Littell's Living Age/Volume 129/Issue 1664/Mrs. Thrale (Piozzi): the Friend of Dr. Johnson - Part I
From Macmillan's Magazine.
MRS. THRALE (PIOZZI): THE FRIEND OF DR. JOHNSON.
IN TWO PARTS.
Part I. — 1741 to 1780.
Among the crowd of remarkable Englishwomen of the eighteenth century there is none concerning whom so much has been written, in her lifetime and afterwards, and whose story is so mixed up with the literary history of that period, as Hester Lynch Salusbury, known as Mrs. Thrale, afterwards Piozzi, who for twenty years was the most popular leader of literary society in London, and the acknowledged "provider and conductress" of Dr. Johnson.
Mrs. Thrale was not a little proud of her good old Welsh descent, and knew the Salusbury pedigree by heart, from old Adam de Saltzburg, who "came to England with the Conqueror," downwards. She was born in a little cottage at Bodville, in Caernarvonshire, in January 1741. Her parents were cousins — the mother, a daughter of Sir Thomas Salusbury Cotton, Bart, of Combermere in Cheshire and Llewenny Hall in Denbighshire; and the father, John Salusbury, of the Salusburys of Bachygraig, a younger branch of the same stock. Her mother's fortune of 10,000l. was spent in paying the debts of her husband; and, when John Salusbury inherited Bachygraig, he so impoverished it by looking for lead in its soil that he ended by emigrating to Nova Scotia — his wife and little girl remaining behind, and living as they best could upon the hospitality of richer Salusburys in various parts of the country. The brightest years of Hester's youth were spent with her mother at Offley Place, in Hertfordshire, the domain of her paternal uncle, Sir Thomas Salusbury, a judge of the admiralty, who had married a wealthy heiress; where, when the Nova Scotia adventure had resulted only in duels and discontents, John Salusbury rejoined his family. Uncle Thomas's heiress wife died while Hester was still a child; and then Hester's mother was to all intents and purposes the mistress of Offley Place, and her little girl was tacitly recognized as her childless uncle's heir. "Here," says Mrs. Thrale, "I reigned long, a fondled favourite;" and her richest recollections of youth and hope were connected with this Hertfordshire home.
Among Hester's early friends were Dr. Collier, a kind-hearted old dominie, who taught her Latin, logic, and rhetoric, and his friend James Harris, author of a learned treatise upon language and universal grammar. In her later life Mrs. Thrale remembered the conversations and correspondences she had had with these two old sages with an almost tearful enthusiasm.
It was in London, in one of the winters of those happy Offley years, that Hogarth made her sit for his picture of "The Lady's Last Stake." He promised her the painting should be hers; but he died soon, and it fell into other hands; and many years afterwards she saw her own young face hanging on the walls of a public exhibition in Pall Mall.
Hester Salusbury was still in her early teens when she blushed into authorship, and her first scribblings appeared anonymously, without the knowledge of her mother or Dr. Collier, in St. James's Chronicle. Her uncle shared his affections pretty equally between her and his horses. His stud was the finest in all the country round; and his house was haunted, she tells us, by young wealthy sportsmen, whom she mimicked for Dr. Collier's amusement, preferring still the dominie's learned talk and Latin lessons to the gayest wooer among them. And so matters went on until, one day, when her father and Dr. Collier were both absent from Offley Place, her uncle Thomas brought news from London that a friend of his, "a real sportsman," was coming to pay them a visit. The next day Mr. Thrale arrived; and it was not long before he won the heart, not of Hester, but of Hester's mother, who with the uncle warmly favoured his suit of her daughter. Hester's father, as soon as he discovered the matrimonial project, proudly resented Thrale's proposal. A family quarrel followed, and Hester with her parents removed to London. Then Uncle Thomas, left to his own devices, fell in love with a gay widow, his neighbour, and the home at Offley Place was irrevocably lost The poor spendthrift father, with his family pride and red-hot temper, died in December 1762. His widow inherited Bachygraig for her life, charged with 5,000l. for Hester, to which sum her uncle added another 5,000l.; and this ten thousand, with the expectation of Offley Place, constituted her wedding-portion. She was married to Mr. Thrale, on October nth, 1763, when she was twentytwo years and nine months old. "My uncle," she says, "went himself with me to church, gave me away, dined with us at Streatham Park, returned to Hertfordshire, wedded the widow, and then scarce ever saw or wrote to either of us; leaving me to conciliate as I could a husband, who was indeed much kinder than I counted on, to a plain girl, who had not one attraction in his eyes, and on whom he had never thrown five minutes of his time away in any interview unwitnessed by company even till after our wedding-day was done."
