Hester (Lynch) Thrale Piozzi Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."