« PreviousContinue »
from them that protection, that mental nutriment, Hawk. which, in their youth, they are capable of receiving, the exposing them to the snares and temptations of the world, and the solicitations and deceits of the artful and designing, as most unnatural; and in a letter on the subject to me, written from Ashbourn, thus delivered his sentiments:
“ Poor Thrale! I thought that either her virtue or her vice,” (meaning, as I understood, by the former, the love of her children, and by the latter her pride) “would have restrained her from such a marriage. She is now become a subject for her enemies to exult over, and for her friends, if she has any left, to forget or pity.”]
It must be admitted that Johnson derived a considerable portion of happiness from the comforts and elegancies which he enjoyed in Mr. Thrale’s family; but Mrs. Thrale assures us he was indebted for these to her husband alone, who certainly respected him sincerely. Her words are, “ Veneration for his vir- Piozzi, tue, reverence for his talents, delight in his conversation, and habitual endurance of a yoke my husband first put upon me, and of which he contentedly bore his share for sixteen or seventeen years, made me go on so long with Mr. Johnson; but the perpetual confinement I will own to have been terrifying in the first years of our friendship, and irksome in the last; nor could I pretend to support it without help, when my coadjutor was no more.” Alas! how different is this from the declarations which I have heard Mrs. Thrale make in his lifetime, without a single murmur against any peculiarities, or against any one circumstance which attended their intimacy!
As a sincere friend of the great man whose life I am writing, I think it necessary to guard my readers
against the mistaken notion of Dr. Johnson's character, which this lady's “ Anecdotes” of him suggest ; for from the very nature and form of her book, “it lends deception lighter wings to fly.”
“Let it be remembered,” says an eminent critick', “that she has comprised in a small volume all that she could recollect of Dr. Johnson in twenty years, during which period, doubtless, some severe things were said by him; and they who read the book in two hours naturally enough suppose that his whole conversation was of this complexion. But the fact is, I have been often in his company, and never once heard him say a severe thing to any one; and many others can attest the same. When he did say a severe thing, it was generally extorted by ignorance pretending to knowledge, or by extreme vanity or affectation.
“ Two instances of inaccuracy,” adds he, “are pecu
liarly worthy of notice: Piozzi,
“It is said, that natural roughness of his man. P. 183. ner so often mentioned would, notwithstanding the
regularity of his notions, burst through them all from time to time; and he once bade a very celebrated lady, who praised him with too much zeal perhaps, or perhaps too strong an emphasis (which always offended him), consider what her flattery was worth before she choked him with it.
“Now let the genuine anecdote be contrasted with this. The person thus represented as being harshly treated, though a very celebrated lady, was then just come to London from an obscure situation in the country. At Sir Joshua Reynolds's one evening, she
· Who has been pleased to furnish me with his remarks._Boswell. (This “critic” is no doubt Mr. Malone, whose MS. notes on Mrs. Piozzi's “ Anec. dotes' contain the germs of these criticisms. Several of his similar animadversions have been already quoted, with the editor's reasons for differing essentially from Mr. Boswell and Mr. Malone in their estimate of Mrs. Piozzi's work. See ante, vol. iv. p. 77, 378, 381, 386, 11. Mr. Malone's notes were communicated to me by Mr. Markland, who purchased the volume at the sale of the library of the late James Boswell, junior, in 1825.--E1).]
met Dr. Johnson. She very soon began to pay her court to him in the most fulsome strain. "Spare me, I beseech you, dear madam,' was his reply. She still laid it on.
Pray, madam, let us have no more of this,' he rejoined. Not paying any attention to these warnings, she continued still her eulogy. At length, provoked by this indelicate and vain obtrusion of compliments, he exclaimed, “Dearest lady, consider with yourself what your flattery is worth, before you bestow it so freely.'
“How different does this story appear', when accompanied with all those circumstances which really belong to it, but which Mrs. Thrale either did not know, or has suppressed !
“She says, in another place, One gentleman, Piozzi, however, who dined at a nobleman's house in his Anec, company, and that of Mr. Thrale, to whom I was obliged for the anecdote, was willing to enter the lists in defence of King William's character; and having opposed and contradicted Johnson two or three times, petulantly enough, the master of the house began to feel uneasy, and expect disagreeable consequences ; to avoid which he said, loud enough for the doctor to hear, “Our friend here has no meaning now in all this, except just to relate at club to-morrow how he teased Johnson at dinner today; this is all to do himself honour.'—' No, upon my word, replied the other, “I see no honour in it, whatever you may do.'— Well, sir,' returned Mr. Johnson, sternly, if you do not see the honour, I am sure I feel the disgrace.?
