McIntyre on Hester Lynch Piozzi

I have recently finished Ian McIntrye’s 2008 biography of Hester Lynch PiozziHester: The Remarkable Life of Dr Johnson’s ‘Dear Mistress’. This book has been lavishly praised so I have to admit to considerable disappointment.

 While it is a fairly easy read, it is in a remorseless chronological style – in May 1780 Hester did X, in June Y and so on. In this relentless linearity there is little pause for reflection or insight or analysis, and when that does arrive it is of a conventional and uninspiring kind. Well before the end I had essentially tired of the book.

Of course having said this I am sure that I would not have noticed these failings so much if I had found Hester a more sympathetic character. In large part this was due to her politics – and McIntrye seemed to share these, so the continual drip of reaction, became extremely wearing for a reader like me. Generally McIntrye tries to preserve a mask of neutrality, but occasionally it slips, as when he is talking about Mary Wollstonecraft‘s ‘squinting through the distorting prism of her own more radical feminism’. Anyone who can write in this misogynist, as well as reactionary, way is unlikely to command my full sympathies.

 It is of course very hard for me to tell if the biography is ‘fair’ to Hester. Outwardly it is certainly extremely sympathetic and McIntrye takes her side at least 9 out of 10 times (and there were a lot of quarrels and fallings-out in her life!). However whether he really gets to the heart of her personality, or anywhere near it, is something which I am unable to judge as I know very little about her, and have not read her work. It is important to say that I would not think – despite the title which is clearly there to help sales – McIntrye in any way overplays the Johnson connection. At least half the book is devoted to her time with Piozzi (and the shorter period after his death).

I can see that Hester had in some ways a very difficult life. An abusive father, a neglectful and philandering first husband and terrible relations with her daughters, and later her adopted son (Piozzi’s nephew). She underwent goodness knows how many pregnancies, giving birth to 12 children (only 4 of whom survived to adulthood). She had repeated financial worries of one kindor another. But for all this I never really warmed to her – whether fairly or otherwise. Her daughters in particular worried me. It is true that familial affection was less of a concern in those days, but it does seem strange to me that  none of them seems to have regarded her with any degree of affection at all. We hear of course only her side of the story, not that of any of the daughters. Maybe they were all just very unpleasant women. Returning however to McIntrye I do find it extraordinary that the book has received such praise. It seems to me highly conventional and lacking in any real insight.

Now it so happens that I had written about this book a long time prior to reading it as an example of the subjectivity of reviews. This appeared on my old blog at and I reproduce my comments below…. 

>>>It is obvious that Book Reviews are subjective, biased and ideological. I certainly would not claim to be free from any of these faults when reviewing for Reviewing the Evidence. But once in a while one comes across a case where there are two reviews of the same book which not only come across as being reviews of different books, but take a completely opposed view of their subjects. This has happened recently and dramatically in the case of a new book about Hester Lynch Piozzi  by Ian McIntyre (Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr Johnson’s ‘Dear Mistress’).

The first review by Anne Sebba appeared in The Times Books section on October 24th 2008…

