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

Hester Thrale Piozzi (1741–1821)




Hester Lynch Salusbury Thrale Piozzi (1741-1821) might be best known to some as a close friend of Samuel Johnson, but she also stands her own ground in literary history and beyond as an avid writer, particularly a diarist. Her diaries are revered for the insight they provide into the lifestyle and mindset of a woman in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - a rarity in a time when women’s voices were so often muffled by men’s [1].

Piozzi was born in Wales and lived comfortably after her mother relocated them to her uncles’ home who was very well off. This way of life afforded her an education in Latin, modern languages, logic and rhetoric. With this education Piozzi went on to write and translate poems professionally, having a poem and essay published in St. James Chronicle in 1762. Piozzi (becoming Mrs Thrale from Salusbury and subsequently known in her time as such) married the successful brewer and later parliamentarian, Henry Thrale (1728-81), in 1763 to whom they had twelve children. However, only four of her children, all four of which were girls, survived until adulthood [4]. As a wife, Piozzi (Mrs Thrale at the time) also became a society hostess and was known for her entertaining expertise opening her house, Streatham Park near London, not only for social gatherings but as somewhat of a nursing home for those who required care or respite [1].

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was a famous lexicographer and author whom Piozzi became acquainted with when her first husband, Henry Thrale invited Johnson to move into his own apartment on their property after suffering a nervous breakdown in 1766. While Johnson benefitted from the generosity of their wealth, they in turn gained from being associated with his reputation in society. Perhaps more affecting was the close bond Piozzi and Johnson formed during this time that prevailed even after Henry died [2]. When Hester Thrale went on to marry the Italian musician (her daughters’ music teacher), Gabriel Piozzi, Johnson completely refuted this choice sending her stern letters of protest which reflected the opposition also shared by her own daughters and friends. He supposedly refused to recognise her last name as Piozzi, and their friendship never recovered before Johnson’s death soon after the marriage [5].

Literary Works


Throughout Hester Thrale Piozzi’s lifetime her work covered a wide range of literary endeavours from drama to travel, translation to biography, poems and history, explorations of language itself and personal diaries that illustrated a raw self-portrait. While some were published within her lifetime others didn’t see the public eye until many years after her death [5].

In 1786, a few years after Johnson’s death, Piozzi published Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, an insider’s account of Johnson himself. It was her first published book and her most famous, providing an honest, unfiltered portrait of Johnson despite inevitable disapproval from critics and devotees who held Johnson’s work on a pedestal. Following this, in 1788, Piozzi published a selection of letters the two had shared in Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson. While these letters at the time upset some of Johnson’s friends, like James Boswell and Giuseppe Baretti, they are held in high regard today for their ‘epistolary wit, art and emotional drama’ [5].

Piozzi was also revered for her book, Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy and Germany (1789). A more divisive project of Piozzi’s was Retrospection, published in 1801, which aimed to collate rather ambitiously a world history drawing from existing work of Edmund Burke. The text embellished and uplifted the role of women in history, which provides an interesting case for exploring history through eyes that aren’t male, but this was not seen as historically correct. Furthermore, Piozzi didn’t exactly stick to a chronological order of events and was showered with modern meditations from Piozzi’s herself which didn’t seem to fit within the constraints of what a historical text should be [3]. This saw the end of Piozzi’s published work during her lifetime as the text was widely criticised for having a ‘conservative political philosophy, high-flown rhetoric, conversational comments and apocalyptic prophecy’. [5]

Piozzi’s Thraliana, written between 1776-1809, wasn’t edited and published until 1942. Inside, like a notebook, included an array of diary entries, anecdotes, poems, quoted conversations and jests and was a project spurred on by Samuel Johnson’s suggestion. Piozzi recounts that Johnson had ‘advised me to get a little Book and write in it all the little Anecdotes which might come to my Knowledge, all the Observations I might make or hear, all the Verses never likely to be published, and in fine ev’ry thing which struck me at the Time’ [4].

Reputation & Legacy


While some of Piozzi’s peers were inclined to describe the use of colloquial language that pervaded her work as ‘coarse and vulgar’ others saw it as ‘discerning and direct’ [5].

For some time, Piozzi was really only recognised as an interesting source of knowledge on Samuel Johnson given her close relationship with him. It is worth recognising the influence Johnson had on her as he was often a big advocate of her writing and encouraged her to explore her interests like poetry, politics, medicine and mathematics.

However, Piozzi in more recent times has seen a new wave of interest and appreciation for her writing beyond just that on Johnson reignite her historical impact as an author in her own right. Piozzi was a staunch advocate of women’s rights in the heavily patriarchal eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writing of her disapproval of marriage as a social signifier or some form of liberation and rejecting notions that women should not have intellectual interests [5].

Further Reading




[1] Brownley, Martine Watson. "Eighteenth-Century Women's Images and Roles: The Case of Hester Thrale Piozzi." Biography (Honolulu). vol 3, no.1, 1980, pp 65-76. https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/article/372831/pdf

[2] Sairio, Anni. "Sam of Streatham Park." European Journal of English Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 2005, pp 21-35. https://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/doi/full/10.1080/13825570500068109

[3] Smith, Orianne. "“Unlearned & ill-qualified Pokers into Prophecy”: Hester Lynch Piozzi and the Female Prophetic Tradition." Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 28, no. 2, 2004, pp 87-112. https://read-dukeupress-edu.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/eighteenth-century-life/article/28/2/87/61244/Unlearned-amp-ill-qualified-Pokers-into-Prophecy

[4] The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. Ed. Dinah Birch and Katy Hooper. Vol. 4. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[5] The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Ed. David Scott Kastan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.