Just Good Friends

The Impossible Friendship: Boswell and Mrs. Thrale

by Mary Hyde
Harvard, 196 pp., $7.50

James Boswell
James Boswell; drawing by David Levine

Everyone with a serious interest in Samuel Johnson sooner or later reads not only Boswell’s Life but also the Anecdotes written by Hester Salusbury under her third surname, Piozzi. Hester was, of course, Johnson’s friend Mrs. Thrale, whose house at Streatham became a second home to Johnson between 1765 and 1780. The two books advertise a mutual enmity. In her book, Mrs. Piozzi snipes a few times at Boswell, and in a hastily written postscript indignantly denies the truth of a remark he has made, enpassant, that she “could not get through” Mrs. Montague’s book on Shakespeare.

Boswell, when his masterpiece finally appears five years later, takes the trouble to drive a steam roller over Mrs. Piozzi, mentioning her several times with disapprobation and finally, a few pages from the end, launching a sustained attack intended to destroy her little book entirely, bringing up example after example of inaccuracy and misrepresentation, and cautioning readers not to accept her version of Johnson’s character in exactly the manner of a lawyer addressing the jury (“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”). Boswell was not a barrister for nothing.

Mrs. Piozzi was powerless against these attacks. After marrying Piozzi in 1784, she went to the Continent on a wedding trip that lasted two years and seven months, which meant that she was hopelessly handicapped in the race for Johnsonian materials, anecdotes, letters. She had to rely on memory, and inevitably she made slips, and also drew a veil over situations in which she appeared in an unflattering light. Boswell, being a more skilled and scrupulous researcher than Mrs. Piozzi to begin with, and having far greater access to material, could, if he chose, bury her.

In fact, the good sense of readers has not allowed her Anecdotes to be buried. Skimpy as they are, and darkened toward the end by a feminine (and rather touching) plaintiveness, they exhibit a side of Johnson that on the whole swam through Boswell’s net. Johnson, a fearsome manic-depressive, showed mainly his manic side to Boswell, concealing from the younger man his weaknesses and fears, and preferring to act the role of the robust father figure and intellectual gladiator. He even laid claim to superior physical endurance, poking affectionate fun at Boswell in his Journey to the Western Islands because of the latter’s effort to mitigate the rigors of a night spent in a primitive inn.

To Mrs. Thrale he kept up no such bella figura. He allowed her—at times, indeed, compelled her—to gaze into the abyss of his fears and miseries. Obviously Boswell understood this, and his animus against Mrs. Piozzi arose at least partly from jealousy. Whatever were the shortcomings of her performance, it came out of an…

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