The author of a new biography about Hester Thrale on why Dr. Johnson's leading lady was a thoroughly modern eighteenth century woman.
I kept bumping into Hester Thrale when I was working on earlier biographies–of David Garrick, the celebrated eighteenth-century actor, and of Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy. Her friendship with Samuel “Dictionary” Johnson was certainly important, but it lasted for only 16 years, and Hester lived to be 80. There was clearly more to explore.
Married off to Henry Thrale, a rich, priapic brewer, she bore him twelve children, of whom only four survived into adult life. When he died, she scandalized her daughters, Johnson, and fashionable London by marrying Gabriel Piozzi, whose offense was that he was a musician, a foreigner and a Roman Catholic. The rupture with Johnson was painful, but she came to see it as a liberation. “In Johnson’s intellect,” she wrote, “mine was swallowed up and lost.”
Read an erotic love letter from Samuel Johnson to Thrale, an excerpt of Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Johnson’s ‘Dear Mistress.’
Now she was free to find her own voice as a writer, and it seemed important to examine in greater depth her literary identity—as the first editor of Johnson’s letters, as an innovator in English biography, as only the third Englishwoman to write a travel book and only the second to attempt a large-scale work of history. She made bold incursions into traditionally male territory.
When she was widowed a second time, her interest focused increasingly on Piozzi’s nephew, whom they had adopted—a substitute for the son and heir who had died in infancy. She sent him to Oxford, where he “kept me in continual Terror lest the bad habits of the Place should ruin him, Body, Soul and Purse.” In the end it was her purse that suffered; by 1814 she had made over to him most of her fortune and settled in lodgings in Bath.
From there she poured out a flood of vivid letters, full of self-dramatization, bitterness, and self-pity—“hapless H.L.P,” “poor old superannuated H.L.P,” “the little Bundle of Black Rags at No. 8 Gay Street.” The letters she wrote to William Augustus Conway, a handsome but not very talented actor, afforded scope after her death for much salacious gossip. (Leslie Stephen, in the old DNB, would have none of it, opining briskly that they showed only “that she became silly in her old age.”) Silly, perhaps, but with her zest for life undiminished.
On her seventy-ninth birthday (she chose to count it her eightieth), a company of more than six hundred gathered at the Assembly Rooms. Hester—small, animated, highly rouged—opened the ball, and danced until the small hours “with astonishing elasticity.” A relic of a departed age, she became something of a tourist attraction: “So I am now grown one of the Curiosities of Bath it seems & one of the Antiquities.”
The expense of the celebrations drove her into debt. She went off to Penzance in search of sea bathing and inexpensive lodgings. “I continue to do what I came hither to perform,” she wrote to a friend, “eat cheap fish and pay old debts.” On her way back to civilization in the spring of 1821 she fell and suffered severe bruising. “Always a blue,” she wrote cheerfully, “now a black and blue.” But complication set in and she died early in May. She lies buried beside her beloved Piozzi at Tremeirchion church in the Vale of Clwyd.
Read an excerpt of Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Johnson’s ‘Dear Mistress.’