Parting letters of Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson

  • Posted on: 26 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

Hester Lynch Thrale portrait in 1818 by Roche

Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson effectively ended their close friendship just before Hester married Gabriel Piozzi

Although Queeney and Fanny Burney, and presumably Mrs. Thrale herself, had supposed Johnson ignorant of the whole matter, Fanny discovered from Seward1, and told Queeney, in November 1783, that…

He knows of this horrible affair!.

Indeed Boswell's account of his conversation with Johnson on 16 May 1784, bears this out: 'He talked of Mrs. Thrale with much concern, saying…

Sir, she has done every thing wrong, since Thrale's bridle was off her neck;

and was proceeding to mention some circumstances which have since been the subject of publick discussion, when he was interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Douglas'2.

Fanny persuaded herself and Queeney, through the spring of 1784, that he knew only of the early stages of the attachment, and that he was resting in the assurance that, with Piozzi gone, all was now "blown over"; but on 24 May 1784 she informed Queeney…

Since I began & writ thus far, I have seen Dr. Johnson—& find he knows the whole affair!

In view of Seward's revelation to her in November, this can only mean that Johnson was now aware of Mrs. Thrale's continuing passion, and probably also of Piozzi's recall.

At Fanny's next meeting, on 13 June 1784, with Dr. Johnson, he voluntarily opened the subject again, and was 'much less violent than I expected'. When the marriage was a fait accompli, Fanny comforted herself and Queeney with the reflection that…

Poor Dr. Johnson was prepared, I know, for in my last visit but one he spoke to me openly upon the subject, & with a softness that much surprised me.

It cannot be supposed, then, that Mrs. Thrale's circular letter to the guardians, written on June 30, in which she announced her intention of marrying, took Johnson by surprise. But that he was still deluding himself with hope that the dreaded event might not take place seems equally certain.

Samuel Johnson in 1756/7 by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Oil on canvas. 127.6 x 101.6 cm. National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

Johnson replied on 1 July 1784 to Queeney's letter, informing him of her separation from her mother…

I read your letter with anguish and astonishment, such as I never felt before. I had fondly flattered myself that time had produced better thoughts.

About three weeks before she married Gabriel Piozzi, when Hester Thrale wrote on 2 July 1784 about "the happiest Day of my whole life", little did she know that this was by a strange twist of fate, the day that her dear friend Samuel Johnson wrote his renowned letter of reproach to her. Johnson's letter reached Hester on 4 July 1784 and led to her final break with him. However this event which has subsequently received much attention is not even mentioned by Hester in Thraliana.

Hester to Samuel - 30 June 1784

Bath, 30: June, 1784

My dear Sir,

The enclosed is a circular Letter which I have sent to all the Guardians, but our Friendship demands somewhat more; it requires that I shd beg your pardon for concealing from you a Connection which you must have heard of by many People, but I suppose you never believed. Indeed, my dear Sir, it was concealed only to spare 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 to you now, because all is irrevocably settled, & out of your power to prevent. Give me leave however to say that the dread of your disaprobation has given me many an anxious moment, & tho’ perhaps the most independant Woman in the World—I feel as if I was acting without a parent’s Consent—till you write kindly to your faithful Servt.

Hester to Henry Thrale's executors - 30 June 1784

Bath, June 30, 1784

As one of the Executors to Mr Thrale's will, and Guardian to his daughters, I think it is my duty to acquaint you that the three eldest left bath last Fryday for their own house at Brighthelmstone, in company with an amiable friend Miss Nicholson, who has some time resided with us here, and in whose Society they may I think find some advantages and certainly no Disgrace: I waited on them myself as far as Salisbury, Wilton &c. and offered my Service to attend them to the Seaside; but they preferred this Lady's Company to mine, having heard that Mr. Piozzi was coming back from Italy, and judging from our past Friendship and continued Correspondance, that his return would be succeeded by our Marriage.

I have the honour to be
Your most humble Servant
H : L : T

If I interpret your letter right, you are ignominiously married.

Dr. Samuel Johnson.

From Samuel - 2 July 1784

July 2, 1784

If I interpret your letter right, you are ignominiously married; if it is yet undone, let us once 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 human kind, entreat that before your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see you. I was, I once was,

Madam, most truly yours.

Sam: Johnson

I will come down if you permit it.

From Hester - 4 July 1784

4 July 1784.


I have this morning received from you so rough a letter, in reply to one which was both tenderly and respectfully written, that I am forced to desire the conclusion of a correspondence which I can bear to continue no longer. The birth of my second husband is not meaner than that of my first, his sentiments are not meaner, his profession is not meaner—and his superiority in what he professes acknowledged by all mankind. It is want of fortune then that is ignominious; the character of the man I have chosen has no other claim to such an epithet. The religion to which he has been always a zealous adherent will I hope teach him to forgive insults he has not deserved—mine will I hope enable me to bear them at once with dignity and patience. To hear that I have forfeited my fame is indeed the greatest insult I ever yet received; my fame is as unsullied as snow, or I should think it unworthy of him who must henceforward protect it.

