Piozzi, Hester Lynch (1741–1821)
Piozzi, Hester Lynch (1741–1821)
English-Welsh writer and intellectual who was second only to Boswell in fame among writers on Dr. Johnson. Name variations: Hester Lynch Thrale; Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi; Hester Salusbury; Mrs. Thrale; Mrs. Piozzi. Born in January 1741 in Carnarvonshire, Wales; died in May 1821 in Clifton, England; daughter of John Salusbury and Hester Maria Cotton; married Henry Thrale (a brewer), in October 1763 (died 1781); married Gabriel Piozzi (a musician), in July 1784 (died 1809); children: (first marriage) Hester Maria Elphinstone (1764–1857, known as Queeney); Frances (1765–1765); Henry (1767–1776); Anna Maria (b. 1768); Lucy (1769–1773); Susanna (b. 1770); Sophia (b. 1771); Penelope (b. 1772); Ralph (1773–1775); Frances Anna (b. 1775, died at 7 months); Cecilia (b. 1777); Henrietta (b. 1778); grandmother of Margaret Mercer Elphinstone (1788–1867).
Hester Lynch Piozzi was born into a genteel but impoverished English household in Carnarvonshire, Wales, in 1741, the only child of John Salusbury and Hester Maria Cotton . She was well educated by her parents and showed an early interest in literature and writing. Most of her childhood was spent living with her mother in the homes of various relations as her father tried unsuccessfully to seek his fortune in Wales, England, and Nova Scotia. After his death in 1762, Piozzi's mother and uncle, Sir Thomas Salusbury, arranged a marriage for her with the wealthy landowner and brewer Henry Thrale. Hester herself later recorded that she was not in love and did not want to marry Thrale, but simply obeyed her mother's wishes. They married in October 1763 and moved to Thrale's large estate
of Streatham Park in Southwark. Of the early years of her marriage, Hester recorded in her diary (published after her death as Thraliana) that she and Thrale lived "on terms of great civility and politeness, if not of strong alliance and connection."
In 1764, Hester Maria (Elphinstone ), the first of 12 children, was born and nicknamed Queeney. The next year, a second daughter was born but died a few days later. The year 1765 also saw the first election of Henry Thrale as a Conservative to Parliament, beginning his long political career. Hester enjoyed the excitement of campaigning, followed British politics closely, and worked tirelessly on her husband's behalf. When Queeney was two, her mother began a "family book" to record her daughter's progress and education. Piozzi had always kept personal diaries, but she began the family journal at the encouragement of her good friend, the English writer and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson. This book would expand as more Thrale children were born, detailing births, deaths, illnesses, learning, and other incidents of family life. Her commentaries are remarkably honest and forthright assessments of her family members, and show her to be a rational, caring but strict parent, and a dutiful but not affectionate wife. The Thrale family book stands today as a unique record of daily life in 18th-century England, especially since it was written by a woman.
Their first son, Henry, was born in 1767. Piozzi would continue to give birth to a child every year for the next nine years, which had a severe impact on her health. Her daily life was composed of caring for her many children (who suffered constantly from various childhood diseases), entertaining guests, and writing. She also educated her children herself, tutoring them in reading, grammar, geography, Latin, Greek, and mathematics. After 1772, Piozzi found herself running Thrale's brewery and caring for her sickly husband as well. In that year, the Thrales faced bankruptcy after Henry Thrale risked their prosperous brewery in some poor business ventures. He turned to Piozzi and Samuel Johnson for help; they took over its management and saved the family fortune.
After the crisis had passed, Hester found her husband permanently affected by the narrowly avoided financial disaster. It is possible that Henry Thrale suffered a stroke; previously a cheerful and hardworking man, he became, as the family book shows, withdrawn, irritable, and unwilling to retake control of the brewery. This was not the end of the burdens revealed in the family book, however; Piozzi was also nursing her aging mother, who was dying of cancer. It is remarkable that she found time to keep up entries in no less than five family journals; her writing was probably therapeutic.
In 1773, Piozzi's mother died, a loss followed soon after by the death of four-year-old Lucy Thrale. Of her mother, Hester wrote of having lost her best friend; indeed, her relationship with her mother had been the most intimate and loving of all of her personal relationships. The next year, she campaigned for Henry's second term in Parliament. As he was in poor health, he appeared in public only rarely, while Hester represented him to the voters. Leaving him in Southwark the following year, after the death of their son Ralph, Hester and her five surviving children traveled to France. During the trip her youngest daughter, Frances Anna, died at age seven months. More sadness followed in March 1776 when the Thrales' nine-year-old son Henry died. Piozzi's recording of these deaths shows her both grieved by and resigned to the loss of her children; of her ten children born by 1776, only three lived: Queeney, Susanna, and Sophia.
