Littell's Living Age/Volume 129/Issue 1669/Mrs. Thrale (Piozzi): the Friend of Dr. Johnson - Part II
From Macmillan's Magazine.
MRS. THRALE: THE FRIEND OF DR. JOHNSON.
IN TWO PARTS.
Such was the little Welshwoman's first reception of her future husband, and her friends and foes remembered it long afterwards. It was not, however, until August 1780, and then at Brighton, that she made Signor Piozzi's acquaintance.
Brighton was dull enough for her that season. Dr. Johnson was in hot, empty London, fining at Sir Joshua's with Mrs. Cholmondeley, busy with his "Lives," and writing letters to Mrs. Thrale. "I stay at home to work," he told her, "and yet do not work diligently; nor can I tell when I shall have done, nor perhaps does anybody but myself wish me to have done; for what can they hope I shall do better? Yet I wish the work was over and I was at liberty. And what would I do if I was at liberty? Would I go to Mrs. Aston and Mrs. Porter, and all the old places, and sigh to find that my old friends are gone? Would I recall plans of life which I never brought into practice, and hopes of excellence which I once presumed and never have attained? Would I compare what I now am with what I once expected to have been?" And he adds: "If you please, madam, we will have an end of this, and contrive some other wishes. I wish I had you in an evening, and I wish I had you in a morning; and I wish I could have a little talk, and see a little frolick. For all this I must stay; but life will not stay." Miss Burney was also in London, drinking tea in Bolt Court, calling upon Sophy, and picking up gossip among her high friends about Lord George Gordon, who was now safe in the Tower. The prim little worldling would, in spite of her airs, be fine company now at Brighton. "My master," Mrs. Thrale writes to her, "is gone out riding, and we are to drink tea with Lady Rothes; after which the Steyne hours begin, and we cluster round Thomas's shop and contend for the attention of Lord John Clinton, a man who could, I think, be of consequence in no other place upon earth, though a very well-informed and modest-mannered boy. Dr. Pepys is resolutely and profoundly silent; and Lady Shelley, having heard wits commended, has taken up a new character, and says not only the severest, but the crudest things you ever heard in your life. Here is a Mrs. K———, too, sister to the Duchess of M———, who is very uncompanionable indeed, and talks of Tumbridge. These, however, are all the people we ever speak to—oh, yes, the Drummonds, but they are scarce blest with utterance." But, while she complains of mere tedium, her heart is heavy with a sense of coming evil. Another Parliamentary election is pending, while her husband's health causes her hourly anxiety for his life; her letters to Johnson are few and far between, and with but little "frolick" in them. The philosopher grows captious. "I hope," he wrote, "you have no design of stealing away to Italy before the election, nor of leaving me behind you, though I am not only seventy, but seventy-one. Could you not let me lose a year in round numbers? Sweetly, sweetly sings Dr. Swift:
Some dire misfortune to portend,
No enemy can match a friend.
But what if I am seventy-two? I remember Sulpitius says of Saint Martin (now that's above your reading), 'Est animus victor annorum et senectuti cedere nescius.' Match me this among your young folks! If you try to plague me, I shall tell you that, according to Galen, life begins to decline from thirty-five." And again, in still more irritable mood: "You write of late very seldom. I wish you would write upon subjects; anything to keep me alive. You have your beaux and your flatterers, and here am poor I, forced to flatter myself; and any good of myself I am not very easy to believe, so that I really live but a sorry life. What shall I do with Lyttelton's life? I can make a short life and conclude. Why did not you like Collins, and Gay, and Blackmore, as well as Akenside?" The lady takes up her pen at last, and can write brilliantly enough when she chooses, and whet his appetite for more. She has been reading his last "Lives," and has some piquant criticism for each of them. Then:—"And now, if you call this flattery, I can leave off in a minute without bidding; for, since you lions have no skill in dandling the kid, we kids can expect but rough returns for caresses bestowed upon our haughty monarch. So be diligent, dear sir, and have done with these men that have been buried these hundred years, and don't sit making verses that never will be written; but sit down steadily and finish their lives who did do something. And then, think a little about mine, which has not been a happy one, for all you tease me so concerning the pleasures I enjoy, and the flattery I receive, all which has nothing to do with comfort for the present distress; and sometimes I am angry when I read such stuff."
