Epictetus

If you collected all of the things that Johnson said and assumed about women, as reported by Boswell and others, and showed them to 21st-century eyes, it wouldn’t necessarily portray a positive or progressive stance. Some of his words have become pretty infamous, like the one about what it’s like to witness a woman preaching (via Boswell):

Next day, July 31, I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I heard a woman preaching. JOHNSON: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on its hinder legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

In this particular example, some critics have come to Johnson’s defense, for example Donald Greene in “The Myth of Johnson’s Misogyny: Some Addenda,” where he questions the truth or validity of this anecdote as well as others (South Central Review 9:4 (1992)). That’s a good reminder of when you’re conducting any kind of scholarship on anyone. Is the source valid, accurate, dependable? And, if so, did the person really mean what they said? These days, stand-up comedians, for example, are often criticized and even excoriated for some of the bits and jokes that they perform on stage. The assumption by the critics is that the comedians mean what they say, that it’s not “just a joke,” and part of the argument is that some things are too serious to be joked about — which then starts one of two other arguments:

  • even if you are just joking and don’t mean it, some topics shouldn’t be the subject matter of comedy at all
  • if there are going to be restrictions, who decides what’s verboten to be brought up by a stand-up comedian?

A documentary from 2016 called Can We Take a Joke? defended comedians’ right to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about, but as some of the interviewees demonstrated, this sentiment is far from universally shared. Outside of this documentary, comedians often have to defend their stance either on stage, after they appear on stage, or of course on social media. Comedian David Cross makes a joke about the issue itself in his introductory bit on his live-performance CD It’s Not Funny. He sets up the audience by saying that women are smarter than men on the whole, but then also says that he believes that dogs are smarter than women. Many audience members balk at that of course, and Cross says: “I’m gonna go ahead and admit that I do not believe what I just said. It was what is described as a joke. I’ll be tellin a bunch of em here tonight.” (You can hear the one-minute bit here.) Coincidentally it brings us back to dogs again. In the case of Johnson, critic Donald Greene wonders whether Johnson really meant what he said.

I’m reading Norma Clarke’s excellent book, Dr Johnson’s Women, specifically the chapter on the extraordinarily talented Elizabeth Carter, whom Johnson first met when they both worked for Edward Cave at the Gentleman’s Magazine in the late 1730s. Clarke writes that “Johnson’s respect for Carter’s scholarship was unequivocal; he rated her as possibly the best Greek scholar in the land, avowing that nobody he had ever known knew more Greek than she did. In her scholarship, she was his equal.”

Clarke also writes that Johnson was not the only person to see Carter’s genius. Thomas Birch praised her translation of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explain’d for the Use of the Ladies, in Six Dialogues on Light and Colours (yes, some books in the 18th century had titles with “for the use of the ladies”):

This lady is a very extraordinary phenomenon in the Republic of Letters, and justly to be ranked with the Cornelias, Sulpicias, and Hypatias of the Ancients, and the Schurmans and Daciers of the Moderns. For to an uncommon vivacity and delicacy of genius and an accuracy of judgement worthy of the maturest years, she has added the knowledge of the ancient and modern languages at an age, when an equal skill in any one of them would be a considerable distinction in a person of the other sex.

Alas, perhaps the main or at least best-known assessment of Carter by Johnson himself comes down to us phrased in a way that has a “she’s smart — for a woman” feel about it. Voilà:

A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek. My old friend, Mrs Carter, could make a pudding, as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek, and work a handkerchief as well as compose a poem.

Clarke defends Johnson by pointing out that Johnson’s comment “was actually about what men wanted not what women could or couldn’t do,” but many readers won’t be able to forget about the pudding and the embroidery.

Carter’s and Johnson’s literary careers did intersect occasionally during the century (they were near chronological contemporaries, by the way, with Johnson only about eight years older than her). Most famously, she was one of the very few people other than Johnson himself to contribute essays to the Rambler that Johnson wrote between 1750 and 1752. In fact, she wrote two: no. 44 (Aug. 18, 1750) and no. 100 (Mar. 2, 1751). They are both anonymous and also both in the form of a letter to the Rambler. No. 44 recounts a dream which the writer had in which she was guided through “a melancholy picture of life” until she meets a “deliverer”: “My name is Religion.” She outs the former guide as “Superstition … the child of Discontent, and her followers are Fear and Sorrow.” Religion’s advice is to the point:

Return from the contracted views of solitude to the proper duties of a relative and dependent being. Religion is not confined to cells and closets, nor restrained to sullen retirement. These are the gloomy doctrines of Superstition, by which she endeavours to break those chains of benevolence and social affection, that link the welfare of every particular with that of the whole. Remember that the greatest honour you can pay to the Author of your being is by such a cheerful behaviour, as discovers a mind satisfied with his dispensations.