In 1778, Hester met the man who would become her second husband; Gabriel Piozzi, an Italian singer and musician from Brescia was hired to play at a dinner party she attended. When Henry Thrale's poor health took a turn for the worse, Hester suspected he had contracted a venereal disease from his mistress, the actress Sophia Streatfeild . Dutiful as always, however, Piozzi campaigned again for him in the next parliamentary elections, but his bid was unsuccessful. Henry grew steadily weaker; while caring for him during this final illness, Piozzi composed her compelling Three Dialogues on the Death of Hester Lynch Thrale, imaginary scenes inspired by the work of Jonathan Swift on how her family and friends would react to the news of her death. Henry Thrale died in April 1781, at age 52.
Piozzi grieved for the loss of the friendship and companionship she had shared with Henry for close to 20 years, and at the same time was deeply worried about her family's financial prospects. She sold the brewery; she had always felt that running such a business was beneath her, and welcomed the chance to be rid of it. As she put her affairs in order, Hester's constant companion was her friend Gabriel Piozzi, whom she had visited with occasionally since their first meeting. Their friendship gradually deepened until in 1783 Hester confessed to her daughters that she was in love and truly happy for the first time in her life.
Her daughters were shocked at what they perceived as Hester's betrayal of their father. They, along with Hester's friends, were more stunned the following year when Hester announced that she was going to marry Gabriel. Family and friends alike advised her not to remarry; they did not like Gabriel, who was not only a foreigner but of humble origins. Hester was most hurt by the opposition of her old friend Samuel Johnson, who wrote stern letters admonishing her for even considering such a match so soon after her widowhood.
Hester was adamant, however, and she and Gabriel were married in July 1784, after which they traveled to Italy for an extended honeymoon. While there, Hester compiled a collection of stories relating to Samuel Johnson, who had died in 1784, and sent them to a publisher friend in London. The collection was published in 1786 as Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson during the Last Twenty Years of his Life. The Piozzis returned to London in 1787; Hester records in Thraliana that her subsequent visits with her daughters, whom she had left on their own during her trip, were polite but lacked the closeness of earlier years. Hester was also coldly received in London society. She found herself the object of lurid cartoons in literary magazines ridiculing her for marrying so far beneath her, and was also the subject of editorials condemning her for her supposed mistreatment of her children.
Instead of returning to the social life she had known as Thrale's wife, Hester Piozzi turned to literary pursuits. She began work on an edition of the letters of Samuel Johnson; despite their conflict over Gabriel, Hester still admired her friend deeply and wanted to publish his correspondence as a tribute to him. This venture included traveling around England collecting Johnson's letters from his many correspondents, although some, like her own daughter Queeney, refused to give up their letters because of their condemnation of Hester herself. The volumes were published in 1788 to considerable success.
By November 1788, Piozzi had finished another manuscript, Journey Through France, Italy, and Germany. Based on her travel journals, this work was published to modest sales in 1789. The Piozzis turned then to building a villa on her farm in Wales and informally adopted Gabriel's young nephew, John Salusbury Piozzi (named in honor of Hester's father), to raise as their own son and heir. This adoption further estranged the couple from Hester's daughters, who feared for their inheritance rights.
Hester continued to produce new written works throughout the 1790s. In addition to her journals, which she never ceased to keep, she published British Synonymy, or an Attempt at Regulating the Choice of Words in Familiar Conversation (1794), on polite conversation, and Three Warnings to John Bull Before He Dies (1798), on the state of British politics. Her sixth book Retrospection, published in 1801, was a multi-volume narrative of world history written in celebration of the new century. Piozzi's prolific writings slowed down after its publication, and she spent the next few years quietly at her Welsh estate. In 1809, Gabriel Piozzi died at age 69 after a long struggle with gout. Hester was devastated, her despondence revealed by her inability to write more than a brief line in her journal for weeks following his death.
Her second widowhood did bring a temporary reconciliation with her daughters. She visited them in London, where she met their husbands and her small grandchildren. But she again caused their estrangement when she arranged her legal adoption of 16-year-old John Salusbury Piozzi in 1810, and wrote a will bequeathing virtually all of her property to him.
Piozzi's triumphant re-entrance into English society as a result of her books was demonstrated on her 80th birthday in January 1820 in Bath. Over 600 guests attended a concert and elaborate banquet in honor of the twice-widowed mother of 12 who had earlier given up acceptance in high society in exchange for love and personal happiness. A year later, Hester Lynch Piozzi summoned her daughters and made peace with them during her final illness in April 1821. She died on May 2, on a trip from Bath to Clifton.
Hyde, Mary. The Thrales of Streatham Park. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.
Piozzi, Hester Lynch Thrale. Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale, 1776–1809. Edited by Katherine Balderston. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.
Laura York , M.A., University of California, Riverside, California