Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi (1741-1821)

Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi (1741-1821) edit

Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi was a significant English writer, bluestocking, and socialite, who was the wife of Henry Thrale (1724-1781) and later Gabriel Mario Piozzi (1740-1809). Hester’s greatest innovations were the creation of two new literary genres; biographical writings infused with personal letters and travel writings that featured parallel emotional and physical journeys. Her extensive letter and diary writings best capture the image of Hester and her social and literary significance, as she was a pioneer in the English eighteenth-century literary movement of women writers. Hester is also known for her close friendship with famed essayist, poet, playwright, and critic Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), to whom she frequently wrote letters and documented his life in her book Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786).

Biography: edit

Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi (born Hester Lynch Salusbury) was born in Bodvel Carnarvonshire, Wales on January 27th, 1740, and died in Clifton Bristol, England May 2nd, 1821. Born into a formerly wealthy family that was experiencing immense debt, Hester was surprisingly well educated, even though “Education was a Word then unknown, as applied to Female”[1]. She displayed a high intelligence and linguistic ability early on and at sixteen years old she “could read and write fluently in French, Italian and Spanish, and began studying Hebrew at the age of seventeen”[1].

At the age of twenty-three in 1763 she was obligated to marry the affluent Brewery owner Henry Thrale, to alleviant her family’s debt. Hester then moved to Streatham Park, Henry Thrale’s home, where after meeting many respectable, wealthy individuals, she became the hostess of a house that was a beacon of social life. Hester’s home was at the centre of “the social, political and cultural change”[1], representing a wide array of eccentric visitors, some of whom were aristocrats, intellectuals, and middle-class workers such as actors, writers, and musicians. One such guest was the writer Samuel Johnson, whom Hester shared a devoted yet complicated friendship with. Known as “The Streatham Circle”[1], the home became akin to a salon or club, competing with the popularity of the London socialite scene. Acting as a bluestocking[2] for Francis Burney’s earliest novel, Hester adopted many roles in the group besides a hostess, using her social standing to advent women’s literature in England.

Henry Thrale then died on the 4th of April 1781, leaving Hester a widower. During the years following Thrale’s death, Hester began a relationship with Gabriel Mario Piozzi, her daughter’s Italian music tutor. Despite the relationship’s scandalous nature and the disapproval of her daughter and writer Samuel Johnson, Hester married Piozzi in 1784. Facing public scrutiny and a diminished reputation, the couple moved to Italy, allowing Hester to continue writing. During this period, Samuel Johnson died, and Hester published her first work Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) in commemoration. Through the success of her writings, her new “privileged position, as the wife of an Italian”[1] and her editing of the published letters between herself and Johnson, Hester was able to “present herself in the light of an author and emerge as a public character in the image she preferred.”[1]

Works: edit

Hester has a large collection of both private and public writings, many of which are now available to the public through digitised library collections. Her personal writings included “daily diaries, The Children’s Book, Family Book (1766-78) … separate Welsh, French, Scottish, Italian and German journals; a commonplace book, miscellaneous notebooks, and a collection of person jottings called ‘Minced Meat for Pyes’.”[3]Hester’s published works include her notable travel writings Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy and Germany (1789), the poem “The Three Warnings” (1766), her biography Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) and Letters to and From the Late Samuel Johnson (1788).

After her death, her autobiographical diary titled Thraliana (1946) was published, and her unpublished works “Three Dialogues (1779)”[3] and “Journal of a Tour in Wales (1774)”[4]were discovered. Hester’s letters were also later collated and published as anthologies, including the notable, The Intimate Letter of Hester Piozzi and Penelope Pennington, 1788-1821 (1914) and Autobiography, Letters and Literary Remains of Mrs. Piozzi (Thrale) (1861).

The University of Manchester currently holds an extensive physical and online collection of Hester’s writing, including approximately 1,500 letters written by her[5]. These documents exist as 110 folders containing the correspondence between Samuel Johnson[6], "James Boswell, Charles Burney, Francis Burney, the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, John Delap”[5], among many others.

Legacy: edit

Hester’s legacy remains firmly situated in her talents for writing, foremost in her skill as an “innovator in English biography and in the promotion of the personal letter to literary status.”[3] By intermixing both public and private writing, most evident in Letters and Anecdotes, she “infused (auto)biographical writing”[3] forging the path for literary history, while also drawing attention “towards the transcription and marketability of a commodity that she and other Bluestockings could easily offer – conversation.”[3] Hester’s ‘Observations and Reflections’ reflects another new and innovative genre, being “an example of the autobiographical, emotionally tangled mode of travel writing which reveals a metaphorical ‘inner’ journey of self-discovery and maturation”[4].

Reputation: edit

Hester’s literary reputation today is unfortunately little recognised, as, despite her influential writings and significant impact on literary innovation, Hester’s name is mainly recognised concerning her relationships. Under the name ‘Thrale’, Hester published “very few pieces”[7], yet it is this name that is more spoken about, specifically in connection to her time of friendship with writer Samuel Johnson. History and literary critics have reduced Hester’s reputation and legacy as an innovative writer and pioneer of women’s writing, to that of a woman whom many incorrectly assume was sexually involved with the Johnson. Under the name ‘Piozzi’, Hester’s work is even less recognised, presenting female author’s issue of the “double bind or double standard… that still obscures our perception that a gender revolution in authorship took place in the eighteenth century.”[7]

References: edit

  1. a b c d e f D’Ezio, Marianna. “Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, British Diarist, Author, and Patron of the Arts, 1741-1821.” Women Writers, University Roma Tre, 2013, http://www.womenwriters.nl/index.php/Hester_Lynch_Thrale_Piozzi
  2. A promoter outside of patronage and subscription publishing
  3. a b c d e Nussbaum, Felicity A. “Sociability and Life Writing: Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi.” Women’s Life Writing 1700-1850, MacMillian Publishers, 2012, pp. 55-70. DOI: 10.1057/9781137030771_5
  4. a b Prescot, Sarah. “Women Travellers in Wales: Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, Mary Morgan and Elizabeth Isabella Spence.” Studies in Travel Writing, Vol. 18, No. 2, 2014, pp. 107-121, DOI: 10.1080/13645145.2014.903594
  5. a b John Rylands Research Institute and Library. “Thrale-Piozzi Manuscripts”. The University of Manchester, Special Collections, https://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/special-collections/exploring/a-to-z/detail/?mms_id=992983876729201631
  6. This subfond holds 150 letters between Hester and Samuel.
  7. a b McCarthy, William. “The Repression of Hester Lynch Piozzi; or, How We Forgot a Revolution in Authorship.” Modern Language Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1988, pp. 99-111.

Further Reading:

  • D’Ezio, Marianna. Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi: A Taste for Eccentricity. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2011.
  • Franklin, Michael John. Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi. University of Wales Press, 2020.
  • Hayward, Abraham. Autobiography Letters and Literary Remains of Mrs. Piozzi (Thrale). Longman, London, 1861, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15045/15045-h/15045-h.htm