« PreviousContinue »
“In one place Mr. Croker says that at the commencement of the intimacy between Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, in 1765, the lady was twenty-five years old. In other places he says that Mrs. Thrale's thirty-fifth year coincided with Johnson's seventieth. Johnson was born in 1709. If, therefore, Mrs. Thrale's thirty-fifth year coincided with Johnson's seventieth, she could have been only twenty-one years old in 1765. This is not all. Mr. Croker, in another place, assigns the year 1777 as the date of the complimentary lines which Johnson made on Mrs. Thrale's thirty-fifth birthday. If this date be correct Mrs. Thrale must have been born in 1742, and could have been only twenty-three when her acquaintance commenced. Mr. Croker, therefore, gives us three different statements as to her age. Two of the three must be incorrect. We will not decide between them.”*
“ At the time of my first edition,” rejoins Mr. Croker, “I was unable to ascertain precisely Mrs. Piozzi's age, but a subsequent publication, named Piozziana,' fixes her birth, on her own authority, to the 16th January, 1740; yet even that is not quite conclusive, for she calls it 1740 old style, that is 1741. I must now, of course, adopt, though not without some doubt, the lady's reckoning.” The difficulty, such as it is, arises from her not particularizing the style. In a letter to the author of “ Piozziana,” dated January 15th, 1817, she writes: “I am not well ; nor, I fear, going to be well directly ; but, be it as it may, tomorrow is my seventy-sixth anniversary, and I ought to be happy and thankful.” The author's comment is : “In this letter she marks her birthday and her advanced age, seventy-seven ; and much about that time, I recollect her showing me a valuable china bowl, in the inside of which was pasted a slip of paper, and on it written, · With this bowl Hester Lynch Salusbury was baptized, 1740. She was born on the 16th, or, as according to the change of style, we should now reckon the 27th, of January, 1741.”
In a letter to Mrs. Thrale of August 14th, 1780, Johnson writes: “If you try to plague me, I shall tell you that, according to Galen, life begins to decline at thirty-five." This gives Mr. Croker a pretext for returning to the topic: “Mrs. Piozzi at her last birthday must have been forty, so that Johnson must have. alluded to the sprightly verses in which he had celebrated Mrs. Thrale at thirty-five (see ante, p. 170, n. 3, and p. 471, n. 3 *); but since these notes were written I have found evidence under her own hand that my suspicion was just, and that she was born in 1740, new style.” He does not state where or in what shape this evidence was found. It coincides with her letter of January 15th, 1817; but is irreconcilable with the slip of 'paper in the bowl, which we learn from her letters was pasted in by herself after her second marriage.
* Macaulay's Essays.
“ This bowl,” writes Mr. Salusbury, “is now in my possession. The slip of paper now in it is in my father's handwriting, and copied, I have heard him say, from the original slip, which was worn out by age and fingering. The exact words are, 'In this bason was baptized Hester Lynch Salusbury, 16th Jan. 1740-41 old style, at Bodville in Carnarvonshire.'”
The incident of the verses is thus narrated in “Thraliana”: “ And this year, 1777, when I told him that it was my birthday, and that I was then thirty-five years old, he repeated me these verses, which I wrote down from his mouth as he made them.” If she was born in 1740–41, she must have been thirty-six in 1777; and there is no perfectly satisfactory settlement of the controversy, which many will think derives its sole importance from the two chief controversialists, for it is eminently characteristic of both of them. .
The highest authorities differ equally about her looks. « My readers,” says Boswell, “ will naturally wish for some representation of the figures of this couple. Mr. Thrale was tall, wellproportioned, and stately. As for Madam, or My Mistress, by which epithets Johnson used to mention Mrs. Thrale, she was short, plump, and brisk.” “ He should have added,” observes Mr. Croker, “ that she was very pretty.” This was not her own opinion, nor that of her contemporaries, although her face was attractive from animation and expression, and her personal appearance pleasing on the whole. Sometimes, when visiting the
* The references are to the handsome and complete edition of Boswell's “Life of Johnson," in one volume, royal octavo, published by Mr. Murray in 1860.
author of “ Piozziana,”* she used to look at her little self, as she called it, and spoke drolly of what she once was, as if speaking of some one else ; and one day, turning to him, she exclaimed : “No, I never was handsome: I had always too many strong points in my face for beauty.” On his expressing a doubt of this, and hinting that Dr. Johnson was certainly an admirer of her personal charms, she replied that his devotion was at least as warm towards the table and the table-cloth at Streatham.
One day when he was ill, exceedingly low-spirited, and persuaded that death was not far distant, she appeared before him in a dark-colored gown, which his bad sight, and worse apprehensions, made him mistake for an iron-gray. ". Why do you delight,' said he, thus to thicken the gloom of misery that surrounds me? is not here sufficient accumulation of horror without anticipated mourning?' — “This is not mourning, Sir!' said I, drawing the curtain, that the light might fall upon the silk, and show it was a purple mixed with green. — “Well, well!' replied he, changing his voice ; 'you little creatures should never wear those sort of clothes, however; they are unsuitable in every way. What ! have not all insects gay colors ?'”.
