Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Hester Lynch Piozzi: Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786)

Hester Lynch Piozzi in 1785-86, by an unknown Italian artist

[Image source: National Portrait Gallery]


1709  Samuel Johnson born
1735  Marries Elizabeth (Tetty) Jervis
1740/41 Hester Lynch Salusbury born
1746-55 Johnson’s Dictionary
1749   The Vanity of Human Wishes
1750-60 The Rambler, The Adventurer, The Idler
1752  Tetty Johnson dies
1759  Johnson’s mother dies. Rasselas
1763  Johnson meets James Boswell
1763  Hester marries Henry Thrale.
1765  Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare.
         Johnson meets the Thrales. A year later, he moves in with them.
1775  Journey to the Western Islands
1777-81 Lives of the Poets
1781  Henry Thrale dies
1783  Hester moves to Bath. Last meeting with Johnson (April).
1784  Hester marries Gabriel Piozzi (July). Death of Johnson (December).
1785  Hester writes Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson in Italy (Summer).
          Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.
1786  Anecdotes published.
1791  Boswell’s Life of Johnson
1809  Gabriel Piozzi dies
1821  Hester Piozzi dies

The main points arising from this chronology are as follows. Johnson was in his mid-fifties when he met the two young friends who did so much for him and who would become his chief biographers (Boswell and Hester Thrale disliked each other, by the way). His wife had died more than a decade earlier. The literary achievements that had established him were in the past; he was semi-retired. In another sense, his life may be said to have begun again. During the remaining twenty years of his life he lodged most of the time with the Thrales, in fact for most of each week throughout their marriage. Hester was usually pregnant; the Thrales had twelve children. Henry Thrale’s death, the burden of supporting an increasingly difficult Johnson, and his disapproval of the liaison with Piozzi, brought all this to an end. Hester’s life, in turn, began again. She was about 24 when she first met Johnson, and about 42 when they last saw each other.

She revered Johnson; he was always her friend; and she had nursed him through serious depressions. Still, her book is quite candid; there was something monstrous about him. At first his presence in the house (she calls it her confinement) was “terrifying”, towards the end “irksome”. Boswell tries to canonize him, portraying his prejudiced, bullying and often unintelligent conversation as if it was a dialogue in heaven.

(For the unanswerable unintelligence, see e.g. Johnson’s parody of the line Who rules o’er freemen should himself be free as Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat. There is a coercive pressure to enjoy the hearty laugh, so it seems pompous even now to point out that Johnson completely misses – or probably, chooses to ignore - the point of the original line, which lies open to other criticisms but not that of fatuity, ha ha.)

She did not see him only at Streatham. In the early years he went with the Thrales to Brighton (“Brighthelmstone”), and later they went on tours, to Wales in 1774 and France in 1775. Johnson, half-blind and half-deaf, had narrowed his interests, however. He liked conversation above all, and liked an endless coach-trip so that he could talk all through it. He never read a book through, and it’s striking in the end how we are forced to take Johnson as he took the world – that is to say, in pages and anecdotes. No other writer wrote so much who wrote less books. Yet it’s important to emphasize that the biographies portray an oldish man for whom many enjoyments have lost their lustre, and who is content to remember the intense and open-hearted engagements of his prime. Hester Piozzi calls her book a “candle-light picture of his latter days”. But in fact it is not at all like a picture. There is no static concentration; it is more like a vivid, animated network.

The book that she wrote up in Florence from her own commonplace books is “the first I ever presented before the Public”. It has no chapters, and proceeds with skilful circuitousness. It does indeed begin with material relating to Johnson’s youth, but this is soon overwhelmed by the voice of Johnson speaking about his youth, and by the author’s own thoughts as she compiles her anecdotes, so that all times and places are present to us at once. Thus it is not until almost half-way through the book that she gets round to describing her first meeting with Johnson, while her account of the break-up of their domestic arrangements does not end it. “Brighthelmstone”, to take one easily-spotted word, appears on pp. 51, 56, 65, 87, 94 and 118, describing all manner of visits and occasions. It thus interweaves with the names of familiar people, books, other places and topics. On almost every page there is an image that conflates time; Johnson commenting on whether something that he wrote years before referred to something years before that... “Some of the old legendary stories put in verse by modern writers provoked him to caricature them thus one day at Streatham...”

