Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr Johnson’s “Dear Mistress”
By Ian McIntyre
Constable | £25
IN JANUARY 1765 a mutual friend brought Samuel Johnson to dine with Mr and Mrs Henry Thrale at their home alongside Thrale’s brewery in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames. Johnson was famous as a brilliant conversationalist and the first lexicographer of the English language. He was also notorious for his bizarre behaviour. Then aged fifty-five, a widower, living in a house crowded with poor dependents, none of them relations, he was battling to finish his new edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Hester Thrale, not yet twenty-four and the mother of four-month-old Hester Maria, was vivacious and witty, fluent in several languages including Latin, and an accomplished versifier. (A precociously clever child, she was taught French by her parents; until she married, a classical scholar, Dr Collier, was her private tutor.) Of that first evening in Johnson’s company, Hester wrote: “We liked each other so well that the next Thursday was appointed for the same Company to meet.” Johnson read some of her poems and the pair decided to work together on a translation of the poems in Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy. Johnson became a regular guest at the Thrales’ house in Southwark and at their outer London “country estate” in Streatham.
Just over a year into their friendship, Johnson came to the Thrales on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown. He suffered not only from depression (the “black dog”) but also from uncontrollable nervous tics and obsessive-compulsive behaviour (now thought to be Tourette Syndrome). Meeting Johnson for the first time some years later, their mutual friend the young Fanny Burney wrote of him: “He is, indeed, very ill favoured, – he is tall and stout, but stoops terribly, – he is almost bent double. His mouth is in perpetual motion, as if he was chewing; – he has a strange method of frequently twirling his Fingers, and twisting his Hands; – his Body is in continual agitation, see sawing up & down; his Feet are never a moment quiet.”
The Thrales took the almost suicidal Johnson under their wing. He moved in, his sanity was restored, his health improved; Thrale built for him his own quarters in both houses. Johnson addressed the couple affectionately as “Master” and “Dear Mistress.” He was to coach the infant Hester Maria, whom he called Queeney, in Latin; he accompanied the family on their holidays in Brighton and Bath, on their tours around England and Wales, and even to France. Regular guests at Streatham were Johnson’s friends Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith – dubbed “the Streatham Worthies” after Thrale commissioned Reynolds to paint their portraits for the library.
Meeting Hester Thrale early on, the young Scottish diarist and lawyer James Boswell instantly resented her, recalling in a letter to her that at their first meeting: “I told you, Madam, that you and I were rivals for the great man.” Boswell was referring to Johnson’s affections: as yet, he and Mrs Thrale were not rival biographers of Johnson. (Hester’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson LL.D. During the Last Twenty Years of His Life was published in 1786, two years after Johnson’s death; Boswell’s Life of Johnson in 1791.)
Johnson – “the Oracle” as Boswell called him – has been the subject of whole libraries of books; his most recent biography (2009) is by David Nokes. Hester, however, has had to wait nearly two centuries for this, her first biography. The author of lives of Garrick and Reynolds (and of Robert Burns and Lord Reith), Ian McIntyre comes to Hester already immersed in the milieu of which she was at the very hub. Despite its subtitle, The Remarkable Life of Dr Johnson’s “Dear Mistress,” this is also the story of a talented woman, a celebrity of her time, who, after two decades of confinement and confinements, was liberated – and found fulfilment in love and as a writer.
Yet such is the fascination of Dr Johnson that the chief interest of McIntyre’s book lies in his and Hester’s relationship, which was far more intimate than his friendship with Boswell. Johnson so trusted Hester that he confided to her “a Secret far dearer to him than his Life.” The confession brought them even closer. Hester was to write:
Such however is his nobleness, & such his partiality, that I sincerely believe he has never since that day regretted his Confidence, or ever looked with less kind Affection on her who had him in her Power… Well does he contradict the maxim of Rochefoucault, that no Man is a Hero to his Valet de Chambre. – Johnson is more of a hero to me than to any one – & I have been more to him for Intimacy, than ever was any Man’s Valet de Chambre.
Johnson was afflicted by sado-masochistic compulsions and accompanying guilt, and was terrified of going mad. Without speculating on the exact nature of Hester’s role in Johnson’s “Secret,” McIntyre points out that “Freud would not have detained him long in his consulting room.” Among Hester’s belongings when she died was “Johnson’s padlock, committed to my care in the year 1768.”
After ten years’ friendship, theirs was a loving intimacy. Absent for two months on his “annual ramble in the middle counties” in 1775 (the year Oxford honoured him as Doctor of Laws), Johnson sent some thirty letters to Hester. Pining for news from Streatham, he flattered her: “Dearest dear Lady, you connect us, and rule us, and vex us, and please us. We have all a deep interest in your health and prosperity.” Hester was longing for him to return: “When will you come home? I shall be wondrous glad to see you – though I write every thing so I shall have nothing to tell: but I shall have you safe in your Bow Window to run to, when any thing comes into my head, and you say that’s what you are kept for you know.”
