed out their excuses from the kitchen. The doors were in constant banging, the stairs were never at rest, nothing was done without a clatter, nobody sat still, and nobody could command attention when they spoke.

In a review of the two houses, as they appeared to her before the end of a week, Fanny was tempted to apply to them Dr. Johnson’s celebrated judgment as to matrimony and celibacy, and say, that though Mansfield Park might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures.

(Mansfield ParkChapter XXXIX)

The reference here is to a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s book The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. Towards the end of chapter 26, it is written, “Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.” Johnson wrote Rasselas in one week. He began writing it when he heard, on January 13, 1759, that his mother was seriously ill, so as to be able to meet her expenses. She died, however, on January 23, just as he was finishing it, so the money paid for her funeral and covered some debts that she had left. The work was immediately popular. By 1764, it had been translated into French, Dutch, German, Russian, and Italian, and was eventually traslated into many other languages.1

In addition to being referred to in Mansfield Park, Rasselas is alluded to in many other works of fiction, including Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, Middlemarch by George Eliot, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Besides his Rasselas, Jane Austen also refers to Johnson’s Idler in Mansfield Park:

“I shall walk down immediately after breakfast,” said he [Edmund], “and am sure of giving pleasure there. And now, dear Fanny, I will not interrupt you any longer. You want to be reading. But I could not be easy till I had spoken to you, and come to a decision. Sleeping or waking, my head has been full of this matter all night. It is an evil, but I am certainly making it less than it might be. If Tom is up, I shall go to him directly and get it over, and when we meet at breakfast we shall be all in high good-humour at the prospect of acting the fool together with such unanimity. You, in the meanwhile, will be taking a trip into China, I suppose. How does Lord Macartney go on?”—opening a volume on the table and then taking up some others. “And here are Crabbe’s Tales, and the Idler, at hand to relieve you, if you tire of your great book. I admire your little establishment exceedingly; and as soon as I am gone, you will empty your head of all this nonsense of acting, and sit comfortably down to your table. But do not stay here to be cold.” (Chapter XVI).

In Northanger Abbey, Miss Tilney refers to Johnson’s Dictionary:

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best.” (Northanger Abbey, Chapter XIV).

For those who are as curious as I was as to what Johnson’s definition of “nice” is, I have posted it here, as it is too long to include in this post. The definition of “nice” and its forms “nicely”, “niceness”, and “nicety” fill an entire column’s worth (and then some!) of Johnson’s dictionary—no small accomplishment, considering that a column is nothing short of 13-1/2 inches long, not including the margin.

Dr. Johnson was said to be one of Jane Austen’s favorite authors, and one that had a great influence on her own writing. In his A Memoir of Jane Austen, James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote: “Amongst her favourite writers, Johnson in prose, Crabbe in verse, and Cowper in both, stood high. It is well that the native good taste of herself and of those with whom she lived, saved her from the snare into which a sister novelist had fallen, of imitating the grandiloquent style of Johnson.” (Chapter V). Jane Austen herself wrote to her sister Cassandra, “There, I flatter myself I have constructed you a smartish letter, considering my want of materials, but, like my dear Dr. Johnson, I believe I have dealt more in notions than facts.” (February 8, 1807). In a poem she wrote, ‘To the Memory of Mrs. Lefroy’, Jane Austen refers to Dr. Johnson as “the first of Men”:

At Johnson’s death by Hamilton ’twas said,
‘Seek we a substitute – Ah! vain the plan,
No second best remains to Johnson dead—
None can remind us even of the Man.’

So we of thee – unequall’d in thy race
Unequall’d thou, as he the first of Men.
Vainly we search around the vacant place,
We ne’er may look upon thy like again.

When Jane Austen’s brother James began, in January 1789, his own weekly magazine, he called it The Loiterer. Claire Tomalin comments in her Jane Austen: A Life, The Loiterer “was modelled on Dr. Johnson’s great periodicals, the Rambler and the Idler, each number consisting of a single anonymous essay or story.” 2

Samuel Johnson, an English author, lived from September 18, 1709 to December 13, 1784. He wrote, among other things, A Dictionary of the English Language, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, and, of course, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. Besides his other books, he also wrote various essays (The Idler was a series of 103 essays, 91 of which were written by Johnson), pamphlets, sermons, poetry, periodicals, biographies, criticism, and a play.

