Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                                Page 53-60

Mentoring Jane Austen: Reflections on "My Dear Dr. Johnson"

Department of English, California State University, Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge, California 91330 

My subject is mentoring Jane Austen and how Samuel Johnson’s ideas became a distinctive presence in her writings.  A mentor, as we know, is a wise advisor, a teacher or a coach.  According to Greek mythology, the character Mentor was the loyal friend and advisor to Odysseus and the counsellor to his son Telemachus.  He was left in charge of the household when Odysseus went off to the Trojan War, and he did much to rouse the young Telemachus to action and later to bring peace between Odysseus and the warring Ithacans.  As we use the term, such a figure is the inspiration and guide for many a bold undertaking – a new job, a course of study, a goal of personal fulfillment.  He is, as we might say, a role model – constant, reliable, and judicious.  I would like to suggest that Samuel Johnson served this purpose for Jane Austen, as she modelled many of the portraits of human behaviour to be found in her writings upon his steadfast principles.  A mentor need not be physically present to affect the course of his protégée’s life: in this case, Samuel Johnson was at least two generations removed from Jane Austen: he lived from 1709 to 1785, she from 1775 to 1817.  They never met, but I believe no one had a greater influence on her artistry.

There is no question that Jane Austen read intently and deeply admired works by and about Johnson, including the periodical essays in the Rambler, Idler, and Adventurer, the philosophical tale Rasselas, the Lives of the Poets, the published Letters, as well as the famous biographies by Boswell, Mrs. Thrale, Frances Burney, and Sir John Hawkins.  As her brother and nephew declared in the early nineteenth century, she considered Johnson to be her “favourite author in prose” (H. Austen 7; Austen-Leigh 89), and in her own letters she refers to “my dear Dr. Johnson” and “my dear Mrs. Piozzi” (the former Mrs. Thrale) to convey more than just a preference for a chosen writer.  It is rather like a feeling of imagined intimacy, together with the respect and affection accorded to someone held in high esteem, shall we say, a mentor?  In this essay I want to explore a leading aspect of Johnson’s mentoring Jane Austen, related to the topic of family life.  I believe that Johnson’s opinions on marriage and the family had a powerful influence on Jane Austen as she came to create the plot and characterization in her novels, the rich complication and individuality of her special domain: “3 or 4 Families in a country village.”

Johnson’s thoughts on family life were iconoclastic for the eighteenth century or, for that matter, any time, by virtue of their brave unsentimentality and daring realism.  He writes of conflict and maladjustment, of cruelty and oppression.  In unmistakably strong terms, he compares the tyranny that may be exercised in private households to political disfranchisement, a kind of violent subjugation by malignant rule.  In Rambler 148, he states: 

The regal and parental tyrant differ only in the extent of their dominions, and the number of their slaves.  The same passions cause the same miseries; except that seldom any prince, however despotic, has so far shaken off all awe of the public eye as to venture upon those freaks of injustice which are sometimes indulged under the secrecy of a private dwelling.  Capricious injunctions, partial decisions, unequal allotments, distributions of reward not by merit but by fancy, and punishments regulated not by the degree of the offence, but by the humour of the judge, are too frequent where no power is known but that of a [parent].   (Yale Works 5:25) 

Likewise, in Rasselas, his characters investigate the habitual enmity to be found in private life.  In a famous discourse, the princess Nekayah explains the growing disaffection between parents and children: 

In families, where there is or is not poverty, there is commonly discord: if a kingdom be, as Imlac tells us, a great family, a family likewise is a little kingdom, torn with factions and exposed to revolutions.  An unpractised observer expects the love of parents and children to be constant and equal; but this kindness seldom continues beyond the years of infancy; in a short time the children become rivals to their parents.  Benefits are allayed by reproaches, and gratitude debased by envy.
   Parents and children seldom act in concert: each child endeavours to appropriate the esteem or fondness of the parents, and the parents, with yet less temptation, betray each other to their children; thus some place their confidence in the father, and some in the mother, and, by degrees, the house if filled with artifices and feuds ….
     Thus parents and children, for the greatest part, live on to love less and less: and, if those whom nature has thus closely united are the torments of each other, where shall we look for tenderness and consolation?  (Chapter 26 – Oxford Works 376) 

