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Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, British diarist, author, and patron of the arts, 1741-1821

By Marianna d'Ezio, University of Rome RomaTre

Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi is one of the most interesting female writers of the late eighteenth century. The only daughter of an impoverished Welsh family, she received an excellent education “although Education was a Word then unknown, as applied to Females” (Thraliana). At the age of sixteen she could read and write fluently in French, Italian and Spanish, and began studying Hebrew at the age of seventy, clearly portraying her strong, life-long interest in different cultures and languages. Her passion for literature led many critics to compare her to contemporary female writers: Elizabeth Montagu, Catherine Talbot, Frances Burney, and even Mary Wollstonecraft and Helen Maria Williams. Her relationship with the female intellectual world of that time, however, is both ambiguous and fascinating.

The most well known part of her biography is her forced marriage to the rich brewer Henry Thrale, which was arranged to save her family from bankruptcy. After the marriage, she moved to his house in Streatham Park. Things, however, soon began to change; the desire of her contemporaries to be associated with a well-educated hostess and her formidable guests, Dr Johnson, James Boswell, the Burneys and the controversial Italian intellectual Giuseppe Baretti amongst others, became irresistible to many, and soon the regular assemblies at her house became a new, unique type of salon. From that time on, she narrated her life experiences through her writings, and her personal conflict between the public image of a brilliant salonnière and the private sorrows for her husband’s infidelity fill hundreds of pages in her journals and poems, all published anonymously.

The first fundamental change in Piozzi’s life had thus occurred in 1765, when the everyday routine of her first husband’s country house came to be enlivened by prominent characters arriving from London to visit Mr Thrale. The “Streathamites”, as Frances Burney would later call them, were themselves the expression of the social, political and cultural change of that time. Some were members of an intellectual middle class who worked for a living, like the musicologist Charles Burney and the Italian essayist Giuseppe Baretti, others were aristocratic artists, like Sir Joshua Reynolds. There were also actors, dramatists, writers, musicians and thinkers, all representatives of a changing, dynamic world. Hester Lynch Thrale was the convivial hostess and Samuel Johnson an honourable guest, who entered the house as a friend and lived there for the next fourteen years.

The Streatham Circle, as it was called, rivalled with the other salons and clubs of London for more than a decade, devising their own conventions and social behaviour. They would read books and letters aloud, compose verses, “throw notes at each other” (Letters) and exchange books in which they wrote their opinions in the margins. Frances Burney’s Evelina also received this treatment, and the exchange of comments and notes became the novel’s first, and rather peculiar, form of advertising in the world of literature. In the specific case of Burney’s first novel, Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi’s role was that of a bluestocking: a promoter of a talented female writer as a professional author, independent of the individual patronage and publication by subscription of the ancient régime. It is quite hazardous, however, to describe Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi as a “bluestocking”. She was a brilliant hostess and an ambitious and acute writer, well aware of the rules of the literary market, but she never reacted openly against the literary establishment. In fact, she preferred to enact her intellectual and professional autonomy with a close eye on social respectability. Her distinctive features were her liveliness, informal disposition, good manners and friendliness. In fact, one of the main features of the Streatham circle was its intimate, colloquial, and even congenial atmosphere.

Hester Lynch Thrale’s relationship with Samuel Johnson was extremely complex. Their friendship, which started at Streatham and then developed through their correspondence and collaboration, came to a brisk end with her scandalous marriage to Gabriele Piozzi, after the death of her first husband. Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, however, wanted to restore her public image and realised that she could do this by writing while she was in Italy. The occasion was the news of Samuel Johnson’s death and her first published work: Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786), which was a great success at the time. Until recently, however, Hester Lynch Piozzi has not been fully appreciated as one of Johnson’s biographers, with the canon dominated by writers such as James Boswell and Sir John Hawkins. As a result, Piozzi’s own version of Johnson’s life can be seen as her first attempt to challenge male literary convention. In her opinion, the impersonal style of the classical biography should be abandoned in favour of a different and innovative solution, and Anecdotes was her way of exploring biography as a genre that could be informal, personal and subjective, in line with the image of Johnson she knew best.

After Henry Thrale’s death and more prominently after the death of Dr Johnson, her passion for writing moved away from the private space of her closet in search of authorship, trying to achieve professional emancipation as well as social and intellectual independence. Her decision to marry the Italian singer Gabriele Piozzi, a music master living on his profession, who was also a Catholic, made her a leading anti-conformist character in an age of radical social, cultural, intellectual and political change and revolution. Such a marriage created a conflict between Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi and her circle of friends, but it also allowed her to achieve a status as a conscientious and committed literary artist in her own right.

Her first works, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) and Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson (1788), reworked the traditional masculine discourse of knowledge, i.e. biography and published correspondence, by using a “feminine” form, the anecdote, and bestowing full dignity upon this unfinished, fragmentary form. Following the success of Anecdotes, Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi shocked the London literary world by publishing her private correspondence with Samuel Johnson. Although, in reality, she had manipulated Johnson’s letters as well as her own to suit the market, most of the reviewers saw her editing as an insult to Johnson’s memory, and objected to the publication of such private correspondence, viewing it as indecent. This, however, had been exactly her objective: by accurately selecting certain letters for publication from Johnson, alongside her own, she had hoped to present herself in the light of an author and emerge as a public character in the image she preferred.