According to the author of “ Piozziana,” who became acquainted with her late in life, “ She was short, and though well-proportioned, broad, and deep-chested. Her hands were muscular and almost coarse, but her writing was, even in her eightieth year, exquisitely beautiful; and one day, while conversing with her on the subject of education, she observed that all Misses, now-adays, wrote so like each other, that it was provoking;' adding, 'I love to see individuality of character, and abhor sameness, especially in what is feeble and Aimsy. Then, spreading her hand, she said, “I believe I owe what you are pleased to call my good writing, to the shape of this hand, for my uncle, Sir Robert Cotton, thought it was too manly to be employed in writing like a boarding-school girl ; and so I came by my vigorous, black manuscript.””
* “Piozziana ; or Recollections of the late Mrs. Piozzi, with Remarks. By a Friend.” Moxon. 1833. These reminiscences, unluckily limited to the last eight or ten years of her life at Bath, contain much curious information, and leave a highly favorable impression of Mrs. Piozzi.
It was fortunate that the handwriting compensated for the hands; and as she attached great importance to blood and race, that she did not live to read Byron's “ thoroughbred and tapering fingers," or to be shocked by his theory that “the hand is almost the only sign of blood which aristocracy can generate.” Her Bath friend appeals to a miniature (engraved for this work) by Roche, of Bath, taken when she was in her seventy-seventh year. Like Cromwell, who told the painter that if he softened a harsh line, or so much as omitted a wart, he should never be paid a sixpence, — she desired the artist to paint her face deeply rouged, which it always was,* and to introduce a trivial deformity of the jaw, produced by a horse treading on her as she lay on the ground after a fall. In this respect she proved superior to Johnson ; who, with all his love of truth, could not bear to be painted with his defects. He was displeased at being drawn holding a book close to his eye, and on its being suggested that Reynolds had painted himself with his ear-trumpet, he replied: “ He may do as he likes, but I will not go down to posterity as Blinking Sam.”
Reynolds's portrait of Mrs. Thrale conveys a highly agreeable 'impression of her; and so does Hogarth's when she sat to him for the principal figure in “The Lady's Last Stake.” She was then only fourteen ; and he probably idealized his model ; but that he also produced a striking likeness, is obvious on comparing his picture with the professed portraits. The history of this picture (which has been engraved, at Lord Macaulay's sugges
* “ One day I called early at her house; and as I entered her drawing-room, she passed me, saying, “ Dear Sir, I will be with you in a few minutes; but, while I think of it, I must go to my dressing-closet and paint my face, which I forgot to do this morning. Accordingly she soon returned, wearing the requisite quantity of bloom; which, it must be noticed, was not in the least like that of youth and beauty. I then said that I was surprised she should so far sacrifice to fashion, as to take that trouble. Her answer was that, as I might conclude, her practice of painting did not proceed from any silly compliance with Bath fashion, or any fashion; still less, if possible, from the desire of appearing younger than she was, but from this circumstance, that in early life she had worn rouge, as other young persons did in her day, as a part of dress; and after continuing the habit for some years, discovered that it had introduced a dead yellow color into her complexion, quite unlike that of her natural skin, and that she wished to conceal the deformity." — Piozziana.
con Johnson's in took place aried on be
tion, for this work) will be found in the Autobiography and the Letters.
Boswell's account of his first visit to Streatham gives a tolerably fair notion of the footing on which Johnson stood there, and the manner in which the interchange of mind was carried on between him and the hostess. This visit took place in October, 1769, four or five years after Johnson's introduction to her; and Boswell's absence from London, in which he had no fixed residence during Johnson's life, will hardly account for the neglect of his illustrious friend in not procuring him a privilege which he must have highly coveted and would doubtless have turned to good account.
“On the 6th of October I complied with this obliging invitation ; and found, at an elegant villa, six miles from town, every circumstance that can make society pleasing. Johnson, though quite at home, was yet looked up to with an awe, tempered by affection, and seemed to be equally the care of his host and hostess. I rejoiced at seeing him so happy."
“ Mrs. Thrale disputed with him on the merit of Prior. He attacked him powerfully ; said he wrote of love like a man who had never felt it; his love verses were college verses : and he repeated the song, “Alexis shunned his fellow-swains,' &c. in so ludicrous a manner, as to make us all wonder how any one could have been pleased with such fantastical stuff. Mrs. Thrale stood to her guns with great courage, in defence of amorous ditties, which Johnson despised, till he at last silenced her by saying, • My dear lady, talk no more of this. Nonsense can be defended but by nonsense.'
“ Mrs. Thrale then praised Garrick's talents for light, gay poetry; and, as a specimen, repeated his song in “Florizel and Perdita,' and dwelt with peculiar pleasure on this line :
“I'd smile with the simple, and feed with the poor.'
“ Johnson. — “Nay, my dear lady, this will never do. Poor David! Smile with the simple ! — what folly is that? And who would feed with the poor that can help it? No, no; let me smile with the wise, and feed with the rich.” Boswell adds, that