Persuasions #9, 1987                                                                                                                                            Pages 71-75


Jane Austen and the Uncommon Reader

Department of English, Goucher College, Towson, Maryland 21204

In essay #4 of The Rambler (Saturday, March 31, 1750),1 Doctor Samuel Johnson asserts the amorphous but very real presence of the “Common Reader,” defined variously by the critics as the educated, reasonable man, the representative of Augustan taste and common sense, who has formulated rational assumptions about his world. Johnson’s Common Reader “is surely not the average man nor the common man in any sense of low social status, but the universal man in the neoclassical sense …. ”2 He is not “the critic and the scholar,” Virginia Woolf tells us, in her volume of essays entitled The Common Reader, for “he is worse educated …. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.”3 Yet Johnson assumed that this Common Reader shared his own taste and moral judgement, his concern with Truth and Human Nature. Johnson wrote for a Publick he deemed fully capable of judging and “responding to literature and being changed by it.”4 In his essays and Lives, Johnson neither lowers his standards for nor patronizes his Common Reader; rather, he credits the Publick with his own fine sense of social responsibility and rationality. In the last paragraph of his “Life” of Thomas Gray, Johnson says that he “rejoice[s] to concur with the common reader,”5 with a reading public whose taste, judgement, and literary habits he has certainly helped to shape. When he stresses the literary merits of the dulce et utile, the delightful as well as the useful, or the value of the “accurate observation of the living world” (Rambler #4), he assumes his readers’ concurrence and approval.

About what his readers read, and why they read, Johnson, in The Adventurer #137 (Tuesday, February 26, 1754), writes that the Publick is fickle, that they choose books out of “spite, vanity, and curiosity, hope and fear, love and hatred”:

Some read for style and some for argument: one has little care about the sentiment …; another regards not the conclusion … [;] they read for other purposes than the attainment of practical knowledge ….

Some read that they may embellish their conversation, or shine in dispute; some that they may not be detected in ignorance, or want the reputation of literary accomplishments: but the most general and prevalent reason of study is the impossibility of finding another amusement equally cheap or constant, equally independent on the hour or the weather. He that wants money to follow the chase of pleasure through her yearly circuit, and is left at home when the gay world rolls to Bath or Tunbridge; he whose gout compels him to hear from his chamber the rattle of chariots transporting happier beings to plays and assemblies, will be forced to seek in books a refuge from himself.

Jane Austen knew and wrote for this well-read Publick seeking amusement along with a “little learning.” The readers of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, like the readers of Rasselas, judged manners, morals, and literature according to standards delineated in the neoclassical periodicals like Addison’s Tatler, Addison and Steele’s Spectator, The Adventurer, Mackenzie’s The Mirror, and, of course, The Idler and Johnson’s Rambler. The essayists provided, in essence, a code of critical and intellectual criteria against which the reader could compare and contrast not only a new work but the whole of society.

As early as 1787-1790, Jane Austen established a particular relationship with this rather demanding reader. In the very early composition entitled “Jack and Alice,” the young author shows that she is well aware of her audience’s theories about fiction. “Before I proceed to give an account of the Evening,” the narrator announces, “it will be proper to describe to my reader, the persons and Characters of the party introduced to his acquaintance” (Minor Works, 12).6 Jane Austen’s acknowledgement of “my reader” in Volume the First is facetious, for her dedications show that she composed for an identified audience – a social group with “common,” that is, shared, values and assumptions: her own family. What is important here, however, is the writer’s intimate knowledge of and familiarity with the demands and expectations of the reading Publick.

