Hester early learned the arts of pleasing and performing as her parents' genteel poverty encouraged them to use their daughter's precocious charms to gain an inheritance. They briefly lived with Hester's childless maternal uncle, Sir Robert Cotton, at Lleweni Hall, Denbighshire, and subsequently at his London house, but he died intestate in 1748. In the following year the restless John Salusbury set out to repair the family fortunes as part of Lord Halifax's expedition to Nova Scotia, while Hester's mother turned her attention to Sir Thomas Salusbury, Hester's childless paternal uncle. Eventually established at Offley Park, Hertfordshire, Hester, at seventeen, outgrew even the considerable educational resources of her mother and aunt (Lady Salusbury encouraged her to translate Spectator articles into Italian), receiving tuition in philosophy, rhetoric, and Latin from Dr Arthur Collier, and in French literature from Dr William Parker. Collier's taste for the speculative and the combative exercised a formative influence upon the growth of his pupil's mind, and his circle of friends, including Sarah Fielding, to whom he had taught Greek, and James ‘Hermes’ Harris, encouraged her literary endeavours, which were frequently sent to the London newspapers. Her early poems, like her translations from the Romance languages, demonstrate an intriguing blend of imitation and individuality; her ‘free Translation’ of Racine's Épitres sur l'homme (1747), which she entitled ‘Essay on man’, displays growing confidence as she combines the French poet's earlier criticism and the Twickenham poet's own words to critique her beloved Pope. She later recalled the impact of her reading of the first part of Joseph Warton's Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1756): ‘this—shall I call it unlucky Volume … made a Writer & Critic of H:L:P’.
No early portraits exist, but Hester claimed to have been the teenage model for Hogarth's painting The Lady's Last Stake. She was slight in stature, only 4 feet 11 inches, with chestnut brown hair, sensitive grey eyes, and rather angular features; a later portrait by Reynolds and a miniature by Cosway reveal, as she herself was aware, a rather deceptive serenity (Thraliana, 1.471–2). Her attractive vivacity and intellectual accomplishments, added to the fact that she was regarded as the acknowledged heir of Sir Thomas, enticed local admirers such as the talented poet James Marriott, who was frightened off by the disapproval of her father, now returned unsuccessful from Nova Scotia, a virtual dependant on his brother. The death of Lady Salusbury and Sir Thomas's subsequent remarriage were to blight Hester's prospects of independence. A suitor, eulogized as ‘a Model of Perfection’, was introduced by her uncle and approved by her mother; her father's determination that his daughter should not be ‘exchanged for a barrel of Porter’ (Autobiography, 2.20) counted for little, and his sudden death in December 1762 removed the impediment. The visions of romance were over, and her final poem as an unmarried woman, ‘Imagination's Search after Happiness’, published in the St James's Chronicle of 10 September 1763, vainly recommended the consolation of piety. Details of dowry and jointure were settled, and a month later, on 11 October, in St Anne's Soho, at the age of twenty-two, she was ‘bartered’ to the handsome but bourgeois Henry Thrale (1728–1781), a wealthy London brewer.
Thrale, though stolidly unmoved by his wife's poetic attempts to win his affection, numbered a popular dramatist among his friends, and Hester was delighted to make the acquaintance of Arthur Murphy. The playwright was also a friend of Samuel Johnson, and on 9 January 1765 the Great Cham himself came to enliven dinner at Deadman's Place. Mr and Mrs Thrale soon became intimate with Johnson, who became a regular dinner guest. Thrale was no great talker, finding, as Frances Burney later recalled, ‘a singular amusement in hearing, instigating, and provoking a war of words, alternating triumph and overthrow, between clever and ambitious colloquial combatants’ (Memoirs of Dr. Burney, 2.104–5). Mrs Thrale revelled in such combative conversation, and her effervescent volubility encouraged, and provided a perfect foil for, Johnson's erudite pronouncements. Johnson more than filled the place of Hester's former mentor Collier; she was flattered by the attentions of this literary lion who took her sufficiently seriously as a poet not only to praise and criticize her efforts, but also to suggest collaboration. With Johnson she was soon translating Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy, and for another of Johnson's projects, the Miscellanies in Verse and Prose of his lodger, the blind Welsh poet Anna Williams, Hester contributed a translation from Boileau, ‘Epistle to his Gardener’, and wrote her best-known poem, ‘The Three Warnings’ (1766). Subsequently she assisted him in the preparation of his Journey to the Western Islands, and Johnson acknowledged that several of the lives in his Lives of the Poets, completed at Southwark and at Streatham, owed as much to her conversation as to her skills as amanuensis.
