Boswell's Life of Johnson (1904)/Volume 1/Appendix F

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Johnson's First Acquaintance with the Thrales and his Serious Illness

(Page 567.)

Johnson (Pr. and Med. p. 191) writes:—'My first knowledge of Thrale was in 1765.' a letter to Mrs. Thrale, he says:—'You were but five-and-twenty when I knew you first." (Piozzi Letters, i. 284.) As she was born on Jan. 1627, 1741, this would place their introduction in 1766. In another letter, written on July 8, 1784, he talks of her 'kindness which soothed twenty years of a life radically wretched.' (lb. ii. 376.) Perhaps, however, he here spoke in round numbers. Mrs. Piozzi (Anec. p. 125) says they first met in 1764. Mr. Thrale, she writes, sought an excuse for inviting him. 'The celebrity of Mr. Woodhouse (post, ii. 146), a shoe- maker, whose verses were at that time the subject of common discourse, soon afforded a "pretence." 'There is a notice of Woodhouse in the Gent. Mag. for June 1764 (p. 289). Johnson, she says, dined with them every Thursday through the winter of 1764-5, and in the autumn of 1765 followed them to Brighton. In the Piozzi Letters (i. i) there is a letter of his, dated Aug. 13, 1765, in which he speaks of his intention to join them there.

'From that time,' she writes, 'his visits grew more frequent till, in the year 1766, his health, which he had always complained of, grew so exceedingly bad, that he could not stir out of his room in the court he inhabited for many weeks together, I think months. Mr. Thrale's attentions and my own now became so acceptable to him, that he often lamented to us the horrible condition of his mind, which, he said, was nearly distracted: and though he charged us to make him odd solemn promises of secrecy on so strange a subject, yet when we waited on him one morning, and heard him, in the most pathetic terms, beg the prayers of Dr. Delap [the Rector of Lewes] who had left him as we came in, I felt excessively affected with grief, and well remember my husband involuntarily lifted up one hand to shut his mouth, from provocation at hearing a man so widely proclaim what he could at last persuade no one to believe; and what, if true, would have been so unfit to reveal. Mr. Thrale went away soon after, leaving me with him, and bidding me prevail on him to quit his close habitation in the court, and come with us to Streatham, where I undertook the care of his health, and had the honour and happiness of contributing to its restoration.'

It is not possible to reconcile the contradiction in dates between Johnson and Mrs. Piozzi, nor is it easy to fix the time of this illness. That before February 1766, he had had an illness so serious as to lead him altogether to abstain from wine is beyond a doubt. Boswell, on his return to England in that month, heard it from his own lips (post, ii. 9). That this illness must have attacked him after March 1. 1765, when he visited Cambridge, is also clear: for at that time he was still drinking wine (ante. Appendix Q). That he was unusually depressed in the spring of this year is shewn by his entry at Easter (ante. p. 564). From his visit to Dr. Percy in the summer of 1764 (ante, p. 562) to the autumn of 1765. we have very little information about him. For more than two years he did not write to Hoswell (post, ii. 1). Dr. Adams (ante, p. 559) describes the same kind of attack as Mrs. Piozzi. Its date is not given. Boswell, after quoting an entry made on Johnson's birthday, Sept. 18, 1764, says 'about this time he was afflicted' with the illness Dr. Adams describes. From Mrs. Piozzi, from Johnson's account to Boswell, and from Dr. Adams we learn of a serious illness. Was there more than one? If there was only one, then Boswell is wrong in placing it before March 1, 1765, when Johnson was still a wine-drinker, and Mrs. Piozzi is wrong in placing it after Februar)^ 1766, when he had become an abstainer. Johnson certainly stayed at Streatham from before Mid-summer to October in 1766 (post, ii. 28, and Pr. and Med. p. 71), and this fact lends support to Mrs. Piozzi's statement. But, on the other hand, his meetings with Boswell in February of that year, and his letters to Langton of March 9 and May 10 (post, ii. 18, 19 ). shew a not unhappy frame of mind. Boswell. in his Hebrides (Oct 16. 1773) speaks of Johnson's illness in 1766. If it was in 1766 that he was ill, it must have been after May 10 and before Midsummer-day, and this period is almost too brief for Mrs. Piozzi's account. It is a curious coincidence that Cowper was introduced to the Unwins in the same year in which Johnson, according to his own account, had his first knowledge of the Thrales. (Southey's Cowper, i, 171.)