Hester (Lynch) Thrale Piozzi Essay - Critical Essays

Piozzi, Hester (Lynch) Thrale


Hester (Lynch) Thrale Piozzi 1741-1821

(Born Hester Lynch Salusbury; also known as Hester Lynch Thrale) English diarist, poet, letter writer, essayist, biographer, and historian.

Piozzi is known primarily for her close association with the English critic, poet, and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, about whom she wrote a biography, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1786); she also edited a collection of their correspondence, Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson (1788). A close friend of Fanny Burney's, Piozzi was well known in London literary and social circles. She was one of the first women to write in the genres of biography, history, and travel writing, and was also a competent poet whose works were anthologized during the eighteenth century. Her diaries—The Thrales of Streatham Park [Family Book] (1977) and Thraliana (1942)—which many critics rank among her most important literary achievements, contain a wealth of information about influential literary figures of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Though long neglected, Piozzi's literary achievements have undergone a reassessment during the twentieth century, and many scholars now consider her one of England's most important women writers of her period.

Biographical Information

Piozzi, born in Bodvel, Caernarvonshire, Wales on January 27, 1741, was the only child of John and Hester Salusbury, both of ancient Welsh lineage. Her parents had experienced financial difficulties throughout their lives, which forced them to rely heavily on John's younger brother, Sir Thomas Salusbury, for support. Piozzi's parents encouraged her from an early age to read extensively on her own; she later received more formal instruction from tutors. She once recalled that as a teenager she was continually submitting pseudonymous letters and poems to newspapers. Some of these early efforts were highly praised. Piozzi's mother was intent that her daughter secure her future through a prudent marriage and considered Henry Thrale, the son of a prosperous brewer, a suitable husband. Piozzi and Thrale were married on October 11, 1763, and remained together—dividing their time between their estate at Streatham and their home in Southwark—in a relatively happy marriage until Thrale's death in 1781. Piozzi gave birth to twelve children but only four, all daughters, lived to adulthood. At a dinner party in January, 1765, Piozzi met Samuel Johnson; the two quickly became close friends and at Johnson's urging worked together on a translation of the Roman philosopher Boethius. After suffering a series of nervous breakdowns in 1766, Johnson moved to Streatham, where he remained a guest of the Thrale's for the next sixteen years. Piozzi became Johnson's confidante during this time and aided him through fits of depression. With Johnson's encouragement, she published some of her poems; one of these, "The Three Warnings"—a comic poem about a conversation between Death and a farmer—became a popular anthology piece and appeared in 1770 in Poems by Several Hands with Piozzi listed for the first time as the poem's author. Johnson also encouraged her to keep a diary. These writings were posthumously published as The Thrales of Streatham Park [Family Book] and Thraliana.

In July, 1784, Piozzi married Gabriel Piozzi, an Italian musician, and left England for Italy. Her daughters and friends, including Johnson, opposed the marriage, as Gabriel was a commoner as well as a foreigner. Johnson died later that year, and Piozzi soon thereafter began work on a biography, published as Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D, as well as a collection of Johnson's letters to her, entitled Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson. Her work predated James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by four years. Boswell and Piozzi, always rivals for Johnson's friendship, had never been friends. Boswell heavily criticized Piozzi's Anecdotes and wrote a scathing portrait of her in his biography of Johnson. Critics note that Boswell's charge of inaccuracy has persistently and negatively impacted Piozzi's literary reputation. Following her works on Johnson, Piozzi published four more books, including a book on her travels and a work of history. She and Gabriel returned to England in 1787 and later moved to an estate in Wales, where they lived until his death in 1809. Piozzi died on May 2, 1821.