He was born to a bookseller, Michael Johnson, and his wife, Sarah Ford. Very soon he contracted scrofula (a form of tuberculosis that affects the lymph nodes of the neck). An operation was performed on him, which left him with permanent scars on his face and body. While still a young boy, he began exhibiting tics, which affected him the rest of his life. His mother’s cousin, Elizabeth Harriotts, died in February 1728, leaving the Johnsons enough money that they were able to send Johnson to college. A friend of Johnson’s, Andrew Corbet, made up the deficit. Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford on October 31, 1728 at the age of nineteen. He did not finish college due to a lack of funds, leaving after thirteen months with no degree. Just before the publication of his Dictionary in 1755, Oxford University awarded Johnson the degree of Master of Arts. Later, he was awarded two honorary doctorates, one in 1765 by Trinity College Dublin, and another in 1775 by Oxford University. Johnson’s father died in December 1731.

On July 9, 1735, Johnson married Elizabeth Porter, the widow of his friend Harry Porter. Johnson was 25 at the time and Elizabeth was 21 years older. Johnson told a friend of his, “It was a love marriage upon both sides.” Neither the Porter nor the Johnson families were pleased with the marriage, not only because of the disparity in age, but because Johnson was, at the time, penniless. Elizabeth’s son Jervis (she had three children from her first marriage) refused to see her ever again because of her marriage. Her daughter Lucy, however, accepted Johnson, and, years later, her son Joseph became reconciled to the marriage.

In 1735, Johnson open a school, which failed. In October 1737, he moved to London, and found employment writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine. In May 1738, he anonymously published his first major work—his poem London. On June 18, 1746, Johnson signed a contract to write a dictionary of the English language. He finished it in nine years. In his biography Samuel Johnson, W. Jackson Bate writes of Johnson’s Dictionary, “The finished work … easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who labored under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time.”3 The dictionary was published in April 1755. While working on the dictionary, Johnson also wrote essays, poems, and sermons. In 1749, Johnson wrote his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes.  A periodical by Johnson, The Rambler, was published on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 1750 to 1752.

Elizabeth Johnson, due to poor health, returned from London to the country in 1752 while Johnson was working on his Dictionary. She died on March 17, 1752. Johnson was very upset by his wife’s death.

Johnson began to write a weekly series called The Idler, in 1758. It ran from April 15, 1758 to April 5, 1760. Rasselas was published on April 19, 1759. Comments being made about his procrastination prompted Johnson to finish the annotated edition of Shakespeare’s plays that he had begun some time ago, and had been putting off working on. In July 1762, King George III granted Johnson an annual pension of £300 in recognition of his Dictionary, which enabled him to concentrate on this work. It was published in 1765. In 1773, Johnson visited Scotland. In 1775, he wrote A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, an account of his travels there. In the 1770s, Johnson published a series of pamphlets on various government polices. His last major work, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, a work which he had begun in 1740, was published in six volumes in 1781.

On June 17, 1783, Johnson suffered a stroke, due to poor circulation. Later he had a surgery for his gout, and was confined to his room from December 14, 1783 to April 21, 1784. He began to improve, and, on May 5, 1784, he travelled to Oxford. On November 16, 1784, Johnson moved to London. He died there on December 13, 1784.

More information:

Samuel Johnson on Wikipedia

Rasselas on Wikipedia

The text of Rasselas on Wikisource

The Rambler on Wikipedia

The Idler on Wikipedia

Johnson’s Works on Project Gutenberg

Jane Austen and Dr. Johnson in Persuasions


1 Much of the information about the writing of Rasselas, I found in the 19th chapter, pp. 336-337, of Samuel Johnson, by Walter Jackson Bate, Washington D.C.: Couterpoint, 1998.

2 Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, Ch. 6, p. 63.

3 Bate, Ch. 15, p. 240.

4 The illustrations in this post are of, first, the title page from a 1755 edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, second, Samuel Johnson, a portrait by Joshua Reynolds, and, third, a portrait of Elizabeth Porter before she became Johnson’s wife, by an unknown artist.


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