Sam and Women

I had an email chat this week with another writer (a woman) who reminded me of one of Sam’s most famous and infamous utterances, in a conversation with Boswell: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.” That was in 1763 when Sam was 53, and so it wasn’t the unconsidered opinion of a young man who didn’t know any better. These days such a statement would be condemned as sexist or even misogynistic, and the writer I was emailing with asked me about that. Do I consider Sam a misogynist? I don’t, and as she went on to point out, he is well known for his support of women writers during the century.

And it wasn’t for policy reasons or the effort to be politically correct (woke?) that he did so. As is proper, he simply didn’t take gender into consideration when judging the work of a writer. One of Sam’s great literary achievements, The Rambler, had ended about eleven years earlier after 208 twice-weekly essays. Sam had written all of them — except four, and three of those were written by women (one by Catherine Talbot and two by Elizabeth Carter). He treated women as equals just as he considered black people to be equal and slavery to be an abomination. Sam rescued one slave, Francis Barber, and employed him as a servant — and in fact he left most of his inheritance to Barber.

But he did have a bad habit of saying things about women which, taken out of context and out of time, kind of ring a bit differently in modern ears than they did in the 18th century. He also said of Elizabeth Carter, who beyond being a writer was also highly educated and informed in a wide range of disciplines and spoke several languages, that she “‘could make a pudding, as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek, and work a handkerchief as well as compose a poem.”

Oh, my.

Articles and books have of course been written about this topic, and in fact I’m in the process of reading one of the books: Dr Johnson’s Women by Norma Clarke. It has chapters on six women writers whom Sam respected and in some cases supported in their literary careers, and helps dispel a bit the caricature of Sam that his talk about preaching and pudding might tend to create.

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