The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 07, No. 43, May, 1861 Creator online

. (page 17 of 21)
Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 07, No. 43, May, 1861 Creator → online text (page 17 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

which we do not remember to have seen before.

"My heart was free, my head full of Authors, Actors, Literature in every
shape; and I had a dear, dear friend, an old Dr. Collier, who said he
was sixty-six years old, I remember, the day I was sixteen, and whose
instructions I prized beyond all the gayeties of early life: nor have I
ever passed a day since we parted in which I have not recollected with
gratitude the boundless obligations that I owe him. He was intimate with
the famous James Harris of Salisbury, Lord Malmesbury's father, of whom
you have heard how Charles Townshend said, when he took his seat in the
House of Commons, - 'Who is this man?' - to his next neighbour;
'I never saw him before.' 'Who? Why, Harris the author, that wrote one
book about Grammar [so he did] and one about Virtue.' 'What does he come
here for?' replies Spanish Charles; 'he will find neither Grammar nor
Virtue _here_.' Well, my dear old Dr. Collier had much of both, and
delighted to shake the superflux of his full mind over mine, ready to
receive instruction conveyed with so much tender assiduity."

In both her autobiographies, the printed as well as the manuscript, Mrs.
Piozzi speaks in very cold and disparaging terms of her first husband,
Mr. Thrale. Her marriage with him had not been a love-match; but we
suspect that the long course of years had been unfavorable to his memory
in her recollection, and that the blame with which his friends visited
her second marriage, which was in all respects an affair of the heart,
produced in her a certain bitterness of feeling toward Mr. Thrale, as if
he had been the author of these reproaches. It is impossible to believe
that he was as indifferent to her as she represents, and that her
marriage with him was not moderately happy. Had it been otherwise,
however well appearances might have been kept up, Dr. Johnson could
hardly have been deceived concerning the truth, and would hardly have
ventured to write to her in his letter of consolation upon Mr. Thrale's
death in 1781, -

"He that has given you happiness in marriage, to a degree of which,
without personal knowledge, I should have thought the description
fabulous, can give you another mode of happiness as a mother."

One of her most decided intellectual characteristics was her
versatility, or, to give it a harder name, what Johnson called her
"instability of attention." Dulness was, in her code, the unpardonable
sin. Variety was the charm of life, and of books. She never dwelt long
on one idea. Her letters and her books are pieces of mosaic-work, the
bits of material being put together without any regular pattern, but
often with a pretty effect. Here is an illustration of her style.

"In a few years (our Letters tell the date) Johnson was introduced; and
now I must laugh at a ridiculous _Retrospection_. When I was a very
young wench, scarce twelve years old I trust, my notice was strongly
attracted by a Mountebank in some town we were passing through. 'What a
fine fellow!' said I; 'dear Papa, do ask him to dinner with us at our
inn! - or, at least, Merry Andrew, because he could tell us such _clever
stories of his master_.' My Father laughed sans intermission an hour by
the dial, as Jacques once at Motley. - Yet did dear Mr. Conway's fancy
for H.L.P.'s conversation grow up, at first, out of something not unlike
this, when, his high-polished mind and fervid imagination taking fire
from the tall Beacon bearing Dr. Johnson's fame above the clouds, he
thought some information might perhaps be gained by talk with the old
female who so long _carried coals to it_. She has told all, or nearly
all, she knew, -

'And like poor Andrew must advance,
Mean mimic of her master's dance; -
But similes, like songs in love,
Describing much, too little prove.'

"So now, leaving Prior's pretty verses, and leaving Dr. Johnson too, who
was himself severely censured for his rough criticism on a writer who
had pleased all in our Augustan age of Literature, poor H.L.P. turns
egotist at eighty, and tells her own adventures."

But the octogenarian egotist has something to tell about beside herself.
Here is a passage of interest to the student of Shakspearian localities,
and bearing on a matter in dispute from the days of Malone and Chalmers.