And so was begun, quietly and sadly enough, it seems, for the only two actors at present on the stage, that memorable and fascinating comedy of real life at Streatham Park which played itself out during the next twenty years.
Thrale's father, known among the friends of the son as "old Thrale," was a son of a still remoter Thrale, a poor man of that same Offley village where Hester spent her youth, and of his wife Sukey, daughter of a miller named Halsey, at St. Albans in the same county. Sukey's brother, Edmund Halsey, had run away from his home, and in the cojurse of years acquired a fortune in Child's brewery, Southwark, and married old Child's daughter. He sent for sister Sukey's son to London, "said he would make a man of him, and did so." Halsey and his nephew, Ralph Thrale, worked together until Halsey's death, by which time Ralph was rich enough to buy the brewhouse of his cousin, Halsey's daughter and heiress, who had married Lord Cobham. He lived to amass a large fortune, and was at one time member of Parliament for Southwark. "He educated his son," says Mrs. Thrale, "and three daughters, quite in a high style. His son he wisely connected with the Cobhams and their relations—Grenvilles, Lytteltons, and Pitts—to whom he lent money, while they lent assistance of every other kind, so that my Mr. Thrale was bred up at Stowe, and Stoke, and Oxford, and every genteel place." His father allowed him, on leaving the university, a thousand a year, and sent him abroad with Lord Westcote, the rich old brewer paying the expenses of both young men, that his son might have the benefit of a lord for his travelling-companion. And so young Thrale had grown up with a taste for horses and other equally expensive pleasures, and was, "when he came down to Offley to see his father's birthplace, a very handsome and well-accomplished gentleman." When, however, the young brewer proposed to marry, he found no lady whom he could persuade to live with him in the Borough, where a dwelling-house was attached to the brewery. And Hester Salusbury might also have refused to do this, but that she never saw either the Borough house or Streatham Park until she was taken to dwell there. After her marriage she found plenty to observe and to brood over in her new home besides the dinginess of its neighbourhood. Her husband, seventeen years her senior, of a grave, taciturn disposition, and with no literary tastes, assumed with her at once the position of "master;" which epithet afterwards became a household word in the family. Her "master" forbade her old pet amusement of riding and hunting as unfeminine, and reserved the joys of his hunting-box at Croydon for his own special use. She was also forbidden to interfere in domestic matters, and was not expected to know what was for dinner until it was on the table. Her mother continued to live with her whenever they were at Streatham, removing in the winter to her own mansion in Dean Street, Soho; "and thither," says Mrs. Thrale, "I went, oh, how willingly! to visit her every day."
Among her husband's bachelor acquaintances was Mr. Arthur Murphy, of some note in the literary world as a dramatist, a thoroughly pleasant fellow, with a light heart, plenty of sense, and a considerable dash of the bon vivant. Mrs. Thrale took to him at once, and liked him better than Simon Luttrell, or Georgey,. Bodens, or the gossipping old Jesuit physician who used to tell her the family secrets. It is sufficiently plain that, by the time they had been married a year, the Thrales had forfeited many times over their claim to the traditional flitch of bacon; and never was a greater boon conferred on a discontented wife than when Mr. Murphy one day persuaded Thrale over their wine "to wish for Dr. Johnson's conversation, extolling it in terms," says Mrs. Thrale, "which that of no other person could have deserved, till we were only in doubt how to obtain his company and find an excuse for the invitation." Their plans were accordingly laid; and Murphy, one winter afternoon, brought his friend, the great doctor, to dine in the Borough, to meet a certain young shoemaker, who was also a poet—Murphy cautioning Mrs. Thrale beforehand not to be surprised at Johnson's dress, figure, and behaviour. This first visit was a decided success. Johnson advised the shoemaker to give his nights and days to the study of Addison—which the shoemaker did not proceed to do; and on every subsequent Thursday through that winter of 1764-5 Johnson was again the guest of the Thrales.
