Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr Johnson’s ‘Dear Mistress’ 
by Ian McIntyre.
Constable, 450 pp., £25, November 2008, 978 1 84529 449 6
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In the DNB Hester Lynch Piozzi (as they call her) is identified as a ‘writer’, but for the past two centuries she has been a heroine of old and new-fashioned marriage plots and a source of critical controversy. A brilliant conversationalist and an innovative recorder of her own life, she was dull only on the subject of her genealogy: her parents (who were cousins) were descended from Catrin of Berain, Mam Cymru (‘Mother of Wales’). Naming her is problematic. Ian McIntyre, in his imaginative and generous biography, simply omits surnames altogether. His subtitle, however, foregrounds a further complication. Hester Salusbury married first the wealthy brewer, MP, womaniser and ‘Southwark macaroni’ Henry Thrale, with whom she had 12 children, only four of whom survived, and then the Italian music master Gabriel Piozzi, for whom she pined passionately at the ripe old age of 40, and scandalised her circle by not only marrying but happily introducing him into British society. But neither man has claimed her for posterity. When a memorial to her was finally put up in 1909, it was to ‘Dr Johnson’s Mrs Thrale’.

In one of his last missives to his ‘dear mistress’, shortly before her marriage to Piozzi caused him to burn all her letters, Johnson credited Hester with soothing ‘twenty years of a life radically wretched’. He even had his own rooms both at Borough House, next to the brewery in Dead Man’s Place in Southwark (Hester thought it aptly named), and at the Thrales’ suburban retreat in Streatham. Johnson was fond of calling Thrale ‘master’ – ‘I know no man who is more master of his wife and family than Thrale. If he holds up a finger, he is obeyed’ – but it was Hester who governed his intimate life. She ‘undertook the care of his health’ when Johnson first came to Streatham after the Thrales found him ‘on his knees before John Delap, an Anglican clergyman and minor playwright, “beseeching God to continue him in the use of his understanding”’ in terms so ‘pathetic’ that Henry Thrale ‘involuntarily lifted up one hand to shut his mouth, from provocation at hearing a man so wildly proclaim what he could at last persuade no one to believe’ – namely, ‘the horrible condition of his mind, which he said, was nearly distracted’. His first visit in June of 1766 lasted four months, and the place became for him a kind of Eden, where he could eat to his heart’s content the peaches, grapes and pineapples that grew in the greenhouse.

To Hester, Johnson was at once a mentor and ‘a great man-child’, while acting as, in Jackson Bate’s phrase, ‘a combination of friend and a sort of toy elephant’ to her children. He was particularly fond of the eldest, Hester Maria, a reserved, secretive and wilful girl he nicknamed ‘Queeney’. Uninterested in what her mother tried to teach her (she bore the brunt of a maternal pedagogic enthusiasm that waned over the years as her siblings became ill and died), Queeney was happy to learn Latin from Johnson. Hester was proud of Queeney’s intellectual prowess and troubled by her emotional chilliness – Johnson attributed Queeney’s peculiarities of character to her education, which Hester disputed – and her distance from her daughter became a rift when she resolved to marry Piozzi. Viewing ‘with frigid Indifference’ her mother’s agonies of emotion at coming to a decision, Queeney

said coldly that if I would abandon my Children, I must; that their Father had not deserved such Treatment from me; that I should be punished by Piozzi’s neglect, for that she knew he hated me, & that I turned out my offspring to Chance for his Sake like Puppies in a Pond to swim or drown, according as Providence pleased: that for her part She must look herself out a Place like the other Servants, for my Face she never would see more.

Her daughter’s words contained enough truth to make Hester recant, but not for long; she married Piozzi in a Catholic ceremony a little over a year later in July 1784 (a few months before Johnson’s death), and spent the next two and a half years honeymooning on the Continent, far from her children, happier than she had ever been. Queeney’s estrangement from her mother left a void (her two younger sisters took her side) that Hester filled with a series of passionate attachments: her scandalous marriage to Piozzi, her adoption and naturalisation of his nephew John Salusbury (named by Piozzi’s brother in her honour), on whom she lavished affection and cash and to whom she left her estate, and her final defiant infatuation at the age of 80 with the strapping second-rate actor William Augustus Conway.