"For a long time, then, - or I thought it such, - my fate was bound up
with the old Globe Theatre, upon the Bankside, Southwark; the alley it
had occupied having been purchased and thrown down by Mr. Thrale to
make an opening before the windows of our dwelling-house. When it lay
desolate in a black heap of rubbish, my Mother, one day, in joke,
called it the Ruins of Palmyra; and after they had laid it down in a
grass-plot, Palmyra was the name it went by, I suppose, among the clerks
and servants of the brew-house; for when the Quaker Barclay bought the
whole, I read that name with wonder in the Writings." - "But there
were really curious remains of the old Globe Playhouse, which, though
hexagonal in form without, was round within, as circles contain more
space than other shapes, and Bees make their cells in hexagons only
because that figure best admits of junction. Before I quitted the
premises, however, I learned that Tarleton, the actor of those times,
was not buried at St. Saviour's, Southwark, as he wished, near Massinger
and Cower, but at Shoreditch Church. _He_ was the first of the
profession whose fame was high enough to have his portrait solicited for
to be set up as a Sign; and none but he and Garrick, I believe, ever
obtained that honour. Mr. Dance's picture of our friend David lives in a
copy now in Oxford St., - the character, King Richard."

Somewhat more than three years after her first husband's death, Mrs.
Thrale, in spite of the opposition of her friends, the repugnance of
her daughters, and the sneers of society, married Piozzi. He was a poor
Italian gentleman, whose only fortune was in his voice and his musical
talent. He had been for some time an admired public singer in London and
Paris. There was nothing against him but the opinion of society. Mrs.
Thrale set this opinion at defiance: a rash thing for a woman to do, and
hardly an excusable one in her case; for she was aware that she would
thus alienate her daughters, and offend her best friends. But she was in
love with him; and though for a time she tried to struggle against her
passion, it finally prevailed over her prudence, her pride, and such
affections as she had for others. Her health suffered during
the struggle, the termination of which she thus narrates in her
"Abridgment." The account differs in some slight particulars from that
in her "Autobiographical Memoirs"; but a comparison between the two
serves rather to confirm than to impugn her general accuracy.

"I hoped," she says, "in defiance of probability, to live my sorrows
out, and marry the man of my choice. Health, however, began to give
way, as my Letters to Dr. Johnson testify; and when my kind physician,
Dobson, from Liverpool, found it in actual and positive danger, - 'Now,'
said he, 'I have respected your delicacy long enough; tell me at once
who he is that holds _such_ a life in his power: for write to him I must
and will; it is my sacred duty.' 'Dear Sir,' said I, 'the difficulty
is to keep him at a distance. Speak to these cruel girls, if you will
speak.' 'One of whose lives your assiduous tenderness,' cried he,
'saved, with my little help, only a month ago!' - and ran up-stairs to
the ladies. 'We know,' was their reply, 'that she is fretting after a
fellow; but where he is - you may ask her - we know not.' 'He is at Milan,
with his friend the Marquis of Aracieli,' said I, - 'from whom I had a
letter last week, requesting Piozzi's recall from banishment, as he
gallantly terms it, little conscious of what I suffer.' So we wrote; and
he returned on the eleventh day after receiving the letter. Meanwhile
my health mended, and I waited on the lasses to their own house at
Brighthelmstone, leaving Miss Nicholson, a favorite friend of theirs,
and all their intolerably insolent servants, with them. Piozzi's return
accelerated the recovery of your poor friend, and we married in both
Churches, - at St. James', Bath, on St. James' Day, 1784, - thirty-five
years ago now that I write this Abridgment. When we came to examine
Papers, however, our attorney, Greenland, discovered a _suppression_
of fifteen hundred pounds, which helped pay our debts, discharge the
mortgage, etc., as Piozzi, like Portia, permitted me not to sleep by his
side with an unquiet soul. He settled everything with his own money,
depended on God and my good constitution for our living long and happily
together, - and so we did, twenty-five years, - said change of scenery
would complete the cure, and carried me off in triumph, as he called
it, to shew his friends in Italy the foreign wife he had so long been
sighing for. 'Ah, Madam!' said the Marquis, when he first saluted me,
'we used to blame dear Piozzi; - now we envy him!'"

Of Mrs. Piozzi's journey on the Continent we shall speak in another
article. After a residence abroad of two years and a half, she and her
husband returned to London in March, 1787. Mrs. Piozzi had come home
determined to resume, if it were possible, her old place in society, and
to assert herself against the attacks of wits and newspapers, and the
coldness of old friends. She had been hardly and unfairly dealt with
by the public, in regard to her marriage. The appearance, during
her absence, of her volume of "Anecdotes of Dr. Johnson" had given
unfriendly critics an opportunity to pass harsh judgment upon her
literary merits, and had excited the jealousy of rival biographers
of the dead lion. Boswell, Hawkins, Baretti, Chalmers, Peter Pindar,
Gifford, Horace Walpole, all had their fling at her. Never was an
innocent woman in private life more unfeelingly abused, or her name
dragged before the public more wantonly, in squibs and satires, jests
and innuendoes. The women who transgress social conventionalities are
often treated as if they had violated the rules of morals. But she was
not to be put down in this way. Her temperament enabled her to escape
much of the pain which a more sensitive person would have suffered. She
hardened herself against the malice of her satirists; and in doing so,
her character underwent an essential change. She was truly happy with
Piozzi, and she preserved, by strength of will, an inexhaustible fund of
good spirits.