If Hester had been a firm believer in rational analysis, her enterprise must have foundered on Johnson’s depressive temperament and the wild contradictions that his friends had to ride – each moment demanding its own codes of conduct. But she knew better. As she writes, she thinks how she may one day lament “the hours I might have profitably passed in the Florentine Gallery, and reflecting on Raphael’s St. John...” Such hours of calm reflection never come, though they are pretended in books; trouble is our element. Johnson thought the same: “A man is seldom in a humour to unlock his book-case, set his desk in order, and betake himself to serious study...” In fact Johnson’s despairing disbelief in “the sheaves of reason / stacked high, matter for self-satisfaction” is a principle of his depressions: “regularly the mind’s works do not mount up”. (These quotations are from John Wain’s fine translation of the Latin poem that Johnson composed after correcting his dictionary; it’s an intense and surprising exploration of his depression.)

Hester’s text is full of contradictions because a depressive person makes his companions live with contradictions, each bit of them real for the time. On p. 122 she writes: “The nice (i.e. finicking, exacting) people found no mercy from Mr. Johnson.. He had no such prejudices himself, and with difficulty forgave them in another...” And then, five pages later: “no accidental position of a ribband escaped him, so nice was his observation, and so rigorous his demands of propriety...” And on the next page, patience finally worn out: “All these exactnesses in a man who was nothing less than exact himself, made him extremely impracticable as an inmate...” Similar contradictions surround his veneration for, or total neglect of, manners (e.g. p.116); and his love of, or rage against, frolics and jest (p. 52). Her words here, of “strange serious rules”, sound naive but are a precise record of experience. 

She can also say (and it was quite true of her experience when Johnson’s mental weather permitted) that “I saw Mr. Johnson in none but a tranquil uniform state”, or write panegyric sentences of his “force of thought and versatility of genius, that comprehensive soul and benevolent heart which attracted and commanded veneration from all...” And why should she not say what she often believed; what Johnson himself often believed? And yet her text spirals giddyingly into “a passion of tears” (p. 22), or “he used to shock me from quitting his company” (p.55), or “Why do you delight (said he) thus to thicken the gloom of misery that surrounds me? is not here sufficient accumulation of horror..?” (p. 124), or Johnson wildly proclaiming “what he could at last persuade no one to believe; and what, if true, would have been so very unfit to reveal” (p. 57).

Johnson was by the way scornful of Goldsmith, among other acquaintances, for being the “frigid narrator of his own disgrace”. This however is not a contradiction; for like other desperate people, Johnson needed to keep an iron bolt on his own passages of misery when they were temporarily quieted. Hester, on the other hand, must have been relieved to throw open that bolt at last. He was dead, and she was right to reject the imputation of treachery. She could now complete her love for him and forget him, as nature intends.


Samuel Johnson in 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds 

[Image source: Wikipedia]

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At 11:13 am, Blogger Vincent said...

Thanks, Michael, this is such a valuable piece. Your others may be too, but I haven't had much contact with most of them, and one must be selective. But in a short essay you have cleared up lots of loose ends arising from desultory forays into Boswell’s Life, & the frequent mentions of Mrs Thrale, and how the reader is to piece it all together. Furthermore, I realize now that one does not get a rounded picture of Johnson from Boswell, just a set of snapshots & voice recordings, mostly: functions that can largely be done with electronic devices these days. Boswell makes Johnson a kind of hero, but now I wonder about the real dynamic of the relationship. Boswell the Lou Bloom Nightcrawler? Johnson the loud-mouthed old wreck that we can't help being fascinated by? I exaggerate unforgivably for a vivid image and a weak germ of truth, maybe.

(The film is worth seeing, makes you feel guilty on behalf of society, that it can be mirrored thus)

At 12:33 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

I meant to say that I have not had much contact with the subjects of your literary posts.

At 12:58 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Thank you - I must go back to Boswell one day - . Yes, Nightcrawler sounds good. I really enjoyed reading your Myth of Sysyphus, btw.


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