It was about the time when these letters were travelling to and fro between Johnson and Mrs. Thrale that, walking with Queeney early one morning on the cliff at Brighton, Mrs. Thrale saw Piozzi standing at the library door, and accosted him in Italian. Her impromptu proposal that he should give Miss Thrale a lesson or two was on that occasion coldly declined. He had come to Brighton for his health, was composing some music, and lived in great retirement. He did not remember her, in fact; and the ladies continued their walk, disappointedly. On their way homey passing again the library door, Piozzi, no doubt instructed in the mean time by the gossiping librarian, started out of the shop, apologized for not knowing Mrs. Thrale before, and protested his readiness to obey her commands. And so their acquaintance began. In her diary occur the following jottings:— "Brighton, July, 1780. I have picked up Piozzi here, the great Italian singer. He is amazingly like my father: he shall teach Hester." And again:—"13th August, 1780. Piozzi is become a prodigious favourite with me. He is so intelligent a creature, so discerning, one can't help wishing for his good opinion; his singing surpasses everybody's for taste, tenderness, and true elegance; his hand on the forte piano, too, is so soft, so sweet, so delicate, every tone goes to the heart, I think, and fills the mind with emotions one would not be without, though inconvenient enough sometimes. He wants nothing from us; he comes for his health, he says; I see nothing ail the man but pride."
Towards the close of this eventful August, soon after their return to London, Mr. Thrale was attacked with apoplexy. Sir Lucas Pepys, being with them at Brighton, had observed symptoms of danger in his patient, and had sent him home, not to Streatham, but to a furnished house in Grosvenor Square, to be within easy reach of himself. It was too late, however; the crisis came, and the brewer's life was saved only by bleeding him till he fainted. Once more Mrs. Thrale's energy for business is called into play. She is at the counting-house daily, chases a clerk who has absconded with money, discovers new ruinous speculations of her husband, and does her best to straighten matters around him. The election too is not far off. In March 1781 she writes to Johnson:—"I am willing to show myself in Southwark or in any place for my master's pleasure or advantage, but have no present conviction that to be re-electecl would be advantageous, so shattered a state as his nerves are in just now. Do not you, however, fancy for a moment that I shrink from fatigue, or desire to escape from doing my duty. Spiting one's antagonist is a reason that never ought to operate, and never does operate with me. I care nothing about a rival candidate's innuendoes; I care only about my husband's health and fame; and, if we find that he earnestly wishes to be once more member for the Borough,—he shall be member, if anything done or suffered by me will help to make him so." The dying man, heavy half his time with apoplectic sleep, still made love to Sophy, and was intent on enjoying his life. Grosvenor Square was gayer than ever Streatham had been. "Yesterday," writes Mrs. Thrale, "I had a conversazione. Mrs. Montagu was brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgment, critical in talk. Sophy smiled, Piozzi sung, Pepys panted with admiration, Johnson was good-humoured, Lord John Clinton attentive, Dr. Bowdler lame, and my master not asleep. Mrs. Ord looked elegant, Lady Rothes dainty, Mrs. Davenant dapper, and Sir Philip's curls were all blown about by the wind. Mrs. Byron rejoices that her Admiral and I agree so well. The way to his heart is connoisseurship, it seems; and for a background and contour—who comes up to Mrs. Thrale, you know!"
On Sunday, April 1st, there were at dinner, at Grosvenor Square, Boswell, Johnson, Sir Philip Jennings Clark, M.P., and Mr. Perkins, the head clerk at the brewery. The talk was of the American war; and Johnson's "boisterous vivacity," says Boswell, "entertained us. Presently Mrs. Thrale chanced to praise highly a witty friend of her own. 'Nay, my dear lady,' replied Johnson, 'don't talk so,' and proceeded to turn her friend into ridicule, and to scold her for her habit of blasting by praise. 'Now there is Pepys' (Mr. Thrale's physician); 'you praised that man with such disproportion that I was incited to lessen him, perhaps more than he deserved. His blood is upon your head. By the same principle your malice defeats itself; for your censure is too violent. And yet,' looking to her," says Boswell, "with a leering smile, 'she is the first woman in the world could she but restrain that wicked tongue of hers; she would be the only woman could she but command that little whirligig.'" Mr. Perkins must have felt himself much edified by this discriminating censure of his master's wife, while Boswell, no doubt, strained every nerve to fix the delicious words upon his memory. But the end of it all was near. On April 4th, 1781, in the midst of preparations for a magnificent concert and supper, another sudden stroke of apoplexy ended poor Thrale's life, and ended too, in Dr. Johnson's life, its happiest episode.