On first reaching London, "we drove," she writes in the Conway MSS., "to
the Royal Hotel in Pall Mall, and, arriving early, I proposed going to
the Play. There was a small front box, in those days, which held only
two; it made the division, or connexion, with the side boxes, and,
being unoccupied, we sat in it, and saw Mrs. Siddons act Imogen, I well
remember, and Mrs. Jordan, Priscilla Tomboy. Mr. Piozzi was amused, and
the next day was spent in looking at houses, counting the cards left
by old acquaintances, etc. The lady-daughters came, behaved with cold
civility, and asked what I thought of their decision concerning Cecilia,
then at school - No reply was made, or a gentle one; but she was the
first cause of contention among us. The lawyers gave her into my care,
and we took her home to our new habitation in Hanover Square, which we
opened with Music, cards, etc., on, I think, the 22 March. Miss Thrales
refused their company; so we managed as well as we could. Our affairs
were in good order, and money ready for spending. The World, as it is
called, appeared good-humored, and we were soon followed, respected, and
admired. The summer months sent us about visiting and pleasuring, ...
and after another gay London season, Streatham Park, unoccupied by
tenants, called us as if _really home_. Mr. Piozzi, with more generosity
than prudence, spent two thousand pounds on repairing and furnishing it
in 1790; - and we had danced all night, I recollect, when the news came
of Louis Seize's escape from, and recapture by, his rebel subjects."

Poor old woman, who could thus write of her own daughters! - poor old
woman, who had not heart enough either to keep the love of her children
or to grieve for its loss! Cecilia was her fourth and youngest child,
and her story, as her mother tells it, may as well be finished here.
After speaking in her manuscript of a claim on some Oxfordshire
property, disputed by her daughters, she says, in words hard and cold
as steel, - "We threw it up, therefore, and contented ourselves with the
plague Cecilia gave us, who, by dint of intriguing lovers, teazed my
soul out before she was fifteen, - when she fortunately ran away,
jumping out of the window at Streatham Park, with Mr. Mostyn of
Segraid, - a young man to whom Sir Thomas Mostyn's title will go, if he
does not marry, but whose property, being much encumbered, made him no
match for Cecy and her forty thousand pounds; and we were censured
for not taking better care, and suffering her to wed a _Welsh_
gentleman, - object of ineffable contempt to the daughters of Mr. Thrale,
with whom she always held correspondence while living with us, who
indulged her in every expense and every folly, - although allowed only
one hundred and forty pounds per ann. on her account."

After two or three years spent in London, the Piozzis resided for some
time at Streatham, - how changed in mistress and in guests from the
Streatham of which Mrs. Thrale had been the presiding genius! But after
a while they removed to Wales, where, on an old family estate belonging
to Mrs. Piozzi, they built a house, and christened the place with the
queer Welsh-Italian compound name of Brynbella. "Mr. Piozzi built the
house for me, he said; my own old chateau, Bachygraig by name, tho' very
curious, was wholly uninhabitable; and we called the Italian villa he
set up as mine in the Vale of Cluid, North Wales, Brynbella, or the
beautiful brow, making the name half Welsh and half Italian, as we
were." Here they lived, with occasional visits to other places, during
the remainder of Piozzi's life. "Our head quarters were in Wales, where
dear Piozzi repaired my church, built a new vault for my old ancestors,
chose the place in it where he and I are to repose together..... He
lived some twenty-five years with me, however, but so punished with
Gout that we found Bath the best wintering-place for many, many
seasons. - Mrs. Siddons' last appearance there he witnessed, when she
played Calista to Dimond's Lothario, in which he looked _so_ like
Garrick it shocked us _all three_, I believe; for Garrick adored Mr.
Piozzi, and Siddons hated the little great man to her heart. Poor
Dimond! he was a well-bred, pleasing, worthy creature, and did the
honours of his own house and table with peculiar grace indeed. No
likeness in private life or manner, - none at all; no wit, no fun, no
frolic humour had Mr. Dimond: - no grace, no dignity, no real unaffected
elegance of mien or behaviour had his predecessor, David, - whose
partiality to my fastidious husband was for that reason never returned.
Merriment, difficult for _him_ to comprehend, made no amends for the
want of that which no one understood better; - so he hated all the wits
but Murphy."

