An excerpt from Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Johnson’s ‘Dear Mistress.’
Hester was almost entirely taken up with nursing her mother. Dr. Johnson, left alone for long hours of the day, brooded on his own infirmities. Unable to read, he killed time by writing Latin verses. Then, although they were living under the same roof, he took up his pen and composed a letter to Hester.
He chose to write it in French. Possibly he feared it might fall into the hands of a servant. More probably he could not bring himself to clothe what he wished to say in the rolling English periods with which he normally expressed himself. Because this was no normal letter. He begins with an oblique complaint of neglect. As he is obliged to spend several hours of each day dans une profonde solitude, he wishes to know whether he is permitted to roam freely, or whether he is required to remain “within prescribed limits”. If he is still thought worthy, as formerly, of her care and protection, he asks her to write him a note defining what is permitted and what is forbidden to him. If it is her wish that he remain in a particular place, he begs her to spare him ‘the necessity of constraining himself’. If her judgement and vigilance are to come to the aid of his weakness, he declares, il faut agir tout a fait en Maîtresse.
Read more about Hester Thrale’s life by Ian McIntyre.
As he moves towards a conclusion, he sounds an extended note of reproach. Is it too much to ask that she, mistress of others, should also be mistress of herself? He levels accusations of inconstancy, of broken promises. Finally, addressing her as ‘my Mistress’— ma patronne—he expresses a wish: “that you should hold me in that bondage which you know so well how to render agreeable”— que vous me tiennez dans l’esclavage que vou[s] sçavez si bien rendre heureuse.
Almost a century would pass before the publication of a novel called Venus im Pelz (Venus in Furs), which tells the story of Severin von Kusiemski, a man so infatuated with a beautiful widow called Wanda that he asks to be treated as her slave, urging her to treat him in increasingly degrading and humiliating ways. It was by a writer called Sacher-Masoch, a native of Austro-Hungary. In all his writing he drew heavily on his own fantasies and fetishes, although he was not best pleased when the psychiatrist Krafft-Ebbing appropriated half of his name to coin the word masochism.
The word was new, but the perversion was not. There are scenes of masochism in Otway’s Venice Preserved; it informs the character of the Chevalier Des Grieux in Prévost’s Manon Lescaut and runs like a thread through Rousseau’s Confessions. Krafft-Ebbing, with Johnson’s letter before him, would certainly have thought it worth a footnote. Hester’s reply was at once patient, tender, generous and perceptive; she found English quite adequate to her purpose:
What Care can I promise my dear Mr. Johnson that I have not already taken? What Tenderness that he has not already experienced? … If it be possible shake off these uneasy Weights, heavier to the Mind by far than Fetters to the body. Let not your fancy dwell thus upon Confinement and Severity. I am sorry you are obliged to be so much alone; I foresaw some ill Consequences of your being here while my Mother was dying thus; yet could not resist the temptation of having you near me, but if you find this irksome and dangerous Idea fasten upon your fancy, leave me to struggle with the loss of one Friend, and let me not put to hazard what I esteem beyond Kingdoms, and value beyond the possession of them.
She knew of the long-projected Highland jaunt with Boswell, and ended on a shrewdly practical note: “Dissipation is to you a glorious medicine, and I believe Mr .Boswell will be at last your best Physician.” Then this beautifully judged, gently ironical envoi: “I will detain you no longer, so farewell and be good; and do not quarrell with your Governess for not using the Rod enough—“
Mrs. Salusbury died shortly after this remarkable exchange. She had remained calm and lucid to the end—“and even kept her powers of delighting by her humour”, Hester wrote: “on my enquiring how She did—She replied in allusion to the old Story of the Irishman— “not dead but speechless.”’ On the morning of 18 June, Hester saw that life was ebbing away and sent for her husband:
I then called up Mr. Johnson, who when he felt her Pulse wonder’d at its Vigor but when he observed the dimness of her Eyes and universal languor, he leaned on the bed, kissed her Cheek, & said in his emphatical Way – May God bless you Dear madam for Jesus Christ’s Sake. At these Words She looked up and smiled with a sweet Intelligence that expressed Hope, Friendship & Farewell.
For a brief moment, the great man-child Hester had taken into her care assumed the role of father.