“This is all sophisticated. Mr. Thrale was not
['The “critic” does not give any authority for his statement of the story; and when he himself applies the terms “ fulsome, vain, indelicate, and obtrusive" to the lady's conduct, there seems no great reason (knowing, as we do, what things Johnson did on any slight provocation say even to ladies) to prefer Mr. Malone's version to Mrs. Piozzi's. See also ante, vol. iv. p. 152, in which it will be seen that both Boswell and Malone were well aware how much Johnson was displeased at Miss More's flattery. -Ed.]
in the company, though he might have related the story to Mrs. Thrale. A friend, from whom I had the story, was present; and it was not at the house of a nobleman. On the observation being made by the master of the house on a gentleman's contradicting Johnson, that he had talked for the honour, &c. the gentleman muttered in a low voice, “I see no honour in it;' and Dr. Johnson said nothing: so all the rest (though bien trouvée) is mere garnish ?.”
I have had occasion several times, in the course of this work, to point out the incorrectness of Mrs. Thrale as to particulars which consisted with my own knowledge. But indeed she has, in flippant terms enough, expressed her disapprobation of that anxious desire of authenticity which prompts a per
son who is to record conversations to write them Piozzi, down at the moment. Unquestionably, if they are
to be recorded at all, the sooner it is done the better. This lady herself says, “ To recollect, however, and to repeat the sayings of Dr. Johnson, is almost all that can be done by the writers of his life; as his life, at least since my acquaintance with him, consisted in little else than talking, when he was not employed in some serious piece of work.” She boasts of her having kept a common-place book; and we find she noted, at one time or other, in a very lively manner, specimens of the conversation of Dr. Johnson, and of those who talked with him: but had she done it recently, they probably would have been less erroneous, and we should have been relieved from those disagreeable doubts of their authenticity with which we must now pursue them.
She says of him, “He was the most charitable
[ Upon this anecdote it is to be observed, that, again, as the “critic” does not mention his authority, so we should rather believe Mrs. Piozzi, who does give hers; and as she certainly had the substance of the story right, she is just as likely to have been accurate in the details as Mr. Malone, who had it, like herself, at second hand.-En.]
of mortals, without being what we call an active friend. Admirable at giving counsel; no man saw his way so clearly; but he would not stir a finger for the assistance of those to whom he was willing enough to give advice?.” And again, on the same page, “ If you wanted a slight favour, you must apply to people of other dispositions ; for not a step would Johnson move to obtain a man a vote in a society, to repay a compliment which might be useful or pleasing, to write a letter of request, &c., or to obtain a hundred pounds a year more for a friend who perhaps had already two or three. No force could urge him to diligence, no importunity could conquer his resolution to stand still.”
It is amazing that one who had such opportunities of knowing Dr. Johnson should appear so little acquainted with his real character. I am sorry this lady does not advert, that she herself contradicts? the assertion of his being obstinately defective in the petites morales, in the little endearing charities of social life, in conferring smaller favours; for she says, “Dr. Johnson was liberal enough in granting lite- Piozei, rary assistance to others, I think ; and innumerable are the prefaces, sermons, lectures, and dedications which he used to make for people who begged of him.” I am certain that a more active friend has rarely been found in any age. This work, which I fondly hope will rescue his memory from obloquy, contains a thousand instances of his benevolent exertions in almost every way that can be conceived ;
Ante, vol. iv. p. 397.
[Mrs. Piozzi may have been right or wrong as to the degree in which Dr. Johnson's indolence operated on those occasions; but at least she was sincere, for she did not conceal from Johnson himself that she thought him negligent in doing small favours : and Mr. Boswell's own work affords several instances in which Johnson exhibits and avows the contradictions in his character which are here imputed to Mrs. Piozzi as total misrepresentations. The truth seems to be that to all the little idle matters about which Mrs. Piozzi teased him, probably too often, he was very indifferent; and she describes him as she found him. --Ed.) VOL. V.