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Review: Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi’s biography is accessible but has plenty of meat for the historian

18 Oct 2020 11 minute read
Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi by Michael John Franklin

Sarah Tanburn

Hester Piozzi is the eponymous subject of a new addition to the Writers of Wales series by Michael John Franklin, a welcome survey of the life of an underrated woman who kept Welshness close to her heart through a long life of doublings and change.

Piozzi, to use the name of her second husband, was born Hester Salusbury in 1741, at Bodfael Hall near Pwllheli. Her genteel family claimed descent from Catrin o Ferain, Mam Cymru, on both sides; father John Salusbury was an adventurer who believed his genealogy  entitled him to more than his actual estate. From a girl, the bright, imaginative Hester knew that financial pressures would guide her future.

Through family connections and her own inclinations, she enjoyed a wide-ranging education, learning Spanish, Italian and Latin, though it seems she never spoke Welsh. From very young she was writing poetry and drama, and producing translations. All the same, at 22, under pressure from her widowed mother, Hester married the wealthy brewer Henry Thrale, a man at least ten years her senior, a confirmed womaniser and socially somewhat beneath her. She herself described how she never spent five minutes alone with him till their wedding night.

Franklin paints a sad picture of the early years of the marriage. Between her imperious mother, whom Thrale revered, and her husband she was a virtual prisoner in his country estate at Streatham, south London. She pined for self-determination; Franklin cites her own reflection that ‘was I to propose a journey Mr Thrale would refuse to let me take; or desire a tree to be cut down or planted, and he would […] give me a coarse Reply and abrupt Negative, it would make me very miserable to have one’s own unimportance presented suddenly to one’s Sight.’

Her role was motherhood. In fourteen years she bore twelve children, though sadly only four survived to adulthood, all girls. However, a key introduction in 1765 changed everything. The playwright Arthur Murphy arranged to bring Samuel Johnson to dinner.


The literary bear

Franklin describes the momentous meeting: ‘the absolute contrast between these two, Hester at 24, elegant, petite and still something of a shadow of her normal slim self [after the difficult first birth], and this huge, 55-year-old ungainly dancing bear of a man.’

A close friendship developed between both Thrales and the great writer, lexicographer and essayist. Johnson struggled with a range of nervous maladies, including suicidal depression, and the Thrales cared for him in Streatham and Southwark. The intense relationship between Johnson and Piozzi shows up in their own letters and journals and the reports of those around them. Franklin argues convincingly that, even given Johnson’s submission to her control in pursuit of his own health, their connection was never sexual, despite gossip then and since. They were close friends for 20 years, Johnson helping her with both business and politics.

After Henry Thrale died, there was some speculation, despite the yawning gap of age, that they would wed. Instead they quarrelled when Hester fell in love at last, with Italian musician Gabriel Piozzi. She married him and they were very happy for two decades. Happiness, and the wealth inherited from Thrale, freed her to write even more broadly. The couple built a house, Brynbella, near Tremeirchion in Denbighshire, which still stands today.

Political paradoxes

Piozzi was both a pioneer and a series of contradictions. Perhaps most obviously to her contemporaries, she was a staunch conservative, upholder of the established church and fervently anti-republican, especially after the French Revolution. She was also proud to be a Bluestocking, certain that women could and should express their views in their own right. She campaigned vigorously on Thrale’s behalf in his elections to represent Southwark for 15 years. It would be interesting to compare her with that much more famous supporter, this time for the Whigs, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. The Duchess has been described as the first woman to take such a front-line role, for her work in the 1778 elections, yet Hester Thrale was canvassing, advertising and entertaining on her husband’s behalf ten years earlier, despite advanced pregnancy and thick snow.

Throughout her life Piozzi maintained her political work, becoming a prolific author in support of the conservative position. I would be interested in her views, if any, on slavery: her life spanned the abolition of the Trade (though not the practice), while slaver-related activity was in integral part of the North Welsh economy through copper and cotton. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem to have impinged on her views.

She became an important author of broadside ballads,  which were a crucial news and propaganda source at this time. Even in old age and from the Clwyd valley she was an active participant in national events. It is all too typical that Piozzi has been overshadowed by the more glamorous Georgiana, so Franklin’s insistence on her opinions and interventions Is welcome.

In addition to her overt political work, Piozzi was an unlikely pioneer in marrying for love. When she first met Piozzi, she decided that she must follow duty and look after her children. She sent him away and retired, with her then five living children to Bath, where she was miserably unhappy. She wrote in her diary ‘What a Life mine is! I can never please Folks: nothing is right – Such a Life!’ In the end her reluctant daughters agreed to Piozzi’s return but they never forgave her for the solecism of marrying him. She also faced social condemnation, not least from other Bluestockings such as her erstwhile friend Mrs Elizabeth Montagu.

It was this modern commitment to her own happiness and fulfilment which enabled her to become the writer of later years. The difference can be seen in her long-running diary, the Thraliana. In her later years she continues to worry about other people’s perceptions of her, an inevitable result of her early training in pleasing those around her, but she expresses a different attitude: ‘[a]cceptance, sometimes reluctant and defensive but nevertheless genuinely convincing, reflects the hard-earned peace she has won.’