Rambler no. 100 is written in a kind of polite, ironic, satiric style, the premise being that it would be better if common people imitated the actions of people of high rank and fashion. This gives a taste of it:

For this purpose you should give a very clear and ample description of the whole set of polite acquirements; a complete history of forms, fashions, frolics; of routs, drums, hurricanes, balls, assemblies, ridottos, masquerades, auctions, plays, operas, puppet-shows, and bear-gardens; of all those delights which profitably engage the attention of the most sublime characters, and by which they have brought to such amazing perfection the whole art and mystery of passing day after day, week after week, and year after year, without the heavy assistance of any one thing that formal creatures are pleased to call useful and necessary.

Johnson maintained his friendship with Elizabeth Carter for most of his life. She had dinner with him and others at Eva Garrick’s house about six months before Johnson’s death in 1784.

Johnson was an excellent writer, was able to compose his sentences quickly if necessary, and didn’t hesitate to say exactly what was on his mind. Sometimes the latter manifested in tersely blunt assessments or advice, and sometimes it was couched in language that was no less frank but a bit more diplomatic and respectful. Many of the key events in Johnson’s life are marked (or known about at all) by a letter he wrote about them:

  • the 25-year-old Johnson telling Edward Cave that he, Johnson, could improve Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine (and this was in effect his application for a job there)
  • the letter to James Macpherson, who had written some fake Gaelic poems and tried to pass them off as ancient poetry
  • the letter to Lord Chesterfield’s about the latter’s poor performance as a patron of Johnson’s dictionary

And this is just a tiny selection.

One lesser-known letter was written only about three months before his death in 1784, and it is a nice illustration not only of his style but of the articulate and civilized way he could state some inconvenient truths. First, a little background … Johnson had been awarded annual pension of £300 about twenty years earlier for his literary achievement. By 1784, his friends were trying to get the amount increased, and without his knowledge made a plea to the government for his case. It was refused. As Bruce Redford notes in his edition of Johnson’s letters: “the King had turned down Lord Thurlow’s request that SJ’s pension be increased in order to cover the expenses of a trip to Italy.”

Part of Johnson’s reply to Thurlow (who was Lord High Chancellor) was as follows (this version is from an edition of Boswell’s Life on Project Gutenberg, and differs in some details from Redford’s scholarly version:

After a long and not inattentive observation of mankind, the generosity of your Lordship’s offer raises in me not less wonder than gratitude. Bounty, so liberally bestowed, I should gladly receive, if my condition made it necessary; for, to such a mind, who would not be proud to own his obligations? But it has pleased GOD to restore me to so great a measure of health, that if I should now appropriate so much of a fortune destined to do good, I could not escape from myself the charge of advancing a false claim. My journey to the continent, though I once thought it necessary, was never much encouraged by my physicians; and I was very desirous that your Lordship should be told of it by Sir Joshua Reynolds, as an event very uncertain; for if I grew much better, I should not be willing, if much worse, not able, to migrate. Your Lordship was first solicited without my knowledge; but, when I was told that you were pleased to honour me with your patronage, I did not expect to hear of a refusal; yet, as I have had no long time to brood hope, and have not rioted in imaginary opulence, this cold reception has been scarce a disappointment; and, from your Lordship’s kindness, I have received a benefit, which only men like you are able to bestow. I shall now live mihi carior, with a higher opinion of my own merit. I am, my Lord, your Lordship’s most obliged, most grateful, and most humble servant.

I love the flow of this letter. I like how sometimes I have to pause to figure out if something is a compliment, a criticism, or a simple rhetorical use of language (e.g., ” the generosity of your Lordship’s offer raises in me not less wonder than gratitude” [it’s not a criticism]). Here I like especially the ending, where he is essentially saying that even though he has been refused the increase in pension, it’s not disappointing because he does at least get the benefit of men of Thurlow’s stature pleading on his behalf. The “kicker,” so to speak, is the sentence: “I shall now live mihi carior, with a higher opinion of my own merit.” The Latin means “dearer to me” or “dearer to myself” and so this represents Johnson spinning very positively what might have been viewed by some other man on the cusp of his 75th birthday as a major sleight from the monarchy.

Many of Johnson’s letters repay this reading them closely. Here there’s humour and modesty and civility, but they certainly are not all like that.

