Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson

Author: Hester Lynch Piozzi


Mrs. Piozzi, by her second marriage, was by her first marriage the Mrs. Thrale in whose house at Streatham Doctor Johnson was, after the year of his first introduction, 1765, in days of infirmity, an honoured and a cherished friend. The year of the beginning of the friendship was the year in which Johnson, fifty-six years old, obtained his degree of LL.D. from Dublin, and—though he never called himself Doctor—was thenceforth called Doctor by all his friends.

Before her marriage Mrs. Piozzi had been Miss Hesther Lynch Salusbury, a young lady of a good Welsh family. She was born in the year 174O, and she lived until the year 1821. She celebrated her eightieth birthday on the 27th of January, 182O, by a concert, ball, and supper to six or seven hundred people, and led off the dancing at the ball with an adopted son for partner. When Johnson was first introduced to her, as Mrs. Thrale, she was a lively, plump little lady, twenty-five years old, short of stature, broad of build, with an animated face, touched, according to the fashion of life in her early years, with rouge, which she continued to use when she found that it had spoilt her complexion. Her hands were rather coarse, but her handwriting was delicate.

Henry Thrale, whom she married, was the head of the great brewery house now known as that of Barclay and Perkins. Henry Thrale’s father had succeeded Edmund Halsey, who began life by running away from his father, a miller at St. Albans. Halsey was taken in as a clerk-of-all-work at the Anchor Brewhouse in Southwark, became a house-clerk, able enough to please Child, his master, and handsome enough to please his master’s daughter. He married the daughter and succeeded to Child’s Brewery, made much money, and had himself an only daughter, whom he married to a lord. Henry Thrale’s father was a nephew of Halseys, who had worked in the brewery for twenty years, when, after Halsey’s death, he gave security for thirty thousand pounds as the price of the business, to which a noble lord could not succeed. In eleven years he had paid the purchase-money, and was making a large fortune. To this business his son, who was Johnson’s friend, Henry Thrale, succeeded; and upon Thrale’s death it was bought for 15O,OOO pounds by a member of the Quaker family of Barclay, who took Thrale’s old manager, Perkins, into partnership.

Johnson became, after 1765, familiar in the house of the Thrales at Streatham. There was much company. Mrs. Thrale had a taste for literary guests and literary guests had, on their part, a taste for her good dinners. Johnson was the lion-in-chief. There was Dr. Johnson’s room always at his disposal; and a tidy wig kept for his special use, because his own was apt to be singed up the middle by close contact with the candle, which he put, being short-sighted, between his eyes and a book. Mrs. Thrale had skill in languages, read Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish. She read literature, could quote aptly, and put knowledge as well as playful life into her conversation. Johnson’s regard for the Thrales was very real, and it was heartily returned, though Mrs. Thrale had, like her friend, some weaknesses, in common with most people who feed lions and wish to pass for wits among the witty.

About fourteen years after Johnson’s first acquaintance with the Thrales— when Johnson was seventy years old and Mrs. Thrale near forty—the little lady, who had also lost several children, was unhappy in the thought that she had ceased to be appreciated by her husband. Her husband’s temper became affected by the commercial troubles of 1762, and Mrs. Thrale became jealous of the regard between him and Sophy Streatfield, a rich widow’s daughter. Under January, 1779, she wrote in her "Thraliana," "Mr. Thrale has fallen in love, really and seriously, with Sophy Streatfield; but there is no wonder in that; she is very pretty, very gentle, soft, and insinuating; hangs about him, dances round him, cries when she parts from him, squeezes his hand slily, and with her sweet eyes full of tears looks so fondly in his face—and all for love of me, as she pretends, that I can hardly sometimes help laughing in her face. A man must not be a MAN but an IT to resist such artillery." Mrs. Thrale goes on to record conquests made by this irresistible Sophy in other directions, showing the same temper of jealousy. Thrale died on the 4th of April, 1781.

Mrs. Thrale had entered in her "Thraliana" under July, 178O, being then at Brighton, "I have picked up Piozzi here, the great Italian singer. He is amazingly like my father. He shall teach Hesther." On the 25th of July, 1784, being at Bath, her entry was, "I am returned from church the happy wife of my lovely, faithful Piozzi. . . . subject of my prayers, object of my wishes, my sighs, my reverence, my esteem." Her age then was forty-four, and on the 13th of December in the same year Johnson died. The newspapers of the day dealt hardly with her. They called her an amorous widow, and Piozzi a fortune-hunter. Her eldest daughter (afterwards Viscountess Keith) refused to recognise the new father, and shut herself up in a house at Brighton with a nurse, Tib, where she lived upon two hundred a year. Two younger sisters, who were at school, lived afterwards with the eldest. Only the fourth daughter, the youngest, went with her mother and her mother’s new husband to Italy. Johnson, too, was grieved by the marriage, and had shown it, but had written afterwards most kindly. Mrs. Piozzi in Florence was playing at literature with the poetasters of "The Florence Miscellany" and "The British Album" when she was working at these "Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson." Her book of anecdotes was planned at Florence in 1785, the year after her friend’s death, finished at Florence in October, 1785, and published in the year 1786. There is a touch of bitterness in the book which she thought of softening, but her "lovely, faithful Piozzi" wished it to remain. H. M.


I have somewhere heard or read that the preface before a book, like the portico before a house, should be contrived so as to catch, but not detain, the attention of those who desire admission to the family within, or leave to look over the collection of pictures made by one whose opportunities of obtaining them we know to have been not unfrequent. I wish not to keep my readers long from such intimacy with the manners of Dr. Johnson, or such knowledge of his sentiments as these pages can convey. To urge my distance from England as an excuse for the book’s being ill-written would be ridiculous; it might indeed serve as a just reason for my having written it at all; because, though others may print the same aphorisms and stories, I cannot HERE be sure that they have done so. As the Duke says, however, to the Weaver, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, "Never excuse; if your play be a bad one, keep at least the excuses to yourself."

I am aware that many will say I have not spoken highly enough of Dr. Johnson; 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. It is surely no dispraise to an oak that it does not bear jessamine; and he who should plant honeysuckle round Trajan’s column would not be thought to adorn, but to disgrace it.

When I have said that he was more a man of genius than of learning, I mean not to take from the one part of his character that which I willingly give to the other. The erudition of Mr. Johnson proved his genius; for he had not acquired it by long or profound study: nor can I think those characters the greatest which have most learning driven into their heads, any more than I can persuade myself to consider the River Jenisca as superior to the Nile, because the first receives near seventy tributary streams in the course of its unmarked progress to the sea, while the great parent of African plenty, flowing from an almost invisible source, and unenriched by any extraneous waters, except eleven nameless rivers, pours his majestic torrent into the ocean by seven celebrated mouths.

But I must conclude my preface, and begin my book, the first I ever presented before the public; from whose awful appearance in some measure to defend and conceal myself, I have thought fit to retire behind the Telamonian shield, and show as little of myself as possible, well aware of the exceeding difference there is between fencing in the school and fighting in the field. Studious, however, to avoid offending, and careless of that offence which can be taken without a cause, I here not unwillingly submit my slight performance to the decision of that glorious country, which I have the daily delight to hear applauded in others, as eminently just, generous, and humane.


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Chicago: Hester Lynch Piozzi, "Introduction," Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Evans, Sebastian in Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson Original Sources, accessed July 2, 2022,

MLA: Piozzi, Hester Lynch. "Introduction." Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Evans, Sebastian, in Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, Original Sources. 2 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: Piozzi, HL, 'Introduction' in Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, ed. and trans. . cited in , Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson. Original Sources, retrieved 2 July 2022, from