Money, management and beer

Turning to commerce, we see Piozzi again taking an unusual stance. In 1772, Henry Thrale got himself into considerable business difficulties, seduced into investments by fake chemists who took huge sums to create undrinkable liquids, alienating his loyal workforce in the process. His wife championed the solution with astute management, aided by Johnson and great skill with the men in the brewery.

Another interesting parallel here would be with Margaret Thatcher, who told Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour that ‘women are left to cope, which makes us very practical’, but that being a woman offers no special advantage. By contrast, Piozzi believed ‘women have a manifest Advantage over Men in the doing business […] if She has a little Spirit & a little common Sense. Although Piozzi was well aware that brewing had traditionally been women’s preserve, it was unusual for her to undertake such a prominent rescue, and Franklin records her relief at finally selling the business after Thrale’s death.

Franklin, almost without comment, also presents her as an astute entrepreneur. She looks to her writing for income, speculating on possible markets, costs of production and distribution as an integral part of each project. (Sadly, she is not always right in these judgements.) Although there seems little overlap with her rival Boswell’s quote of Johnson that, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money’, Piozzi certainly seems to appreciate the business of publishing and the importance of identifying a paying audience.

Intimacy and anecdote

Rightly for such a series, Franklin draws particular attention to her stature and importance both as a writer and a Welsh woman. In her later life, Piozzi overstretched herself with some projects, for instance trying to create a children’s history of the Christian era, or a book of English synonyms. Her strength lay elsewhere, in creating an intimacy with the reader. Her runaway success, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, was published in 1786. Franklin points to her confidence in taking the new form of biography and turning it to meet her own resources and capacity, saying ‘she outdid Boswell […] and yet was even more pioneering than him by virtue of her lack of sentimentality.’

Piozzi took the domestic and the particular sphere for her own in other ways, creating a new approach to travel writing in her record of two years travel across Europe. Perhaps her skill in this regard is based on her inveterate diary-keeping. Despite her own wishes, the years of records in the Thraliana were kept and posthumously printed, giving an exceptionally detailed insight into her own authorial and emotional development. Franklin describes her dislike of imaginative fiction. She ‘felt writing should have a purpose or respond to a specific social occasion,’ he tells us, and indeed this conservative Bluestocking wrote widely, in multiple forms, of politics, business and philosophy..

So many female authors have been dismissed for their attention to the business of relationships or personal experience. Piozzi’s strength lay in precisely that microscope: her greatest successes came from that reconstruction of specific relationships which allowed her reader to enter imaginatively into the lives, places and relationships she describes.

Hiraeth: Welsh to the core

Piozzi was perhaps also unusual in her lifelong love of Wales. So many eighteenth-century Welsh writers removed to England and stayed there, but Piozzi never lost her hiraeth. In the summer of 1775 the Thrales, with Samuel Johnson, made a trip to North Wales, partly to oversee Hester’s property there. She wanted them to love the countryside and see it as Romantick and Sublime as anything they might have seen in Italy. Unfortunately both men chose instead to dismiss the region, and Hester herself, moving from laughter to outright distaste. Hester’s Autobiography records her distress, and Franklin tells us, ‘[s]he was a Welshwoman to the core, and was proud to attribute all those characteristics, which enabled her selflessly to support Samuel Johnson, to what she had imbibed at her Caernarfonshire hearth and home.’

So it is unsurprising that, happily married at last and wealthy, she chose to return, building a house which combined Georgian elegance and Italianate flourish which from 1800 they made their main home. There was considerable poverty in the area, what with the industrialisation of Liverpool, the impact of war and successive poor harvests. Denbighshire and Flintshire, as elsewhere in Wales saw rural starvation and food riots. Piozzi wrote to her friends ‘the poor people cannot afford to purchase Corn’, nor feed their starving livestock, nor buy bread. Gabriel became Overseer of the Poor, and in 1800 they laid on a feast for local people.

At the same time, the couple were funding the restoration of the village church, repairing her inherited farmhouse and preparing their own vault. Piozzi was to the end, keen to maintain her family’s grip on North Wales and to retain that Salusbury name she had lost in marriage. She adopted her husband’s nephew, christened John Salusbury in expectation, and left him almost everything, much to the indignation of her daughters. For her, that Welsh continuity was all important.

Perhaps there was ambiguity in her retreat from London’s censure of her second marriage to rural peace, but her descriptions of local hardship show that there was no escaping the tumultuous period. ‘[B]eing in Wales in the 1790s does not just involve the negotiation of personal and familial space for Piozzi. It also prompts – to a certain extent, demands – the creation of new forms of political space in a writerly sense.’ (From Wales Arts Review 2014).

Her ballads, her call to women to write and her continued engagement with the world suggest she never saw Wales as a place of retreat but rather a place of strength, the very core of her complex, witty and pioneering approach to life.

Franklin’s biography is accessible even for a lay reader, though I admit to not always following some of the literary rivalries of the time. There is also plenty of meat here for the professional historian or critic. This addition to the records of writers of Wales is a welcome discussion of an often overlooked character who took so many first steps for women in the intellectual life of her era.

Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi is published by University of Wales Press.  You can buy a copy here.

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