George Justice, Editor

Jane and Sam

In A Fast Coach With A Pretty Woman: Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson

By Gloria Sybil Gross.
AMS Press, 2002. 208 pages.
Hardcover. $ 62.50.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Lenckos.

Some excellent studies exploring the cult of sensibility and its importance for the novels of Jane Austen have been published in the past decade. Titles include G. J. Barker-Benfield’s The Culture of Sensibility (1992), Jerome McGann’s The Poetics of Sensibility (1996), and Claudia Johnson’s Equivocal Beings (1995). Most recently, the Norton Critical Edition of Sense and Sensibility, edited by Johnson (2002), provides poignant insight into the culture of feeling that pervaded late 18th Century thinking and redefined personal and social consciousness, not to mention the codes that governed individual propriety. Under “Contexts,” Johnson’s Sense and Sensibility lists texts considered relevant to an understanding of the novel. However, whereas we find under this heading only one contribution by those famed philosophers of feeling, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, the book offers two essays by Samuel Johnson. This is no coincidence: both Jane Austen’s brother Henry and her nephew James E. Austen-Leigh identified Johnson as her “favorite author in prose.”

Since readers are interested to know the influences that helped shape Austen’s keenly intelligent mind, Gloria Sybil Gross’ In A Fast Coach With A Pretty Woman: Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson presents a welcome addition to the canon of studies that examines the intertextual references contained in Austen’s works. Asserting that “[t]o a young woman coming of age in genteel society at the end of the eighteenth century, Johnson was a cultural hero,” Gross charts parallels between his essays on feeling, reason, and human archetypes and the representation of the conflict between inner lives and social obligation found in Austen’s novels. Following Peter Gay’s lead, Gross regards Johnson and Austen as anticipating Freud’s insights. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud states that “[a] good part of the struggles of mankind centre round the single task of finding… accommodation —one, that is, that will bring happiness— between this claim of the individual…and the cultural claims of the group.” Gross’ argument that for either author, “the search for happiness pervades the…texture of their writings” results in a riveting, illuminating investigation of Austen’s novels, from the Juvenilia to Persuasion. Although Gross demonstrates that Austen drew on Johnson’s oeuvre as a source of inspiration, she also allows us to remember that the author transformed his influence into her own, highly original novels that revitalized and modernized for her age and gender Johnson’s ideology of feeling.

Taking as her departure Johnson’s essays and the examples of human foibles and frailties he satirizes therein, Gross identifies Austen’s protagonists along Johnson’s lines according to their most notable character traits and prominent subconscious motivations. This approach allows her to analyze Austen’s heroes in moral-psychological terms, as idlers, tyrants, gossips, cads, charmers, frauds, or by contrast, gentlemen and gentlewomen. Although Gross’ technique at times leaves little room for the study of gradations of feeling and shades of character in which Austen excels, it allows us to reconstruct the arduous process by which Austen not only selected and copied Johnsonian “types,” but honed and refined them into true human beings. Thus, Gross aids us to appreciate the younger writer’s accomplishment, involved in her metamorphosis of Johnson’s —admittedly admirable— satires of human nature, into the more original, multi-faceted personalities of her own novels, which sparkle with diversities, uncertainties, and ambiguities. Making the comparison to Johnson, we again come to appreciate the great subtlety of Austen’s artful characterizations.

Gross also helps us to appreciate the similarities in energy, joy, and humor that speak to us from both Johnson’s and Austen’s writings. In a fascinating first chapter, she outlines the liberating effects Johnson’s life-affirming, proto-feminist prose must have had on “a brilliant woman stuck in an age of… soul-numbing convention.” Suggesting that Austen exorcised the demons of domestic hypocrisy with the tools provided by Johnson’s satirical depictions of the tawdriness of unmarried women’s lives, she points out that like Johnson’s, so was Austen’s satire always mitigated by emphatic fellow feeling. More importantly, Gross reveals Austen’s insight, reflecting Johnson’s, that civilization, though in need of reform, remains redeemable and necessary, in that it provides a refuge from the anarchy of the “untamed, brute instinct.” As Gross concludes, Austen describes “the taming of the undisciplined heart, but not its negation or denial,” since “there is a difference between adhering blindly to stringent moral codes and showing the process by which these codes contain… our best wishes for health and happiness.” And that difference is certainly to be explained by Austen’s belief, as anticipated by Johnson (in his Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare), that

to analyze the mind, to trace the passions to their sources, to unfold the seminal principles of vice and virtue, to sound the depths of the heart for the motives of actions

remains the best guarantee we have of making sure that civilization and the individual survive and prosper in the fine balancing act of allowing hearts and minds their proper due. Gross admirably traces this idea as the guiding theme in Austen’s novels.

Dr. Elisabeth Lenckos teaches in the Basic Program at the University of Chicago and at the Newberry Library, Chicago. Her book, All This Reading: The Literary World of Barbara Pym was published in March, 2003.

JASNA News v.19, no. 2, Summer 2003, p. 17

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