When the brewer's will was read it was found that Mrs. Thrale had the interest of 50,000l. for her life, with Streatham Park and the town-house in the Borough—the Brighton house falling to the share of the daughters. The business might be carried on conjointly by Mrs. Thrale and the executors, among whom was Dr. Johnson, or sold for what it would bring. Dr. Johnson is said to have wished to keep on the brewery; but Mrs. Thrale was the better man of business of the two, and it was sold; in June 1781, for 135,000l, to Mr. Barclay the Quaker, and her old friend Mr. Perkins, the head clerk; the dwelling-house in the Borough being thrown in at the last as a gift from Mrs. Thrale to Mrs. Perkins.
For fifteen years Johnson had called Streatham his home. The white house on the common had come to be dear and familiar to the old man beyond what he or the world knew; and he would willingly have continued a fixture there to his life's end. Any change was for him simple loss. His dear "mistress," saddened but not quite broken-hearted, with the pretty Queeney growing into womanhood at her side, and himself in her cosiest easy-chair, or presiding among the wits and notables at her sumptuous board:—this was the pleasant picture he had drawn for himself of what might still be. "Let us pray for one another," he had written to her in the early days of her widowhood; "when we meet, we may try what fidelity and tenderness will do for us." The sale of the brewery and subsequent retrenchments disturbed to a considerable degree the magnanimity of Johnson's sorrow. His dream-fabric tottered visibly. "The diminution of the estate, though unpleasing and unexpected, must," he said, "be borne, because it cannot be helped." He and she were to make good resolutions before they met, which on his side he hoped to keep; but such hopes are very deceitful, and "I would not willingly think the same of all hopes," he added, very ambiguously. From Lichfield, with poor dying Lucy Porter at his side, palsied Mrs. Aston, and other aged and ailing friends, he wrote to her:—"There is little of the sunshine of life, and my own health does not gladden me. But, to scatter the gloom, I went last night to the ball, where, you know, I can be happy even without you. On the ball, which was very gay, I looked a while, and went away." What dreams of the preposterously happy, what visions of far-off sunny Streatham, filled the old man's mind as he stood watching the dancers through dim half-closed eyes on that last night of October 1781, are not now to be recorded. The little widow's replies to his constant letters are sprightly and trim, with here and there a touch of filial tenderness, or of half-concealed pain, as when she says, "Come home, however, for 'tis dull living without you. . . . You are not happy away, and I fear I shall never be happy again in this world between one thing and another." Their reunion at the close of the year did not bring to either the comfort they expected. Signor Piozzi the singer, sent for by the queen of France, had also been absent, and was now also returned, "loaded with presents, honours, and emoluments." "When he comes, and I come," Johnson had said in one of his letters, "you will have two about you that love you; and I question if either of us heartily care how few more you have." The philosopher was already jealous; and still more so when Mrs. Thrale's pleasure in Piozzi's society increased day by day. To make matters more difficult, Johnson, now in his seventy-third year, was already sinking into an unhealthy old age. The huge frame was tortured by symptoms of asthma, dropsy, and other painful diseases, partly inherited, partly the result of unwholesome habits of living. His rich, full mind and big heart had as much of vitality as ever, or more; but the temper, never a gentle one, had become, to those who loved him most, captious, fretful, and extortionate. He had reached a period in his life when the most unfit companion for him in the world was a lady, herself weighed down with suffering and domestic anxiety, but with a spirit of joy in her that rebelled at the prospect of sorrow. By a process too natural to require explanation, Johnson's residence at Streatham became less habitual than formerly. But he continued to write from the dusky retreat of Bolt Court, dunning, as she expressed it, his old friend for kindness, wishing himself back with her at Streatham, detailing his complaints and medicines, and peevishly repining at his own old age. The tie of many years was hard to break; and, when Streatham Park was let on lease, in 1782, to Lord Shelburne, afterwards Marquis of Lansdowne, Dr. Johnson accompanied Mrs. Thrale and her family to Brighton, returning with them in the winter to Argyle Street, London, where Boswell found him, very ill but kindly tended, in the following March.
