A Light-Blue Stocking

Helen Deutsch

  • Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr Johnson’s ‘Dear Mistress’ by Ian McIntyre
    Constable, 450 pp, £25.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 1 84529 449 6

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.

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