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LIFE AND WRITINGS OF MRS. PIOZZI.
DR. JOHNSON has been hailed by acclamation the literary colossus of an epoch when the galaxy of British authorship sparkled with the names of Hume, Robertson, Gibbon, Warburton, the Wartons, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, Gray, Goldsmith, and Burke. Any one of these may have surpassed the great lexicographer in some one branch of learning or domain of genius; but as a man of letters, in the highest sense of the term, he towered pre-eminent, and his superiority to each of them (except Burke) in general acquirements, intellectual power, and force of expression, was hardly contested by his contemporaries. To be associated with his name has become a title of distinction in itself; and some members of his circle enjoy, and have fairly earned, a peculiar advantage in this respect. In their capacity of satellites revolving round the sun of their idolatry, they attracted and reflected his light and heat. As humble companions of their Magnolia grandi flora, they did more than live with it ; * they gathered and preserved the choicest of its flowers. Thanks to them, his reputation is kept alive more by what has been saved of his conversation than by his books; and his colloquial exploits necessarily revive the memory of the friends (or victims) who elicited and recorded them.
If the two most conspicuous amongst these have hitherto gained notoriety rather than what is commonly understood by fame, a discriminating posterity is already beginning to make reparation for the wrong. Boswell's “ Letters to Temple,” edited by Mr. Francis, with “ Boswelliana,” printed for the Philobiblion Society by Mr. Milnes, led, in 1857, to a revisal of the harsh sentence passed on one whom the most formidable of his censors, Lord Macaulay, has declared to be not less decidedly the first of biographers, than Homer is the first of heroic poets, Shakespeare the first of dramatists, or Demosthenes the first of orators. The result was eminently favorable to Boswell, although the vulnerable points of his character were still more glaringly displayed. The appeal about to be hazarded on behalf of Mrs. Piozzi will involve little or no risk of this kind. Her ill-wishers made the most of the event which so injuriously affected her reputation at the time of its occurrence; and the marked tendency of every additional disclosure of the circumstances has been to elevate her. No candid person will read her Autobiography, or her Letters, without arriving at the conclusion that her long life was morally, if not conventionally, irreproachable ; and that her talents were sufficient to confer on her writings a value and attraction of their own, apart from what they possess as illustrations of a period or a school. When the papers out of which this volume is principally composed were laid before Lord Macaulay, he gave it as his opinion that they afforded materials for a “most interesting and durably popular volume.”
*“ Je ne suis pas la rose, mais j'ai vécu avec elle.” — Constant.
They comprise :1. Autobiographical Memoirs. 2. Letters, mostly addressed to the late Sir James Fellowes.
3. Fugitive pieces of her composition, most of which have never appeared in print.
4. Manuscript notes by her on Wraxall's Memoirs, and on her own published works, namely: “ Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, LL. D., during the last twenty years of his life," one volume, 1786 ; “ Letters to and from the late Samuel Johnson, LL. D., &c.,” in two volumes, 1788 ; “ Observations and Reflections made in the course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany,” in two volumes, 1789; “ Retrospection ; or, Review of the most striking and important Events, Characters, Situations, and their Consequences which the last Eighteen Hundred
Years have presented to the View of Mankind,” in two volumes, quarto, 1801.
The “Autobiographical Memoirs," and the annotated books, were given by her to the late Sir James Fellowes, of Adbury House, Hants, M. D., F. R. S., to whom the letters were addressed. He and the late Sir John Piozzi Salusbury were her executors, and the present publication takes place in pursuance of an agreement with their personal representatives, the Rev. G. A. Salusbury, Rector of Westbury, Salop, and Captain J. Butler Fellowes.
Valuable additions to the original stock of materials have reached me since the announcement of the work. The Rev. Dr. Wellesley, the Principal of New Inn Hall, has kindly placed at my disposal his copy of Boswell's “Life of Johnson,” (edition of 1816), plentifully sprinkled with marginal notes by Mrs. Piozzi. The Rev. Samuel Lysons, of Hempsted Court, Gloucester, has liberally allowed me the free use of his valuable collection of books and manuscripts, including numerous letters from Mrs. Piozzi to his father and uncle, the Rev. Daniel Lysons and Mr. Samuel Lysons, the friend and correspondent of Johnson ; and I shall have many more obligations to acknowledge as I proceed.