I write by the coach the more speedily and effectually to prevent your coming hither.

Perhaps by my fame (and I hope it is so) you mean only that celebrity which is a consideration of a much lower kind: I care for that only as it may give pleasure to my husband and his friends.

Farewell, dear Sir, and accept my best wishes: you have always commanded my esteem, and long enjoyed the fruits of a friendship never infringed by one harsh expression on my part, during twenty years of familiar talk; never did I oppose your will, or control your wish: nor can your unmerited severity itself lessen my regard—but till you have changed your opinion of Mr Piozzi—let us converse no more. God bless you!

From Samuel - 8 July 1784

I wish that God may grant you every blessing, that you may be happy in this world for its short continuance, and eternally happy in a better state..

Dr. Samuel Johnson.

London, July 8, 1784

Dear Madam

What you have done, however I may lament it, I have no pretence to resent, as it has not been injurious to me. I therefore breathe out one sigh more of tenderness perhaps useless but at least sincere.

I wish that God may grant you every blessing, that you may be happy in this world for its short continuance, and eternally happy in a better state. And whatever I can contribute to your happiness, I am very ready to repay for that kindness which soothed twenty years of a life radically wretched.

Do not think slightly of the advice which I now presume to offer . Prevail upon Mr Piozzi to settle in England. You may live here with more dignity than in Italy, and with more security. Your rank will be higher, and your fortune under your own eyes. I desire not to detail all my reasons; but every argument of prudence and interest is for England, and only some phantoms of imagination seduce you to Italy.

I am afraid, however, that my counsel is vain, yet I have eased my heart by giving it.

When Queen Mary3 took the resolution of sheltering herself in England, the Archbishop of St Andrews, attempting to dissuade her, attended on her journey and when they came to the irremeable stream that separated the two kingdoms, walked by her side into the water, in the middle of which he seized her bridle, and with earnestness proportioned to her danger and his own affection, pressed her to return. The Queen went forward.—If the parallel reaches thus far, may it go no further.—The tears stand in my eyes.

I am going into Derbyshire, and hope to be followed by your good wishes, for I am, with Great Affection,

Yours, &c., SAM: JOHNSON

Any letters that come for me hither will be sent me.

From Hester - 15 July 1784

Gabriel Piozzi by unknown artist

Bath, July 15, 1784 4

Not only my good Wishes but my most fervent Prayers for your Health and Consolation shall for ever attend and follow my dear Mr. Johnson. Your last Letter is sweetly kind, and I thank you for it most sincerely. Have no Fears for me however; no real fears. My Piozzi will need few Perswasions to settle in a Country where he has succeeded so well; but he longs to shew me to his Italian friends, and he wishes to restore my Health by treating me with a Journey to many Places I have long wish'd to see: his disinterested Conduct towards me in pecuniary Matters, his Delicacy in giving me up all past Promises when we were seperated last year by great Violence in Argylle Street, are Pledges of his Affection and Honour. He is a Religious Man, a sober Man, and a Thinking Man—he will not injure me, I am sure he will not; let nobody injure him in your good Opinion, which he is most solicitous to obtain and preserve, and the harsh Letter you wrote me at first grieved him to the very heart. Accept his Esteem my dear Sir, do: and his Promise to treat with long continued Respect & Tenderness the friend whom you once honoured with your Regard and who will never cease to be my dear Sir

Your truly affectionate and faithful servt 5

The Lawyers delay of finishing our Settlements, & the necessity of twenty-six days Residence has kept us from being married till now. I hope your health is mending

  • 1. William Seward (1747-1799), anecdotist and son of a wealthy brewer of the firm Calvert and Seward.
  • 2. Life, iv. 277.
  • 3. Mary, Queen of Scots, whose flight to England led to her execution.
  • 4. The original manuscript of this last letter is dated clearly 'July 15', and bears the postmark 'Bath,' and the London date-stamp '16 July', although she was actually in London from July 11 to July 23 or 24, as her letters to Queeney during this interval show.Johnson had set out for Derbyshire on July 13, but Hester Thrale, although she knew that he intended the journey, probably did not know certainly that he had gone. It is possible that she sent the letter back to Bath to be posted, in order to deceive him as to her whereabouts and thus avoid a meeting, even after their breach had, as she thought, been healed. The wording of her letters shows that she deliberately phrased them ambiguously, that Johnson might suppose her possibly married on June 30, and certainly married on July 15, when she wrote: 'the necessity of twenty-six days Residence has kept us from being married till now.' She was not actually married until the 23rd July.
  • 5. The signature of her last letter has been so vigorously effaced that the paper is worn through. Had she signed herself 'Piozzi', and later, when her letters were returned to her, thought erasure the better part of valour?