I’m currently reading Tony Henderson’s excellent book on prostitution in London in the 18th century, Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730-1830. I’ve only just started but I can see from the table of contents, and from the clear and forthright writing I’ve read so far, that this will provide me with some valuable background information for my own book. Henderson mentions his three main aims early on in the book, two of which are: “to identify the dominant social characteristics and the motives of those who entered prostitution [and] to describe the relative importance of the street and the brothel.”

henderson book

As with many things associated with sex work (or, frankly, with sex generally) there were various demographics and constituencies who for self-serving reasons, or because of a lack of honest analysis, attributed ludicrous reasons to women becoming prostitutes. Early on in his book, Henderson cites these as some of the reasons suggested:

  • “increasing frivolity and indiscipline in the manner in which female children were raised … corrupted by novels and the general luxury and opulence of the nation” (1); the child then considers herself “ripe for Joy,” as Father Poussin puts it in his harsh and weirdly titled book (2)
  • “the ‘ruining’ of the girl by a ‘Rampant rake,’ thus leading her to the streets or to a brothel
  • “innocence, rather than appetites … prostitution [drawing] its recruits … from the respectable families of the impoverished lower middle classes”

In the 18th century as often in our own century, it turns out that the main reason for women entering prostitution was this simple poverty. The women needed money and either because of their upbringing or their lack of success in gaining experience in “respectable” jobs, they had few options for earning enough to keep themselves fed, clothed, housed, and alive. Selling access to their bodies was at least theoretically an option that was available to any woman. (3)

There are more details to come in the book, as evidenced by the table of contents …

the structure of the trade
income
sexual practices
disease
disorderly houses in the City
the secular law 1670s-1830
policing in practice
the prostitute as victim

… just to mention a few. But for this post I’d like to concentrate on one of the things that Henderson mentions in passing, and to compare it to sex work in the 21st century: the streets and the brothel. Those may have been the two main modes by which men met, had sex with, and paid prostitutes in the 18th century, and though these still exist today in various countries or parts of countries, there’s been a kind of “fine-tuning” or “granularity” — I’m finding it hard to find a word that’s neither pompous nor mechanistic — that exists today which defies the simplicity of the two modes, and frankly serves the dual purpose of allowing women to carry on this work while at the same time concealing its very existence from the tender eyes of moralistic zealots.

We now have the internet of course, and it has enabled sex work to be practiced more directly and “conveniently” and in effect making it in some cases completely invisible to the general public. I would delineate these methods at a minimum as how the trade is carried on today:

  • stripping
  • pornography
  • streetwalking
  • brothels
  • escorting
  • erotic massage (“spas” or “clubs”)
  • erotic massage (“rub and tug”)
  • sugar-babying
  • webcamming

I make no argument that this is a comprehensive list, but I will discuss the last five from the point of their invisibility to regular society. Escorting has connotations for many people of the very wealthy man who pays a beautiful woman for sex, and often in addition treats her to gifts and dinners in fancy restaurants and the occasional trip to Paris to see the sights and do some shopping. No doubt there are some cases like this, but escorts are also available to the much less wealthy. They sometimes work in their own home, or in an “in-call” location (e.g., a rented suite of rooms), or they do “out-calls” to men in hotels or even at their (the men’s) own homes.

Erotic massage is one of the very hidden modes of sex work. The sex workers (referred to as massage attendants or MA’s) work either in suites of buildings that you may pass every day, or in industrial parks, far from curious prying eyes, the massage rooms themselves with their lights flashing incongruously among the tool-supply shops or wholesale distribution offices.

Sugar-babying is essentially amateur escorting — amateur not in the sense that the women aren’t paid, but that they are not professionals who do mostly escorting for their living. The sugar-babies cover a very wide range of mostly very young women who need money for an ad hoc or ongoing purpose: tuition fees (many are college or university students), debts, even just food.

Webcamming takes full advantage of the internet in order for the women to make money. The men view them online only and either tip them for their performance, or — similar to stripping — move to a “private session” where the man can actually give the woman instructions on what he wants her to do.

In the 18th century, of course, many of these forms of sex work were unavailable or technologically impossible, but one could imagine an equivalent of sugar-babying perhaps (e.g., a man simply having an affair and paying the woman). Brothels and streetwalking were the two main methods in the 18th century, whereas in our own century the former are often illegal except in certain countries, and the latter has to be managed carefully by the woman so that she doesn’t put herself in danger from unpredictable clients or from the police who are trying to, as the parlance has it, “clean up the streets.”

In a future post, I will discuss some of the other aspects of sex work mentioned above for both centuries.


(1) The Evils of Adultery and Prostitution, with an Enquiry into the Causes of Their Present Alarming Increase, and Some Means Recommended for Checking Their Progress (1792)

(2) Pretty Doings in a Protestant Nation: Being a View of the Present State of Fornication, Whorecraft, and Adultery … (1734)

(3) A similar argument is made by Mr. White (played by Harvey Keitel) in the famous scene in Reservoir Dogs about tipping waitresses. “Waitressing is the number one occupation for female non-college graduates in this country. It’s the one job that basically any woman can get and make a living on. The reason is because of their tips.” (1992)