The friendship thus begun matured itself on both sides until, one summer day in 1766, Mr. and Mrs. Thrale called upon Johnson in Fleet Street, and, finding him seriously ill and oppressed with melancholy, persuaded him to go on a long visit to Streatham Park. This visit extended over four months; and from that time until 1782 there was always a room set apart for Dr. Johnson both in the Borough and at Streatham. For almost all the remainder of his life, indeed, Johnson lived more with the Thrales than at his own home; spending usually the middle of each week with them, and reserving the Friday evenings for his club, and his Saturday and Sundays for Desmoulins, Williams, and the rest of the menagerie in his own den in Fleet Street.
Mrs. Thrale had heard of Dr. Johnson since she was a child in Hogarth's studio. The witty artist used to tell among his friends an excellent story, which Boswell has preserved, of his first meeting with Johnson in the house of Richardson the novelist. Hogarth and his host were talking together of the recent execution of Dr. Cameron, who had taken part in the rebellion of 1745, an d Hogarth was attempting to justify George II. for what most people regarded as very like a murder in cold blood. "While he was talking, he perceived a person standing at a window in the room, shaking his head, and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner. He concluded that he was an idiot whom his relations had put under the care of Mr. Richardson as a very good man. To his great surprise, however, this figure stalked forward to where he and Mr. Richardson were sitting, and ail at once took up the argument, and burst into an invective against George II., as one who upon all occasions was unrelenting and barbarous, mentioning many instances," etc. "In short," continues the story, "he displayed such a power of eloquence that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment and actually imagined that this idiot had been at the moment inspired." But, although Hogarth could laugh at Johnson when he liked, he was none the less one of his admirers, and was very earnest that his young friend Hester Salusbury should obtain the acquaintance, and if possible the friendship, of a man "whose conversation," he told her, "was to the talk of other men like Titian's painting compared to Hudson's." But, now, when at last the rich cadence of Johnson's voice was heard under her roof, it was not only for the sake of his brilliant and learned talk that she gave him so warm a welcome. His friendship with her and her husband was, in the truest sense, an alliance, affecting the habits of life and thought of all three.
From the first Johnson appears to have exerted himself to raise Mrs. Thrale's position in her husband's house. Thrale's well-covered table, and his clever wife, were both to Johnson's taste, as also the "potentiality of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice" which lay stored in the brewer's mighty vats. But the fox-hounds at Croydon were an incubus; nor was it long before Thrale himself was stimulated by Johnson's eloquence to new pursuits. "The scene," says his wife, "was soon to change. Fox-hounds were sold, and a seat in Parliament was suggested by our new inmate as more suitable to his dignity, more desirable in every respect." It is doubtful whether the change from the hunting-field to the House of Commons was a good one for a man of apoplectic tendencies; but in the mean time it had the effect of bringing Mrs. Thrale at once to the front. "I grew useful now, almost necessary; wrote the advertisements, looked to the treats; and people to whom I was till then unknown admired how happy Mr. Thrale must be in such a wonder of a wife."
An extensive circle and a round of social duties were the immediate result of her husband's Parliamentary life. But the society of nonentities was the least pleasure that Dr. Johnson's reforms procured for her. If he did not at once flood her rooms with the society of the Literary Club and the bas-b!eus, he at least brought her a never-failing supply, day after day, of precisely that kind of literary gossip and anecdote which she delighted in. She would hear of " The Traveller " of the Irish Goldsmith, published on December 19th, 1764, and would be told which lines in it were Dr. Johnson's. On one memorable evening, when Johnson was called abruptly from her dinner-table, returning in three hours, she would listen curiously to the story of the poor author who had sent for him to his lodgings in Islington,—how Johnson had found him drinking Madeira wine and fretting over a novel which lay on his table ready for the press, while his enraged landlady and the bailiffs were besieging him for rent; and how Johnson had extricated the author from his difficulty by carrying off the manuscript to the bookseller and exchanging it for a sum of ready money. It was not till ten years afterwards, Mrs. Thrale tells us, that something in Dr. Goldsmith's behaviour suggested to her that he was the man; and then Johnson confessed that he was so, and that the novel which he had sold so expeditiously for 60l. was "The Vicar of Wakefield." Boswell was away on his travels when first the Thrales and Johnson became intimate; and there had been summers at Streatham and journeys to "Brighthelmstone" before he returned. Near at hand, however, were the lions of the Literary Club, established in 1763 or 1764, the original members of which were Johnson himself, Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Topham Beauclerk, Bennet Langton, Sir John Hawkins, and Dr. Nugent, while others were added from time to time. This group included Johnson's most intimate associates, most of whom were considerably younger than himself, while all looked up to him as a kind of literary prophet or leader.