From 1776 to 1809 Mrs. Piozzi kept a copious diary and note-book, called “ Thraliana.” Johnson thus alludes to it in a letter of September 6th, 1777: “As you have little to do, I suppose you are pretty diligent at the “Thraliana;' and a very curious collection posterity will find it. Do not remit the practice of writing down occurrences as they arise, of whatever kind, and be very punctual in annexing the dates. Chronology, you know, is the eye of history. Do not omit painful casualties or unpleasing passages ; they make the variegation of existence ; and there are many passages of which I will not promise, with Æneas, et hæc olim meminisse juvabit.” “ Thraliana," which at one time she thought of burning, is now in the possession of Mr. Salusbury, who deems it of too private and delicate a character to be submitted to strangers, but has kindly supplied me with some curious passages and much valuable information extracted from it.
Unless Mrs. Piozzi's character and social position are freshly remembered, her reminiscences and literary remains will lose much of their interest and utility. It has, therefore, been thought advisable to recapitulate, by way of introduction, what has been ascertained from other sources concerning her: especially during her intimacy with Johnson, which lasted nearly twenty years, and exercised a marked influence on his tone of mind.
“ This year (1765),” says Boswell, “ was distinguished by his (Johnson) being introduced into the family of Mr. Thrale, one of the most eminent brewers in England, and member of Parliament for the borough of Southwark. . .... Johnson used to give this account of the rise of Mr. Thrale's father : “He worked at six shillings a week for twenty years in the great brewery, which afterwards was his own. The proprietor of it had an only daughter, who was married to a nobleman. It was not fit that a peer should continue the business. On the old man's death, therefore, the brewery was to be sold. To find a purchaser for so large a property was a difficult matter; and, after some time, it was suggested, that it would be advisable to treat with Thrale, a sensible, active, honest man, who had been employed in the house, and to transfer the whole to him for thirty thousand pounds, security being taken upon the property. This was accordingly settled. In eleven years Thrale paid the purchasemoney. He acquired a large fortune, and lived to be a member of Parliament for Southwark. But what was most remarkable was the liberality with which he used his riches. He gave his son and daughters the best education. The esteem which his good conduct procured him from the nobleman who had married his master's daughter, made him be treated with much attention ; and his son, both at school and at the University of Oxford, associated with young men of the first rank. His allowance from his father, after he left college, was splendid ; not less than a thousand a year. This, in a man who had risen as old Thrale did, was a very extraordinary instance of generosity. He used to say, “If this young dog does not find so much after I am gone as he expects, let him remember that he has had a great deal in my own time.”
What is here stated regarding Thrale's origin, on the alleged authority of Johnson, is incorrect. The elder Thrale was the nephew of Halsey, the proprietor of the brewery, whose daughter was married to a nobleman (Lord Cobham), and he naturally nourished hopes of being his uncle's successor. In the Abbey Church of St. Albans there is a monument to some members of the Thrale family who died between 1676 and 1704, adorned with a shield of arms and a crest on a ducal coronet. Mrs. Thrale's marginal note on Boswell's account of her husband's family is curious and characteristic:
“ Edmund Halsey was son to a miller at St. Albans, with whom he quarrelled, like Ralph in the · Maid of the Mill,' and ran away to London with a very few shillings in his pocket. He was eminently handsome, and old Child, of the Anchor Brewhouse, Southwark, took him in as what we call a broomstick clerk, to sweep the yard, &c. Edmund Halsey behaved so well he was soon preferred to be a house-clerk, and then, having free access to his master's table, married his only daughter, and succeeded to the business upon Child's demise. Being now rich and prosperous, he turned his eyes homewards, where he learned that sister Sukey had married a hard-working man at Offley in Hertfordshire, and had many children. He sent for one of them to London (my Mr. Thrale's father); said he would make a man of him, and did so, but made him work very hard, and treated him very roughly, Halsey being more proud than tender, and his only child, a daughter, married to Lord Cobham.
“Old Thrale, however, as these fine writers call him, — then a young fellow, and, like his uncle, eminent for personal beauty, - made himself so useful to Mr. Halsey that the weight of the business fell entirely on him; and while Edmund was canvassing the borough and visiting the viscountess, Ralph Thrale was getting money both for himself and his principal, who, envious of his success with a wench they both liked, but who preferred the young man to the old one, died, leaving him never a guinea, and he bought the brewhouse of Lord and Lady Cobham, making an excellent bargain, with the money he had saved.”
When, in the next page but one, Boswell describes Thrale as presenting the character of a plain, independent English squire,