Hester Thrale was a political wife before the term was invented, a landowner at a time when wives could not own land in their own name and, above all, a diarist and author. Her ambitious final book, Retrospection, was the first attempt by an Englishwoman to write a history of the world. Hester Salusbury married Henry Thralein October 1763, shortly after her father’s deathhad severely reduced her options. Eleven months later she gave birth to their first child and from then on was pregnant almost yearly during her marriage to Thrale. He forbad her from riding – too masculine; and from entering the kitchen – too smelly. She was saved from a life of stultifying boredom by the arrival for dinner in 1764 of Samuel Johnson, then 55, widowed, living in squalor and close to a mental breakdown. Yet, in spite of his dirty appearance, scrofula and scarring, Hester and Johnson took to each other. He soon considered the Thrale home his own and encouraged her to write more poetry. How this young woman came to rescue Johnson andin turn findher own strong literary voice forms the core of this biography. For 16 years she provided him with endless cups of tea and stimulation as they debated politics, child rearing, world affairs andliterature. But the book’s interest goes far beyond the deep friendship between Hester and Johnson. Hester Thrale, bluestocking andwit, was a remarkable woman imbued withdeep intellectual curiosity revealed in six leather-bound volumes now housed in the Huntington Library in California, known as Thraliana. The blank books, a gift to her (and posterity) from her husband on their 13thwedding anniversary, were eventually filled with detailed accounts of domestic politics, the French Revolution, cameo portraits of friends and enemies as well as Latin epigrams, gossip, poetry and such fascinating details as the price of a shirt in 1801, shedding a powerful beam of light on the life andculture of Georgian England. She put up with death, illness andher husband’s frequent infidelities in a way that indicates that this was nothing more than the age expected. Aged 38, after a stillbirth that nearly killed her, Hester nonetheless hoped that a visit to his mistress might “dissipate” her husband’s gloom. By contrast, some of her preoccupations seem very modern, especially her desire to find emotional satisfaction through romantic love. Her second marriage, to her daughter’s Italian music master, Gabriel Piozzo, gave her renewed enthusiasm for writing but lost her Johnson’s admiration and blighted relations with her daughters for the rest of her life. McIntyre’s detailed account of their shabby treatment of Hester makes painful reading. This entertaining book brings her out of the Johnsonian shadow at last and Hester is revealed: a heroine for any age.

