Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Piozzi, Hester Lynch

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PIOZZI, HESTER LYNCH (1741–1821), friend of Dr. Johnson, was born on 16 Jan. 1740–1 at Bodvel, near Pwllheli, Carnarvonshire (Hayward, i. 40, ii. 321, 359). Her father, John Salusbury, was a descendant of Richard Clough [q. v.], from whom he inherited the estate of Bachycraig, Flintshire. He married his cousin, Hester Maria, sister of Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton, and had at this time run through his property and been compelled to retire to a small cottage in a remote district. He was patronised by Lord Halifax, who, on becoming president of the board of trade (October 1748), sent him out in some capacity to Nova Scotia. His wife, with Hester, their only child, had some time before gone to live at Lleweny Hall, Denbighshire, with her brother, Sir R. S. Cotton, a childless widower, who promised to provide for his niece, but died before making his will. After Salusbury's emigration they lived first with Mrs. Salusbury's mother, Lady Cotton, at East Hyde, near Luton, Bedfordshire; and afterwards with Sir Thomas (brother of John Salusbury, judge of the admiralty court), who had married the heiress of Sir Henry Penrice, and lived at Offley Hall, Hertfordshire. Hester was a clever and lively girl. She became a daring horsewoman, and learnt Latin—apparently not Greek (Hayward, i. 49, 114), though a knowledge both of Greek and Hebrew is attributed to her by Mangin—and modern languages from Dr. Collier, a civilian, to whom she became much attached. She wrote papers before she was fifteen in the ‘St. James's Chronicle.’ Her father, after fighting duels and ‘behaving perversely’ in Nova Scotia, had returned to England, and went to Ireland with Lord Halifax, who was made lord lieutenant in 1761. During his absence, Sir Thomas proposed a marriage between his niece and Henry Thrale. Thrale was the son of a native of Offley who had become a rich brewer, and had brought up his son and daughters ‘quite in a high style.’ Neither of the young people cared for the other, but the uncle's promises to make a settlement upon his niece on condition of the marriage decided Thrale and Mrs. Salusbury. Hester appealed to her father upon his return. He quarrelled with his brother, and took his wife and child to London. There he died suddenly in December 1762. His daughter seems to imply that his death was hastened by irritation at her proposed marriage to Thrale, and at Sir Thomas's own intention to marry a second wife. Her father being out of the way, Miss Salusbury was married to Thrale on 11 Oct. 1763. She declares that Thrale only took her because other ladies to whom he had proposed refused to live in the borough (ib. ii. 24). Thrale had also a house at Streatham Park (destroyed in 1863), and kept a pack of hounds and a hunting box near Croydon. Mrs. Thrale complains that she was not allowed to ride or to manage the household, and was thus driven to amuse herself with literature and her children. Thrale was a solid, respectable man, who apparently behaved kindly to his wife (see her ‘character’ of him, ib. ii. 188); but he gave her some real cause for jealousy. The famous intimacy with Johnson began at the end of 1764, and in 1765 (see Birkbeck Hill in Boswell's Johnson, i. 490, 520–2) Johnson was almost domesticated at Streatham. He accompanied the Thrales to Wales in 1774, and to France in 1775. Thrale was elected for Southwark in December 1765, and continued to represent the borough till the election of 1780, when he was defeated. Mrs. Thrale took part in writing addresses and canvassing the electors. In 1772 Thrale was brought into great difficulties by expenses incurred to carry out a scheme, suggested by a quack, for making beer ‘without malt or hops’ (Hayward, ii. 26). Mrs. Thrale raised money from her mother and other friends; and says that, although their debts then amounted to 130,000l., they were all paid off in nine years. She afterwards took an active part in the business, besides managing her estate in Wales (ib. i. 70). On 21 Feb. 1780 Thrale had an attack of apoplexy, which permanently weakened his mind. Mrs. Thrale had also been much vexed for some time by his flirtations with ‘Sophy Streatfield,’ a pretty widow (ib. i. 110), who is also described by Miss Burney and who appears to have made many other conquests. Thrale's incapacity, his extravagance, and over-indulgence in eating caused his wife much anxiety, and on 4 April 1781 he died of a second attack. The brewery was soon afterwards sold to the Barclays for 135,000l. Thrale, she says, had left 20,000l. to each of his five daughters, and she estimated her own income at 3,000l. a year, which, however, turned out to be considerably above the mark (ib. i. 168). She had had twelve children, of whom Henry, the only son, died on 23 March 1776. Her eldest daughter, Hester Maria [see Elphinstone, Hester Maria], afterwards became Viscountess Keith. Another became Mrs. Hoare. The youngest surviving daughter, Cecilia, was afterwards Mrs. Mostyn. Another daughter appears to have remained unmarried, and a fifth died in infancy in 1783.