Do some of these situations of rivalry, faction, and estrangement that Johnson describes in domestic life sound familiar as we approach Jane Austen’s writings?  Take, for example, this excerpt from “The Watsons.”  In a brief respite from the party of vain, greedy, and heartless persons who constitute her social world, Emma Watson, the heroine of one of Jane Austen’s fragments of novels left in manuscript, reflects on the encroaching horrors about her.  A writing of little over 16,000 words, begun in 1804 and broken off the year after, “The Watsons” (so entitled by its first editor) well encapsulates the Austen heroine’s familiar plight: to be in company but never more alone.  Reprieved for the moment from the selfish demands of others, Emma considers “the dreadful mortifications of unequal Society, and family Discord, … the immediate endurance of Hard-hearted prosperity, low-minded Conceit, and wrong-headed folly, engrafted on an untoward Disposition ....  She was become of importance to no one, a burden on those whose affection she could not expect, an addition in an House, already overstocked, surrounded by inferior minds with little chance of domestic comfort, and little hope of future support” (Minor Works 361-62).  Or witness this passage from Lady Susan, where the fiendish mother stews at the upset of her vindictive plot to marry her only daughter to a ne’er-do-well: 

That horrid girl of mine has been trying to run away.  – I had not a notion of her being such a little Devil before; she seemed to have all the Vernon Milkiness; but on receiving the letter in which I declared my intentions about Sir James, she actually attempted to elope; at least I cannot otherwise account for her doing it.  She meant I suppose to go to the Clarkes in Staffordshire, for she has no other acquaintance.  But she shall be punished, she shall have him.  (Minor Works 268) 

Jane Austen analyzed and wrote extensively about characters caught in cruel vises which lock them into dangerously helpless positions, vises operating through the dynamics of family life.  By contrast to clinging to the idealized or sentimentalized versions of human nature popularized by many of her contemporaries, she radically defies conventional myths about marriage, sex, the family, friendship, and the like.  She explodes the credence and dogma once taken for granted about these complex human relationships, and she does so in a manner thoroughly advanced for the time.  For Austen, psychodynamic issues take precedence over the old moralistic world view, since she observes people as they are, not as they ought to be.  Owing much to Johnson’s unstinting realism and sharp analyses of human behaviour, she draws pictures of everyday life by finding the hidden motivations, the interior chains of causality, that influence us to behave as we do.  It is this remarkable development of a psychological realism that became Johnson’s chief legacy to his intellectual protégée, Jane Austen.  “No man so acutely discerned the reason of every fact, the motive of every action, the end of every design” (Johnsonian Miscellanies 1:308), wrote Mrs. Thrale.  Indeed, an intense and purposeful inwardness pervades the very texture of his writings.  And to Jane Austen, he must have been the guide for her astonishing insights and revelations about scenes of domestic discord.  If we consider the six major novels, we find organizing themes which are eminently Johnsonian, in effect, related to profound unconscious dynamics and their powerful influence upon conscious life.

In psychological terms, the plots and characterizations of Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion are so structured that they lead us to discover the pattern of inward life.  As we become more and more immersed in the story, we observe the heroine’s deeply suppressed unconscious wishes projected upon external reality, much to her own cost and sorrow.  And in each case these wishes, ever the more compelling by virtue of their prohibition, are found to be the effect of stifling, distressful family relationships.  It is inherently a burden of existence that any number of parental figures – mothers, father, aunts, uncles, guardians – act as the official saboteurs of powerful human emotions, and so it is that the suppression of rage, sexual desire, envy, and the like, leads to severe conflict and misdirection of normal aims and instincts.  Generally the problematic family members in Austen’s novels are at best, dead (Mr. Henry Dashwood, Mrs. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elliot); at middlemost, self-centred (Mr. Woodhouse, Aunt Bertram), or remote (Uncle Bertram, Mr. Bennet); and at worst, cruel (General Tilney, Aunt Norris, Mr. Elliot).  While Catherine Morland, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, or Anne Elliot may secretly resent, even reject, the precepts of incompetent parental authorities, she is at the same time subject to their arbitrary rule.  Moreover, in the peculiar bargain which has been struck, she becomes the caretaker of seriously flawed, rather weak-minded specimens of failure and unhappiness, as her nobler spirit is offered up, as it were, to the caprice and wretchedness it is her duty to assuage.