At first only heard of, these men became in time habitually the guests of Mrs. Thrale and her hospitable husband. Everybody was glad of access to a house where Johnson was sure to be found; indeed, it was often hopeless to look for him elsewhere, and the difficulty of securing his company at dinner was a subject of joke with Goldsmith: —
When come to the place where we all had to dine,
A chair-lumbered closet, just twelve feet by nine,
My friend bade me welcome, but struck me quite dumb
With tidings that Johnson and Burke would not come.
"For I knew it," he cried: "both eternally fail,
The one with his speeches, and t'other with Thrale."
Garrick the actor was another of the Johnsonian set who became intimate at Streatham Park; and, when Mrs. Thrale told him she remembered having sat on his knee while he fed her with cakes, more than twenty years ago, he did not like the story! Boswell was first invited to Streatham in 1768. "On the 5th of October," he says, "I complied with this obliging invitation, and found at an elegant villa, six miles from town, every circumstance which can make society pleasing. Johnson, though quite at home, was yet looked to with an awe tempered by affection, and seemed to be equally the care of his host and hostess."
This, indeed, may be said to have been the golden age of their friendship. "On the birthday of our eldest daughter, and that of our friend Dr. Johnson, the 17th and 18th of September," says Mrs. Thrale, "we every year made up a little dance and supper to divert our servants and their friends, putting the summer-house into their hands for the two evenings, to fill with acquaintance and merriment. Francis (Johnson's black servant) and his white wife were invited of course. She was eminently pretty, and he was jealous, as my maids told me. On the first of these days' amusements, I know not what year, Frank took offence at some attentions paid to his Desdemona, and walked away next morning to London in wrath. His master and I, driving the same road an hour after, overtook him. 'What is the matter, child,' says Dr. Johnson, 'that you leave Streatham to-day? Art sick?' 'He is jealous,' whispered I. 'Are you jealous of your wife, you stupid blockhead?' cries out his master in another tone. The fellow hesitated; and 'To be sure, sir; I don't quite approve, sir,' was the stammering reply. 'Why, what do they do to her, man? Do the footmen kiss her?' 'No, sir, no! Kiss my wife, sir! I hope not, sir!' 'Why, what do they do to her, my lad?' 'Why, nothing sir! I'm sure, sir!' 'Why, then, go back directly and dance, you dog, do! and let's hear no more of such empty lamentations.'"
Here is another of Mrs. Thrale's stories of Streatham life: —
"Dr. Johnson was always exceedingly fond of chemistry, and we made up a sort of laboratory at Streatham one summer, and diverted ourselves with drawing essences and colouring liquors. But the danger Mr. Thrale found his friend in, one day when I was driven to London and he had got the children and servants round him to see some experiments performed, put an end to all our entertainments; so well was the master of the house persuaded that his short sight would have been his destruction in a moment, by bringing him close to a fierce and violent flame. Indeed, it was a perpetual miracle that he did not set himself on fire reading abed, as was his constant custom, when exceedingly unable even to keep clear of mischief with our best help; and, accordingly, the fore-top of all his wigs was burnt by the candle down to the very network. Mr. Thrale's valet-de-chambre for that reason kept one always in his own hands, with which he met him at the parlour door when the bell had called him down to dinner; and, as he went up-stairs to sleep in the afternoon, the same man constantly followed him with another."
Johnson took a lively interest in Mr. Thrale's Parliamentary work. He accompanied Mrs. Thrale in her canvassing expeditions, when she learned by heart every nook of Southwark; and his first and favourite political pamphlet, "The False Alarm," was written in her house "between eight o'clock on Wednesday night and twelve o'clock on Thursday night; and we read it," she adds, "to Mr. Thrale when he came very late home from the House of Commons." This was in 1770. In the same year Mr. Thrale was carried from London to Streatham, insensible and dangerously ill." He recovered; but it was not long after this event that what Mrs. Thrale called "the distresses of 1772" set in.