Hester’s mother had taught her only child ‘to play a thousand pretty Tricks, & tell a Thousand Pretty Stories and repeat a Thousand pretty verses to divert’ her violent, irascible and elegant father. ‘Rakish men seldom make tender Fathers, but a Man must fondle something … I therefore grew a great favourite it seems, in spite of his continued Efforts to dislike me, and now they had a Centre of Unity in their Offspring for which both were equally interested.’ The Salusburys found what marital pleasure they had in developing talents in Hester, hoping that they would delight her uncle enough to make her his heir. ‘I was their Joynt Play Thing & although Education was a Word then unknown, as applied to females; They had taught me to read, & speak, & think, & translate from the French, till I was half a Prodigy.’ She learned French, Spanish and Italian (translating Racine freely in her critique of Pope’s Essay on Man, and Spectator articles into Italian), and at 17 met her tutor and ‘first friend’ Arthur Collier, who taught her Latin and ‘formed my mind to resemble his’: ‘A Man who engrossed my whole Heart, & deserved it. Love (as it is falsely called) had no Share in the Connection, but nobody ever did feel more fond & true affection for another, than I did for my dear Dr Collier, & he for his sweetest Angel as he call’d me.’

Disappointed in her hopes of an inheritance by her uncle’s remarriage, Hester reluctantly married Thrale shortly after her father’s death (he had refused to sell his daughter ‘for a Barrel of Porter’). ‘Except for one five minutes only by mere accident,’ she later wrote of their courtship, ‘I never had a Teste a Teste with my husband in my whole Life till quite the Evening of the Wedding Day.’ Her last poem as a single woman, published in the St James Chronicle in 1763, was entitled ‘Imagination’s Search after Happiness’. It therefore seemed natural to her to use her talents to charm her distant new husband, ‘so Instead of Dressing showily, or behaving usefully – I sate at home and wrote Verses.’ But Thrale wasn’t impressed and Johnson stepped into the void, translating the Odes of Boethius in alternate verses with his hostess and helping to publish the poetry (most famously a popular ballad, ‘The Three Warnings’) that Thrale had ‘repress’d as Impertinent, or rejected as superfluous’. Observing that Thrale treated his wife like a kept mistress, ‘shut from the world, its Pleasures, or its Cares’, Johnson advised her to dress showily and behave usefully, comforted her over the deaths of her mother and her nine-year-old son (the most painful in a long series of miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths), while never ceasing to need her, keeping her up late, forestalling solitude with conversation and endless cups of tea.

Hester succeeded in behaving usefully, ‘indefatigably getting Votes all day, & settling Books with the Clerks all Night’, whether she was pregnant or Thrale was ill. Excluded by Thrale from many domestic matters (‘his Wife was not to stink of the Kitchen’), she found that hostess was the occupation that suited her best. Johnson was soon the star attraction of a circle that included Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Frances Burney and Joshua Reynolds, whose portraits of the group adorned the walls of the library in Streatham. Hester presided with remarkable wit, vivacity and in Burney’s neologism, ‘agreeability’; in both contemporary and modern estimations an English Madame de Staël. Her competitor for this honour – and another of her guests – was Elizabeth Montagu, against whom Hester shone for her excesses. ‘Mrs Montagu … reasons well, and harangues well, but wit she has none,’ Fanny Burney wrote. ‘Mrs Thrale has almost too much; for when she is in spirits, it bursts forth in torrents almost overwhelming.’ At Montagu’s assemblies, which Thrale and Johnson also attended, ‘there was no ceremony, no cards and no supper,’ and the guests sat ‘in one large disconcerting half-circle’; Hester served lavish meals with 14 dishes per course. (Her husband loved the pleasures of the table and eventually ate himself to death.)

Hester’s adult writing life, Norma Clarke has observed, could be said to have begun at that dinner table, where she first met Johnson in January 1765. ‘He has fastened many of his own Notions on my Mind … that I am not sure whether they grew there originally or no: of this I am sure, that they are the best and wisest Notions I possess; and that I love the Author of them with a firm Affection,’ she declared in Thraliana, her husband’s title for his gift to her of six calf-bound quarto volumes in which she invented a new genre suspended between diary and anecdotal compendium. In old age she put it differently: in that mind ‘of Doctor Johnson’s mine was swallowed up and lost’.