Austen’s heroines labour under continual agitation and duress, which would shatter less sturdy souls: the progress of Catherine’s unhappiness, we are told, is hastened through the languid insipidity of Mrs. Allen, her chaperone at Bath.  When Catherine is reluctant to leave with the boorish John Thorpe, as she was earlier engaged to Miss Tilney, she asks the older woman for advice: “ ‘Do just as you please, my dear,’ replied Mrs. Allen, with the most placid indifference” (NA 43).  Elinor and Marianne suffer varying degrees of chagrin and remorse for their mother’s lack of good judgement and romantic folly, particularly as she pushes the latter into the arms of the reprobate Willoughby.  While Elinor cautions her sister against increasing involvement and indiscretion, “Mrs. Dashwood entered into all their feelings [Marianne and Willoughby’s] with a warmth which left her no inclination for checking this excessive display of them.  To her it was but the natural consequence of a strong affection in a young and ardent mind” (SS 54).  Elizabeth cringes during the famous supper scene at Netherfield, while her mother rattles on with mounting gaucherie about the would-be acquisition of Bingley’s fortune for Jane (and rather incidentally, Bingley along with it), and her father sits amused and detached.  The blundering antics of the rest of the family, compounded by the haughty superiority and critical eye of Mr. Darcy, are such that “Elizabeth blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation” (P&P 100).  Fanny is mortified and abused throughout her young life by the patently malignant Aunt Norris, always brandishing her vicious charges and reminding everyone of the girl’s humble origins.  When Fanny begs to be excused from the raucous private theatricals at Mansfield, Aunt Norris retaliates: “I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her – very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is” (MP 147).  Emma ever teeters on the brink of disaster lest her dear father’s phobic universe be invaded.  Even the welcome company of their own especial set is fraught with difficulty.  Considering Mr. John Knightley’s occasional ill-humour, for example, Emma nervously anticipates the dire effects on her father of “a sharp retort equally ill bestowed.  It did not often happen; for Mr. John Knightley had really a great regard for his father-in-law, and generally a strong sense of what was due to him; but it was too often for Emma’s charity, especially as there was all the pain of apprehension frequently to be endured, though the offence came not” (Emma 93).  And Anne trembles at her father’s tyrannical selfishness and callous neglect of all but his own empty little affairs.  Of his stony-hearted reaction to her past unsuccessful engagement to Captain Wentworth, we are told: “Sir Walter, on being applied to, without actually withholding his consent, or saying it should never be, gave it all the negative of great astonishment, great coldness, great silence, and a professed resolution of doing nothing for his daughter” (P 26).

If the Austen heroine is systematically enmeshed and enthralled by a troubled family life, here is also the origin and development of internal discord, and thus we discern the psychologically deterministic pattern of present difficulties.  Unable to satisfy compelling human needs, she expresses frustration by any number of evasive manoeuvres: psychosomatic illness, phobic isolation, paranoia, and vain and foolish strategies to control others.  Moreover, as the chief of her deprivations is sexual, so it is that she becomes compromised to varying degrees by an irresponsible, dangerously erotic young man – John Thorpe, Willoughby, Wickham, Henry Crawford, Frank Churchill, William Elliot.  With the likes of these, any hope of serious attachment can only bode more sorrow and unhappiness.  It seems a desperate dilemma: on the one side, complete, if short-lived sexual bliss, followed by the necessary falling off of affections, infidelity, betrayal, and eventual abandonment and loss; on the other side, continued toleration of increasingly intolerable circumstances.  The latter choice, in effect, embodies the Austen heroine’s celebrated “self command,” which analytically suggests radical suppression of all but overwhelming primary instincts and emotions, a condition inevitably leading to serious impairment.  In the midst of these equally bleak and ill-favoured prospects, the hero appears on the scene, in a mythic sense, as it were, to redeem what could only come to intense grief.  Henry Tilney, Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, Mr. Darcy, Edmund Bertram, Mr. Knightley, and Captain Wentworth reach their respective heroines on the deepest level of consciousness as, Perseus-like, they break the chains that bind these women to grotesque inner demons.  They provide the loving acceptance and passionate commitment so desperately craved.  We may now turn very briefly to Pride and Prejudice to see more concretely how some of these psychological ideas work.