Mr. Thrale had become involved in a fruitless speculation, suggested to him in the first instance by a quack chemist, and, without the knowledge of his family or friends, had constructed a costly manufactory of some curiously useless concoction for the preservation of wood from decay. Twenty thousand hogsheads of "this pernicious mess," as Mrs. Thrale called it, were being brewed in East Smithfield, in which all their money, and a great deal of government money besides, was swallowed up. "We had, in the commercial phrase, no beer to start for customers. We had no money to purchase with. Our clerks, insulted long, rebelled and ratted, but I held them in. A sudden run menaced the house, and death hovered over the head of its principal." The energies and sympathies of every member of the family were stimulated in this hour of distress. Until now Dr. Johnson and Thrale's mother-in-law had never been on good terms, and Mrs. Salusbury had persisted in preferring her newspaper to the doctor's conversation. Now, however, a common anxiety united them. Poor Thrale was driven to threaten suicide, and Johnson set himself to comfort the frightened women. "Fear not," he said, "the menaces of suicide; the man who has two such females to console him never yet killed himself, and will not now." Each did and gave what they could. Dr. Johnson scarcely left Thrale a moment, and "tried every artifice to amuse, as well as every argument to console him." But money, in round thousands, was after all the only effectual medicine for the broken-hearted brewer. In their distress they applied to their surest friends first. Down at Brighton there lived an old gouty solicitor, retired from business, the friend and contemporary of old Ralph Thrale. He had money; but how should they get at him, and at his heart, with this long troublesome story? "Well," says Mrs. Thrale, "first we made free with our mother's money, her little savings, about 3,000l.—'twas all she had; and, big as I was with child, I drove down to Brighthelmstone to beg of Mr. Scrase 6,000l. more—he gave it us—and Perkins, the head clerk, had never done repeating my short letter to our master, which only said: 'I have done my errand, and you soon shall see returned, whole, as I hope, your heavy but faithful messenger, H. L. T.'"
Other friends in due time volunteered their assistance, and the crisis was over. But the business was burdened with a debt of 130,000l. "Yet in nine years," continues Mrs. Thrale, "was every shilling paid; one, if not two, elections well contested; and we might at Mr. Thrale's death have had money had he been willing to listen to advice. . . . The baby that I carried lived an hour—my mother a year; but she left our minds more easy." Dr. Johnson wrote for this kind and much-suffering mother an affectionate epitaph in finely sounding Latin; and the descendant of old Adam de Saltzburg—"Nata 1707, Nupta 1739, Obiit 1773 "—slept in peace.
The events of the last three years had linked Johnson and the Thrales more closely than ever. "And who will be my biographer, do you think?" said he to Mrs. Thrale, when she was talking with him, one day in July 1773, of the events of his youth. "Goldsmith, no doubt," she replied, "and he will do it the best among us." "No, Goldy won't do," Johnson thinks; and they talk together of Dr. Taylor of Ashborne, and other old friends of Johnson, who know his life and love him better. "After my coming to London," he said, "to drive the world about a little, you must all go to Jack Hawkesworth for anecdotes. I lived in great familiarity with him, though I think there was not much affection, from the year 1753 till the time Mr. Thrale and you took me up. I intend, however," he continued, "to disappoint the rogues, and either make you write the life with Taylor's intelligence, or, which is better, do it myself after outliving you all."
The journey of Boswell and Johnson to the Hebrides took place in the autumn of 1773, and it was in Skye that he wrote the graceful Latin ode to Mrs. Thrale, consisting of five stanzas, which ends thus:—
Seu viri curas, pia nupta, mulcet,
Seu fovet mater sobolem benigna,
Sive cum libris novitate pascit Sedula mentem;
Sit memor nostri, fideique merces
Stet fides constans, meritoque blandum
Thraliæ discant resonare nomen Littora Skiæ.
The following is a literal translation of the entire ode:—
I am roaming through lands where the barren rock mingles its stony ruins with the clouds; where the savage country laughs at the unfruitful labours of the peasant.
I am wandering among races of uncultivated men; where life, adorned by no culture, is neglected and deformed, and, foul with the smoke of peat, lurks obscure.
Amid the hardships of this long tour, amid the babble of an unknown tongue, in how many strains do I ask myself, "How fares sweet Thrale?"
Whether she, dutiful spouse, soothes her husband's cares, or whether, indulgent mother, she fondles her offspring, or whether, amid the society of books, she nourishes her mind with new knowledge;
May she be mindful of me! May faith, the reward of faith, remain constant! And may the shores of Skye learn to resound the name of Thrale so justly dear.