Travelling on the Grand Tour became the occasion for the composition of an extremely innovative version of a travel narrative, culminating in the introspective Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey Through France, Italy, and Germany (1789). Once Piozzi had transgressed every “rule” of feminine behaviour, she could write and publish whatever she wanted and in 1789 her Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey Through France, Italy, and Germany appeared in London. Her ambition was clear: she wanted a place for herself in the travel narrative canon. Piozzi’s travel book is a masterpiece of its genre. Even though her intention was that of writing a work “of truth”, trying to offer the reader a faithful description of whatever she saw during her journey on the continent, her own version of the Grand Tour is a far cry from the more classical narratives of Addison, Sharp and Smollett. Piozzi’s tone is much more imbibed with a sensual reality of the places she visited, and this subjective element makes her travel narrative more similar to Sterne’s Sentimental Journey. Sensations and feelings work as an emotional filter for Piozzi, to which corresponds a specific “code” of writing, that of a spontaneous flow of observations and personal reflections, supported by the rhetoric of the “on-the-spot composition” that involves the reader through its sense of immediacy and expectation. Her privileged position, as the wife of an Italian, her “demi-naturalization”, in her own words, is her advantage in respect to other British travellers. Such a status gave her the freedom to exceed the usual symmetry “known (British) – unknown (Italian)” of the classical narrative of the Grand Tour. As a female traveller, she was even more exposed to such a distinction between “northern” and “southern” features and, of course, she ran the risk of being identified with the “effeminate luxury of the warm South”, in Chloe Chard’s words. However, despite the risk of being considered a lascivious and scandalous woman, she enjoyed the pleasure of discovering the unknown. The final result of her journey is a new self-image, which she could display to her British readers: a new identity, which was shaped by the myriad of different experiences she had throughout Europe.

Her return to England coincided with fresh attempts to challenge gendered conventions of writing and the canon itself. Indeed, her British Synonymy (1794) and Retrospection (1801) once again deconstructed masculine discourses of culture, by establishing a female viewpoint of linguistics and history. Piozzi’s most ambitious works, British Synonymy and Retrospection, warrant renewed literary appreciation. Their merit lies in Piozzi’s extremely personal use of the genres to which they belong. What is felt while reading these last two works is a persistent determination and unremitting search for authorship in a literary world still dominated by men. Piozzi’s approach to history and linguistics must be seen today as attempts to achieve professional emancipation and display her independence of mind. Her independence in writing, however, cannot be considered as open subversion. In fact, she was an author writing inside an establishment that she did not want to subvert, but in which she wanted to be accepted as an artist in her own right. Her subversion thus can be best called eccentricity. That is why her “private” writing is the best expression of her kaleidoscopic personality as well as of her passion for and attitude towards writing. Her “diary”, Thraliana, is one of the most fascinating works by a woman of that time, but is hard to define. In Piozzi’s words, it is a “strange Farrago […] of Sense, Nonsense, publick [sic], private Follies” (Thraliana). Indeed, it is not simply a personal diary. It is a collection of anecdotes, autobiography, travel journals and verses – all combined together. Its evolution is interesting and may provide a more complete understanding of its writer. The first period of Thraliana consists of a classical collection of “-anas” on the Streatham guests, but also on the literary characters of the London scene. Gossip and tales are mixed with her own verse and translations from French and Latin, and she herself realises the originality of such a “collection”: “stranger still that a Woman should write such a Book as this” (Thraliana). Slowly, Thraliana turns from the vivacious narration of other people’s anecdotes into self-narration. The author’s own feelings and anecdotes become the main topic of the book, but the tone and style stay the same until the end: informal and colloquial. She carefully avoids the narcissisms of diary writing, realising that Thraliana could be published one day, which is why the text becomes more of a self-dramatization, alongside the publication of her works; it is “an odd Thing”, a private space confounded with her public image. Thus Thraliana cannot be considered a finished work; rather, it is suspended between a journal and the self-narration of a public character. In keeping with her other published works, it is a place where her subjectivity emerges to find the public recognition she had pursued all her life.

Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi’s work covers a wide range of literary genres, and constantly displays an entertaining and satirical humour together with an experimental and innovative style. Manuscripts, journals, published works and commonplace books also reveal her intellectual vivacity, and can be presented for critical discourse on female writing. Her correspondence not only reveals her position as a major female intellectual, and, perhaps, as a bluestocking, but also her leading role in a lively exchange of opinions, ideas, witticisms and interesting stories. Recent critical approaches have aimed to highlight her as a prolific writer, thus granting her the place she deserves in the eighteenth-century British literary canon.


Further details:

  • Marianna D’Ezio, Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi: A Taste for Eccentricity, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011.

AsK June 2013

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