Very much like the other heroines of Jane Austen’s novels, Elizabeth Bennet is decidedly vulnerable and isolated.  Beset on all sides by a grim host of self-absorbed, self-indulgent, even vicious individuals, she often resembles the mythic Cinderella, her own great worth neglected or discredited by those who are themselves worthless.  Consider her plight early on in the novel.  Deemed “Tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me,” by the initially supercilious Mr. Darcy and chagrined beyond the limits that anyone need endure by Mr. Collins, who reminds her during his proposal, “It is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you” (P&P 108), Elizabeth is quite alone in the passage to becoming a woman.  The need to feel loved, to feel beautiful, to feel wanted, seems denied to her: she is eclipsed by Jane’s better looks and Lydia’s vivacity; she is to her mother “the least dear … of all her children,” and to her father, the relationship is most peculiar.  While it is true that he prefers her to his other daughters, that very favouritism seems less than advantageous.  In their typical fashion of undisguised mutual disparagement, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet also manage to disparage their entire family, as she complains, “ ‘Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia.  But you are always giving her the preference.’ ‘They have none of them much to recommend them,’ replied he; ‘they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters’ ” (P&P 4-5).  He does welcome Elizabeth home the two times she was gone, first to Netherfield to attend the ailing Jane and then to Hunsford to pay a wedding-visit to Charlotte, but again his manner is characteristically oblique, as if to reassure himself, not his daughter.  And I have often thought one of the cruelest and most wounding scenes for Elizabeth is near the end of the novel, where her father summons her to his room to share the “joke” of Darcy’s alleged attraction to her.  “Let me congratulate you, on a very important conquest,” he begins and goes on to sport with his daughter’s feelings: “Mr. Darcy, who never looks at any woman but to see a blemish, and who probably never looked at you in his life!  It is admirable!”  We are told: 

Elizabeth had never been more at a loss to make her feelings appear what they were not.  It was necessary to laugh, when she would rather have cried.  Her father had most cruelly mortified her, by what he said of Mr. Darcy’s indifference, and she could do nothing but wonder at such a want of penetration, or fear that perhaps, instead of his seeing too little, she might have fancied too much.  (P&P 362-64) 

It is only with Mr. Darcy’s ability to love Elizabeth that he can rescue her from a life grown almost invariably wretched.  Wickham’s treachery, Lydia’s disgrace, her mother’s stupidity, her father’s aloofness – all of these would conspire to bring her down were it not for Darcy’s help.  “To receive and communicate assistance, constitutes the happiness of human life: man may indeed preserve his existence in solitude, but can enjoy it only in society” (Adventurer 67 – Yale Works 2:389), wrote Samuel Johnson.  The social possibilities in Pride and Prejudice are indeed bleak, from impaired parental authorities, to their self-deluded children, but finally to those who provide or learn to provide genuine loving support and hope for the future.  In the end, Elizabeth and Darcy are united, and in this triumph, we celebrate the richest possibilities for happiness in the modern world.  They are joined in mutual regard, loyal co-operation, and the pleasures of love, very much like the encouraging advice Johnson would offer in his special role of mentoring Jane Austen,

Evidently, Johnson’s writings, along with Richardson’s novels, were an important inspiration for nineteenth-century novelists of manners, of whom Jane Austen was one of the original and most brilliant.  The genre represents a significant juncture in the history of ideas, where people begin to conceive of themselves as psychological rather than as exclusively moral beings.  Far from a stern authoritarian dogmatist, Johnson speculates upon and analyzes problems of personal identity and human relationship, to help pioneer a just then emerging science of human nature.  His interests lie not in moral-punitive ordeals, in the manner of, say, Pope and Swift, whose characters suffer protracted physical abuse and vicious reproach for the consequence of their so-called “evil” acts.  Instead, Johnson’s host of characters – chiefly in the periodical essays, in Rasselas, and in the biographies – are as free from the stigma of sin and evil as one gets in the eighteenth century.  While they are certainly dressed in all fashion of human frailty, their real punishment or reward, as the case may be, is just being themselves.

