A Light-Blue Stocking
SOME time, when seated in your library, as it becomes too dark to read and is yet too light,—to ring for candles, I was going to say, but nowadays we simply touch a button, — let your thoughts wander over the long list of women who have made for themselves a place in English literature, and see if you do not agree with me that the woman you would like most to meet in the flesh, were it possible, would be Mrs. Piozzi, born Hester Lynch Salusbury, but best known to us as Mrs. Thrale.
Let us argue the matter. It may at first seem almost absurd to mention the wife of the successful London brewer, Henry Thrale, in a list which would include the names of Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, and Mrs. Browning; but the woman whom I have in mind should unite feminine charm with literary gift: she should be a woman whom you would honestly enjoy meeting and whom you would be glad to find yourself seated next to at dinner.
It may at once be admitted that as a mother Mrs. Thrale was not a conspicuous success; but she was a woman of charm, with a sound mind in a sound body. Although she could be brilliant in conversation, she would let you take the lead if you were able to; but she was quite prepared to take it herself rather than let the conversation flag, and she must, have been a very exceptional woman to steady, as she did, a somewhat roving husband, to call Dr. Johnson to order, and upon occasion to reprove Burke, even while entertaining the most brilliant society of which London at the period could boast.
At the time when we first make her acquaintance, she was young and pretty, the mistress of a luxurious establishment; and if she was not possessed of literary gifts herself, it may fairly be said that she was the cause of literature in others.
In these days, when women, having everything else, want the vote also (and I would give it to them promptly and end the discussion), it may be suggested that to shine by a reflected light is to shine not at all. Frankly, Mrs. Thrale owes her position in English letters, not to anything important that she herself did or was capable of doing, but to the eminence of those she gathered about her. But her position is not the less secure: she was a charming and fluffy person; and as firmly as I believe that women have come to stay, so firmly am I of the opinion that, in spite of all the well-meaning efforts of some of their sex to prevent it, a certain, and, thank God, sufficient number of women will stay charming and fluffy to the end of the chapter.
On one subject only could Mrs. Thrale be tedious — her pedigree. I have it before me, written in her own bold hand, and I confess that it seems very exalted indeed. She would not have been herself had she not stopped in transcribing it to relate how one of her ancestors, Katherine Tudor de Berayne, cousin and ward of Queen Elizabeth and a famous heiress, was asked in marriage by Maurice Wynne of Gwydir as she was returning from the grave of her first husband, Sir John Salusbury, only to be told that he was too late as she had already engaged herself to Sir Richard Clough. ‘But,’ added the lady, ‘ if in the providence of God I am unfortunate enough to survive him, I consent to be the Lady of Gwydir.’ Nor does the tale end here, for she married yet another, and having sons by all four husbands, she came to be called ‘Mam y Cymry,’— Mother of Wales, — and no doubt she deserved the appellation.
With such marrying blood in her veins, it is easily understood that, as soon as Thrale’s halter was off her neck, — this sporting phrase, I regret to say, is Dr. Johnson’s, — she should think of marrying again; and that having the first time married to please her family, she should upon the second venture marry to please herself. But this paper is moving too rapidly — the lady is not yet born.
Hester Lynch Salusbury’s birthplace was Bodvel, in Wales, and the year, 1741. She was an only child, very precocious, with a retentive memory. She soon became the plaything of the elderly people around her, who called her ‘Fiddle.’ Her father had the reputation of being a scamp, and it fell to her uncle’s lot to direct, somewhat, her education. Handed about from one relation to another, she quickly adapted herself to her surroundings. Her mother taught her French; a tutor, Latin; Quin, the actor, taught her to recite. Hogarth painted her portrait, and the grooms of her grandmother, whom she visited occasionally, made of her an accomplished horsewoman. In those days education for a woman was highly irregular, but judging from the results in the case of Mrs. Thrale and her friends, who shall say that it was ineffective?