The second by Frances Wilson appeared in The Sunday Times on November 2nd…

Hester Thrale was Dr Johnson’s “Dear Mistress” for 16 years. The period of their friendship saw the melancholic lexicographer reach his full gargantuan stature as a writer, while Hester, who did not discover her own literary voice until after his death, bloomed in the light of his admiration. For Johnson’s biographer James Boswell, who remained immune to Hester’s charms, she was “a little artful impudent malignant devil”. Johnson would eventually agree with him. Hester’s genius was her ability to inspire in others either great love or great hate, and what is striking in her character is how little she apparently minded, or seemed to notice, which was which. Boswell’s loathing reached its peak when, in her hugely popular Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson (1786), Hester referred only once to a certain “Mr B-”. The revenge of Mr B was to trash Mrs T in his own Life of Johnson (1791), whose success would eventually erase her book altogether. Born in 1741 the only child of adoring parents, Hester wrote juvenile ditties that were treated as works of incipient genius; she never doubted that she was, indeed, remarkable. That her life would also be remarkable, however, could not have been predicted. To please her rich uncle, whose estate she expected to inherit, she married in 1763 a rich brewer called Henry Thrale – or, as she put it in her diary, Thraliana, “I was sold to a man I did not like for a barrel of porter.” Mr Thrale did not speak and Mrs Thraledid not stop; she was settling down to a life of annual pregnancies (for six months of every year, as she put it, she had her head over a bowl) when a friendof her husband brought Johnson to sup at their house by the brewery in Deadman’s Place in Southwark. Had Johnson not been delighted by her, it is unlikely that Hester would have had an outlet for her intelligence and wit. Johnson liked Henry, too, and he loved a good dinner: so successful was the meeting that soon the 55-year-old widower was installed in the Thrales’ country mansion in Streatham, where he slept until noon, ate peaches before breakfast and gnawed on chicken bones to his heart’s content. Hester gave Johnson his first feeling of family, and he gave her a padlock in the event that he go mad and should need locking up. The Thralechildren regarded him, in the memorable phrase of Johnson’s biographer Walter Jackson Bate, “as a combination of friend and a sort of toy elephant”. The animal Hester resembled, Johnson remarked, was the rattlesnake. Hester seemed happy enough as Johnson’s companion, duelling her wit against his andshining in her newly acquired fame; but the truth, she later revealed, was that she found the company of this man-child a “yoke” she had to bear. “And I am never to see a face but Mr Johnson’s?” she wrote in her diary. Looking on Johnson’s face, she could at least avert her gaze from the face of Mr Thrale, who was eating himself to death. When he finally expired in a great gust of wind after a meal of eight courses, he left his wife, aged 40, free to cast off her other yoke as well: three years later, in 1784, Hester married Signor Piozzi, her daughters’ Roman Catholic music master. Her children were appalled, her friends, including the novelist Fanny Burney, astonished, and Johnson was thrown out of paradise. His giant form bent double, his nest-like hands groping forward andhis blind eyes struggling to focus, the old man dragged himself back to his London lair where he burnt all her letters, and died. “I am afraid Mrs Thrale’s imprudent marriage shortened his life,” opined Mrs Montagu. Hester saw the situation differently: “Poor Johnson did not mean to use me ill, he only grew upon indulgence till patience could endure no longer.” Was Johnson in love with Hester? He seems hardly to have known the answer himself. His feelings towards her, McIntyre suggests in his marvellously rich biography, were undoubtedly erotic, while any fondness she had for him was the result of flattery, boredom and the drag of 12 consecutive pregnancies. Only four of her dozen children – all girls – made it to adulthood, by which point they had each disowned their mother. Distance was Hester’s preferred maternal mode: of her two-year-old daughter, Susanna, she noted that she was “small, ugly & lean as ever; her Colour like that of an ill painted Wall grown dirty”. A year later, the child’s colour had become “like that of a Clorotic Virgin at 15”. McIntyre, who admits to finding Hester at times baffling, suggests that such detachment must be understood in the context of the high infant-mortality rate of the 18thcentury. But it should also be remembered that Hester was someone who happily lived witha husband she didn’t like anda house guest she found “irksome”; when she left to embark on a two-and-a-half-year honeymoon with Piozzi, she foundthe protests of her abandoned children an inconvenience. “In a later age,” McIntyre comments withcharacteristic wryness, “Hester might well have fallen foul of some of the more intrusive legislation that would find its way onto the statute book in such areas as childcare and health andsafety. But then is not now.” The problem for Hester’s biographer is that Johnson’s exit from her life was followed so swiftly by the happy-ever-after of her second marriage; and while she lived a further 40 years, during which time she published her letters to and from Johnson, her Anecdotes and an extraordinary dictionary of Synonyms, whose quality McIntyre is right to perceive, her life was never to be so remarkable again. There is never much to say about a happy marriage, and six weeks into her honeymoon Hester would write that, “I have experienced greater and longer felicity than I ever yet experienced.” It is hard to know, however, in what her felicity lay: she did not share her husband’s love of music, andhe struggled with the language she was so adept at using. Can we forgive Hester her treatment of Johnson and her daughters? Despite McIntyre’s apologies on her behalf, I am not sure that I can. In this, the best account we have of the life of Mrs Thrale-Piozzi, her supreme self-confidence seems the result of shallowness; her coldness the result of self-regard. As Mrs Thrale, she was a bearer of yokes; as Mrs Piozzi, she became, to her children at least, something of a yoke herself.

I wrote at the time on ECW…

It is very well worthwhile indeed to read both reviews. They are utterly different in both their portrayal of the book and of Hester Thrale herself. Wilson seems to almost ignore the fact that Thrale was a writer and indeed a person in her own right and considers her solely in relation to Johnson; Sebba on the other hand centres on Thrale as a writer and person for herself. Is it a book about Johnson or about Thrale? But for a case-study in how differing ideological perspectives inform reviewing this is a classic example! It would be interesting to read the book and form one’s own judgement! On further consideration it is striking how Wilson basically sees Thrale only in relation to Johnson – the 40 years which she lived after his death are just a ‘problem’ for the biographer. For Sebba her relationship to Johnson is merely one aspect, albeit a fascinating one, of a rich and fruitful life. Wilson’s review appears mean-spirited and dismissive in comparison to Sebba. As an object lesson in how careful one must be with reviews it might be hard to find a better example.<<<