Johnson’s description of Hester as his ‘dear mistress’ is given new resonance by the padlocks with which he entrusted her, in a letter written in French so that the servants could not read it, asking her to ‘hold me in that bondage which you know so well how to render agreeable’, and by Hester’s comment in her journal that she knew only too well the truth of Johnson’s remark that ‘a woman has such power between the ages of 20 and 45 that she may tie a man to a post and whip him if she will.’ McIntyre handles with his usual tact the question of Johnson’s masochism (on which, to borrow Boswell’s verdict on the aristocratic pretensions of Johnson’s friend Richard Savage, ‘the world must vibrate in a state of uncertainty’). But what of the ‘perpetual confinement’ as Johnson’s caretaker, which she described in her first published book, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson? In her arranged literary marriage to the man she ‘fondled and waited on … in Sickness & in Health’, ‘my Monitor, my Friend, my Inmate, my dear Mr Johnson’, the powers of imprisonment and inspiration were reciprocal. If Johnson was, as Samuel Beckett observed in his notes for an unfinished play on their relationship, ‘en-Thraled’, she was no less his captive. His voice would always haunt hers.

‘Nothing so true as What you Once Let Fall,/Most Women Have No Characters at All.’ The opening lines of Pope’s ‘Epistle to a Lady’ could be used to describe Hester’s literary-critical afterlife, a series of affectionate or antagonistic dismissals. James Clifford began his fine 1942 biography with the observation that ‘today, even in the perspective of over a century, she still arouses ardent admiration or intense dislike.’ His fellow Johnsonians Sir Walter Raleigh and A.E. Newton were also admirers (Newton, in an essay entitled ‘A Light-Blue Stocking’, wrote that Hester was the female writer he would most like to meet because, ever ‘charming and fluffy’ unlike the formidable and mannish George Eliot, she did not require ‘a preliminary oiling of … mental machinery’); a reviler was Lord Landsdowne who, in Johnson and Queeney, called her ‘a woman essentially vain, vulgar and false, intolerable as a parent and rightly kept at a distance by her offspring’. Clifford concludes his study still perplexed about ‘the mainspring of her character’:

Still Mrs Piozzi will defy concise characterisation; and it is just this human unaccountability which is her most engaging quality. A bundle of contradictions, she fascinates at the same time that she puzzles the reader. At one moment apparently self-centred and brazen, and the next unselfish and considerate; on occasion grasping and penurious, and then with sentimental generosity capable of giving away almost all she had; at times a fretful wife and mother, but seldom shirking disagreeable tasks; garrulous to the extreme, yet … always ready to listen to the other person; widely read in both classical and modern literature, but never a thorough scholar; sensitive to words and having a naturally fluent style, yet uneven in her writing; endowed with a real genius for making friends, and at the same time having an uncanny faculty of losing them – Mrs Piozzi was as unpredictable as the weather. As Charles Eliot Norton aptly remarked, ‘Dulness was, in her code, the unpardonable sin. Variety was the charm of life and books. She never dwelt long on one idea.’

Clifford isn’t alone in his mixed feelings, or in his low estimation of Hester’s scholarly and literary abilities. (Johnson was the first of many to warn against exaggerating her accomplishments. Henry Thrale, he wrote, ‘is a regular scholar; but her learning is that of a schoolboy in one of the lower forms’.) Unthreatening but disconcerting in her infinite variety, Hester became a sort of anti-Johnson, the chameleon foil to Boswell’s portrait in which his hero’s self-evident distinction remains unchanged from childhood till death. However moulded she was by the great man, Hester was never admitted to his club. Her marriage to Piozzi was thought by many to have precipitated Johnson’s death (and to have disappointed his secret hopes to succeed Thrale himself) and she has gone down in Johnsonian annals as an 18th-century version of Petronius’ licentious Ephesian matron, confirming the impossibility of female constancy, matter too soft to bear even Johnson’s lasting mark.

In ‘The Double Tradition of Dr Johnson’, Bertrand Bronson puzzled over the split in Johnsonian studies between the analysis of texts and the folk worship of ‘the eidolon of an author’, in which ‘Johnson exists for us … like a character in one of our older novels, and on the same level of objectivity and familiarity.’ Demanding remembrance like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, this spirit owes as much to Hester’s detailed ‘candle-light’ portrait in her Anecdotes as it does to Boswell’s hagiographic one in the Life. Nevertheless, both contemporaries such as Horace Walpole and modern Johnsonians such as Ralph Rader (who saw everything that was wrong with Hester’s view of Johnson in the contrast between her terse observation that he was a ‘gross feeder’ and Boswell’s ability to render even vein-bulging gluttony as a sign of his heroism) have taken her to task for her abandonment of Johnson in life and her failure to revere him in death.

