2nd May 2021 marks the bicentenary of the death of Hester Lynch Piozzi (née Salusbury), writer and focal point of a brilliant literary circle. Plans to commemorate the anniversary have been curtailed by the global pandemic, but we could not allow the occasion to go entirely unrecorded.
Hester Lynch Salusbury grew up in genteel poverty, but as a lively, intelligent child she was doted on by her parents and tutored in philosophy, rhetoric, Latin and French literature. In her autobiography Hester recalled: ‘I was their Joynt Play Thyng, & although Education was a Word then unknown, as applied to Females; They had taught me to read, & speak, & think, & translate from the French, till I was half a Prodigy.’ In 1763 she was married off to the wealthy brewer Henry Thrale, who became MP for Southwark in 1765. It was a loveless match made worse by the tyranny of pregnancy and childbirth: Hester was pregnant thirteen times between 1764 and 1778, producing twelve children, though only four survived to adulthood.
The intellectual stimulation lacking in her relationship with Henry was supplied by a glittering coterie of male and female friends, dominated by Samuel Johnson but also including James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Charles and Frances Burney, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Elizabeth Montagu and Joshua Reynolds. The Thrales met Johnson in 1765, and for the next sixteen years he was an habitual visitor; Hester acted as his confidant and emotional prop. However, they quarrelled soon after Henry Thrale’s death in 1781, when she fell in love with Gabriel Piozzi, an Italian musician, and went with him to Italy. She eventually married Piozzi in 1784 in spite of disapproval from Society. She faced down her detractors and presided over literary salons at Streatham like a grande dame.
In recent decades Hester has become the subject of renewed academic and popular interest, as an acute social observer, as a pivotal figure within several interlocking literary, artistic and social networks, as a female pioneer of new literary genres, and as a rare example of someone who was prepared to defy convention and surmount the traditional maternal and domestic roles assigned to women in eighteenth-century England.
The Rylands holds the world’s largest collection of Hester’s letters and papers, including over 150 letters from her to Samuel Johnson. Other major correspondents include James Boswell, Charles Burney, Frances Burney, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (the Ladies of Llangollen), Elizabeth Montagu, Anna Seward, Sarah Siddons and Helen Maria Williams. In total there are around 1,500 letters written by Hester and 1,300 sent to her. Other material includes her literary manuscripts such as drafts of Observations and Reflections made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (published in 1789), British Synonymy (1794) and Retrospection (1801), memoranda, diaries, and travel journals for tours in France, Italy, Germany and the North of England.
The bulk of the collection was acquired in the 1930s for the princely sum of £652, but we still look to augment the collection whenever possible. Late last year, we were delighted to acquire a fine letter from Hester to her close friend and regular correspondent, Penelope Sophia Pennington (1752-1827). We are grateful to John Overholt for bringing the letter to our attention in an advance copy of a Quaritch catalogue.
The letter is dated 24 November 1820 at Penzance, Cornwall. Hester had moved there in July as an economy measure, having staged an extravagant party in Bath to celebrate what she mistakenly believed was her eightieth birthday (she was in fact seventy-nine) in January. In the relative isolation of Penzance, she relied on correspondence to bring her news of family and friends and to lift her spirits; she tells Pennington: ‘You & Miss Williams are Heroines in Friendship … She is also a good Hoper.’
Unwell and depressed, Hester laments the death of friends and relations: ‘my earliest Playfellow & Cousin Tom Cotton, is dead. We never met of Course since my second Marriage, and he was saucy: but I am sorry, for he will be saucy no more. […] I am as lowspirited as a Cat.’ She feels that she is now ‘on the Brink of Eternity’: ‘I will live if I can, but every day counts now; Ay and every Pulse too – and ’twere a Folly not to feel it.’
Still, there were some pleasing diversions in Penzance, albeit of an unsophisticated kind. She pokes gentle fun at a ball she has attended: ‘Miss Willoughby and your most humble Servant, have been at a Penzance Ball. The first (as we were told) illuminated by Wax Candles; and the Ladies led our Admiration to the Lustres. They had better have led it to their own Beauty … for we had seen lighted Rooms often; seldom such pretty Women; & all like one another.’
‘filled with Snares, Holes, Gins, rotten Planks &c. as we all find the Bridge that carries us from this World to the other, Fools flapping their Umbrellas in our Faces all the Way’
Towards the close of the letter Hester moves into a higher register, revealing her philosophical acceptance of the failings and hypocrisies of her fellow men and women as she approaches the end of her life:
It is not because I think better of Mortal Man than you do Dear Friend, worse probably of Men & Morals, having seen more; but then I am contented with less: and ever Thankful when Kings & People are no worse, Surrounded with Temptations as the poor Creatures are; and filled with Snares, Holes, Gins, rotten Planks &c. as we all find the Bridge that carries us from this World to the other, Fools flapping their Umbrellas in our Faces all the Way, hiding the Light from us at every Step, & triumphing in Slips made by their Neighbours, whilst tottering along themselves, scarce able to Stand or go. Do not be sorry that I have arrived at more than Three Quarters over, but pity those that have many Arches to pass, …… with broken Battlements on either Side, enough to giddy their Brains.
Six months later, Hester herself crossed the bridge to the other world.