In another scene in “Jack and Alice,” the narrator cajoles the audience:

Alice Johnson was the unhappy sixth whose heart had not been able to withstand the power of [Charles Adams’s] Charms. But as it may appear strange to my Readers, that so much worth & Excellence as [Charles Adams] possessed should have conquered only [Alice Johnson’s heart], it will be necessary to inform them that the Miss Simpsons were defended from his Power by Ambition, Envy, & Selfadmiration. (Minor Works, 15)

As the narrator challenges the reader’s assumptions about fiction, passive reading is impossible, for Jane Austen constantly teases the Publick whose literary expectations she loves to overturn. In Persuasion, the narrator reports: “[Lady Russell] and Sir Walter, did not marry, whatever might have been anticipated on that head by their acquaintance” (P, 5) (or by Jane Austen’s readers), and at the very end of Persuasion, the narrator questions:

Who can be in doubt of what followed? When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be truth … (P, 248)

The narrator of Northanger Abbey tells the reader that she is well “aware that the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with [her] fable … ” (NA, 251). The ironically phrased “bad morality” and the reference to the strict Augustan “rules of composition” show not only Jane Austen’s thorough understanding of the literary conventions of contemporary writing but also her amusement at her power over those conventions.

Perhaps the most ironical relationship of author to readers is established by the “partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian” (Minor Works, 139) in relating The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. In her discussion of “Henry the 8th” she maintains that:

It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King’s reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, and myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign. (142)

The hilarious History was obviously intended for pure amusement, to be shared when the Readers at Steventon spent an evening reading aloud. Southam notes that “Jane Austen’s pieces, with their fragile, often allusive humour, were designed for such an intimate hearing. She could depend on the full understanding of her listeners.”7

Samuel Johnson’s and Jane Austen’s Readers commended the social experience of reading aloud, of discussing the ideas, the language and phrasing, the form, and the moral values of a literary work. The process of reading aloud, which necessarily shares ideas, values, and myths, also establishes a common vocabulary of images, symbols, and tastes. For the modern world, however, reading aloud, with the wider implications of seeking a more perfect understanding of the work and gaining insight into the self, is more or less passé.

Are readers today involved in what Virginia Woolf called “creating” “out of whatever odds and ends [they] can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of writing”?8 Are we, in effect, Uncommon Readers, distanced from each other by time and place, holding widely divergent opinions about religion and politics, about the qualities of elegance and style? We seem unused to “creating” portraits of the characters and landscapes of the time, and we do not often comment on the style and grace of a writer’s prose. Yet in reading and rereading Jane Austen’s books, we begin to delight in the balance and the symmetry of the sentences and the form, the elegance of phrasing. We note how perfect it is for Lady Susan, in letters from her own hand, to turn elegance of expression into an evil, and for Jane Austen to parody her own poised style.

Jane Austen’s early work endorses many of the Augustan Publick’s literary expectations: the epistolary form, the balanced structure; irony, satire, and wit; elegance of the setting, nobility of at least one character’s rank; moral value, rationality, and truth to nature. Delighting her readers and refusing to use the novel as a purely didactic tool, Jane Austen incorporates iconic metaphors and symbols recognizable to her “Readers,” whom she often addresses directly. For example, they would have easily identified common allusions – to Humphrey Repton or Capability Brown, to Samuel Richardson or Mrs. Radcliffe, or to Shakespeare and Sheridan. They would have recognized the sources of her burlesques of contemporary dramas, memoirs, or Gothic and adventure fiction, and her parodies of bad writing would have had them fainting on sofas in fits of laughter.

Naturally, we read “differently” from those readers, which means that to be good readers and to interpret accurately we have to study the texts attentively. Like Jane Austen’s contemporary readers, we, too, are saddened when, for example, Charlotte dutifully and pragmatically marries the odious Mr. Collins. Yet, those contemporary readers perhaps felt rather relieved as well, for they understood the financial implications of spinsterhood in Georgian England and the position of single women in society. Those readers would have interpreted the subtle symbolism in Elizabeth’s rebuttal to Lady Catherine’s rudeness about the impossibility of her marrying Mr. Darcy. When Elizabeth says, “He [Mr. Darcy] is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal” (P&P, 356), the modern reader must remember that, although Longbourn is not Pemberley, equality was becoming a relative ideal. When we read that Sir Walter Elliot takes up “a very good house” in Camden-place as his residence we are likely to misinterpret Jane Austen’s intent. Camden-place, the narrator tells us, is a fitting abode for Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, for it provides “a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence” (P, 137); Jane Austen’s acute Common Reader, however, would have known that Camden-place was actually a new, probably unfinished, poorly constructed group of buildings, all outward appearance and show.9