So what were Mrs Thrale’s relations with her husband? Henry Thrale, some fifteen years older than Hester, was a wealthy brewer with parliamentary ambitions and a reputation as a gambler and a womaniser. Theirs was an arranged marriage: in order to secure a marriage bond of ten thousand pounds promised by her uncle, Sir Thomas Salusbury, Hester was obliged to marry the man he favoured, “a real Sportsman” who owned a fine pack of foxhounds. (Hester’s unfortunate father collapsed and died trying to prevent the marriage. He predicted that Thrale would be “a Bankrupt” and give her “the Pox.”) At the time, her fiancé assured Hester “that if I had been 10,000 pounds in debt, he would have been happy to have paid the Debt & then married me.” Their marriage à la mode worked, perhaps because Hester – kept “shut up from the world, its Pleasures, or its Cares” – accepted her husband’s authority without demur. Johnson was to say of him, “I know no man who is more master of his wife and family than Thrale. If he holds up a finger, he is obeyed.” Once, when Hester mentioned her husband’s lack of regard for her, Johnson took Thrale’s part:
How for Heaven’s Sake Dearest Madam should any Man delight in a Wife that is to Him neither Use nor Ornament? He cannot talk to you about his Business, which you do not understand; nor about his Pleasures which you do not partake… You divide your Time between your Mamma & your Babies, & wonder you do not by that means become agreeable to your Husband.
(Towards the end of Thrale’s life, when he was in financial difficulties and gripped by mania, Hester proved well able to take control of the brewery and of Thrale’s election campaign with Johnson’s help.)
OVER the seventeen years she was so close to Johnson, Hester bore her husband eleven more children (only Queeney and three other daughters survived to adulthood). With neither man was Hester Thrale ever passionately in love. Then, widowed at the age of forty, she fell madly in love with Gabriele Mario Piozzi, the Italian musician who was Queeney’s singing master. While Johnson was dealing with Thrale’s estate and writing daily to Hester, who had gone to Bath, Piozzi was there with her, singing comforting arias. When Piozzi went off to Italy, Hester began casting off her old life. She sold the brewery and set about letting Streatham, hardening her heart against Johnson, who would have to leave. Before Thrale’s death, Johnson had been her “Friend, Father, Guardian, Confidant.” Now she wrote of him:
He loved Mr Thrale, I believe, but only wish’d to find in me a careful Nurse and humble Friend for his sick and lounging hours: yet I really thought he could not have existed without my Conversation forsooth. He cares more for my roast Beef and plumb Pudden which he now devours too dirtily for endurance: and since he is glad to get rid of me, I’m sure I have good Cause to desire the getting Rid of him.
Still grieving over Thrale, Johnson was devastated by the sudden end of life at Streatham. His journal contains the prayer he composed before his last departure:
Almighty God, Father of all mercy, help me by thy Grace that I may with humble and sincere thankfulness remember the comforts and conveniences which I have enjoyed at this place, and that I may resign them with holy submission… To thy fatherly protection, O Lord, I commend this family. Bless, guide, and defend them, that they may so pass through this world as finally to enjoy in thy presence everlasting happiness…
The next morning: “I packed up my bundles, and used the foregoing prayer, with my morning devotions somewhat, I think, enlarged. Being earlier than the family, I read St Paul’s farewell in the Acts, and then read fortuitously in the Gospels, which was my parting use of the library.”
Now it was Hester who was on the verge of madness. Piozzi was lingering in Italy and communicating with her erratically, and most of those close to her – her daughters, her friend Fanny Burney, the Streatham Worthies – rejected her. Eventually one of her doctors advised her daughters: “Call the man home, or see your Mother die.”
Several months passed before Piozzi returned, ready to marry her, but she waited until the eve of his arrival to write to Johnson giving her reasons for not confiding in him:
I could not have borne to reject that Counsel it would have killed me to take; and I only tell it you now, because all is irrevocably settled, & out of your power to prevent. Give me leave however to say that the dread of your disapprobation has given me many an anxious moment, & tho’ perhaps the most independent Woman in the World – I feel as if I was acting without a parent’s Consent – till you write kindly to your faithful Servt.”
Johnson’s reply exacerbated the rupture:
If I interpret your letter right, You are ignominiously married, if it is yet undone, let us once talk together. If You have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness; if you have forfeited your Fame, and your country, may your folly do no further mischief.
If the last act is yet to do, I, who have loved you, esteemed you, reverenced you, and served you, I who long thought you the first of humankind, entreat that before your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see You. I was, I once was, Madam, most truly yours,
I will come down if you permit it.
Hester took his words as a personal insult and as an insult to Piozzi, and would not meet him. She planned to escape with Piozzi to Italy:
In Italy we shall live with twice the Respect, & at half the Expence we do here, the Language is familiar to me, & I love the Italians; I take with me all I love in the world except my two Baby daughters who will be left safe at School, & since Mr Johnson cares nothing for the Loss of my personal Friendship & Company, there is no Danger of any body else breaking their Hearts.”