Between this last date, however, and June 17th, 1783, an irremediable break had occurred in the friendship of Johnson and Mrs. Thrale. No sooner had her husband been laid at rest beside his little son in Streatham Church than the gossips had set themselves to map out his widow's future. She was angry enough at them for fancying her "such an amorous idiot." Lord Loughborough, Sir Richard Jebb, Mr. Piozzi, Mr. Selwyn, Dr. Johnson, every man that came to the house, she complained, was put in the papers for her to marry. She wrote to the Morning Herald, begging it to say no more about her, good or bad, took refuge in the country, and had more than half a mind to leave England altogether. "One day," she writes in her diary, "the paper rings with my marriage to Johnson, one day to Crutchley, one day to Seward. I give no reason for such impertinence, but cannot deliver myself from it. Whitbread, the rich brewer, is in love with me too: oh, I would rather, as Anne Page says, be set breast deep in the earth and be bowled to death with turnips." Still, though incensed at this random gossip, Mrs. Thrale had a fair consciousness of her own eligibility and power. She remembered her wealth, her ancient lineage, her reputation for wit and learning, and triumphed to herself, between the pages of her diary, that to marry for love would be rational in her, who wanted no advancement of birth or fortune; and, "till I am in love," she added, "I will not marry, nor perhaps then." That she did eventually promise her hand to the singer Piozzi has puzzled her biographers as it at first puzzled, nay, astounded, her family and friends. They regarded the act as little less than a crime against society, her children, and herself. What could a woman with three thousand a year, half a dozen daughters, and a considerable reputation for talent, care for a man who was known only for his music? True it was, the singer had long since lost his voice, that he was neither poor, nor very handsome, nor in any sense an adventurer. He was in fact eminently respectable and harmless; and—she loved him. This fact constituted his greatest virtue and her most unpardonable folly. Johnson and Burney bemoaned together with wet eyes the weakness of their former hostess and their own loosened hold of her affection. The two drove into London from Streatham on one occasion together—Burney in the secret of the love-affair, and very grave and sad: Johnson either innocent of it or pretending to be so. But the heart of the old man was none the less heavy. "His look," says the lady, "was stern, though dejected, as he followed her into the vehicle;" and he was overcome with emotion as, with a shaking hand and pointing finger, he directed her looks to the mansion from which they were driving, and, when they faced it from the coach window as they turned into Streatham Common, tremulously exclaimed, "That house . . . is lost to me—forever!" Too long indeed had the "Streathamites" dreamt that Mrs. Thrale and all that was hers belonged to them; and now it was a bitter thing to find that she was strictly and wholly free, and knew it. Could some one among that crowd of literary men and women, who had feasted and paraded all those years in the gardens and gay rooms of Streatham, have been sufficiently heroic to think and say that she was in the right! And, still more, could that single-handed champion have been the great and revered Dr. Johnson! A word from him at that time would have silenced the whole midge swarm of discontents, with Burney at their head. And might it not have been? Might he not, sitting over his fire on his two-legged stool in Bolt Court, have called to mind her long and spirited service to her "Master," her tears over her dying babies, her bright and innocent wit, which had so often dispelled for him the gathering clouds of gloom and sickness? And might not he, the wise old man, have given due weight to the fact that all her tenderness, all her devotion, all her vanity, had hitherto been called into play only by old men, by children, by strangers! But other and less kind thoughts rankled in the heart of the old lexicographer. He joined, alas, the midge swarm; hated Piozzi, with his plain face and broken English, despised Mrs. Thrale, and let the inquisitive world know that he did so. There are few more ugly stories on record than that of Johnson's quarrel with the little widow.
Early in 1783, Mrs. Thrale was induced by the persecution of her children and the public to bid good-bye to her lover, who at her request at once gave up her letters to her eldest daughter, and prepared to leave England. The poor lady's health appeared at this time completely broken, and she was moreover much harassed by debts, the heaviest of which had been incurred by her father, and fell now upon her as his heir. Placing her younger children at school in Streatham, she left Argyle Street, and went with the elder ones to Bath, where she hoped to live in retirement, out of reach of her "friends," and to pay her debts. The little Streatham schoolgirls, however, fell ill in the spring of measles and whooping-cough, and one of them died. The poor mother, herself seriously ill, started from Bath to visit them. She lodged in Streatham, avoiding "hateful London," "for fear of encountering Piozzi's eyes somewhere." Nor did she know, until Piozzi told her long after, when all their troubles were over, that he had been sitting at a front window of a public house on the road "all that dreadful Saturday," to see her carriage pass backwards and forwards to where the children resided. She had maintained her resolution not to see him again, and returned to Bath with a heavier heart than ever. When her child died, she had written to Dr. Johnson to inform him of her trouble; but the old friends did not meet whilst she was at Streatham; and his reply to her letter beginning, "I am glad that you went to Streatham, though you could not save the dear pretty little girl," went on at once to relate how he had been dining at the opening of the exhibition, with a splendid company, and other irrelevant gossip. A few more letters passed between them; he telling her the news of the day, and praising her "placid acquiescence" in her present mode of life; she writing back in a softened, broken-hearted strain, "very sick," she says, "and a little sullen, and disposed now and then to say like King David, 'My lovers and my friends have been put away from me, and my acquaintance hid out of my sight.'" These words were probably on their way from Bath to Bolt Court when Johnson was struck dumb by paralysis on the early morning of June 17th, 1783. It was a strange impulse which made him, within a few hours of his visitation, write an elaborate and eloquent account of it to Mrs. Thrale; and this was followed up for some time by a regular diary of his disease addressed to her. Her replies amused him, and she, in her bitter solitude, accepted his lectures in a humbled spirit, and was "obliged, consoled, and delighted" by them. "You are now retired," Johnson tells her, "and have nothing to impede self-examination or self-improvement. Endeavour to reform that instability of attention which your last letter has happened to betray." Oh, soul of Quintilian! Here was stuff for your copy-book headings, with a vengeance!
