Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hester Thrale, Muse Extraordinaire

Today, January 27, marks the birthday of Hester Thrale Piozzi in 1741! Thrale was best known as a diarist/writer and patron of the arts, especially in her friendship with Samuel Johnson. She's an excellent source of information for life in 18th century England.

She was born at Bodvel Hall in Wales to wealthy parents of an old Welsh family (said to be descended from Katheryn of Berain). But her father went bankrupt in ill-fated investments, and in October 1763 she married a bit beneath her, to rich brewer Henry Thrale. They lived at the fine house of Streatham Park and had 12 children (the eldest, Hester, married "up" and became a viscountess). Despite the fact that the marriage was not a particularly happy one, it gave her the freedom and money to enter London society and associate with the artistic, intellectual circles she loved. She became friends with Johnson and Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith, Fanny Burney (who she traveled with to Bath), Bishop Thomas Percy, and many other literary figures. Her home was a magnet to people like this.

Her husband died in April 1781, and she went on to marry in 1784 (rather scandalously!) the Italian music teacher Gabriel Mario Piozzi, which caused a rift with her dear friend Johnson (only mended shortly before he died) and earned the disapproval of Burney (who ironically later went on to marry the impoverished French Catholic emigre Alexander D'Arblay! Pot=Kettle). With her second husband Hester went to live at Brynbella, a specially-built country house in Wales.

After her friend Johnson died, she published her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) and a volume of her letters. Along with her diaries (the total collection called "Thraliana" by scholars of the period!), she gave a more complete view of Johnson than Boswell's famous Life. She died in Bristol on May 2, 1821 and was buried in the churchyard of Corpus Christi Church near her beloved Brynbella. A plaque in the church reads "Dr. Johnson's Mrs. Thrale. Witty, Vivacious, and Charming, in an age of Genius She held ever a foremost Place."

A few interesting sources on her life (besides the info that can be found in various Johnson bios):
A chapter on her in The Lives of the Muses, Francine Prose
Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Johnson's "Dear Mistress", Ian McIntyre
And a great novel, Beryl Bainbridge's According to Queeney

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