Jane Austen concludes a letter to her older sister Cassandra on Feb. 8-9, 1807:
“There, I flatter myself I have constructed you a Smartish Letter, considering my want of Materials. But like my dear Dr Johnson I beleive [sic] I have dealt more in Notions than Facts.—I hope your Cough is gone & that you are otherwise well.—And remain with Love, Yrs affectionately, J.A.”
Joseph Epstein reports that someone asked the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle if he ever read novels. Ryle is supposed to have replied, “Yes, all six.” That is, Austen’s, whose novels are those that most resemble poetry. Not because they are “poetic” – as in flowery or inflated with self-importance – but because they run like well-engineered machines of wit. Nothing loose, baggy or monstrous about them. In the passage quoted above, Austen refers to a letter Johnson wrote to Boswell on July 4, 1774. Included by Boswell in his Life, it begins:
“I wish you could have looked over my book before the printer, but it could not easily be. I suspect some mistakes; but as I deal, perhaps, more in notions than in facts, the matter is not great; and the second edition will be mended, if any such there be.”
The book in question is A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, an account of Boswell and Johnson’s eighty-three-day tour of Boswell’s native country in 1773. That the lexicographer makes a distinction in a proofreading context between “notions” and “facts” is surprising. Some writers are maniacally strict when it comes to the purity of their text. This is the man, after all, who said, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure” (ed. G.B. Hill, Johnsonian Miscellanies, 1897). Johnson uses “notions” the way we might use “understandings” or “impressions.” They are less rigorous than facts, just as off-the-cuff descriptions of events are less rigorous than equations.
The Idler #100 (March 15, 1760) is written in the voice of “Tim Warner,” who complains of his wife: “She smiles not by sensation but by practice. Her laughter is never excited but by a joke, and her notion of a joke is not very delicate. The repetition of a good joke does not weaken its effect; if she has laughed once, she will laugh again.”
“Miss Gentle,” in short, is precisely the opposite of Miss Austen, who never married, never repeated a joke, and wrote “all six.”