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A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions/The Editor and Mrs Piozzi

< A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions


Dr B. Hill's animosity to Mrs Piozzi, and indeed to most of the ladies who figure in his chronicle, is extraordinary. She was a forger, a fabricator of letters, and a clumsy fabricator too. For his charges there is hardly any foundation, save in his own morbid imaginings. There seems a lack of literary propriety in thus assailing a pleasant, volatile woman, whose little failings were more or less privileged, and were treated indulgently by one greater than the editor. What will be said of this? When her husband was ill she used to write his "franks" for him. In this, the editor actually assures us solemnly, she was guilty of felony, "and had incurred the penalty of seven years' transportation (vide Gentleman's Magazine, 1764)," for in 1783, a young gentleman was sentenced for this very offence. The reader need not be reminded that the cases were utterly different, the felony of the latter being the imitating a member's name with some criminal intent, either to defraud the revenue or the member in question. Mrs Piozzi did it, of course, with her husband's sanction, as an amanuensis. But it is childish discussing such a point.

On another occasion, in January 1783, she ha] written from Bath a distracted letter as to her children—"Harriet is dead, Cicely is dying,"—on which the editor with much scorn: "Why she had left her dying child, and the other who was thought to be dying, to strangers to nurse she forgot to say." I can inform Dr B. Hill. One of her children was not dying, but had died some time before; for Johnson says, "I am glad you went to Streatham, though you could not save her," so she had not left her to strangers. The other child was at school at Kensington, and the reason the mother was not with her was that she herself was most seriously ill, as on getting into the chaise she was obliged to give up her journey to go back to her room.

In his ardour to prove the lady a "fabricator" of her own letters, the editor gets into strange confusion. Johnson had written a letter to Mrs Thrale, dated September 13, 1777, as to which the editor pronounces authoritatively, "This must be an answer to one of her's, dated five days later," that is, of September 18. So she had either misplaced the letter or altered or mistaken the date. He proves it in this way. In his letter of the I3th Johnson spoke of Queenie, and that she had no consumptive symptoms; Mrs Thrale was not to be alarmed, etc. He adds, "You must not let foolish fancies take hold on your imagination." In this, Dr B. Hill contends, Johnson refers to her letter of the 18th, where she had spoken of their alarm on finding they had "sat down thirteen to table."

He also mentioned a lady's son who was in danger, a real evil, not an imaginary one, as was Queenie's case Having in a preceding letter, dated the 8th, written of this lady and her son, he now comes back to the subject and moralises, adding, "Now I write again, having just received your letter dated the 10th." Thus here are three letters in regular order—the 8th, 10th, and 13th, all dealing with the same topic. It is clear, therefore, so far that the letter of the 13th is in its right place. Now for Mrs Thrale's answer of the 18th, which it is said should have come before Johnson's of the 13th. She writes that on the 17th they had sat down to table thirteen a bad omen for Queenie and Murphy had noted her hectic complexion. Hence the argument is that Johnson had answered that it was a "foolish fancy," that there was no danger of consumption, etc. But this is clearly an answer to Mrs Thrale's of the 10th (not given), in which, as we have seen, she had shown alarm.

But let us read the two letters, Johnson's and Mrs Thrale's, which follow each other, but are said to be misplaced. What will be said to this? At the end of Mrs Thrale's letter of the 18th, she writes, "Mr Thrale is cured of his passion for Lady R.," and Johnson answers her on the 2Oth, "Master is very inconstant to Lady R." In the same letter he writes, "Pretty dear Queenie, I hope you will never lose her, though I should go to Lichfield and she should sit thirteenth in many a company." Mrs Thrale had written on the 18th that something always happened when he went to Lichfield, and Johnson replies that she would still live though he did go to Lichfield, and she did sit thirteenth at many a table. Then Mrs Thrale writes, "How could I write so much, and from Streatham?" and Johnson answers, "You have no thing to say because you live at Streatham, and expect me to say much, etc." Thus here are four topics mentioned by Mrs Thrale, with four replies by Johnson. Surely his letter of the 20th is an answer to hers, and should not be placed before hers, as Dr B. Hill contends. The editor's speculation is therefore all wrong.

Dr B. Hill sometimes does not seem to under stand or recognise the sage's turn of thought. Johnson wrote to Mrs Thrale that he had been much entertained by Bozzy's "Journal": "One would think the man had been hired to be a spy upon me." Surely this is "a pointed" utterance, forcible, Johnsonian, and quite in character, Wonderful to say, Dr B. Hill will not have it. But how did it get into one of Johnson's letters? Why, the woman forged it! Such is the critical faculty of our editor.

In one of Johnson's printed letters are found the words "futile pictures," which refer to Miss Knowles's embroideries. It was contended that what he really wrote was "sutile pictures." "This initial s, being always formed like an f, was here absurdly taken for one." Thus the editor. The point is a little perplexing, and it will be seen, quite escapes Dr B. Hill, who rather clouds the matter by the misstatement that Johnson always used this particular s at the beginning of a word. "Sutile" is certainly what one might expect Johnson to say; but here is the difficulty. The long s, which resembles an f, is used by Johnson only in the middle of a word, and indeed is almost always used by other writers with the double s. In fac-simile letter supplied by Dr B. Hill we have the small s used four or five times by Johnson at the beginning of a word, as in "safely," "succeed," "separate," "so," and the long s used in the middle, as in "yourself." This seems almost conclusive, and at least disposes of the editor's statement that Johnson's "initial s was always formed like an f." There was no absurdity therefore in the case. One writer says that he had seen the original, and this "dark line had been put across the letter perhaps by the printer or corrector." But this again is doubtful enough. Printers or cor rectors do not thus alter original MS. Again, if "sutile" is Johnsonian, so is "futile." For to him these pictures thus worked or embroidered would seem a "futile" occupation enough.

Johnson appealed to friends to support "a benefit for a gentlewoman of ——" the name of the place being illegible. The editor thinks that the word "is something like Lournitz," which, he speculates, "is perhaps the name of the place in South Wales whence Miss Williams came." Thus it may be Lournitz; and Lournitz may be the place from which Miss Williams came. But apart from these two wonderful "may be's," a "gentlewoman of Lournitz" would be no claim for relief. The word was clearly descriptive. "A gentlewoman of position " or of good birth, for the next words are " distressed by blindness."