All through the time she was enjoying the ‘Mahomet’s Paradise’ of Italy with Piozzi, the lavish entertainments in the Streatham house redecorated in Italianate glory on their return, the delights of nature at Brynbella (her estate in Wales where the two built a villa and the Italian music teacher became a country squire), or the pleasures of society in her beloved Bath, where she spent the last years of life as ‘an old Bath Cat’ and living curiosity, Hester wrote and published. The Thraliana alone, with its portrait of daily life (child-rearing, menopause, illness, medical remedies, autobiographical reminiscences and emotional outpourings get equal billing with Johnson’s conversation), should be enough to secure her reputation. Her published work is remarkably ambitious and wide-ranging, while resolutely non-definitive and colloquial. Observations and Reflections made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy and Germany (1789), based on her honeymoon diary, distressed Walpole and others with its ‘excessive vulgarisms’, but delights modern readers. British Synonymy, or, An Attempt at Regulating the Choice of Words in Familiar Conversation (1794), in which she proposed ‘to dispel a doubt, or clear up a difficulty to foreigners, who can alone be supposed to know less of the matter than myself’, was critically acclaimed. But the bolder Retrospection: or a Review of the Most Striking and Important Events, Characters, Situations, and Their Consequences, which the last Eighteen Hundred Years have Presented in the View of Mankind (1801), an ‘anecdotal history’ which paid special attention to the achievements of women, was roundly condemned as ‘a series of dreams by an old lady’. One reviewer described it as ‘an universal history … translated into chit-chat language’. Protesting that her attackers meant to ‘ruin my Reputation for the Learning which I never boasted’, she believed it her best work. McIntyre gives Hester credit where it is due. In the process, he begins to show what the historical landscape not just of 18th-century England, but of early 19th-century England too might look like with this eternally curious and observant woman at its centre, a woman often operating outside the female realms of domesticity and maternity, who could find ‘slack-rope performers, the Peterloo Massacre, female cricketers and the price of fish’ worthy of comment.

‘Life is a Magic Lanthorn certainly,’ Hester wrote two years before she died, ‘and I think more so to Women, than to Men: who often are placed very early in a Profession which they follow up regularly, & slide on … almost unconsciously.’ This metaphor epitomises her habit of defamiliarising a world in which she, like most of her sex, had ‘long remained a mere Spectator – no Actor in this human Life’. Seen from another angle, Hester’s life has a gothic tinge: born alive ‘after two or three dead things’, and immersed in death throughout her child-bearing years, she created a new life from her husband’s death. Yet she never escaped Johnson, whose angry reaction to her own death she imagined in a prose-dialogue version of ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’: ‘(very loud) No Man I say has a Right to obtrude unpleasing Images on my Mind, nor force me for His Pleasure upon making ungrateful comparisons between my past & present State of Existence.’ Hester consistently made such comparisons:

Doctor Johnson who professed an Aversion to Canting – did not surely cant himself when he advised me to keep a Register of Events, Conversations, &c, and said how pleasant it would be to me on Revisal! And I stupid Dunce! Never had the wit to reply, ‘Why Sir, you don’t like reviewing your own Life; why should I at your Age like it better?’

Meeting her in Bath, the poet Thomas Moore saw the ‘faces of other times’ – Johnson’s the first among them – ‘crowd over her as she sat’, while the actor William Charles Macready, remembering her fifty years later, said his first glimpse of her ‘seemed almost as if a portrait by Sir Joshua had stepped out of its frame’. Both young men were surprised that the ‘wonderful old lady’ possessed ‘all the quickness and intelligence of a gay young woman’.

Hester’s most emblematic literary production might be her rewriting of ‘The Fountains’, the fairy tale Johnson composed for her, in which the heroine, Floretta, is allowed to drink at two fountains, one fed by the Spring of Joy, which has the power to grant any wish, and one fed by the Spring of Sorrows, which has the power to undo the magic of the first. Disappointed in all her wishes – perfect beauty, a faithful lover, great wealth – Floretta finally wishes for wit, with results Hester would have found familiar. She is scorned by society: ‘She would have been content with a few friends, but no friendship was durable; it was the fashion to desert her, and with the fashion what fidelity will contend? She could easily have amused herself in solitude, but that she thought it mean to quit the field to treachery and folly.’ Unable to give up her wit, Floretta wishes for death. Hester adapted Johnson’s fable for the stage as a masque in the style of Comus. In her version, only Oberon, ‘Tyrant of Faery Land’, can put an end to Floretta’s magical ability to fulfil her desires.

McIntyre is to be commended for portraying Hester’s variability as the source of her strength rather than as feminine weakness. In his affection and respect for her intellectual curiosity, emotional resilience and relish for life, he presents us with an 18th-century sensibility no less representative than Johnson’s, but one demanding recognition rather than reverence.

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