Mrs. Thrale's miserable life during the year 1783, at Bath, was varied by a visit to Weymouth in the autumn, illnesses of her children in the winter, and correspondences with Dr. Johnson and Miss Burney. The last was in some sort her confidante; to her she could speak of her sufferings and their cause, and the two ladies regretted that they lived so far apart. Mrs. Thrale's daughters were now growing up about her, a bevy of proud, handsome girls, with fortunes of their own, and no little ambition of a small kind. "I have read to them," she tells Miss Burney in March 1784, "the Bible from beginning to end; the Roman and English histories; Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, and Young's works, from head to heel; Warton and Johnson's criticisms on the poets; besides a complete system of dramatic writing; and the classics—I mean English classics—they are most perfectly acquainted with. Such works of Voltaire, too, as were not dangerous, we have worked at; 'Rollin des Belles-Lettres,' and a hundred more. But my best powers are past; and I think I must look out a lady to supply my deficiency to attend them, if they should like a jaunt next summer or so; for I will not quit Bath." Here at least she had her physicians about her, who knew how ill she was, and would do their best not to let her die; but of what other friends could she say as much? Her children's utter lack of sympathy with her, and Dr. Johnson's flagrant egotism, at length exasperated the poor lady into something like vigour of speech. "You tell one of my daughters," she wrote to Johnson, "that you know not with distinctness the cause of my complaints. I believe she, who lives with me, knows it no better." The lady then scolds him roundly, and in English as eloquent as his own. "It is kind in you to quarrel no more," she says, "about expressions which were not meant to offend; but unjust to suppose I have not lately thought myself dying. Let us, however, take the Prince of Abyssinia's advice, and not add to the other evils of life the bitterness of controversy. . . . All this," she continues, relenting again, "is not written by a person in high health and happiness, but by a fellow-sufferer, who has more to endure than she can tell or you can guess; and now let us talk of the Severn salmons, which will be coming in soon: I shall send you one of the finest, and shall be glad to hear that your appetite is good." The lady did not forget her promise, and three weeks later Dr. Johnson wrote: "The Hooles, Miss Burney, and Mrs. Hull (Wesley's sister), feasted yesterday with me very cheerfully on your noble salmon. Mr. Allen could not come, but I sent him a piece, and a great tail is still left."
While Dr. Johnson was enjoying an interval of comparative good health among his London friends, Mrs. Thrale was becoming each day more ill and more unhappy; until at length her good physician, taking the matter into his own hands, informed her daughters that he must write to Signor Piozzi concerning their mother's health. Piozzi, who was living in Milan, received Dr. Dobson's welcome epistle; and in eleven days he was at her side. In the mean time Mrs. Thrale had made up her mind to be broken-hearted no more. The guardians whom Mr. Thrale had placed over her children were formally acquainted with the fact; and that the three eldest, having heard that Mr. Piozzi was coming back from Italy, had left Bath for their own house at "Brighthelmstone." But Dr. Johnson received, in addition to the "circular," the following letter:—
Bath, June 30.
My dear Sir,—The inclosed is a circular letter which I have sent to all the guardians, but our friendship demands somewhat more; it requires that I should beg your pardon for concealing from you a connection which you must have heard of by many, but I suppose never believed. Indeed, my dear sir, it was concealed only to save us both needless pain; I could not have borne to reject that counsel it would have killed me to take, and I only tell it you now because all is irrevocably settled and out of your power to prevent I will say, however, that the dread of your disapprobation has given me some anxious moments; and, though perhaps I am become by many privations the most independent woman in the world, I feel as if acting without a parent's consent till you write kindly to
Your faithful servant.
