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The license of our press is a frequent topic of complaint. But here is a woman who had never placed herself before the public in any way so as to give them a right to discuss her conduct or affairs, not even as an author, made the butt of every description of offensive personality for months, with the tacit encouragement of the first moralist of the age.
On July 27th, 1785, she writes from Florence :
“We celebrated our wedding anniversary two days ago with a magnificent dinner and concert, at which the Prince Corsini and his brother the Cardinal did us the honor of assisting, and wished us joy in the tenderest and politest terms. Lord and Lady Cow. per, Lord Pembroke, and all the English indeed, dote on my husband, and show us every possible attention."
“I was tempted to observe,” says the author of “ Piozziana,” “that I thought, as I still do, that Johnson's anger on the event of her second marriage was excited by some feeling of disappointment; and that I suspected he had formed some hope of attaching her to himself. It would be disingenuous on my part to attempt to repeat her answer. I forget it; but the impression on my mind is that she did not contradict me.” Sir James Fellowes's marginal note on this passage is : “ This was an absurd notion, and I can undertake to say it was the last idea that ever entered her head ; for when I once alluded to the subject, she ridiculed the idea : she told me she always felt for Johnson the same respect and veneration as for a Pascal.”
On the margin of the passage in which Boswell says, “ Johnson's wishing to unite himself with this rich widow was much talked of, but I believe without foundation,” — she has written, “I believe so too !!” The report, however, was enough to bring into play the light artillery of the wits, one of whose best hits was ·an “ Ode to Mrs. Thrale, by Samuel Johnson, LL. D., on their approaching Nuptials,” beginning :
“If e'er my fingers touched the lyre,
In satire fierce, in pleasure gay,
Shall Sam refuse the sportive lay?
u My dearest lady, view your slave,
Behold him as your very Scrub :
Ready to write as author grave,
Or govern well the brewing tub.
“ To rich felicity thus raised,
My bosom glows with amorous fire;
'Tis I Myself am Thrale's Entire."
She has written opposite these lines, “ Whose fun was this? It is better than the other.” The other was :
“ Cervisial coctor's viduate dame,
Opinst thou this gigantick frame,
She writes opposite : “Whose silly fun was this ? Soame Jenyn's ? ”
If the notion ever crossed Johnson's mind, it must have been dismissed some time prior to her marriage, which took place four months before his death in his seventy-sixth year. But the threatened loss of a pleasant house may have had a good deal to do with the sorrowing indignation of his set. Her meditated social extinction amongst them might have been commemorated in the words of the French epitaph :
“ Ci git une de qui la vertu
Which may be freely rendered :
“Here lies one who adulation
By dinners more than virtues earned;
The following paragraph is copied from the note-book of the late Miss Williams Wynn,* who had recently been reading a large collection of Mrs. Piozzi's letters to a Welsh neighbor :
* Daughter of Sir Watkyn Wynn (the fourth baronet) and granddaughter of George Grenville, the Minister. She was distinguished by her literary taste and acquirements, as well as highly esteemed for the uprightness of her character, “ London, March, 1825. — I have had an opportunity of talking to old Sir William Pepys on the subject of his old friend, Mrs. Piozzi, and from his conversation am more than ever impressed with the idea that she was one of the most inconsistent characters that ever existed. Sir William says he never met with any human being who possessed the talent of conversation in such a degree. I naturally felt anxious to know whether Piozzi could in any degree add to this pleasure, and found, as I expected, that he could not even understand her.
“ Her infatuation for him seems perfectly unaccountable. Johnson in his rough (I may here call it brutal) manner said to her,
Why, Ma'am, he is not only a stupid, ugly dog, but he is an old dog too.' Sir William says he really believes that she combated her inclination for him as long as possible; so long, that her senses would have failed her if she had attempted to resist any longer. She was perfectly aware of her degradation. One day, speaking to Sir William of some persons whom he had been in the habit of meeting continually at Streatham during the lifetime of Mr. Thrale, she said, not one of them has taken the smallest notice of me ever since: they dropped me before I had done anything wrong. Piozzi was literally at her elbow when she said this."