Major Works

Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. is a loosely structured collection of anecdotes concerning Johnson's life and character. Piozzi's anecdotes often highlight Johnson's less amiable traits, yet she also extols his virtues. Critics have noted that her frank depiction of Johnson, including numerous personal details, was revolutionary for the period—most biographers at that time concentrated on the positive aspects of their subject's personality—and therefore a noteworthy contribution to the development of modern biography. Much of the information about Johnson in Anecdotes is not available from any other source. Johnson's long residence at Streatham, for instance, allowed Piozzi to portray her subject in a domestic setting; she also provided evidence which scholars have used to identify Johnson's minor poetry. Following the success of Anecdotes, which went through four editions in less than two months, Piozzi published a collection of letters that she and Johnson had exchanged. Evidence suggests, however, that Piozzi rewrote some of her letters before publication. Her next publication, Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789), combines an objective yet vibrant account of her tour through Europe following her marriage to Gabriel Piozzi with essays on moral and philosophical subjects. As in her earlier works, Piozzi deliberately wrote in an informal style, believing that the language of literature and everyday speech should not differ. British Synonymy (1794) is a dictionary of English usage which uses anecdotes and definitions to differentiate similar words. In Three Warnings to John Bull before He Dies (1798), Piozzi condemned the radical political ideas that were then current in France. Retrospection (1801), the last work she published during her lifetime, is a summary—intended for a general audience—of the world's history beginning with the birth of Christ. In her diaries, The Thrales of Streatham Park [Family Book] and Thraliana, Piozzi preserved an abundance of autobiographical information about herself as well as observations about the people she knew and the life-styles and attitudes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Covering a period from 1766 to 1809, these personal writings—which combine a variety of forms including anecdotes, verses, puns, witty sayings, and commentaries on nature, literature, and etymology—are remarkable for their vivid descriptions and insights. Patricia Meyer Spacks has remarked that the literary value of Thraliana "is its vivid revelation of a woman's psychology. The very lack of control in Mrs. Thrale's writing allows it to reveal the full ambiguity of her almost archetypal emotional experience: anger at her fate masked by protestation of virtue, the longing for love reinforcing the restrictions of society, since compliance might wrest approval from the world. Although the journal reveals little depth of self-knowledge, it delineates a self for the reader to know—a self poignantly confused by the impossibilities of its position."

Critical Reception

Favorable commentaries on Piozzi's works have centered on her contributions to Johnsonian scholarship; her relaxed, conversational writing style; her talent for brief, vivid descriptions; and her place in English literature as one of the first women to attempt works in the genres of grammar and history. Commentators have argued that her best work appears in the diaries and in the "observations" from her Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany. These writings highlight her wit and insights and do not depend on narrative organization, one of her weaknesses, for their impact. Another trait which marred her work's reception, particularly the Anecdotes and Retrospection, was her casual attitude toward dates and sources. Although Piozzi's biography of Johnson has suffered in comparison with Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, William McCarthy has noted that Piozzi had closer contact with Johnson and has argued that the two works "have different ambitions and different centers of gravity. Boswell's vision of Johnson is fundamentally comic; his physical distance from Johnson probably helped him achieve his comic vision. Hester's intense closeness to Johnson made that kind of detachment impossible. Where Boswell is able to relish Johnson as a genial father . .. Hester must struggle with eighteen years' accumulated resentment of him. Her portrait is dark."

Principal Works

Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., During the Last Twenty Years of His Life (biography) 1786

Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., to which are added some Poems never before Printed. Published from the Original MSS. in her Possession. 2 vols. [with Samuel Johnson] (letters and poetry) 1788

Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany. 2 vols. (travel essay) 1789

British Synonymy; or, an Attempt at Regulating the Choice of Words in Familiar Conversation. Inscribed, with Sentiments of Gratitude and Respect, to such of Her Foreign Friends as Have Made English Literature Their Peculiar Study. 2 vols. (dictionary) 1794

Three Warnings to John Bull before He Dies. By an Old Acquaintance of the Public (essay) 1798

Retrospection: or a Review of the Most Striking and Important Events, Characters, Situations, and Their Consequences, which the Last Eighteen Hundred Years Have Presented to the View of Mankind. 2 vols. (history) 1801

Autobiography, Letters, and Literary Remains of Mrs. Piozzi (Thrale). 2 vols. (letters) 1861

Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale (letters, poetry, and journals) 1910

The Intimate Letters of Hester Piozzi and Penelope Pennington, 1788-1821 (letters) 1914

The Letters of Mrs. Thrale (letters) 1926

The French Journals of Mrs. Thrale and Dr. Johnson (journals and letters) 1932

The Queeney Letters (letters) 1934

Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (Later Mrs. Piozzi), 1776-1809. 2 vols. (diary and poetry) 1942; revised edition, 1951

The Letters of Samuel Johnson, with Mrs. Thrale's Genuine Letters to Him. 3 vols. (letters) 1952

The Thrales of Streatham Park [Family Book] (diary) 1977

The Piozzi Letters: Correspondence of Hester Lynch Piozzi, 1784-1821 (formerly Mrs. Thrale). 3 vols. (letters) 1989-93


The London Review and Literary Journal (review date 1801)

SOURCE: A review of Retrospection, in The London Review and Literary Journal, March, 1801, pp. 188-90.