This was Dr. Johnson's reply: —
Madam,—If I interpret your letter right, you are ignominiously married: if it is yet undone, let us once more talk together. If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness; if you have forfeited your fame and your country, may your folly do no further mischief. If the last act is yet to do, I who have loved you, esteemed you, reverenced you, and served you, I who long thought you the first of womankind, entreat that, before your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see you. I was, I once was, madam, most truly yours,
I will come down if you permit it.
Mrs. Thrale lost no time, but despatched a letter by the coach, "the more speedily and effectually to prevent" the doctor's visit. She was very angry now, and bid him rather a fiery farewell. The next post brought to her a softer missive, "one more sigh of tenderness, perhaps useless, but at least sincere." Her old irascible friend did not forget, he told her, in this moment of final separation, "the kindness which had soothed twenty years of a life radically wretched." His last advice was, however, that she should induce Mr. Piozzi to settle in England, "where her fortune would be more under her own eye;" his last peroration, enforcing that advice, was an eloquent allusion to the story of Queen Mary, who had crossed the fatal Solway in spite of a similar warning, and—suffered for it.
The marriage which all the world was execrating was solemnized at Bath on July 25, 1784, and in a few weeks the Piozzis were on their way to Italy. Here, among her husband's own people and friends, Mrs. Piozzi found him popular and respected, while the proud Lombardians were at first disposed to doubt whether his wife whom he had brought to visit them could be a gentlewoman by birth, since her first husband was a brewer! The travellers were feasted and honoured wherever they went. When dukes, duchesses, marquises d'Araciel, and princes of Sisterna, showered kindness on her for Piozzi's sake, Mrs. Piozzi took good care to let her English friends hear of it. "Here's honour and glory for you!" she wrote home, in the joy of her heart. But it was not long before she had forgiven her enemies. To her children she lost no opportunity of sending presents and letters; and on December 7th, 1784, she wrote to a young law-student, Samuel Lysons, afterwards keeper of the Tower records: "Do not neglect Dr. Johnson; you will never see any other mortal so wise or so good. I keep his picture in my chamber, and his works on my chimney." A week later, and her old friend had breathed his last in his dingy home in Fleet Street, London. No sooner was the event known, and the old philosopher at rest under the stones of Westminster Abbey, than the printers were busy issuing "Anecdotes." Everybody who had a story of the dead lion was in a hurry to tell it; and of course Boswell and Mrs. Piozzi were looked to by all the world for the largest and most interesting collections. Her "Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, during the Last Twenty Years of his Life," were written in Italy immediately after the news of his death reached her, shipped off to England from Leghorn, and published in London in 1786, young Samuel Lysons making her bargain for her with Mr. Cadell the publisher.
"Judge my transport and my husband's," she wrote nearly thirty years afterwards, "when at Rome we received letters saying the book was bought with such avidity that Cadell had not one copy left when the king sent for it at ten o'clock at night, and he was forced to beg one from a friend to supply his Majesty's impatience, who sate up all night reading it." Boswell, who was preparing his "pyramid," as he called his "Life of Johnson," was outraged at this sudden flare of feminine popularity, and strove to undermine his rival's position by accusing her of inaccuracy and untruth. His efforts were in vain. The whole of the first impression of her little book was sold on the first day it was published; 300l. were lying ready for her in her publisher's hands; and her "Anecdotes" were the gossip of the whole town, although Walpole sneered at them, Hannah More yawned, and Peter Pindar grew funny.
During their residence in Italy, the Piozzis visited Salzburg in Bavaria, the ancient seat of the little Welshwoman's race; and the heralds there, examining her "schedule," acknowledged her, "to the triumphant delight of dear Piozzi," a true descendant of their own prince Adam. Mrs. Piozzi, though this was perhaps no great feather in her cap, shone with some eclat among the stars of the Delia Crusca Academy in Florence, and wrote a preface to their "Miscellany" of verses, which Walpole called "short, sensible, and genteel." On their return to London in 1787, Mr. and Mrs. Piozzi lived first in Hanover Square, and afterwards at her old home at Streatham Park. In the mean time her children had become partially reconciled to their Italian stepfather; and Cecilia, the youngest, afterwards Mrs. Mostyn, remained constantly resident with her mother. Mrs. Piozzi's old friends discovered by degrees that her marriage was after all no very dire misfortune to her or to them. Her dinners were as good a formerly, and her drawing-room was as much as ever the resort of notables and eccentrics. After a few years, Piozzi, having become enraptured during a tour with the scenery of North Wales, built an Italian villa on the banks of the Clwydd, near to his wife's ruined mansion of Bachygraig, to which they gave the pretty hybrid~name of Brynbella; and to this spot he and his wife retired in 1795. The French war in Italy in 1799 having involved Piozzi's relations in great difficulties, Mrs. Piozzi rescued from .the general wreck a nephew of her husband, whom his parents had christened John Salusbury, after herself. The little Lombardian, with recollections in his baby head of bloody scenes in fighting cities, was brought to England; and Mrs. Piozzi adopted him as her heir. When he was old enough, she placed him at the school where her own son Henry Thrale had conned his Latin grammar some thirty years before; and the young Salusbury-Piozzi was reared by Henry's mother with exceptional tenderness and care.