In the autumn of 1765 Thrale stood for parliament to represent Southwark, and his wife, though heavily pregnant, took part in canvassing the electors, and collaborated with Johnson in the writing and proof-correction of election addresses. Thrale gained the seat, but Hester lost the child, under two weeks old, to infantile diarrhoea. In the following year Johnson's emotional breakdown led the Thrales to make over to his use rooms at both Southwark and Streatham, and for the next sixteen years his life was transformed by the affection, care, stability, and comfort of a couple to whom he referred as his ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’. There was little danger of emotional or intellectual stagnation for Hester, because the magnet of Johnson attracted Turk's Head members and other distinguished figures to her dining-table and tea-urn. Johnson presided with Hester Thrale over this new Streatham salon, which she saw as ‘a sort of Receptacle for Wits & Writers’, and Thrale's library was subsequently adorned with portraits he commissioned Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint of their eminent guests: Oliver Goldsmith, Garrick, Burke, the philosopher and poet James Beattie, the Italian scholar Joseph Baretti, Sir Robert Chambers, Vinerian professor of law at Oxford, Reynolds himself. Membership of the Thrale coterie betokened social and cultural arrival; having made his reputation as a historian of music, Charles Burney was delighted at his invitation, and so was his daughter Frances when critical acclaim of her Evelina, or, A Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778) secured her entrée into what had earlier been an almost exclusively male preserve. Hester became acquainted with the influential Elizabeth Montagu as her coterie rivalled that of the lively ‘queen of the blues’ in celebrity.Thraliana effectively constitutes the first English collection of anecdotes of friends, the famous, and the obscure, poems, treasures of wit culled from books or conversation, random thoughts on a multitude of topics, fragments of lived experience: in short, the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary. The six leather-bound volumes, the gift of Thrale, represented more than a safe and secure repository; they became a confidante as she recorded the history and development of her family.Thraliana, 1.313). As she continues: ‘Women have a manifest Advantage over Men in the doing Business; every thing smooths down before them’; her spirit and common sense had saved the brewery, but her eighth child lived only ten hours.
Meanwhile Hester's mother was dying of cancer at Streatham and her husband's womanizing in the Borough was featuring in the Westminster Magazine; it was beyond Hester's powers to ‘smooth down’ such scandal, which spread to indecent insinuation concerning her own relationship with Johnson. While Hester was tending Mrs Salusbury and consulting physicians, the appallingly self-centred Johnson reprimanded her for neglecting him; with characteristic patience and tact she recommended him to take his long-planned trip to the Hebrides: ‘I believe Mr. Boswell will be at last your best Physician’.
In the summer of 1774, her domestic tragedies temporarily put behind her, Hester set out on a tour of Wales in the company of her husband, her ten-year-old eldest daughter, and Johnson. Her ardent hopes of impressing the men in her life with the beauties of her homeland seemed doomed to failure; Wales, it would seem, could not measure up to the western islands. Memories of emotional security contrasted all too strongly with present feelings of being unloved. She attempts to reconcile these personal difficulties in her journal of the tour, in which conventional travel narrative is overshadowed by self-analysis. Her motherland focuses her sadness at the recent loss of her mother and the death of her favourite daughter, the four-year-old Lucy, her maternal concern for her eldest daughter's health, her lack of female companionship, and her isolation and vulnerability. Johnson and Thrale, she wrote, ‘have too much philosophy for me. One cannot disburthen one's mind to people who are watchful to cavil, or acute to contradict before the sentence is finished’ (‘Journal of a tour to Wales’, Broadley, 193–4).
‘Notwithstanding the Disgust my last Journey gave me’, Hester soon had the preparations in hand for another; this time to the continent with the addition of Baretti as a knowledgeable guide, and a maidservant to help care for her daughter. The party set out in September 1775 and the ‘French journal’, in its increasingly confident balance of the subjective and the objective, the personal and the documentary, represents a further experiment in the genre of travel writing. Plans for a third tour—to Italy—where Hester might further indulge her passion for the Italian masters were abandoned on account of a further domestic emergency, the illness of the Thrales' only son and male heir. The sudden death, on 23 March 1776, of the nine-year-old Harry subjected the mother to a distracted grief which intensified her concerns for the health of her remaining children, subject, as she came to see it, to some inherited taint of the Thrale blood. Thrale was submerged in a black melancholy, recurrent bouts of which were exacerbated by venereal disease, and only alleviated by hunting parties, extravagance, a suicidal over-indulgence at the table, and flirtation with the beautiful scholar of Greek, Miss Sophia Streatfeild. The demise of the ‘Southwark Macaroni’, at the age of fifty-two and after a series of strokes, came as little surprise; the simple statement ‘Mr Thrale died on the 4th April 1781’ was written on an otherwise blank page of Thraliana.Elphinstone, Hester Maria]—aptly nicknamed Queeney—and the violent opposition of Johnson, whose ill health increased his self-absorption, and to the dismay of almost all her fashionable and bluestocking friends, she married the Italian musician Gabriel Mario Piozzi (1740–1809). Having ‘married the first Time to please my Mother’, she came close to avoiding marriage to please her daughter, but ultimately she determined to brave society's prejudice against an Italian, Roman Catholic singer husband. They were married in London by a Catholic priest on 23 July, and two days later in an Anglican service at St James's, Bath. Hester Lynch Piozzi not only secured her own happiness but also, free from the inhibiting presence of Johnson (‘in Johnson's intellect mine was swallowed up and lost’), found her own feet as a writer.