Study soon became little Hester’s delight. At twelve years she wrote for the newspapers; also she used to rise at four in the morning to study, which her mother would not have allowed had she known of it. I have a letter written many years afterwards in which she says, —
‘My mother always told me I had ruined my figure and stopt my growth by sitting too long at a writing desk, though she was ignorant how much time I spent at it. Dear Madam, was my saucy answer, —
And grasp the ocean with my span,
I would be measured by my Soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.’
She is quoting Dr. Watts from memory evidently, and improving, perhaps, on the original.
But little girls grow up and husbands must be found for them. Henry Thrale, the son of a rich Southwark brewer, was brought forward by her uncle, while her father, protesting that he would not have his only child exchanged for a barrel of ’bitter,’fell into a rage and died of an apoplexy. Her dot was provided by the uncle, her mother did the courting, with little opposition on the part of the lady and no enthusiasm on the part of the suitor. So, without love on either side, she being twenty-two and her husband thirtylive, she became Mrs. Thrale.
More happiness came from this marriage than might have been expected. Henry Thrale, besides his suburban residence, Streatham, had two other establishments — one adjoining the brewery in Southwark, where he lived in winter, and another, an unpretentious villa at the seaside. He also maintained a stable of horses and a pack of hounds at Croydon; but, although a good horsewoman, Mrs. Thrale was not permitted to join her husband in his equestrian diversions; indeed, her place in her husband’s establishment was not unlike that of a woman in a seraglio. She was allowed few pleasures, and but one duty was impressed upon her, namely, that of supplying an heir to the estate; to this duty she devoted herself unremittingly.
In due time a child was born — a daughter; and while this was of course recognized as a mistake, it was believed to be one which could be corrected. Meanwhile Thrale was surprised to find that his wife could think and talk — that she had a mind of her own. The discovery dawned slowly upon him, as did the idea that the pleasure of living in the country may be enhanced by hospitality. Finally the doors of Streatham Park were thrown open. For a time her husband’s bachelor friends and companions were the only company. Included among these was one Arthur Murphy, who had been un maître de plaisir to Henry Thrale in the gay days before his marriage, when they had frequented the green rooms and Ranelagh together. It was Murphy who suggested that ‘Dictionary Johnson’ might be secured to enliven a dinner-party, and thereupon followed some discussion as to the excuse which should be given Johnson for inviting him to the table of the rich brewer. It was finally suggested that he be invited to meet a minor celebrity, James Woodhouse, the shoemaker poet.
Johnson rose to the bait, — Johnson rose easily to any bait which would provide him a good dinner and lift him out of himself, — and the dinner passed off successfully. Mrs. Thrale records that they all liked each other so well that a dinner was arranged for the following week, without the shoemaker, who, having served his purpose, disappears from the record.
And now, and for twenty years thereafter, we find Johnson enjoying the hospitality of the Thrales, which opened for him a new world. When he was taken ill, not long after the introduction, Mrs. Thrale called on him in his stuffy lodgings in a court off Fleet Street, and suggested that the air of Streatham would be good for him. Would he come to them? He would. He was not the man to deny himself the care of a young, rich, and charming woman, who would feed him well, understand him, and add to the joys of conversation. From that time on, whether at their residence in Deadman’s Place in Southwark, at Streatham, or at Brighton, even on their journeys, the Thrales and Johnsons were constantly together; and when he went on a journey alone, as sometimes happened, he wrote long letters to his mistress or his master, as he affectionately called his friends.
Who gained most by this intercourse ? Johnson summed up his obligations to the lady in the famous letter written just before her second marriage, probably the last he ever wrote her. ’I wish that God may grant you every blessing, that you may be happy in this world . . . and eternally happy in a better state; and whatever I can contribute to your happiness I am ready to repay for that kindness which soothed twenty years of a life radically wretched.’