Mr. Piozzi died at Brynbella in 1809, and was buried at the little church there. Legends of the courteous Italian linger in the neighbourhood—of his broken English, and gentle, kindly manners. A portrait of him is preserved among the family pictures at Brynbella, which represents him as good-looking, about forty years old, in a straight-cut brown coat, with frill and ruffles, and some leaves of music in his hand; and one wing of the Italian villa which he built is still said to be haunted by the sounds of his violin. During his life Mr. Piozzi had attended with much prudence and economy to the somewhat confused money matters of his little wife. He had steered her safely through her debts; and at his death he left her mistress of everything they possessed, except a few thousands which he had saved before their marriage, and which he bequeathed to his relatives in Italy.
The loss of her husband left Mrs. Piozzi once more solitary in the world; but no sorrow, not even the greatest sorrow of remembering happier things, could quench now the sunshine which filled her life. During the twelve years which remained for her, we see her, in her letters, and in the records of her friends, still happy, still triumphant, still supremely satisfied. For her, old age was no uglier, no sadder, than a plucked flower that lies doomed and sweet in the sunlight. She had had her full share of earthly joy, and the brightest day in her calendar was ever the anniversary of her second marriage. "No, my dear sir," she wrote to a friend from Bath in 1817, "I will not stir from home till after the 25th of July, which day made me happy thirty-three years ago, after the suffering so many sorrows; and here will I keep its beloved anniversary, always remembering
St. James's Church and St. James's Day,
And good Mr. James that gave me away."
Until 1814 she had continued to live at Brynbella, visiting occasionally both Bath and Streatham. But at this date young Salusbury left the university and married, and Mrs. Piozzi very generously relinquished to him and his young wife her little Welsh estate and its revenue. To compensate her daughters for their loss cff it, she set to work to improve Streatham Park, which they would inherit at her death, and landed herself by this means in new and serious money difficulties. Nevertheless she jogged on, as light-hearted as ever, in her Bath lodging, with her two maids, and with a drawing of Brynbella over her chimney-piece—often, in spite of her 2,000l. a year, without 5l. of ready money to spend on herself. She almost rejoiced in her self-imposed poverty. When bills were thronging in upon her every hour, she told a friend that a certain heavy account for expenses concerning her nephew's marriage had just been sent in from a solicitor, and added, "I call that the felicity bill." Her devotion to Piozzi's nephew was not ill rewarded. He was made sheriff of his county, and knighted in 1817; and he and his wife were uniformly dutiful and kind to their benefactress, and at least added no one pang to those she had previously suffered.
In 1819 Tom Moore visited Mrs. Piozzi, and found her "a wonderful old lady." "Faces of other times," he wrote, "seemed to crowd over her as she sat,—the Johnsons, Reynoldses, etc. etc. Though turned eighty, she has all the quickness and intelligence of a gay young woman." It was about this time that she became acquainted with the young actor Conway, and interested herself so enthusiastically in his fortunes that people laughed at her, and said she was in love again. Her eightieth birthday, Jan. 27, 1820, was made the occasion of a brilliant fête at Bath, to which the Salusburys from Wales, and friends from all parts of the island, gladly flocked. A concert and supper to between six and seven hundred guests, in the public rooms of Bath, commenced the proceedings; and she led off the ball herself at two in the morning with her adopted son Sir John Salusbury, dancing, said those who were present, with astonishing elasticity and true dignity.
The autumn and winter of that year were spent quietly at Penzance, where she had been told the blasts of winter never came. There she whiled away what she called "six months of exile," looking out over the sea, observing Cornish human nature, with its adjuncts vegetable and mineral, writing witty anecdotic letters to her absent friends, and longing to return with the swallows to her own beloved Bath. But that Cornish winter of 1820-1 was exceptionally severe, and the poor little lady found it hard to maintain her cheerful mood. "Conway," she wrote to a friend, "is in high favour at Bath, the papers say; so indeed do private letters. That young man's value will be one day properly appreciated; and then you and I will be found to have been quite right all along."