With Piozzi she travelled for three years through France, Italy, and Germany, her creativity nurtured not so much by contentment as by determination to answer the malicious reports circulating at home, and to establish ‘that I was not lost to the world’. She contributed some poems and the preface to the influential Florence Miscellany (1785) in collaboration with the ‘Della Cruscan’ poets, Robert Merry, William Parsons, and Bertie Greatheed. Her preface celebrated the self-conscious sensibility of these literati in exile, placing less emphasis upon the liberal politics which united the group with Italian patriots. In many ways, however, the continent proved a personal and cultural liberation, suggesting answers to the question of how femininity is constructed when divorced from domesticity. Learning in Milan of Johnson's death, Hester was removed from the accusations of Mrs Montagu and others that she had shortened his life (she was blamed for deserting her maternal duties to her daughters and to Johnson), and provided with the necessary distance to produce a critical perspective on the great man. She completed her first book, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786), a candid and generically ground-breaking biography, which sold out on the first day of publication. The English Review judged Mrs Piozzi's the best ‘of the nine lives of this giant in learning’ (6, 1786, 255), and Peter Pindar (Dr Walcot) capitalized upon public fascination with the feuding biographers in his popular and pointed lampoon ‘Bozzy and Piozzi, a town eclogue’ (1786). Although some contemporary critics accused her of a self-justifying stress upon Johnson's foibles and failings, Hannah More's recognition that this was ‘new-fashioned biography’ has been endorsed by modern criticism, which sees her as anticipating Boswellian biographical innovation (his Life of Johnson was published in 1791) while supplying an irreverent corrective.
For a decade Hester had been Johnson's principal correspondent, and it was natural that she should wish to produce an edition of his letters. This project necessitated her return to England in March 1787 to retrieve those she had deposited in a bank vault and to collect others from mutual friends. Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson (1788), representing the first publication and canonization of a large body of his correspondence (some 338 letters), also sold well, attracting some justified abuse from Boswell, who detected some manipulative editing, and less deserved rancour from the disgruntled Baretti. Arthur Murphy declared that the edition revealed the great man ‘in the undress of his mind’ (Monthly Review, 78, 1778, 326), and her editorial practice has largely been vindicated by modern editors who reserve their disapproval for the self-conscious over-dressing of her own revised letters to Johnson.
Having been satirized as a diminutive creature riding to literary acclaim on the gigantic shoulders of Johnsonian erudition, Hester herself was only too aware of the anxiety of influence. In the entertaining and important travel journal Observations and Reflections made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789), her first work not to fall under the long shadow of Johnson, she built upon previous experimentation by using an authoritative but conversational discourse, alive with present-tense immediacy, to erode the barriers between diary and travel narrative. Her delight in Piozzi and in Italy was everywhere apparent in the materials she included in this development of the genre, which subverted masculine tropes of the grand tourist as disillusioned and hard to please. Sympathetically depicting Italian life as a ‘demi-naturalized’ wife, she substituted involvement for prejudice, and satirized (as a Welshwoman) the English habit of ridiculing that which it finds disconcertingly unfamiliar. By the middle of July the queen was reading Observations and Reflections to Frances Burney to their mutual delight.