On the other hand, the Thrales secured what, perhaps unconsciously, they most desired, social position and distinction. At Streatham they entertained the best, if not perhaps the very highest society of the time. Think for a moment of the intimates of this house, whose portraits, painted by Reynolds, hung in the library. There were my Lords Sandys and Westcote, college friends of Thrale; there were Johnson and Goldsmith; Garrick and Burke; Burney, and Reynolds himself, and a number of others, all from the brush of the great master; and could we hear the voices which from time to time might have been heard in the famous room, we should recognize Boswell and Piozzi, Baretti, and a host of others; and would it be necessary for the servant to announce the entrance of the great Mrs. Siddons, or Mrs. Garrick, or Fanny Burney, or Hannah More, or Mrs. Montague, or any of the other ladies who later formed that famous coterie which came to be known as the Blue Stockings?
But Johnson was the Thrales’ first lion and remained their greatest. He first gave Streatham parties distinction. The master of the house enjoyed having the wits about him, but was not one himself. Johnson said of him that ‘his mind struck the hours very regularly but did not mark the minutes.’ It was his wife who, by her sprightliness, and by her wit and readiness, kept the ball rolling, showing infinite tact and skill in drawing out one and, when necessary, repressing another; asking — when the Doctor was not speaking — for a flash of silence from the company that a newcomer might be heard.
But I am anticipating. All this was not yet. A salon such as she created at Streatham Park is not the work of a month or of a year.
If Mrs. Thrale had ever entertained any illusions as to her husband’s regard for her, they must have received a shock when she discovered, as she soon did, that Mr. Thrale had previously offered his hand to several ladies, coupling with his proposal the fact that, in the event of its being accepted, he would expect to live for a portion of each year in his house adjoining the brewery. The famous brewery is now Barclay & Perkins’s, and still stands on its original site, where the Globe Theatre once stood, not far from the Surrey end of Southwark Bridge. A more unattractive place of residence it would be hard to imagine, but for some reason Mr. Thrale loved it.
On the other hand, Streatham was delightful. It was a fine estate, something over an hour’s drive from Fleet Street in the direction of Croydon. The house, a mansion of white stucco, stood in a park of more than a hundred acres, beautifully wooded. Drives and gravel walks gave easy access to all parts of the grounds. There was a lake with a drawbridge, and conservatories, and glass houses stocked with fine fruits. Grapes, peaches, and pineapples were grown in abundance, and Dr. Johnson, whose appetite was robust, was able for the first time in his life to indulge himself in these things to his heart’s content.
In these delightful surroundings the Thrales spent the greater part of each year, and here assembled about them a coterie almost., if not quite, as distinguished as that which made Holland House famous half a century later.
A few years ago Barrie wrote a delightful play — What Every Woman Knows; and I hasten to say, for the benefit of those who have not seen this play, that what every woman knows is how to manage a husband. In this respect Mrs. Thrale had no superior. Making due allowance, the play suggests the relationship of the Thrales. A cold, self-contained, and commonplace man is married to a sprightly and engaging wife. With her to aid him, he was able so to carry himself that people took him for a man of great ability; without her, he was utterly lost. To give point to the play, the husband is obliged to make this painful discovery. Mrs. Thrale, mercifully, never permitted her husband to discover how commonplace he was. Could he have looked in her diary, he might have read this description of himself; and, had he read it, he would probably have made no remark. He spoke little.
‘Mr. Thrale’s sobriety, and the decency of his conversation,being wholly free from all oaths, ribaldry and profaneness, make him exceedingly comfortable to live with; while the easiness of his temper and slowness to take offense add greatly to his value as a domestic man. Yet I think his servants do not love him, and I am not sure that his children have much affection for him. With regard to his wife, though little tender of her person, he is very partial to her understanding; but he is obliging to nobody, and confers a favor less pleasingly than many a man refuses one.'
Elsewhere she refers to him as the handsomest man in London, by whom she has had thirteen children, two sons and eleven daughters. Both sons and all but three of the daughters died either in infancy or in early childhood. Constantly in that condition in which ladies wish to be who love their lords, Mrs. Thrale, by her advice and efforts, once at least, saved her husband from bankruptcy, and frequently from making a fool of himself. She grew to take an intelligent interest in his business affairs, urged him to enter Parliament, successfully electioneered for him, and in return was treated with just that degree of affection that a man might show to an incubator which, although somewhat erratic in its operations, might at any time present him with a son.