And now that we are on anecdotes of the Theatre, here is another good
story, which belongs to a somewhat earlier time, but of which Mrs.
Piozzi does not mention the exact date. "The Richmond Theatre at that
time attracted all literary people's attention, while a Coterie of
Gentlemen and Noblemen and Ladies entertained themselves with getting up
Plays, and acting them at the Duke of Richmond's house, Whitehall. Lee's
'Theodosius' was the favorite. Lord Henry Fitzgerald played Varanus very
well, - for a Dilettante; and Lord Derby did his part surprisingly. But
there was a song to be sung to Athenais, while she, resolving to take
poison, sits in a musing attitude. Jane Holman - then Hamilton - _would_
sing an air of Sacchini, and the manager _would not_ hear Italian words.
The ballad appointed by the author was disapproved by all, and I pleased
everybody by my fortunate fancy of adapting some English verses to the
notes of Sacchini's song; and Jane Hamilton sung them enchantingly: -

'Vain's the breath of Adulation,
Vain the tears of tenderest Passion,
Whilst a strong Imagination
Holds the wandering Mind away;
Art in vain attempts to borrow
Notes to soothe a rooted sorrow;
Fixed to die, and die to-morrow,
What can touch her soul to-day?'

"The lines were printed, but I lost them. 'What a wild Tragedy is this!'
said I to Hannah More, who was one of the audience. 'Wild enough,' was
her reply; 'but there's good Poetry in it, and good Passion, _and they
will always do_.'

"Hannah More never goes now to a Theatre. How long is H.L. Piozzi likely
to be seen there? How long will Mr. Conway keep the stage?"

In the year 1798, the family of Mr. Piozzi having suffered greatly from
the French invasion of Lombardy, he sent for the son of his youngest
brother, a "little boy just turned of five years old." "We have got him
here," wrote Mrs. Piozzi in a letter from Bath, dated January, 1799,
published by Mr. Hayward, "and his uncle will take him to school next
week." "As he was by a lucky chance baptized, in compliment to me, John
Salusbury, [Salusbury was her family name,] he will be known in England
by no other, and it will be forgotten he is a foreigner." "My poor
little boy from Lombardy said, as I walked with him across our market,
'These are sheeps' heads, are they not, aunt? I saw a hasket of men's
heads at Brescia.'" Little John, though he went to school, was often at
home. After writing of the troubles with her own daughters, Mrs. Piozzi
says in the manuscript before us, - "Had we vexations enough? We had
certainly many pleasures. The house in Wales was beautiful, and the Boy
was beautiful too. Mr. Piozzi said I had spoiled my own children and was
spoiling his. My reply was, that I loved spoiling people, and hated any
one I could not spoil. Am I not now trying to spoil dear Mr. Conway?"

Piozzi was not far from wrong in his judgment of her treatment of this
boy, if we may trust to her complaints of his coldness and indifference
to her. In 1814, at the time of his marriage, five years after Piozzi's
death, she gave to him her Welsh estate; and it may have been a greater
satisfaction to her than any gratification of the affections could have
afforded, to see him, before she died, high sheriff of his county, and
knighted as Sir John Salusbury Piozzi Salusbury.

There was little gayety in the life at Brynbella, or at Bath, - and the
society that Mrs. Piozzi now saw was made up chiefly of new and for the
most part uninteresting acquaintances. The old Streatham set, with a few
exceptions, were dead, and of the few that remained none retained their
former relations with its mistress. But she suffered little from the
change, was contented to win and accept the flattery of inferior people,
and, instead of spending her faculties in soothing the "radically
wretched life" of Johnson, used them, perhaps not less happily, in
lightening the sufferings of Piozzi during his last years. She tells a
touching story of him in these days.

"Piozzi's fine hand upon the organ and pianoforte deserted him. Gout,
such as I never knew, fastened on his fingers, distorting them into
every dreadful shape. ... A little girl, shewn to him as a musical
wonder of five years old, said,' Pray, Sir, why are your fingers wrapped
up in black silk so?' 'My Dear,' replied he, 'they are in mourning for
my Voice.' 'Oh, me!' cries the child, _'is she dead_?' He sung an easy
song, and the Baby exclaimed, 'Ah, Sir! you are very naughty, - you tell
fibs!' Poor Dears! and both gone now!!"