She married Piozzi in July 1784. Johnson burned her letters. Seriously infirm, he died in December the same year, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
“Veneration for his virtue, reverence for his talents, delight in his conversation, and habitual endurance on a yoke my husband first put upon me… made me go on so long with Dr Johnson,” wrote Hester, “but the perpetual confinement I will own to have been terrifying in the first years of our friendship, and irksome in the last…”
In the end, the Piozzis spent two years travelling in Europe, but didn’t settle in Italy. When they returned to England, Hester began a new career as a published author. Always a prolific writer of letters, poems and prose, and a recorder of family life in The Children’s Book, Hester was also the possessor of a veritable cornucopia as a result of the gift Henry Thrale gave her on the eve of their thirteenth wedding anniversary: six calf-bound blank quarto books, each embossed in gold with the title Thraliana. (Hester had recently treated her philandering husband for the pox.) She approached the task of filling them light-heartedly:
It is many years since Doctor Samuel Johnson advised me to get a little Book, and write in it all the little Anecdotes which might come to my Knowledge, all the Observations I might make or hear; all the Verses never likely to be published, and in fine ev’ry thing which struck me at the Time. Mr Thrale has now treated me with a Repository, – and provided it with the pompous Title of Thraliana; I must endeavour to fill it with Nonsense new and old.
Having filled the first volume with a ragbag of “Nonsense,” however, Hester decided to make Johnson the subject of the second – “his Life, his Character, and his Conversation.” She wrote, “All my friends reproach me with neglecting to write down such things as drop from him almost perpetually, and often say how much I shall some Time regret that I have not done’t with diligence ever since the commencement of our Acquaintance.”
This was to be the source for Hester’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson LL.D. During the Last Twenty Years of His Life, published in 1786. It was an instant success, going through four editions in almost as many weeks. (Johnson’s friends were mortified by Hester’s unbuttoned anecdotes about Johnson.) Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson LL.D., published two years later, was also a bestseller, while Hester’s honeymoon diary was the source of Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy and Germany (1787–89). Critics attacked its “vulgarisms”: by eighteenth-century standards the language was colloquial, not literary. Hester knew how to reach the general reader.
By now, Fanny Burney was making her name as a novelist; Hester threw herself into writing ambitious popular reference works: British Synonymy; or an Attempt at Regulating the Choice of Words in Familiar Conversation and Retrospection: or a Review of the Most Striking and Important Events, Characters, Situations, and Their Consequences, which the Last Eighteen Hundred Years Have Presented to the View of Mankind. Thereafter her writing was confined to her letters (she was now corresponding with her daughters) and to Thraliana, in which she kept details of her voracious reading and her effort to learn Hebrew, and her observations on events in the wider world and the tittle-tattle that her notoriety condemned her to. Piozzi’s five-year-old nephew was sent to them, to be brought up as their son. They built themselves a house, Brynbella, on Hester’s estate in Wales, her birthplace. But while Hester was still delighting in bathing in the sea, Piozzi’s health was failing. After twenty-three years’ marriage, he died in 1807; Hester was to lavish her attention and much of her estate on his ingrate nephew, whom she adopted.
Moving restlessly between Bath, Bristol and Penzance, nothing slowed Hester down. To the delight of the gossips, in her late seventies the widow Mrs Piozzi became infatuated with a tall young actor, William August Conway, showering him with letters and gifts. Undaunted, she threw an extravagant party at the Lower Assembly Rooms in Bath for what she declared was her eightieth birthday. When she died, just over a year later, three of her daughters were at her bedside.
Hester left little in her will, but a great legacy for posterity. The six volumes of Thraliana and her letters are a rich resource for literary scholars writing of the “Blue Stockings” of the era, for social historians concerned with the place of women in eighteenth century society, for Johnson scholars, and of course for biographers. Curiously, British women biographers have neglected Hester Thrale Piozzi, leaving the field open to Ian McIntyre to write a thorough, and thoroughly delightful, life of “the most independent Woman in the World.”
If Hester’s marriage to Piozzi appeared reckless to Dr Johnson and others close to her, it also took courage to sacrifice her reputation, her family and the fond regard of Dr Johnson for love, and to accept the attendant public ridicule (having already endured prurient speculation that she might marry Johnson). The reader can only salute a woman who at the end of her life, having reignited the scandalmongers by her infatuation with a young actor, celebrated her eightieth year with a lavish party for six hundred guests. Nevertheless, what this reader found most pleasure in was the happiness and delight she and Dr Johnson derived from one another’s company. Fanny Burney recorded this instance of their raillery:
The whole party was engaged to Dine at Mrs Montague’s: Dr Johnson said he had received the most flattering note he had ever read, or any body else had ever read, by way of invitation. “Well, so have I, too,” cried Mrs Thrale, “so if a note from Mrs Montague is to be boasted of, I beg mine may not be forgot.”
“Your note,” cried Dr Johnson, “can bear no comparison with mine; – I am at the Head of Philosophers; she says.”
“And I,” cried Mrs Thrale, “have all the muses in my Train!”
Retired ABC broadcaster Jill Kitson lives in the Blue Mountains where she’s currently reading the Palliser novels for the first time.