Such was the household of which Dr. Johnson became a member, and which, to all intents and purposes, became his home. Retaining his lodgings in a court off Fleet Street, he established in them what Mrs. Thrale called his menagerie of old women: dependents too poor and wretched to find asylum elsewhere. To them he was at all times considerate, if not courteous. It was his custom to dine with them two or three times each week, thus insuring them an ample dinner; but the library at Streatham was especially devoted to his service. When he could be induced to work on his Lives of the Poets it became his study; but for the most part it was his arena, in which, in playful converse or in violent discussion, he held his own against all comers.
In due time, under the benign influence of the Thrales, he overcame his repugnance to clean linen. Mr. Thrale suggested silver buckles for his shoes, and he bought them. As he entered the drawing-room, a servant might have been seen clapping on his head a wig which had not been badly singed by a midnight candle, as he tore the heart out of a book. The great bear became bearable. One of his most intimate friends, Baretti, a highly cultivated man, was secured as a tutor for the Thrale children, of whom the eldest, nicknamed Queenie, was Johnson’s favorite.
Henry Thrale’s table was one of the best in London. By degrees it became known that at Streatham one might always be sure of an excellent, dinner and the best conversation in England. Dr. Johnson voiced, not only his own, but the general opinion, that to smile with the wise and to feed with the rich was very close upon human felicity; and he would have admitted, had his attention been called to it, that there was at least one house in London in which people could enjoy themselves as much as at a capital inn.
For the best description of life at Streatham we must turn to the pages of Fanny Burney [Madame d’Arblay]. From the pages of her diary we gather how, with talks and walks and drives and dinners and tea-drinkings unceasing, with news, gossip, and scandal at retail, wholesale, and for exportation, it was contrived that life at Streatham was as delightful as life can be made to be. Occasionally there was work to be done, and it became Mrs. Thrale’s duty to keep the Doctor up to his work, — no easy task when a pretty woman was around, and there were always several at Streatham. Thanks to Boswell and to ‘Little Burney,’ we know this life better than we know any other whatever; and what life elsewhere is so intimate and personal, so well worth knowing ?
One morning Mrs. Thrale, entering the library and finding Johnson there, complained that it was her birthday, and that no one had sent her any verses. She admitted being thirty-five, yet Swift, she said, fed Stella with them till she was forty-six. Thereupon Johnson without hesitation began to compose aloud, and Mrs. Thrale to write at his dictation, —
We are come to thirty-five;
Long may better years arrive,
Better years than thirty-five.
Could philosophers contrive
Life to stop at thirty-five,
Time his hours should never drive
O’er the bounds of thirty-five.
High to soar, and deep to dive,
Nature gives at thirty-five.
Ladies, stock and tend your hive,
Trifle not at thirty-five;
For howe’er we boast and strive,
Life declines from thirty-five:
He that ever hopes to thrive
Must begin by thirty-five;
And all who wisely wish to wive
Must look on Thrale at thirty-five,’ —
adding, as he concluded, ‘And now, my clear, you see what it is to come for poetry to a dictionary-maker. You may observe that the rhymes run in alphabetical order exactly.’
Meanwhile, Mr. Thrale was quietly digging his grave with his teeth. Warned by his physician and his friend that he must exercise more and eat less, he snapped his fingers at them, I was going to say, but he did nothing so violent. He simply disregarded their advice and gave orders that the best and earliest of everything should be placed upon his table in profusion. His death was the result, and at forty Mrs. Thrale found herself a widow, wealthy, and with her daughters amply provided for. She, with Dr. Johnson and several others, was an executor of the estate, and promptly began to grapple with the problems of managing a great business. Not long after Thrale’s death we find this entry in her journal: ’I have now appointed three days a week to attend at the counting-house. If an angel from Heaven had told me twenty years ago that the man I knew by the name of Dictionary Johnson should one day become partner with me in a great trade, and that we should jointly or separately sign notes, drafts, etc., for three or four thousand pounds, of a morning, how unlikely it would have seemed ever to happen! Unlikely is not the word, it would have seemed incredible, neither of us then being worth a groat, and both as immeasurably removed from commerce as birth, literature, and inclination could get us.’
