Jane Johnson was a vicar’s wife in Olney who lived from 1706 to 1759. Her favorite author was Samuel Richardson, her favorite novel was Clarissa, and she appears in many ways to be the mythical “implied reader” for Richardson’s works. She imitated his heroines, Pamela and Clarissa, by carefully improving her penmanship and epistolary skill, circulating letters on domestic and religious duties to her female friends and family. She also produced a children’s reading library, following the example of Pamela, that includes what scholars now consider to be the first children’s fairy tale in English. And she kept a commonplace book in which, like Clarissa, she mixed quotations from her favorite authors with her own maxims. These contributions include platitudes such as, “Gratitude & Friendship are things much talk’d off, but very little practiced,” which she wrote in slightly altered form twice.
Even before marriage and motherhood, Johnson used her literacy to document her world and as a tool for self-improvement. As Jane Russell, she assembled a handwritten recipe book that she apparently preserved for her entire life—it is part of the Bodleian Library’s collection of her papers, which also include her marriage certificate and will. She cut the paper, quired it, and sewed it together, consciously assembling a book for longterm reference. But while this dutiful, conduct-book-following behavior is apparent, Johnson’s enthusiasm and literary skill shine through. Next to a recipe for stewed damson plums, Johnson wrote “mmmmmmmmmmmmmm,” a strikingly modern touch and one that brings to mind present-day food blogs or Instagram comments. Johnson may have been, in many ways, Richardson’s ideal reader, but she was also a real one who left an intricate literary record.