Jane Austen’s audience would have had certain expectations of the epistolary form. Doctor Johnson in The Idler #84 (Saturday, November 24, 1759) promotes the value of reading autobiographies, letters, and memoirs; he explains that “the writer of his own life has at least the first qualification of an historian, the knowledge of the truth.” Those works “in which the writer tells his own story” become, perhaps, the most representative pieces of Augustan literature, yet Jane Austen asks implicitly that we know the limitations of the epistolary novel so that we can detect what she is doing that is new. In Lady Susan, although Jane Austen works within the neoclassical form (letters), she constantly experiments with content (the evil heroine who tells her own story). As Johnson points out, there is no better way to discover the truth of the situation than to hear it from the historian – in this case, Lady Susan herself.

The reader today is struck by the playful spirit and ironic control in the Juvenilia. Jane Austen paid close attention to advanced and elaborate literary principles, and to her readers’ growing sophistication in terms of literary technique. The early works reveal the unpolished facets of Jane Austen’s developing art, and because she wrote these pieces for the amusement of a very specific audience, reading them may be laborious for those who have not read her major novels first. Unfortunately, as Southam points out, “we, as readers outside the family circle, a century and a half later, cannot hope to enjoy [the] knowledge of books and people familiar to the household, and for the most part the references are sunk too deeply for us to identify biographical details or parody of specific works.”10

To read Jane Austen well, to relate effectively to the text, to be able to “create” a “sketch of an age,” today’s Uncommon Readers must become Johnsonian Common Readers; that is, we must all be actively involved in a process of exchange and interpretation. We, too, must heed the eighteenth-century abstractions so favoured by the Augustans, the vices and virtues that are human nature: melancholy, selfishness, snobbery, indolence, vanity, diligence, dignity, rationality, and so on. To appreciate and interpret the satire and social commentary, we have to delve into the text and discover Jane Austen’s own ideas about Gothic romances and sentimental writing, about the country house ethos, and about the improvement of the estate. To recreate the social context, we have to note how Jane Austen places the individual in the society, and how the character conforms to or ignores society’s rules. We must ascertain the social and moral values of an age in flux in order to appreciate how Jane Austen transforms the Augustan’s preoccupation with rank and status into stories about the rise of another class.

The good reader’s role is to engage the text in active inquiry. Our own sense of isolation as well as our lack of shared context makes the reading and rereading of Jane Austen’s novels all the more pleasurable and instructive, especially when we recognize the parts of the whole. People who would not rather be reading Jane Austen allow her words to remain passively flat on the page; the new Common Reader, entering into a conspiracy with the author and the narrator, “creates,” as Virginia Woolf says, by making those words come to life.



1 Samuel Johnson, The Works of Samuel Johnson, Vol. I (New York; George Dearborn, Publisher, 1834). All further quotations from Johnson’s essays will be taken from this edition.

2 René Wellek, “The Later Eighteenth Century,” A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), p. 55.

3 The Common Reader: First Series (1925; New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1953), p. 1.

4 Leopold Damrosch, The Uses of Johnson’s Criticism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976), p. 41.

5 Samuel Johnson, Works, Vol. II, p. 302.

6 All citations are taken from The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, revised B.C. Southam, 3rd ed., (London: Oxford University Press, 1954, rev. 1969).

7 B.C. Southam, Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 6.

8 Woolf, p. 1.

9 Patricia Bruckmann, “Sir Walter Elliot’s Bath Address,” Modern Philology, 80 (1982), 56-60.

10 Southam, p. 6.

Back to Persuasions  #9 Table of Contents

Return to Home Page