Mrs. Piozzi

Johnson, Samuel, 1709-1784. Letters to and from the late Samuel Johnson, LL. D. : to which are added some poems never before printed / published from the original MSS. in her possession, by Hester Lynch Piozzi .... London : Printed for A. Strahan and T. Cadell in the Strand, 1788.

Frontispiece portrait of Mrs. Hester Lynch Piozzi, by William Ridley (1764-1838).


Beinecke Call Number: Osborn pc274

Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson ...

Piozzi, Hester Lynch, 1741-1821. Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, LL. D. during the last twenty years of his life. London : Printed for T. Cadell in the Strand, 1786.

The writing of Johnson’s life itself became something of a literary spectacle. One year after the Journal of a Tour, Hester Thrale Piozzi published her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson. It was this portrayal of Johnson by his longstanding friend that lent celebrity even to the biographers of Johnson. Piozzi published the work in 1786, describing it as a “mere candle-light picture of his latter days, where every thing falls in dark shadow except the face, the index of the mind; but even that is seen unfavourably, and with a paleness beyond what nature gave it.” A vivid yet disenchanted portrait of Johnson, Piozzi’s memoir aroused delight, scandal, and outrage in readers from and beyond the Johnson circle. The first printing sold out on the day of its release, and raced immediately into multiple editions.

I am aware that many will say I have not spoken highly enough of Dr. Johnson,” writes Piozzi, “but it will be difficult for those who say so to speak more highly. If I have described his manners as they were, I have been careful to show his superiority to the common forms of common life.

Beinecke Call Number: Im J637 W786

Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson ...

Hester Lynch Piozzi. Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. during the last twenty years of his life. London: for T. Cadell in the Strand, 1786, Fourth Edition.

“Too much intelligence is often as pernicious to biography as too little,” writes Piozzi, “the mind remains perplexed by contradiction of probabilities, and finds difficulty in separating report from truth…for numberless informers but distract or cloud information, as glasses which multiply will for the most part be found also to obscure.”

Johnson was no less interested than his colleagues in the control of his biography. Piozzi relates one of several conversations with him over the writing of his life:

‘And who will be my biographer,’ said he, ‘do you think?’ ‘Goldsmith, no doubt,’ replied I, ‘and he will do it the best among us.’ ‘The dog would write it best, to be sure,’ replied he; ‘but his particular malice towards me, and general disregard for truth, would make the book useless to all, and injurious to my character.’ ‘Oh! as to that,’ said I, ‘we should all fasten on him, and force him to do you justice; but the worst is, the Doctor does not KNOW your life; nor can I tell indeed who does, except Dr. Taylor of Ashbourne.’ ‘Why, Taylor,’ said he, ‘is better acquainted with my HEART than any man or woman now alive; and the history of my Oxford exploits lies all between him and Adams; ... I intend, however, 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. I am now,’ added he, ‘keeping a diary, in hopes of using it for that purpose some time.’

This copy of Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson contains Piozzi’s own annotations on her work.

Beinecke Call Number: Im J637 W786d Copy 1

Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson ...

Hester Lynch Piozzi. Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. during the last twenty years of his life. London: for T. Cadell in the Strand, 1786, Fourth Edition.

Johnson’s biographers did not scruple to speak—often malevolently—of each other in their portrayals. An outraged Piozzi can be seen here, in the postscript to the Anecdotes, defending herself against the passage in Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides in which Johnson disparaged bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu’s “Essay on Shakespeare,” saying “Reynolds is fond of her book, and I wonder at it; for neither I, nor Beauclerk, nor Mrs Thrale, could get through it.” This caused great offense in Bluestocking circles, and Mrs. Piozzi, unsuccessfully, attempted to defuse the scandal. It only gained force, however, when Boswell replied to the Postscript, pointing out that she had read the Journal in manuscript and “made no objection.”

Beinecke Call Number: Im J637 W786d Copy 1

Letter to Edmond Malone, 17[86] March 31 from James Boswell

Hester Thrale Piozzi’s memoir of Johnson sold out on the first day, and went through five editions in its first year. Among the book’s readers was her former acquaintance and fellow biographer of Johnson, James Boswell. “And now for La Signora Piozzi,” wrote Boswell to Malone in March of 1786, “I received her by the coach only last night Thursday, and her journey down cost me within 6d of her original price.”

“She is a little artful impudent malignant Devil. … [Page] 44 is undoubtledly levelled at me; for, it describes what the Jade has often seen me do—but with Dr. Johnson’s approbation; for he at all times was flattered by my preserving what fell from his mind when shaken by conversation so there was nothing like treachery. I must have the patience of Job to bear the Book of Esther. But I shall trim her recitatives and all her airs.”

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 5, Folder 176

Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson ...

Hester Lynch Piozzi. Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. during the last twenty years of his life. London: for T. Cadell in the Strand, 1786, Fourth Edition.

Page 44 of Piozzi’s Anecdotes, as Boswell surmised, was undoubtedly leveled at him:

This I thought a thing so very particular, that I begged his leave to write it down directly, before any thing could intervene that might make me forget the force of the expressions: a trick, which I have however seen played on common occasions, of sitting steadily down at the other end of the room to write at the moment what should be said in company, either by Dr. Johnson or to him, I never practised myself, nor approved of in another. There is something so ill-bred, and so inclining to treachery in this conduct, that were it commonly adopted, all confidence would soon be exiled from society, and a conversation assembly-room would become tremendous as a court of justice.

Beinecke Call Number: Im J637 W786d Copy 1

Letter to Hugh Blair, 1786 April from James Boswell

“I will venture to promise that my Life of my Friend will be the richest piece of Biography that has ever appeared,” wrote Boswell to the Edinburgh minister and professor Hugh Blair, in April of 1786. “You have no doubt read Mrs. Piozzi’s Anecdotes, and probably have seen my Retort courteous to her Postcript. Her Book is very entertaining, and she has preserved a good deal of genuine Johnsoniana but she has proved herself to be a wicked, false, ungrateful little vixen.”

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 1, Folder 16

Letter to James Boswell, 1786 May 4 from Hugh Blair

Not all of Boswell’s friends shared his animosity towards Hester Thrale’s portrayal. Hugh Blair, having read the Anecdotes, wrote that “Mrs Piozzi’s Performance is diverting. She has indeed placed many of the Drs imperfections in a strong light; and the impression of his Character upon the whole which her book leaves on the reader, is not at all pleasing. Indeed of all the Drs imperfections, the one which hurts me the most, & which she has put in a strong light, is his extreme arrogance.”

Blair, who had himself been insulted by Johnson on his first visit to London, could state with honesty to Boswell that “Had he professed the abilities of an Archangel I could not have lived with him so much as you did! Mrs Piozzi’s own character does not appear to advantage in her work: and yet I am not surprised that she wanted at length to get free of him.... He was a sort of threatening colossus.”

“I dare say when properly erected by you & placed on its pedestal,” Blair hastens to add, “it will command our veneration.”

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 10, Folder 277