While her name was resounding thus eloquently among the mountains of the Celt, Mrs. Thrale herself was hard at work in the counting-house of the brewery, and superintending the conduct of her Welsh estates. Mr. Perkins, head clerk, was away on a commercial journey, and to him she wrote: "Mr. Thrale is still upon his little tour. I opened a letter from you at the counting-house this morning, and am sorry to find you have so much trouble with Grant and his affairs. . . . Careless, of the 'Blue Posts,' has turned refractory, and applied to Hoare's people, who have sent him in their been I called on him to-day, however, and by dint of an unwearied solicitation (for I kept him at the coach-side a full half-hour) I got his order for six butts more as the final trial."
It was a terrible disappointment to this energetic little woman of business to discover, upon the death, in 1773, of her uncle, Sir Thomas Salusbury, that he had bequeathed Offley Place and its 2,000l. a year of revenue to a distant relative, thus depriving her of what she had hitherto regarded as her inheritance. And the blow fell with peculiar heaviness now, when she would so gladly have brought some grist of her own to the mill.
In 1774 Johnson spent some weeks at Streatham, "to be nursed;" and in the autumn of that year he accompanied the Thrales and their eldest child, Hester, whom they called "Queeney," upon a tour in Wales, where they visited various Welsh relations, and looked up Bachygraig, the family mansion of Mrs. Thrale's father. They found a ruined house, two hundred years old, and no garden. Johnson had dreamt of something finer, and was disappointed. Mrs. Thrale was equally disappointed on this occasion in Johnson. He was eminently a poor traveller, short-sighted and deaf, and could not believe in beauties which he neither heard nor saw. His irritable temper was also a sore trial to his travelling-companions. "I remember, sir," said Mrs. Thrale long afterwards, when the talk one evening at Streatham was of Johnson's severe and bitter speeches, "I remember, sir, when we were travelling in Wales, how you called me to account for my civility to the people. 'Madam,' you said, 'let me have no more of this idle commendation of nothing. Why is it that whatever you see, and whoever you see, you are to be so indiscriminately lavish of praise?' 'Why, I'll tell you, sir,' said I: 'when I am with you and Mr. Thrale and Queeney, I am obliged to be civil for four.'"
Nor was it only in Wales that the incivilities of Johnson annoyed Mrs. Thrale. Mr. Thrale would sometimes check him by saying coldly, "There, there! now we have had enough for one lecture, Dr. Johnson; we will not be upon education any more till after dinner, if you please."
He lived, Mrs. Thrale tells us, always upon the verge of a quarrel: and she relates how one evening, for example, she came into the room where he and a gentleman had been conversing, and found that a lady who had walked in two minutes before "had blown them both into a flame" by whispering something to Johnson's companion. It was in vain to make explanations, or to attempt to pacify him; the doctor's suspicions were all alive.
"And have a care, sir," he was saying just as Mrs. Thrale entered the room; "the old lion will not bear to be tickled." The gentleman was pale with rage, the lady weeping at the confusion she had caused; "and," adds Mrs. Thrale, "I could only say with Lady Macbeth —
So! you've displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting
With most admired disorder."
It was as much as Mrs. Thrale could do during the next two or three years to keep her wits clear and her heart from breaking. Business troubles were, it is true, subsiding; but others and heavier were taking their place, which no buoyancy of spirit could overcome, nor friendly skill alleviate. Her husband's health was broken; her children were falling ill, and two or three of them died in rapid succession. No wonder she replied to the dictatorial and exacting letters of her old friend with some petulance: "You ask, dear sir, if I keep your letters. To be sure I do. . . . My only reason to suppose that we should dislike looking over the correspondence twelve or twenty years hence was because the sight of it would not revive the memory of cheerful times at all. God forbid that I should be less happy then than now, when I am perpetually bringing or losing babies, both very dreadful operations to me, and which tear mind and body in pieces very cruelly." And again: "You say, too, that I shall not grow wiser in twelve years, which is a bad account of futurity; but if I grow happier I shall grow wiser, for, being less chained down to surrounding circumstances, what power of thinking my mind naturally possesses will have fair play at least." The death of their eldest son, in 1776, then a promising youth already at school, and the pride of Streatham Park, was a heart-breaking matter to both parents. "Poor dear, sweet, little boy!" Johnson wrote tenderly on hearing the news of his death; "I loved him as I never expect to love any other little boy: but I could not love him as a parent. I know that such a love is a laceration of the mind. I know that a whole system of hopes and designs and expectations is swept away at once, and nothing is left but bottomless vacuity. What you feel I have felt, and hope that your disquiet will be shorter than mine." The old man is remembering his wife, dead twenty-four years ago, and the tears are falling while he writes.