The opinion was general that Mrs. Thrale had been a mere sleeping partner, and her friends were amazed at the insight the sparkling little lady showed in the management of a great business. ‘Such,’ says Mrs. Montague, ‘is the dignity of Mrs. Thrale’s virtue, and such her superiority in all situations of life, that nothing now is wanting but an earthquake to show how she will behave on that occasion.’
But this state of things was not long to continue. A knot of rich Quakers came along and purchased the enterprise for a hundred and thirty-five thousand pounds. Dr. Johnson was not quite clear that the property ought to be sold; but when the sale was finally decided upon, he did his share toward securing a good price. Capitalization of earning power has never been more succinctly described than when, in going over the great establishment with the intending purchasers, he made his famous remark, ‘We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.'
Mrs. Thrale’s own notes are amusing. She was glad to bid adieu to the brewhouse and to the Borough — the business had been a great burden. Her daughters were provided for, and she did not much care for money for herself. By the bargain she had purchased peace, and, as she said, ‘restoration to her original rank in life’; recording in her journal, ‘Now that it is all over I’ll go to church and give God thanks and forget the frauds, follies and inconveniences of commercial life; as for Dr. Johnson, his honest heart was cured of its incipient passion for trade by letting him into some and only some of its mysteries.’
Not many Sundays after Mrs. Thrale’s thanksgiving she had a visitor at Streatham — a visitor who, when he left, carried with him as a token of her regard two little calf-bound volumes, in one of which was the inscription, ‘These books written by Dr. Samuel Johnson, were presented to Mr. Gabbrielle [sic] Piozzi by Hester Lynch Thrale, Streatham, Sunday, June 10th, 1781 with a further note in an equally clear and flowing hand, ‘And Twenty-eight years after that Time, presented again to his nephew, John Piozzi Salusbury, by Hester Lynch Piozzi, “Brynbella,” 1st August, 1800.’ The book was the first edition of the Prince of Abyssinia (it was not known as Rasselas until after Dr. Johnson’s death), and Mrs. Thrale at the time did not know Piozzi sufficiently well to spell his name correctly; but she was soon to learn, and to learn, too, that she was in love with him and he with her.
She had first met Piozzi about a year before, at a musicale at the house of Dr. Burney, Fanny’s father. On this occasion she had taken advantage of his back being turned to mimic him as he sat at the piano. For this she was reprimanded by Dr. Burney, and she must have felt that she deserved the correction, for she took it in good part and behaved with great decorum during the rest of the evening.
After a year in her widow’s weeds, — which must have tormented Johnson, for he hated the thought of death and liked to see ladies dressed in gay colors, — she laid aside her severe black and began to resume her place in society. The newspapers marked the change, and every man who entered her house was referred to as a possible husband for the rich and attractive widow. Finally she was obliged to write to the papers and ask that they would let the subject alone.
But it soon became evident to Johnson and to the rest of the world that Piozzi was successfully laying siege to the lady; as why should he not? The fact that he was a Catholic, an Italian, and a musician could hardly have appeared to him as reasons why he should not court a woman of rare charm and distinction, with whom he had been on terms of friendship for several years; a woman who was of suitable age, the mistress of a fine estate and three thousand pounds a year, whose children were no longer children but young ladies of independent fortune. That she should marry some one seemed certain. Why not Piozzi? Her daughters protested that their mother was disgracing herself and them, and the world held up its hands in horror at the thought; the co-executors of the estate became actually insulting, and Fanny Burney was so shocked at the idea that she finally gave up visiting Streatham altogether. Society ranged itself for and against the lady — few for, many against.