There were no morbid sensibilities in Mrs. Piozzi's composition. She can
tell all her sorrows without ever a tear. A mark of exclamation looks
better than a blot. And yet she had suffered; but it had been with such
suffering as makes the soul hard rather than tender. The pages with
which she ends this narrative of her life are curiously characteristic.

"When life was gradually, but perceptibly, closing round him [Piozzi] at
Bath, in 1808, I asked him if he would wish to converse with a Romish
priest, - we had full opportunity there. 'By no means,' said he. 'Call
Mr. Leman of the Crescent.' We did so, - poor Bessy ran and fetched him.
Mr. Piozzi received the blessed Sacrament at his hands; but recovered
sufficiently to go home and die in his own house. I sent for Salusbury,
but he came three hours too late, - his master, Mr. Shephard, with him.
In another year he went to Oxford, where he spent me above seven hundred
pounds per annum, and kept me in continual terror lest the bad habits of
the place should ruin him, body, soul, and purse. His old school-fellow,
Smythe Owen, - then. Pemberton, - accompanied him, and to that gentleman's
sister he of course gave his heart. The Lady and her friends took
advantage of my fondness, and insisted on my giving up the Welsh
estate. I did so, hoping to live at last with my own children, at
Streatham Park; - there, however, I found no solace of the sort. So,
after entangling my purse with new repairing and furnishing that place,
retirement to Bath with my broken heart and fortune was all I could wish
or expect. Thither I hasted, heard how the possessors of Brynbella,
lived and thrived, but

'Who set the twigs will he remember
Who is in haste to sell the timber?'

"Well, no matter! One day before I left it there was talk how Love had
always Interest annexed to it. 'Nay, then,' said I, 'what is my love
for Salusbury?' 'Oh!' replied Shephard, 'there is Interest there. Mrs.
Piozzi cannot, could not, I am sure, exist without some one upon whom to
energize her affections; his Uncle is gone, and she is much obliged
to young Salusbury for being ready at her hand to pet and spoil;
her children will not suffer her to love them, and' - with a coarse
laugh - 'what will she do when this fellow throws her off, as he soon
will?' Shephard was right enough. I sunk into a stupor, worse far
than all the torments I had endured: but when Canadian Indians take a
prisoner, dear Mr. Conway knows what agonies they put them to; the
man bears all without complaining, - smokes, dances, triumphs in his
anguish, -

'For the son of Alcnoomak shall never complain.'

"When a little remission comes, however, then comes the torpor too; - he
cannot then be waked by pain or moderate pleasure: and such was my
case, when your talents roused, your offered friendship opened my heart
to enjoyment Oh! never say hereafter that the obligations are on your
side. Without you, dulness, darkness, stagnation of every faculty would
have enveloped and extinguished all the powers of hapless


The picture that Mrs. Piozzi paints of herself in these last words is a
sad one. She herself was unconscious, however, of its real sadness. In
its unintentional revelations it shows us the feebleness without the
dignity of old age, vivacity without freshness of intellect, the
pretence without the reality of sentiment. "Hapless H.L.P." - to have
lived to eighty years, and to close the record of so long a life with
such words!

A little more than a year after this "Abridgment" was written, in May,
1821, Mrs. Piozzi died. Her children, from whom she had lived separated,
were around her death-bed.[C]

[Footnote C: It is but four years ago that the Viscountess Keith, Mrs.
Piozzi's eldest daughter, died. She was ninety-five years old. Her long
life connected our generation with that of Johnson and Burke. She was
the last survivor of the Streatham "set," - for, as "Queeney," she had
held a not unimportant place in it. She was at Johnson's death-bed. At
their last interview he said, - "My dear child, we part forever in this
world; let us part as Christian friends should; let us pray together."

It was in 1808 that Miss Thrale married Lord Keith, a distinguished
naval officer.

In _The Gentleman's Magazine_, for May, 1657, is an interesting notice
of Lady Keith. "During many years," it is there said, "Viscountess Keith
held a distinguished position in the highest circles of the fashionable
world in London; but during the latter portion of her life.... her time
was almost entirely devoted to works of charity and to the performance
of religious duties. No one ever did more for the good of others, and
few ever did so much in so unostentatious a manner."]

In judging her, it is to be borne in mind that the earlier and the later
portions of her life are widely different from each other. As we have
before said, Mrs. Thrale and Mrs. Piozzi are two distinct persons. Mrs.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17 19 20 21

Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 07, No. 43, May, 1861 Creator → online text (page 17 of 21)