Mrs. Thrale had made the acquaintance of Gabriel Piozzi, an Italian musician of much talent, in 1780. He was her senior by six months (Hayward, i. 174). She had taken a fancy to him, which now ripened into passion. By the end of 1781 they were very intimate, and in August 1782, finding herself involved in a lawsuit with Lady Salusbury and straitened for money, she resolved to go to see Italy with Piozzi as guide, and to economise (ib. i. 166). She began to complain of Johnson. His approval of her plan of travel showed, she thought, want of desire for her company, and she no doubt foresaw that he would object to the marriage with Piozzi, which she was beginning to contemplate. Her eldest daughter also strongly disapproved. She left Streatham in October 1782 and went to Brighton, whither Johnson followed her. She returned to London, and, after a violent scene with her eldest daughter, resolved to give up Piozzi. She told him in January that they must part (ib. i. 220). She retired to Bath, and Piozzi left for Italy (8 May 1783) at the same time. In the ‘Anecdotes’ she attributes her retreat to Bath exclusively to the desire to escape from Johnson's tyranny; but her diary (ib. i. 169, 196) shows that this was at most a very subordinate motive [see under Johnson, Samuel, 1709–1784]. Her daughters, seeing that her health was affected, finally consented to the recall of Piozzi. She was married by a catholic priest in London on 23 July, and at St. James's, Bath, according to the Anglican ritual, on 25 July 1784. A match with an Italian Roman catholic musician was naturally regarded with excessive disapproval by the society of that time. It involved a separation from her eldest daughter, of whom she speaks with coldness and resentment (Hayward, i. 305, ii. 69). They appear to have been afterwards on civil but distant terms. Cecilia, the youngest, stayed with her.

Upon her marriage she went to Italy with her husband; spent the winter at Milan, and in the next summer was at Florence, where she made friends with Robert Merry [q. v.] and the ‘Della Cruscans.’ She contributed to the ‘Florence Miscellany,’ ridiculed in Gifford's ‘Baviad’ and ‘Mæviad,’ and wrote the preface. She also wrote there her ‘Anecdotes,’ giving a very lively picture of Johnson, though it is partly coloured by a desire to defend her own conduct. It sold well, though it excited a good deal of ridicule, as indicated by Peter Pindar's ‘Bozzy and Piozzi.’ She returned to England in March 1787, and was bitterly attacked by Baretti [q. v.], who had lived for three years in her house as tutor to Miss Thrale, in the ‘European Magazine.’ He is also supposed by Mr. Hayward to have been the author of ‘The Sentimental Moth, a Comedy in Five Acts: the Legacy of an old Friend … to Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale,’ &c. (1789). She appears, however, to have been well received in society, and settled at Streatham Park, upon which she and her husband spent 2,000l. She published Johnson's letters, for which, Boswell says, she had 500l., in 1788, and some other books (see below), showing an overestimate of her own accomplishments. At the end of 1795 she left Streatham for Wales. She lived there with her husband, who repaired Bachycraig, but afterwards built a villa, called Brynhella, in the valley of the Clwyd. He died there of gout in March 1809. She adopted a nephew of his, John Piozzi, to whom she gave the Welsh property on his marriage to a Miss Pemberton. Piozzi had saved 6,000l., and left everything to his wife (Hayward, ii. 75). They spent most of their winters at Bath, and after his death she seems to have generally lived there. When nearly eighty she took a great fancy to a handsome young actor, William Augustus Conway [q. v.], and it was reported that she proposed to marry him. Her ‘love-letters’ to him, written in 1819 and published in 1843, are of doubtful authenticity, but in any case only show that she became silly in her old age. On 27 Jan. 1820 she celebrated her eightieth (or seventy-ninth?) birthday by a ball to six or seven hundred people at Bath, and led off the dances with her adopted son. She died on 2 May 1821, leaving everything to this son, who, having taken her maiden name and been knighted when sheriff of Flintshire, was now Sir John Piozzi Salusbury.

Mrs. Piozzi was a very clever woman; well read in English literature, though her knowledge of other subjects was apparently superficial. Her early experience had given her rather cynical views of life, and she seems to have been rather hard and masculine in character; but she also showed a masculine courage and energy in various embarrassments. Her love of Piozzi, which was both warm and permanent, is the most amiable feature of her character. She cast off her daughters as decidedly as she did Dr. Johnson; but it is impossible not to admire her vivacity and independence. She was short and plump, and if not regularly pretty, had an interesting face. An engraving from a miniature by Roche, taken when she was seventy-seven, is prefixed to Hayward's first volume, and an engraving of Hogarth's, ‘Lady's Last Stake,’ to the second. She ‘sate for this,’ as she says, when under fourteen (ib. ii. 309). If so, Hogarth must have idealised the picture considerably; but it appears to have been painted in 1759 [see under Hogarth, William].

Mrs. Piozzi's works are: 1. ‘Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, during the last twenty years of his Life,’ 1786. 2. ‘Letters to and from the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,’ 1788. 3. ‘Observations and Reflections made in the course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany,’ 2 vols. 8vo, 1789. 4. ‘British Synonymy,’ 1794 (a book with some amusing anecdotes, but otherwise worthless). 5. ‘Retrospection: or a Review of the most striking and important Events, Characters, Situations, and their Consequences which the last eighteen hundred years have presented to the Views of Mankind,’ 2 vols. 4to, 1801. She wrote many light verses, most of which are given in the second volume of Hayward. The best known, the ‘Three Warnings,’ first appeared in the ‘Miscellanies’ published by Johnson's friend, Mrs. Williams, in 1766.

[Autobiography, Letters, and Literary Remains of Mrs. Piozzi … edited … by A. Hayward, Q.C., 1861, 2 vols. 8vo; 2nd edit. enlarged (and cited above) in same year. This is founded partly upon ‘Thraliana,’ a notebook kept by her from 1776 to 1809; with autobiographical fragments, marginal notes on books, and some correspondence. ‘Piozziana; or Recollections of the late Mrs. Piozzi, with Remarks. By a Friend’ (the Rev. E. Mangin), 1833, describes her last years at Bath. Her own publications, Boswell's Johnson, and Mme. d'Arblay's Diaries and Memoirs of Dr. Burney, also give many references.]

L. S.