It was two years after this event when Dr. Burney took his daughter, the authoress of "Evelina," to visit Mr. and Mrs. Thrale at Streatham. By that time Streatham Park had come to be the headquarters of literary society; and for the young novelist, still trembling on the threshold of public life, this was, to use her own words, "the most consequential day she had spent since her birth." The white house upon the common, pleasantly situated in a fine paddock, with hothouses and kitchen-gardens about it, and its like well stocked with perch, peeps out vividly enough from the pages of her amusing "Diary and Letters." The central feature of the house itself was the library. Here the books had been selected by Dr. Johnson, and the friendly faces which hung above them were, one and all, the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Over the fireplace were Mrs. Thrale and her eldest daughter, "pretty Queeney," as Johnson used to call her. Mr. Thrale was above the door which led to his study; and the collection round the room included Dr. Johnson, Mr. Murphy, Burke, Dr. Burney, Garrick, Goldsmith, Sir Joshua himself, and other intimate friends of the hospitable brewer. These formed the nucleus of the society of Streatham Park; these were the great few who have made the memory of the white house on the common immortal. But in 1778, as in 1765, the two most familiar faces by the Streatham fireside were still Mr. Murphy's and Dr. Johnson's. There was also a Lady Ladd, Thrale's sister, once a beauty, six feet high, and with very strong opinions concerning " the respect due from the lower class of the people." "I know my place," she would say, "and I always take it, and I've no notion of not taking it; but Mrs. Thrale lets all sorts of people do just as they've a mind by her." Dr. Johnson and Lady Ladd were very good friends; and, when he accosted her ladyship in verse —
With patches, paint, and jewels on,
Sure Phillis is not twenty-one;
But, if at night you Phillis see,
The dame at least is forty-three!—
"I know enough of that forty-three," she would cry good-naturedly; "I don't desire to hear any more of it!"
A distinguished visitor at Streatham was Mrs. Montagu, authoress of the "Essay on the Genius and Learning of Shakespeare," the most blue of the blue-stocking ladies who did homage to Johnson.
"To-morrow, sir, Mrs. Montagu dines here, and then you will have talk enough," says Mrs. Thrale. Dr. Johnson begins to seesaw, with a countenance strongly expressive of inward fun; then suddenly addresses Miss Burney—"Down with her, Burney! down with her, spare her not! attack her, fight her, and down with her at once! You are a rising wit, and she is at the top; and, when I was beginning the world and was nothing and nobody, the joy of my life was to fire at all the established wits, and then everybody loved to halloo me on. But there is no game now; everybody would be glad to see me conquered; but then, when I was new, to vanquish the great ones was all the delight of my poor little dear soul. So, at her, Burney—at her, and down with her!" But the prim little novelist will not bark, and Dr. Johnson "Evelinas" her, folds his ample arm around her not reluctant waist, and blows her trumpet for her—in vain. Mrs. Thrale also is charmed with her novel, and lionizes her to her heart's content, but good-naturedly attacks her morbid shyness. "Now you have a new edition coming out, why should you not put your name to it?" Cries Burney, "Oh, ma'am, I would not for the world!" "And why not?" exclaims her hostess; "come, let us have done now with all this diddle-daddle!" When at last Miss Burney was roughly handled by the pamphleteers of the day, and half starved herself for vexation, Mrs. Thrale wrote upbraiding her behaviour, but added: "What hurts me most is lest you should like me the less for this letter. Yet I will be true to my own sentiments and send it; if you think me coarse and indelicate, I can't help it. You are twenty odd years old, and I am past thirty-six—there's the true difference." (The little lady was past thirty-eight, if the unhappy truth be told.) "I have lost seven children, and been cheated out of two thousand a year, and I cannot, indeed I cannot, sigh and sorrow over pamphlets and paragraphs."