Hester had her Streatham house redecorated in Italianate splendour in 1790 to house a renovated coterie including continental guests such as Ippolito Pindemonte, loyal friends of former days, and newer acquaintances such as Samuel Rogers the poet, the novelist sisters Harriet and Sophia Lee, Hannah More, Mrs Garrick, and the celebrated Mrs Siddons. Despite her radical politics, Helen Maria Williams was a frequent visitor. Hester's friendship with Sarah Siddons and John Kemble, and her experience of composing dramatical prologues and epilogues, encouraged her desire to write a play. These efforts turned out to be something of a blind theatrical alley. She produced two unpublished plays: ‘The Adventurer: a Comedy in Two Acts’ (c.1790), which contained some brilliant dialogue but was burdened with a clumsy and vapid plot; and ‘The Two Fountains, in the Manner of Milton's Comus’ (1789), an untheatrical dramatic poem, a revision of Johnson's fairy tale ‘The Fountains’. Having always shunned the novel as a genre which submerged women, as authors, readers, or characters, in a sentimental dream, she came to realize that her real strength lay in non-fictional prose; her aspirations were towards history and philology. Her sustained interest in languages, etymology, word play, and punning eventually bore fruit in British Synonymy, or, An Attempt at Regulating the Choice of Words in Familiar Conversation (1794). An ambitious work, recalling in its preface her own Welsh origins, it specifically addressed itself to those who, like her husband, found English taxing:
if I can in the course of this little work dispel a doubt, or clear up a difficulty to foreigners, who can alone be supposed to know less of the matter than myself,—I shall have an honour to boast, and like my countryman Glendower in Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth, have given our tongue an helpful ornament.Her modest disclaimers and the protestations of ignorance remind us that she was acutely aware of encroaching into a male-dominated genre. Her deprecations seem to have done the trick with the British Critic, whose reviewer adjudged it ‘the best, if not the first, imitation of Abbé Girard's celebrated work on Synonymous Words’. Its discriminating definitions and characteristic excursions offer real insights into an eighteenth-century mind, and the kind of entertainment wholly absent from a dictionary of synonyms. Mrs Piozzi is ever anxious to vilify the French revolutionaries, and those elements such as dissenters, Paine-ites, or freethinkers whom she sees as attempting to further republicanism and foment revolution.Three Warnings to John Bull, 1798, focus upon the need for the rational and moral woman to aid national defence of mixed government); her good works with the poor (offering soup, or charity, or Hannah More's Village Politics which she had translated into Welsh); and, by no means least, her journal writing, which she continued to the very last.
Hester Piozzi's last major published work, Retrospection (1801), was based upon a novel and timely conception: to publish at the opening of the nineteenth century an anecdotal abridgement of the last eighteen hundred years. Although this was a work aimed at the general reader, she was conscious that in some ways she had overreached herself ‘in undertaking a Work wch. should be written in All Souls College Oxford’. Some of the reviews panned the book as ‘a series of dreams by an old lady’, or ‘history in dimity’; obviously she had once more intruded into what was perceived as a masculine genre. Her single female predecessor as historian was Catharine Macaulay, but Piozzi's principles were diametrically opposed to the republican line of Macaulay. Denying the optimism of whig progressivism, she provides an original and revisionary response to Gibbon's ‘infidel’ History. Retrospection proved a critical and commercial failure, but it has since been seen as a feminist history, concerned to show changes in manners and mores in so far as they affected women; it has also been judged to anticipate Marxian history in its keen apprehension of reification: ‘machines imitated mortals to unhoped perfection, and men found out they were themselves machines’.Thraliana: ‘my second Husbands Death is the last Thing recorded in my first husband's present! Cruel Death!’ The devastated Hester channelled her energies into arrangements for the naturalization and education of John Salusbury Piozzi, her husband's nephew whom they had adopted in 1798. Determined to make him her heir and continue the Salusbury line, in 1814 she generously made over Brynbella and all her Welsh property to her nephew as a wedding gift, establishing herself at Bath in somewhat reduced circumstances. The glamour of her connections and anecdotes continued to make her the centre of a circle of admirers including the writer Edward Mangin, and Sir James Fellowes, a retired naval doctor, both thirty years her junior, who became deeply attached to her. Perhaps unwisely, they encouraged her unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher for ‘Lyford Redivivus, or, A grandame's garrulity’, an abstruse collection of proper names with conjectural etymologies; as in British Synonymy her philological scholarship was seriously flawed. The devoted attentions of a young, unsuccessful actor, William Augustus Conway, compensated her for the coolness of her alienated daughters and the jealousy of her mercenary heir. Once more an impulsive search for affection was to create scandal; her effusive letters to her ‘Chevalier’ Conway were the subject of deliberate and salacious misinterpretation after her death. Hester's seventy-ninth birthday (she counted it her eightieth) was lavishly celebrated in January 1820 at the assembly rooms where over 600 guests admired the undiminished vigour of her intellect and the ‘astonishing elasticity’ of her dancing. Such expense dictated a year's retirement in economical Penzance, and it was on her return from this self-imposed exile that she suffered a serious fall. ‘[A]lways a blue’, she quipped, ‘now a black and blue’ (Autobiography, 2.462), but complications set in, and she died at 10 Sion Row, Clifton, on 2 May 1821. Two weeks later, on 16 May, she was laid to rest, according to her expressed desire, beside her dear Piozzi in the vault of Tremeirchion church in the Vale of Clwyd.