To discover what constitutes the true self, Johnson understood the necessity of penetrating beneath the façade of self-delusion.  He often creates episodes of affectation and masquerade, the very stuff that Jane Austen and her fellow novelists of manners took as principal themes.  In Adventurer 84, for example, he tells of the follies of a stagecoach ride, where boorish passengers vie with one another in ludicrous impersonation of ladies and gentlemen of wealth and social position, and he analogizes to common experience: 

Every man in the journey of life takes the same advantage of the ignorance of his fellow travellers, disguises himself in counterfeited merit, and hears those praises with complacency which his conscience reproaches him for accepting.  Every man deceives himself while he thinks he is deceiving others.  (Yale Works 2:411) 

In Rambler 16, he gives an account of the hack-writer with delusions of grandeur, who believes he is haunted by rapacious celebrity seekers: 

I live, in consequence of having given too great proofs of a predominant genius, in the solitude of a hermit, with the anxiety of a miser, and the caution of an outlaw; afraid to shew my face lest it should be copied; afraid to speak, lest I should injure my character, and to write lest my correspondents should publish my letters; always uneasy lest my servants should steal my papers for the sake of money, or my friends for that of the publick.  Thus it is to soar above the rest of mankind.  (Yale Works 3:91) 

And in The Life of Savage, Johnson writes, with more forbidding consequences, of the poet’s severe personality impairment: 

By imputing none of his miseries to himself, he continued to act upon the same principles, and to follow the same path, was never made wiser by his sufferings, nor preserved by one misfortune from falling into another.  He proceeded throughout life to tread the same steps on the same circle; always applauding his past conduct, or at least forgetting it, to amuse himself with phantoms of happiness, which were dancing before him; and willingly turned his eyes from the light of reason, when it would have discovered illusion, and shewn him, what he never wished to see, his real state.  (74) 

Apparently for Johnson, one of the cruelest effects of self-delusion is isolation and estrangement from the rest of mankind.  The passengers on the stagecoach are dispersed on their cheerless, separate ways; the hack-writer continues mured up in a garret; and Richard Savage dies forgotten in a Bristol debtor’s prison.  Deceiving oneself brings on failure in human community, as the manipulation of truth dangerously severs the bonds of social co-operation and social control: 

There is no crime more infamous than the violation of truth.  It is apparent that men can be social beings no longer than they believe each other.  When speech is employed only as the vehicle of falsehood, every man must disunite himself from others, inhabit his own cave, and seek prey only for himself.  (Yale Works 2:62) 

Have we not arrived once again at a familiar situation in Jane Austen’s novels, the ominous crisis originating in mendacity and self-oblivion, the prospect of the bleakest of futures?  But let us conclude, as she always does, on a more promising note.  In the words of Mr. Knightley, that eminent Johnsonian, and perhaps the character who embodies the greatest tribute to “my dear Dr. Johnson,” we re-affirm the good faith and probity in human relationships.  Ever set to undo the skein of error and adversity that entangles the heroine and her friends, Mr. Knightley speaks as Johnson’s purest disciple: 

“Mystery; Finesse – how they pervert the understanding!  My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?”  (Emma 446) 


Austen, Henry.  “Biographical Notice of the Author” (1818).  Included in the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  Ed. R. W. Chapman. 

Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman. 5 vols., third ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932-34. 

—.  Minor Works.  Third ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954. 

—.  Letters.  Second ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952. 

Austen-Leigh, James.  Memoirs of Jane Austen .  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926. 

Hill, G. B., ed.  Johnsonian Miscellanies.  Two vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897. 

Johnson, Claudia L.  “The ‘Operations of Time, and the Changes of the Human Mind’: Jane Austen and Dr. Johnson Again.”  MLQ 44(1983): 23-38. 

Johnson, Samuel.  The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson.  Ed.  W. J. Bate et al.  Vols. 2-5. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963-69. 

—.  The Life of Savage.  Ed. Clarence Tracy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971. 

—.  Rasselas.  Ed. Donald J. Greene.  The Oxford Authors.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984. 

Leavis, F. R.  The Common Pursuit.  London: Chatto & Windus, 1953. 

Scholes, Robert.  “Dr. Johnson and Jane Austen.”  PQ 54 (1975): 380-90.

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