Hester, by Ian McIntyre
‘I must eat up my own heart & be quiet,’ confided Hester Thrale in her private notebook in the autumn of 1777. She was pregnant again, for the 11th time in 13 years. By then seven of her children had died, including her only and much loved son, and she was convinced that this child, too, would be taken from her. She had much to bewail. But Hester Lynch Salusbury Thrale Piozzi was indefatigable of spirit and merciless in her opinions. ‘Quiet’ was something she could never be — fortunately for us. When she died in 1821, aged 80, she left behind six large volumes of ‘loose thoughts, or casual hints, dropped by eminent men’ plus thousands of letters, as well as a number of published works including her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson and two volumes of her endearing, sometimes frosty, always insightful, correspondence with Dr Johnson. Fanny Burney, the novelist and diarist, remarked to her sister, ‘She is a most dear Creature, but never restrains her Tongue in any thing’.
It’s very odd, then, that in this great age of biography and women’s studies there’s been no major book about her since William McCarthy’s literary portrait of 1985. Hester was one of the trio of women who lived in domestic comfort with the great dictionary-maker and essayist, and knew him intimately. But unlike his mother and his wife she alone ventured into print, giving us the Johnson she knew as an endlessly fascinating but sometimes impossible house-guest. While he described her as a rattlesnake ‘for many have felt your Venom, few have escap’d your Attractions, and all the world knows you have the Rattle’, she told him ‘he most resembled an Elephant whose Weight would crush the Crocodile, & whose Proboscis could from its Force and Ductility either lift up the Buffalo or pick up the Pin’.
Hester herself lived a colourful life, offending not just Johnson but the whole of fashionable London by running off to Italy with her second husband, the singer Gabrieli Piozzi, and daring to take on the critics by publishing not just her own account of Johnson but also a dictionary of synonyms, an account of her travels on the Continent, and an extraordinary history of the last 1,800 years of mankind, Retrospection. As a writer she is vivid, waspish, indiscreet, whether revealing that the politician, Edmund Burke, was ‘the first man I had ever seen drunk, or heard talk Obscenely’ or commenting that her two-year-old daughter, Susanna, is ‘small, ugly & lean as ever; her Colour is like that of an ill painted Wall grown dirty’. As a scholar she was resourceful, taking up Hebrew in her old age, and reading anything and everything from the Vedas to Walter Scott, de Staël and Mungo Park; as a mother, and as a friend, she could be curiously detached. When she married Piozzi, she abandoned her four surviving daughters, who remained behind in London. The eldest, known as Queeney, was 19, but the youngest, Cecilia, was only seven.
I suspect that she is too prickly and uncomfortable a character ever to be rewarded with a feminist-style resurrection, and too garrulous for anyone else to attempt to write about her. There’s just too much stuff to wade through, and so much of it that is, like Johnson himself, contradictory and controversial. But at last she has been given a sympathetic and detailed hearing by Ian McIntyre, who knows Hester’s world well after writing studies of David Garrick and Joshua Reynolds, both of whom were part of her circle. Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr Johnson’s ‘Dear Mistress’ takes us through her various incarnations, beginning with her birth in 1741 to the irascible and unreliable John Salusbury and his wife, Hester Maria Cotton, granddaughter of a governor of Jamaica. The marriage was unhappy and probably abusive, but Hester, their only child, was indulged and given a splendid education in the classics. Money was always in short supply and in 1763 Hester was virtually married off by her parents to Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer. Hester was later to write that she ‘knew no more of him than of any other Gentleman who came to the House’. But Henry was a cultured and hospitable man and Hester’s life as Mrs Thrale, if not satisfying emotionally, at least brought her into the heart of literary London. In January 1765, she found herself, aged 23, entertaining for dinner the celebrated Dr Johnson, by then aged 55.
It was not long before Johnson began spending part of each week at the Thrales’ country estate, Streatham Park. McIntyre quotes judiciously from Hester’s now published notebooks, the Thraliana, without adding his own commentary. This can be frustrating, but it’s a relief when he glosses over the infamous letters in French which Johnson wrote to Hester in 1773, not deigning to speculate what they might imply about this oddly unequal friendship. The Doctor had been unwell for some weeks, and had turned up at Streatham, uninvited, just as Hester’s mother was in the terminal stages of breast cancer. Johnson was neglected; he felt affronted and even though he was staying in the same house wrote letters to ‘ma patronne’, asking her (in French) ‘to hold me in that bondage which you know so well how to render agreeable’. Many years later, after Hester’s death, a padlock was found among her belongings with a label attached, ‘Johnson’s padlock’. Hester herself wrote, ‘Poor Johnson! I see they will leave nothing untold that I laboured so long to keep secret; & I was so very delicate in trying to conceal his fancied Insanity, that I retained no Proofs of it — or hardly any’.
That ‘hardly any’ is revealing; Hester knew that her friendship with Johnson, her loose thoughts and casual hints about those years of her life, would be of more value to us than any of her own literary productions. When she died neither her daughters nor her adopted son (from Piozzi’s family) took the trouble to raise a stone to her memory. q
Kate Chisholm is the author of a biography of Fanny Burney.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 8, 2008