There were other troubles, too; a lawsuit involving a large sum was decided against her, and Johnson, ill, querulous, and exacting, behaved as an irritable old man would who felt his influence in the family waning. I am a Johnsonian, — Tinker has called me so and Tinker may be depended upon to know a Johnsonian when he sees one, — but I am bound to admit that Johnson had behaved badly and was to behave much worse. Johnson was very human and the lady was very human, too. They had come to a parting of the ways. It was inevitable that the life at Streatham must be terminated. Its glory had departed, and the cost of its upkeep was too great for the lady. So a tenant was secured and Mrs. Thrale and Dr. Johnson prepared to leave the house in which so many happy years had been passed. Dr. Johnson was once more to occupy his old lodgings in Bolt Court, and Mrs. Thrale, after a visit to Brighton, was to go to Bath to repose her purse.
The engagement, or understanding, or whatever it was, with Piozzi was broken off, and Italy was proposed as a place of residence for him. Broken hearts there were in plenty.
Life for Mrs. Thrale at Bath proved to be impossible. If concealment did not feed on the damask of her cheek, love did, and at last it became evident, even to the young ladies, that their mother was pining away for Piozzi, and they gave their consent that he be recalled.
He came at once. Mrs. Thrale on his departure had sent him a poem which reached him at Dover. She now sent him another which was designed to reach him on his return, at Calais.
See my love returns to Calais,
After all their taunts and malice,
Ent’ring safe the gates of Calais,
While delay’d by winds he dallies,
Fretting to be kept at Calais,
Muse, prepare some sprightly sallies
To divert my dear at Calais;
Say how every rogue who rallies
Envies him who waits at Calais
For her that would disdain a Palace
Compar’d to Piozzi, Love and Calais.
Pretty poor poetry, those who know tell me; but if Piozzi liked it, it served its purpose. And now Mrs. Thrale announced her engagement in a circular letter to her co-executors under the Thrale will, sending, in addition, to Johnson a letter in which she says, ’The dread of your disapprobation has given me some anxious moments, and I feel as if acting without a parent’s consent till you write kindly to me.'
Johnson’s reply is historic: —
MADAM, — If I interpret your letter right you are ignominiously married: if it is yet undone, let us once more 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 womankind, entreat that, before your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see you. I was, I once was, Madam, most truly yours,
July 2, 1784.
It was a smashing letter, and showed that the mind which had composed the famous letter to Chesterfield and another, equally forceful, to Macpherson had not lost its vigor. But those letters had brought no reply. His letter to Mrs. Thrale did, and one at once dignified and respectful. The little lady was no novice in letter-writing, and I can imagine that upon the arrival of her letter the weary, heartsick old man wept. Remember that his emotions were seldom completely under his control, and that he had nothing of the bear about him but its skin.
SIR [she wrote], — I have this morning received from you so rough a letter in reply to one which was both tenderly and respectfully written, that I am forced to desire the conclusion of a correspondence which I can bear to continue no longer. The birth of my second husband is not meaner than that of my first; his sentiments are not meaner; his profession is not meaner, and his superiority in what he professes acknowledged by all mankind. Is it want of fortune, then, that is ignominious? The character of the man I have chosen has no other claim to such an epithet. The religion to which he has been always a zealous adherent will, I hope, teach him to forgive insults he has not deserved; mine will, I hope, enable me to bear them at once with dignity and patience. To hear that I have forfeited my fame is indeed the greatest insult I ever yet received. My fame is as unsullied as snow, or I should think it unworthy of him who must henceforth protect it.
Johnson, she says, wrote once more, but the letter has never come to light; the correspondence, which had continued over a period of twenty years, was at an end.
At the time Mrs. Thrale’s detractors were many and her defenders few. Two dates were given as to the time of her marriage, which started some wandering lies, much to her disadvantage. The fact is that both dates were correct, for she was married to Piozzi once by a Catholic and several weeks later by a Church of England ceremony. In her journal she writes under date of July 25,1784, ‘ I am now the wife of my faithful Piozzi . . . he loves me and will be mine forever. . . . The whole Christian Church, Catholic and Protestant, all are witnesses.’