[In the excerpt below, the critic comments on Piozzi's Retrospection, finding fault with her grammar and her lack of a "regular series of dates. "]

Cicero somewhere observes—Historia quoque modo scripta delectat, " "History, in whatever manner it is written, gives delight." And this sentiment Mrs. Piozzi has adopted to the most extensive latitude, in the amusing medley she has compiled, chiefly, as she professes, "for the benefit of young beginners." For we defy the most learned Critic to decide, to what class of literature this pretty piece of...

(The entire section is 1501 words.)

Fanny Burney (letter date 1821)

SOURCE: "Madame D'Arblay, in a letter to Madame de Staël in May, 1821," in Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay (1778-1840), Volume VI, edited by Charlotte Barrett, Macmillan and Co., 1905, pp. 399-400.

[In the following excerpt from a collection of her diaries and letters, Burney (Madame D'Arblay) comments on Piozzi's character and compares her to Madame de Staël Holstein.]

I have lost now, just lost, my once most dear, intimate, and admired friend, Mrs. Thrale Piozzi,1 who preserved her fine faculties, her imagination, her intelligence, her powers of allusion and citation, her extraordinary memory, and her almost unexampled vivacity, to the last of her...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

The Atlantic Monthly (essay date 1861)

SOURCE: "Original Memorials of Mrs. Piozzi," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. VII, May, 1861, pp. 614-15.

[In the following excerpt, the anonymous critic comments on Piozzi's character, focusing in particular on her "animated manner" and her "charm" as the mistress of Streatham Park.]

(The entire section is 1266 words.)

George Saintsbury (essay date 1916)

SOURCE: "Letters, Diaries, and the Like," in The Peace of the Augustans: A Survey of Eighteenth Century Literature as a Place of Rest and Refreshment, G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1916, pp. 231-35.

[In the excerpt below, Saintsbury comments on Piozzi's character and her skills as a letter writer and diarist.]

The century is deservedly famous for letters, memoirs, and all the other more or less personal literature which France had initiated in its predecessor, and to give an account of them here from Hervey to Wraxall would be impossible, and at least proportionately out of place. Something, however, may be said, before coming to Gray and Cowper—the chiefs of the...

(The entire section is 1326 words.)

Alice Meynell (essay date before 1922)

SOURCE: "Hester," in Prose and Poetry, Jonathan Cape, 1947, pp. 198-205.

[In the following excerpt, Meynell remarks on Piozzi's marriages, social life, and literary style, finding that she had "all the interest belonging of right to a woman altogether of her time. "]

Too much contemporary literature tampered with the history of Mrs. Thrale. She was the victim of end-of-the-century styles. It was not only her Fanny Burney that made her the subject of a first manner, a second manner, and a third manner. She was the object of Dr. Johnson, in letters that were to be preserved; but she was also his topic, in talk that would have been better forgotten. It was reported to her...

(The entire section is 2985 words.)

S. C. Roberts (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: An introduction to Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., during the last twenty years of his Life, by Hesther Lynch Piozzi, edited by S. C. Roberts, Cambridge at the University Press, 1925, pp. xxxvii-1.

[In the excerpt below, Roberts provides an overview of Piozzi's writings.]

At an early age, Hester Salusbury had an itch for writing:

It was then, too, when I was about thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen years old, that I took a fancy to write in the "St James's Chronicle," unknown to my parents and my tutor too: it was my sport to see them reading, studying, blaming or praising their own little whimsical girl's...

(The entire section is 3314 words.)

James L. Clifford (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Piozzi's Letters," in Essays on the Eighteenth Century: Presented to David Nichol Smith in Honour of His Seventieth Birthday, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1945, pp. 155-67.

[In the following essay, Clifford discusses the content and style of Piozzi's letters, concluding that "few can read her letters without gaining an intimate knowledge of the woman herself."]

Ί have for this week past been employing my Mind in the recollection of all the civil Things that ever were said in Praise of my Merit as a Letter writer.' So wrote Hester Lynch Salusbury, a young lady of 22, in 1763. Nearly two hundred years later we are still interested in this same lady and...

(The entire section is 5447 words.)