Having now read the book, my original point as to the problematic nature of reviews seems to me strongly re-inforced, as neither Sebbanor Wilson seems to deal in any substantive way with McIntrye’s book and any strengths or weaknesses that it might possess. Their reviews are largely essays explaining their personal positions on and attitudes to Hester.  In general I think I would be rather more sympathetic to Wilson than I was at first, on the grounds that he does at least engage a little more with McIntrye. I am interested by the fact that he regards the sentence he quotes regarding ‘intrusive legislation’ as possessing ‘characteristic wryness’; I certainly did not read this as ‘wry’. It follows McIntyre posing the question ‘An uncaring and neglectful mother?’ which he proceeds to answer in the negative as far as I can tell. I think Wilson is reading his own attitudes into McIntrye. And Wilson’s own attitudes are clearly hostile – I am quite unable to see any way at all in which Hester, whatever her other faults (andas I have remarked I did not, for whatever reason, find her specially sympathetic) treated Johnson badly. Indeed the reverse would seem to me very much the case. Does Wilson believe that she should not have married a man she loved merely because Johnson would have got upset?

I will add the valuable comments which Ellen left on the blog at the time…

>>”It’s cruel and unfair. Who are we to forgive her for her treatment of her daughters? I could say, what about their treatment of her? except it would be to fall into the same stupid trap. I hope it was not McIntyre’s book which produced this condescending dismissive sketch.

Clifford’s book which we read here on this list some time ago showed a deep feeling complex woman with a thwarted genius.”

Then this morning I had the startle of reading Anna Sebba’s review, and yes the contrast is striking and instructive. As Nick, says, what a completely different portrait we are given from that of Frances Wilson. You begin to wonder which of the reviewers read the book, and which one thought it his or her duty really to reflect what’s in it.

This section by Anna Sebba is worth reprinting, especially that last line. Wilson castigates Piozzi as a bad mother; in Clifford’s biography we got a full record of how her daughters mistreated her, and also the adopted son (very pathetic and poignant the way he fleeced her need for affection from someone after Piozzi’s death).

Again in Clifford we get a full accounting of her writing. Clifford wrote before the 1970s feminist movement, and to my mind his book shows that what this feminism most deeply was from a few was an attempt to be humane towards, to respect and value the contributions and lives of half of the human race.Burney does come out very badly, the worst sides of her way of surviving led her to betray her friend.<<

and later….

>>I’d like to add this emphasis: As Nick suggests in his first paragraph, I’d say the thing that’s revealed here is we can’t tell what is in this biography. Neither reviewer has made it clear that she is reflecting the book written by McIntyre. Instead we have gotten a potted life from each. My hunch is Anna Sebba is closer for she seems to cite more from the book, but it’s not clear she is reflecting the attitude of McIntrye. So all we know is that here is a biography of Hester Thrale Piozzi and are not sure of anything beyond that.

If you work as a reviewer for any time at all, and start to read reviews with an eye to see how much they reflect their books, you soon begin to suspect many reviewers do not read their book through or do not read it carefully. It’s hard work to write a review which carefully describes a book and brings out its details. You are supposed to critique the book, not present your own attitude towards the subject — or at least not until after you have presented the author’s view.

The state of reviewing is not good: for academics there’s no money and it doesn’t “count” towards tenure; it’s rather social capital; for journalists, the pay is often not that good. If you are a staff writer, you are paid generally I think, not per piece? So no particular incentive there. And authors are not grateful for any adverse remark and will let the reviewer know about it more often than we realize<<

2 thoughts on “McIntyre on Hester Lynch Piozzi

  1. It does matter which biographer you read on a person which should give rise to some troubling thoughts. Who is it we are liking? Perhaps the biographer him or herself and his or her take on the person, but I take heart that Holmes’s great book, _Footsteps_ is right: we are reacting to a compound of the two personalites. So Nick you didn’t like McIntyre. I first learned to feel real sympathy for Hester when I read Clifford’s biography (very old, hard to get, perhaps in your wife’s library) and then again Margaret Anne Doody on Hester and Burney where Hester ended up the victim (though Doody would not see that whole truth).

