Johnson, Elizabeth Carter, and Stand-up Comedy

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.

1 reply
  1. Norma Clarke
    Norma Clarke says:

    I like the fact you put Elizabeth Carter and stand-up comedians together. She was unusual in so many ways – and a wonderful example, I think, of a woman who refused to let society’s ideas of what a woman should or shouldn’t do stop her doing quite ordinary things like learning Greek and going for country walks on her own. At the same time she wasn’t a rebel. But she valued freedom of thought. As for comedy, it’s interesting that while, like her friends, she read and discussed Samuel Richardson, she also enjoyed Henry Fielding.

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