For two years they traveled on the continent. No marriage could have been happier. Piozzi, by comparison with his wife, is a rather shadowy person. The difference in their religious views was the cause of no difficulty. Each respected the other’s religion and kept his or her own. ‘I would preserve my religious opinions inviolate at Milan as my husband did his at London,’ is an entry in her journal.
She was staying at Milan when tidings of Johnson’s death reached her. All of her correspondents hastened to apprize her of the news. That Madam Piozzi, as we must now call her, was deeply affected, we cannot doubt. Only a few days before the news of his death reached her, we find her writing t.o a friend, urging him not to neglect Dr. Johnson, saying, ‘You will never see any other mortal so wise or so good. I keep his picture constantly before me.’
Before long she heard, too, that several of her old friends had engaged to write his life, and Piozzi urged her to be one of the number. The result was the Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson during the last Twenty Years of his Life. It is not a great work, but considering the circumstances under which it was written, her journals being locked up in England while she was writing at Florence, greater faults than were found in it could have been overlooked. It provided Boswell with some good anecdotes for his great book, and it antedated Hawkins’s Life of Johnson by about a year.
The book was published by Cadell, and so great was the demand for it, that the first edition was exhausted on the day of publication; so that, when the King sent for a copy in the evening of that day, the publisher had to beg for one from a friend.
Meanwhile, the Piozzis had become tired of travel and wished again to enjoy the luxury of a home. ‘Prevail on Mr. Piozzi to settle in England,’ was Dr. Johnson’s parting advice. It was not difficult to do so, and on their return, after a short stay in London, they took up their residence in Bath.
Here Madam Piozzi, encouraged by the success of the Anecdotes, devoted herself to the publication of two volumes of Letters to and from the LateSamuel Johnson. Their preparation for the press was somewhat crude: it consisted largely in making omissions here and there and substituting asterisks for proper names; but the copyright was sold for live hundred pounds, and the letters showed, if indeed it was necessary to show, how intimate had been the relationship between the Doctor and herself.
As time went on, there awakened in Madam Piozzi a longing for the larger life of Streatham, and on the seventh anniversary of their wedding day the place was again thrown open. Seventy people sat down to dinner, the house and grounds were illuminated, and the villagers were made welcome. A thousand people thronged through the estate. One might have supposed that a young lord had come into his own. It was a brave effort, but it was soon seen to be unavailing.
But the lady had resources within herself; she was an inveterate reader and she had tasted the joys of authorship. She now published a volume of travels and busied herself with several other works, the very names of which are forgotten except by the curious in such matters.
However, it was evident that life at Streatham could not be continued on the old scale. Funds were not as plentiful as in the days of the great brewmaster; so after a few years, when her husband suggested their retiring to her native Wales, she was glad to fall in with the idea. A charming site was selected, and a villa built in the Italian style after her husband’s design. It was called ‘Brynbella,’ meaning beautiful brow; half Welsh and half Italian, like its owners. I fancy their lives were happier here than they had been elsewhere, for they built upon their own foundation. Piozzi had his piano and his violin, and the lady busied herself with her books, while the monotony of existence was pleasantly broken by occasional visits to Bath, where they had many friends.
And during these years letters and notes, comment and criticism, dropped from her pen like leaves from a tree in autumn. She lived over again in memory her life in London, reading industriously, and busy in the pleasant and largely profitless way which tends to make days pass into months and months into years and leave no trace of their passing. She must always have had a pen in her hand; it goes without saying that she had kept a diary; in those days every one did, and most had less than she to record. It was Dr. Johnson who suggested that she get a little book and write in it all the anecdotes she might hear, observations she might make, or verse that might otherwise be lost. These instructions were followed literally, but no little book sufficed. She filled many large quarto volumes, six of which, entitled Thraliana, passed through the London auction rooms in 1908, bringing £2050.