On her wav homewards to Bath in the spring of 1821, Mrs. Piozzi met with an accident. Recovered from this, she reached Clifton, where an attack of illness overtook her; and she died there, after very little suffering, on May 2nd, 1821. To her nephew, Sir John Salusbury-Piozzi Salusbury, she left her Welsh estates, and all that she possessed, with the request to her executors that they would be careful to transmit her body, wheresoever she might die, to the vault constructed for their remains by her second husband, Gabriel Piozzi, in Dymerchion Church, Flintshire. And accordingly this last act completed the story of a long and not too happy life. Her three daughters, Lady Keith, Mrs. Hoare, and Miss Thrale, summoned at the last, were round her dying bed. By her written wish the portrait of her mother by Zoffany was given to Lady Keith, who alone of her family could remember her; and that of Mr. Thrale was given to the one daughter who still bore his name. Two days before her death, she had sent the actor Conway a draught for 100l.; which he, like an honest man, returned to her executors. The act speaks warmly in his favour, and one is sorry that he was not quite so great a genius as his warm-hearted patroness believed him to be. He drowned himself in 1828. Among his books was found a copy of the folio edition of Young's "Night Thoughts," in which he had made a note that it was presented to him by his "dearly attached friend, the celebrated Mrs. Piozzi."
Of Dr. Johnson it may be said that his personality and talk were more memorable than anything he ever wrote, and the same is true of his friend Mrs. Piozzi. Her "Anecdotes" were popular, but they scarcely deserve to be mentioned in the same category with Boswell's splendidly full and compactly arranged "Life." Her "British Synonymy; or, An Attempt at Regulating the Choice of Words in Familiar Conversation," published in 1794, was a compendium of bright table-talk and anecdote; but its pretentious name put the critics and Gifford out of temper. "The Retrospection; or, A 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," was published in two quarto volumes, in 1801, and consists of rather more than a thousand pages. "It would," says Mr. Hayward, in his interesting account of her life and writings, "have required the united powers and acquirements of Raleigh, Burke, Gibbon, and Voltaire, to fill so vast a canvas with appropriate groups and figures." She was indeed too ambitious; and we have to fall back on her letters and what we know of her life, that we may once more understand and believe in her genius and good sense.
Mrs. Piozzi's verdict concerning her personal appearance was a severe one. "No," she used to say, "I never was handsome; I had always too many strong points in my face for beauty." And she would boast that she owed her "vigorous, black manuscript" to her large and too muscularly built hand. Boswell called her "short, plump, and brisk;" but Dr. Burney was more polite when in 1782 he included among his lady "wits,"
Thrale, in whose expressive eyes
Sits a soul above disguise.
The little half-length miniature of her painted in Bath in 1817, in a closely-fitting dress and hat, very nearly resembling the present fashion, represents her as small, well-built, with features finely cut, and a clear, brave glance in the eyes.
It was impossible that she should have lived for so many of her best years in the society of Dr. Johnson without retaining through life many of the results of that companionship. Few women among her younger contemporaries could vie with her in extensive reading and retentive memory, or in readiness of wit. Dr. Johnson had taught her to hate cant; and her honesty both in speech and action was among her most striking characteristics. But he failed utterly to hem her mind round with the prejudices and perversities which beset his own. Her "piety" was less sententious, less methodical; but her charity was undoubtedly of a better sort.
Her sweet temper, also, her vivacity and unselfishness, increased as she grew old; and her last years contrasted most remarkably in this particular with Dr. Johnson's gloomy and hypochondriacal decay. Some of our contemporaries can remember her as far back as 1813,—a kind little old lady, who used to walk in her garden on Streatham Common and hand cakes through her park palings to fair-haired little boys. When the oft-recurring birthday reminded her how old she and the world were growing, she welcomed it with a good grace. "My jour de naissance is coming round in a few days now," she wrote in 1816, and quoted some pretty lines of Pope, adding, "Yet I will not, like Dr. Johnson, quarrel with my birthday." On the seventy-sixth anniversary, she wrote gaily to her kind friend Sir James Fellowes about the new fashions that were deforming the world, and added, "Do not suffer yourself to be too sorry that I am so near out of it." Three years before her death she was quoting in a letter to the same friend some verses of Cowley upon the old sad subject; and this was her brave comment:—"Meanwhile, let us die but once, and not double the pang by cowardice, or poison the dart by wilful sin, but meet the hour with at least as much deference to God's will as every Turk shows to that of the Grand Signior. 'It is the sultan's pleasure,' says he, 'and so ends the matter,—here's my head.'"