But, although Burney could not bark, she could bite. Among the vivid and sarcastic pictures she has drawn of the guests at Streatham is one of Boswell, just arrived from Scotland, and on a morning visit to Streatham, where she met him for the first time. At luncheon "little Burney" sat next to Johnson, and Boswell, driven from his usual post of honour, and knowing nothing as yet of "Evelina" or its authoress, sulkily drew another chair, as near as he could place it, behind them. His attention to Johnson's talk as usual amounted almost to pain. "His eyes goggled with eagerness; he leant his ear almost on the shoulder of the doctor; and his mouth dropt open to catch every syllable that might be uttered." While he was in this rapt state, Dr. Johnson, who had concluded him to be at the other end of the table, called out good-naturedly, "Bozzy!" and discovering by the sound of the reply how close Bozzy was, turned angrily round upon him, and clapping his hand rather loudly on his knee, said in a tone of displeasure, "What do you do there, sir? Go to the table, sir!" Off went poor Bozzy in sore affright to a distant seat; but presently was running about to look for something he wished to exhibit to the company. "What are you thinking of, sir?" cried the doctor again authoritatively; "why do you get up before the cloth is removed? Come back to your place, sir!"—adding, with hidden fun, as he recollected a favourite character in "Evelina," "Running about in the middle of meals! One would take you for a !Brangton!"
Among the Streathamite ladies was Miss Sophia Streatfield, a pupil of Mr. Thrale's old dominie, Dr. Collier, of Offley. She was about five years younger than Mrs. Thrale, and her beauty, coquetry, and reputation for learning made her a formidable rival. Mr. Thrale's head was completely turned by her, and his little wife, who endured with tolerable good-humour his flirtations which she did not see, was considerably provoked by this one which went on at a gala pace under her own eyes. A golden age was this for blue-stockingism in England! Mrs. Thrale was as jealous of Sophia's Greek as she was of her beauty. "Here is Sophia Streatfield again," she writes in her diary, "handsomer than ever, and flushed with new conquests. The Bishop of Chester feels her power, I am sure. She showed me a letter from him that was as tender and had all the tokens upon it Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 129.djvu/297 bring back at his will her youth, her dead children's voices, her gay spirit?
Never in her best days had her spirits been gayer than on one memorable evening in the winter of 1779-80, at Dr. Burney's house in St. Martin's ^Street, where a number of people had been invited to meet the Thrales and Dr. Johnson. In the company were Mrs. Greville and Mrs. Crewe, the one a "wit" of some celebrity and authoress of an "Ode to Indifference," the other the most admired court beauty of her day. All of them had come to talk and to hear Dr. Johnson talk, and it is probable, too, that Mrs. Greville and Mrs. Thrale were looking forward to a friendly tilt to themselves in the course of the evening. But among the guests was a new singer from Paris, a Signor Piozzi, and Dr. Burney must, forsooth, exhibit his new lion before the old ones were allowed to roar. Now, Dr. Johnson did not know a fugue of Bach from a street cry, nor were some others present much wiser. When, therefore, Piozzi took his place at the piano and sung them one scena after another, it was for most of them simply a monopoly of noise on his part, and for them, a condemnation to silence. Mrs. Thrale alone was at her ease. She feared nobody; not Dr. Johnson, sitting abstractedly with his back to the piano; not the plaintive Greville, who was perhaps conning her own "Ode;" nor the beautiful Crewe, with her shepherdess airs and court smiles. A sudden sense of the ridiculous position they are in lifts her spirits altogether beyond her own control; and, while the rest of the guests are sitting round the room in frigid silence, she glides on tiptoe behind the singer, and begins imitating his gestures, squaring her little elbows, shrugging her shoulders, casting up her eyes—doing all of the aria parlante, in short, except its music. Dr. Johnson does not see the dumb show, but the ladies open their eyes wider, and Dr. Burney is shocked. With an air of dignified censure, the historian of music conducts the culprit back to her chair, whispering remonstrance; and Mrs. Thrale, with admirable good temper, accepts his rebuke and sits down like a pretty little miss, for the rest of a humdrum party: in her own heart, however—need we doubt it?—thinking Dr. Burney "a blockhead," to have wasted such a chance of a brilliant evening.
- ↑ More than forty years after this ode was written Sir Walter Scott visited Skye with a party of friends, and had the curiosity to ask "what was the first idea in every one's mind at landing." All answered, separately, that it was Johnson's Latin ode.