    The larger question Nick brings up outside Thrale Piozzi is that of reviewing. You can trust it anymore (if you ever could), but now the blurbs outside a book are hysterical with praise too. Everyone so desperate to buck one another up and no ideal of integrity for real anywhere in the marketplace.

    I’m glad I read McCarthy who I admit I read for background to the review on his book on Anna Barbauld which I mean to write come September. As I told Nick off list, it strikes me his comment that Thrale Piozzi seems so reactionary might explain the relative failure of McCarthy’s book. It was no where as good as his book on Barbauld, nothing near it, even if as far as going over her work and art as a writer it was superior to Clifford. McCarthy didn’t bring her alive in quite the way he did Barbauld, and in a way he had much much more frank intimate comment to go on. I put it down to maybe her writing not being as good: I know Barbauld was in effect a radical and Hester not (or anything but) but she has her travel book, which maybe I’ll go back to my first response about: it’s overrated.

    So maybe McCarthy was disappointed; from his book on Barbauld I did learn he is loathe to really criticize and tell hard truths straight about a person he wants to defend. This is a failing, and I was without explanation as to why I felt letdown on his book on Thale Piozzi; I put it down to his not being able really to break through categories; maybe it was more that the works had passage which were very dismaying and he didn’t want to say.

    It makes me remember a passage in Austen’s Northanger Abbey which I read in English (and French) the other night: “But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the
    while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood? ….” It is the duty of the biographer to tell the full truth insofar as she or he can and McCarthy I know fudged on Barbauld’s real attitude towards educating women: she wanted to repress them sexually, control them and therefore was against higher learning outside the home. He cannot have missed that as neither did Lucy Aiken (who reprints the letter in which Barbauld refused the help to open a girls’ school); Barbauld had other motives but this was a primary one.

    Hester Thrale Piozzi did not write in accepted genres, and didn’t have the aspiration and belief in herself and goals to work what she wrote up into brilliant forms, and anyway no one would have paid attention (as they didn’t to Georges Seurat the painting in the 1890s) so she has a hard time reaching us.

    Probably Clifford with all his reticence about sex and lack of willingness to criticize the establishment which so used Piozzi is the best we have still.

    On the issue of her children not liking her, it can happen and it need not be the fault of the person. They were all like her husband to some extent, the younger ones under the thumb of Queeney, an obnoxious bully with utterly reactionary stances and a downright hatred of her mother — partly I think a response to Johnson. She was ashamed in the way Francis Austen Knight (Austen’s niece who became Lady SomethingorOther late in life) of her aunts, Jane and Cassandra. It might be she was prickly and refused to pretend to attitudes she didn’t have. The son was a leach. She picked wrong except for Piozzi himself and also Johnson, but then he was desperate.

    People are an enigma and biography a tremendously hard genre to succeed for real in.


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks as ever Ellen.

    >>It does matter which biographer you read on a person which should give rise to some troubling thoughts. Who is it we are liking? <<

    I think this does depend though on the degree of one's engagement with the subject of the biography. I am not going to be swayed in my views of Byron by anything I might read – to take an extreme example. Actually Hester is probably at the other extreme as I really knew nothing of her prior to reading the biography. Perhaps there is a good case to be made for only reading the biographies (in the case of literary figures anyway) of those with whom one has engaged. It is actually my practice when approaching a new (new to me that is) novel for instance not to read any criticism beforehand; I always read Introductions at the end. I don't want my views to be clouded. This is a possible variation of the same thing.

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