In the future, what may be written of Mrs. Thrale will be written in better taste. At this time of day why should she be attacked because she married a man who did not speak English as his mother tongue, and who was a musician rather than a brewer? One may be an enthusiastic admirer of Dr. Johnson — I confess I am — and yet keep a warm place in one’s heart for the kindly and charming little woman. Admit that she was not the scholar she thought she was, that she was ‘inaccurate in narration.’ What matters it? She was a woman of character. She was not overpowered by Dr. Johnson, as was Fanny Burney, so that at last she came to write like him, only more so. Mrs. Thrale, by her own crisp, vigorous English, influenced the Doctor finally to write as he talked, naturally, without that undue elaboration which was characteristic of his earlier style.
If Johnson mellowed under the benign influence of the lady, she was the gainer in knowledge, especially in such knowledge as comes from books. It was Mrs. Thrale rather than her husband who formed the Streatham library. Her taste was robust, she balked at no foreign language, but set about to study it. I have never seen a book from her library — and I have seen many — which was not filled with notes written in her clear and beautiful hand. These volumes, like the books which Lamb lent Coleridge, and which he returned with annotations tripling their value, are occasionally offered for sale in those old book-shops where our resolutions not to be tempted are writ in so much water; or they turn up at auction sales and astonish the uninitiated by the prices they bring.
Meanwhile, the years which had touched the lady so lightly had left their impress upon her husband, who does not seem to have been strong. He was a great sufferer from gout, and finally died and was buried in the parish church of Tremeirchion, which years before he had caused to be repaired and had built therein a burial vault in which his remains were placed. They had lived in perfect harmony for twentyfive years, thus effectually overturning the prophecies of their friends. She continued to reside at Brynbella until the marriage of her adopted son, the son of Piozzi’s brother, when she generously gave him the estate and removed to Bath, that lovely little city where so many celebrities have gone to pass the closing years of eventful lives.
As a ' Bath cat ' she continued her interest in men, women, and books until the end. Having outlived all her old friends, she proceeded to make new; and when nearly eighty astonished every one by showing great partiality for a young and handsome actor, — and, if reports be true, a very bad actor, — named Conway. There was much smoke and doubtless some fire in the affair: letters purporting to be hers to him were published after her death. They may not be genuine, and if they are they show simply, as Leslie Stephen says, that at a very advanced age she became silly.
On her eightieth birthday she gave a ball to six or seven hundred people in the Assembly Rooms at Bath, and led the dancing herself with her adopted son (who by this time was Sir John Salusbury Piozzi), very much to her satisfaction. A year later she mot with an accident, from the effects of which she died. She was buried in Tremeirehion Church beside her husband. A few years ago, on the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Johnson, a memorial tablet was erected in the quaint old church, reading, —
Near this place are interred the remains of HESTER LYNCH PIOZZI Dr. Johnson’s Mrs. Thrale Born 1741, died 1821
Mrs. Piozzi’s life is her most enduring work. Trifles were her serious business, and she was never idle. Always a great letter-writer, she set in motion a correspondence which would have taxed the capacity of a secretary with a typewriter. To the last she was a great reader, and observing a remark in Boswell on the irksomeness of books to people of advanced age, she wrote on the margin, ‘Not to me, at eighty.’
Her wonderful memory remained unimpaired to the last. She knew English literature well. She spoke French and Italian fluently. Latin she transcribed with ease and grace; of Greek she had a smattering, and she is said to have had a working knowledge of Hebrew; but I suspect that her Hebrew would have set a scholar’s hair on end.
With all these accomplishments, she was not a pedant, or — properly speaking — a Blue Stocking; or if she was, it was of a very light shade of blue. She told a capital story, omitted everything irrelevant and came to the point at once; in brief, she was a man’s woman.
And to end the argument where it began, for arguments always end where they begin, I came across a remark the other day which sums up my contention. It was to the effect that, in whatever company Mrs. Piozzi found herself, others always found her the most charming person in the room.