Modern criticism might be reluctant to underwrite Frances Burney's eulogistic comparison of Hester Piozzi with her other celebrated friend and salonnière Germaine de Staël, in terms of intellectual superiority, conversational brilliance, impulsive daring, ‘sportive gaiety’, and faulty morality (Journals and Letters, 9.208–9). Nevertheless her innovative writings and genre experimentation betray a refusal to accept the restrictions on female authors in her time, and her published works, traditionally of more specialized interest to Johnsonists and cultural historians, have a new and sympathetic audience as she is reassessed by contemporary feminism.
Michael J. Franklin
Thraliana: the diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (later Mrs. Piozzi), 1776–1809, ed. K. C. Balderston, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1951) · J. L. Clifford, Hester Lynch Piozzi, 2nd edn (1987) · W. McCarthy, Hester Thrale Piozzi (1985) · Autobiography, letters and literary remains of Mrs Piozzi, ed. A. Hayward, 2 vols. (1861) · A. M. Broadley, Doctor Johnson and Mrs Thrale (1910) · The Piozzi letters, ed. E. A. Bloom and L. D. Bloom (New Jersey, 1989–) · M. W. Brownley, ‘“Under the dominion of some woman”: the friendship of Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale’, Mothering the mind, ed. R. Perry and M. W. Brownley (New York, 1984) · T. A. Dougal, ‘“Strange farrago of public, private follies”: Piozzi, diary and the travel narrative’, The Age of Johnson, 10 (1999), 195–218 · M. Hyde, The Thrales of Streatham Park (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977) · F. A. Nussbaum, ‘Eighteenth-century women's autobiographical commonplaces’, The private self: theory and practice of women's autobiographical writings, ed. S. Benstock (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1988) · Memoirs of Dr. Burney, 3 vols. (1832) · The journals and letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D'Arblay), ed. J. Hemlow and others, 12 vols. (1972–84)
Col. U. · Four Oaks Farm, Somerville, New Jersey, Hyde collection · Harvard U., literary journals · Hunt. L., letters · JRL, corresp., literary MSS, and papers · NL Wales, Bachegraig estate papers, incl. diaries and corresp. · Princeton University Library, New Jersey, letters · Trinity Cam., literary notes · Yale U., Beinecke L., letters | Bath Central Library, letters to Sophy Pugh · BL, corresp. with her daughter and others, RP 812, 5318 · BL, letters to Charles Burney and his family, M/440 · BL, corresp. with Frances Burney, Egerton MS 3695, RP 5318 · BL, letters to Alexander Leak, M/572, RP 766 [copies] · BL, letters to Clement Mead, RP 293 [copies] · Harvard U., Houghton L., letters, mainly to Mr and Mrs Edward Mangin · Herts. ALS, letters to Rice family of Tooting · JRL, letters to Williams family of Bodelwyddan · NL Wales, corresp. with Hugh Griffith · NL Wales, letters to John Lloyd · Som. ARS, letters to Sanford family · V&A NAL, letters to Williams family
W. Hogarth, oils, 1758–1759 (The lady's last stake), Buffalo Fine Arts Academy · R. Cosway, miniature, c.1780, Ransom HRC · J. Reynolds, double portrait, oils, c.1781 (Mrs Thrale and her daughter Hester (Queeney)), Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick · Italian school, oils, c.1785, NPG · J. Sayers, caricature, etching, pubd 1786 (The biographers), NPG · J. Sayers, caricature, etching, pubd 1788, NPG; [for 2nd edn of Dr Johnson's Letters] · G. Dance, pencil drawing, 1793, NPG · J. Jackson, drawing, 1810, Dr Johnson's House, London [see illus.] · miniature, 1811, Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield · S. T. Roche, miniature, 1817, NMG Wales · J. Thomson, engraving, 1820 (after Hopwood), Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library · T. Holloway, line engraving (after R. E. Pine), BM, NPG; repro. in European Magazine (1786) · H. Meyer, stipple (after J. Jackson), BM, NPG; repro. in Contemporary Portraits (1811)
Wealth at deathStreatham Park estate; various bequests totalling £500: Autobiography, ed. Hayward
Michael J. Franklin, ‘Piozzi , Hester Lynch (1741–1821)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22309, accessed 19 Jan 2009]