The hearsay of hearsay cannot be set against the uniform and - concurrent testimony of her written professions and her conduct; which show that she never regarded her second marriage as a degradation, and always took a high and independent, instead of a subdued or deprecating, tone with her alienated friends.
In a letter to a Welsh neighbor, near the end of her life, some time in 1818, she says :
“Mrs. Mostyn (her youngest daughter) has written again on the road back to Italy, where she likes the Piozzis above all people, she says, if they were not so proud of their family. Would not that make one laugh two hours before one's own death? But I remember when Lady Egremont raised the whole nation's ill
the excellence of her understanding, and the kindness of her heart. Her journals and note-books, carefully kept during a long life passed in the best society, are full of interesting anecdotes and curious extracts from rare books and manuscripts. They are now in the possession of her niece, the Honorable Mrs. Rowley.
will here, while the Saxons were wondering how Count Bruhle could think of marrying a lady born Miss Carpenter. The Lombards doubted in the mean time of my being a gentlewoman by birth, because my first husband was a brewer. A pretty world, is it not ? A Ship of Fooles, according to the old poem ; and they will upset the vessel by and by.”
This is not the language of one who wished to apologize for a misalliance.
As to Piozzi's want of youth and good looks, Johnson's knowledge of womankind, to say nothing of his self-love, should have prevented him from urging this as an objection, or as an aggravation of her offence. He might have recollected the Roman matron in Juvenal, who considers the world well lost for an old and disfigured prize-fighter; or he would have quoted Spenser's description of Lust:
“Who rough and rude and filthy did appear,
Madame Campan, speaking of Caroline of Naples, the sister of Marie Antoinette, says, she had great reason to complain of the insolence of a Spaniard named Las Casas, whom the king, her father-in-law, had sent to persuade her to remove M. Acton from the conduct of affairs and from about her person. She had told him, to convince him of the nature of her sentiments, that she would have Acton painted and sculptured by the most celebrated artists of Italy, and send his bust and his portrait to the King of Spain, to prove to him that the desire of fixing a man of superior capacity could alone have induced her to confer the favor he enjoyed. Las Casas had dared to reply, that she would be taking useless trouble ; that a man's ugliness did not always prevent him from pleasing, and that the King of Spain had too much experience to be ignorant that the caprices of a woman were inexplicable. Johnson may surely be allowed credit for as much knowledge of the sex as the King of Spain.
There is no need, however, for citing precedents or authorities on the point ; for Piozzi was about forty-one or forty-two, a year
or two younger than herself, and was not reputed ugly. Miss Seward (October, 1787) writes :
“I am become acquainted with Mr. and Mrs. Piozzi. Her conversation is that bright wine of the intellects which has no lees. Dr. Johnson told me truth when he said she had more colloquial wit than most of our literary women ; it is indeed a fountain of perpetual flow. But he did not tell me truth when he asserted that Piozzi was an ugly dog, without particular skill in his profession. Mr. Piozzi is a handsome man, in middle life, with gentle, pleasing, unaffected manners, and with very eminent skill in his profession. Though he has not a powerful or fine-toned voice, he sings with transcending grace and expression. I am charmed with his perfect expression on his instrument. Surely the finest sensibilities must vibrate through his frame, since they breathe so sweetly through his song.”
The concluding sentence contains what Partridge would call a non sequitur, for the finest musical sensibility may coexist with the most commonplace qualities. But the lady's evidence is clear and unequivocal on the essential point; and another passage from her letters may assist us in determining the precise nature of Johnson's feelings towards Mrs. Piozzi, and the extent to which his later language and conduct regarding her were influenced by pique : —
“Love is the great softener of savage dispositions. Johnson had always a metaphysic passion for one princess or another : first, the rustic Lucy Porter, before he married her nauseous mother; next the handsome, but haughty, Molly Aston ; next the sublimated, methodistic Hill Boothby, who read her Bible in Hebrew; and lastly, the more charming Mrs. Thrale, with the beauty of the first, the learning of the second, and with more worth than a bushel of such sinners and such saints. It is ridiculously diverting to see the old elephant forsaking his nature before these princesses :
6" To make them mirth, use all his might, and writhe,
His mighty form disporting.'
“ This last and long-enduring passion for Mrs. Thrale was, however, composed perhaps of cupboard love, Platonic love,