Herbert Barrows (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: An introduction to Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey Through France, Italy, and Germany, by Hester Lynch Piozzi, edited by Herbert Barrows, University of Michigan Press, 1967, pp. vii-xxx.

[In the following essay, Barrows remarks on the relevancy of Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany to modern readers, noting Piozzi's style and the wealth of information she provided.]

Mrs. Miller has been in Italy too, & has written her Travels; and brought home a fine Vase which once belonged I think She says either to Cicero or Virgil I forget which. . . ....

(The entire section is 9421 words.)

Arthur Snerbo (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: An introduction to Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Late Dr. Samuel Johnson, by William Shaw, and Anecdotes of the Late Samueljohnson, LL.D. During the Last Twenty Years of His Life, by Hesther Lynch Piozzi, edited by Arthur Sherbo, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. x-xiv.

[In the following excerpt, Sherbo discusses Piozzi's biography of Johnson and the circumstances of its publication.]

As early as 1768 when Johnson advised her to 'get a little Book' in which to write all the anecdotes and observations that might strike her fancy, Mrs. Piozzi (then Mrs. Thrale) began to devote herself to recording her friend's conversation and whatever she could...

(The entire section is 1812 words.)

Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Finger Posts," in The Female Imagination, Alfred A. Knopf, 1975, pp. 197-207.

[In the following excerpt, Spacks focuses on Piozzi's Thraliana and concludes that the work's literary merit "is its vivid revelation of a woman's psychology. "]

The eleven hundred pages of text in Hester Thrale's Thraliana have attracted the attention mostly of those interested in people other than the author. Rich in varied anecdotes about Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, Fanny Burney and her father, they provide a capsule social history of middle-class life in the second half of the eighteenth century. They also compose an intricate self-portrait, probably more...

(The entire section is 4587 words.)

Edward A. Bloom, Lillian D. Bloom, and Joan E. Klingel (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Portrait of a Georgian Lady: The Letters of Hester Lynch (Thrale) Piozzi, 1784-1821," in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 304-30.

[In the following excerpt, the critics present a portrait of Piozzi's character based on her letters and diaries.]

Often too quick to take offence, Mrs. Piozzi never suffered from an excess of humility. Even in admitting mistaken judgements, she rarely denigrated herself. At the same time that she wrote her letters, she appraised their worth as literary and historical documents, as testimonials of an unrewarded virtue, that cried out—she assumed—for preservation and publication....

(The entire section is 9560 words.)

Martine Watson Brownley (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "'Under the Dominion of Some Woman': The Friendship of Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale," in Mothering the Mind: Twelve Studies of Writers and Their Silent Partners, edited by Ruth Perry and Martine Watson Brownley, Holmes and Meier, 1984, pp. 64-79.

[In the essay below, Brownley examines the relationship between Piozzi and Samuel Johnson.]

In English literary history, the later eighteenth century is known as the Age of Johnson, after Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the most famous literary figure of the time. In addition to his monumental Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson was known for his poems, his periodical essays, the short fictional...

(The entire section is 6553 words.)

William McCarthy (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "A Candle-Light Picture: Anecdotes of Johnson," in Hester Thrale Piozzi: Portrait of a Literary Woman, University of North Carolina Press, 1985, pp. 97-132.

[In the following excerpt, McCarthy discusses Piozzi's Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. and compares the book with James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson.]

A transition from an author's books to his conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples, and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendor, grandeur, and magnificence; but, when we have passed the gates, we...

(The entire section is 10948 words.)

William McCarthy (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Repression of Hester Lynch Piozzi; or, How We Forgot a Revolution in Authorship," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 99-111.

[In the following essay, McCarthy discusses Piozzi's stature among literary scholars and remarks on the revival of interest in her works as fueled by feminist criticism.]

Let me introduce my subject with a bit of dialogue, a very short dialogue in which I was fairly often engaged seven or eight years ago:

A Colleague (to me): Who are you writing about?
I: Hester Lynch Piozzi.

(Blank look.)

I (trying to be...

(The entire section is 6049 words.)

Further Reading


Clifford, James L. Hester Lynch Piozzi (Mrs. Thrale). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952, 493 p.

Standard biography.

Hyde, Mary. The Impossible Friendship: Boswell and Mrs. Thrale. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972, 188 p.

Examines the relationship between James Boswell, Piozzi, and her first husband, Henry Thrale, through their written correspondence and their experiences with one another.

—. The Thrales ofStreatham Park. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977, 373 p.


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