‘I went to High Mass at one of the most considerable Churches in the Town, & was astonished at the want of Devotion in the Audience; some were counting their Money, some arguing with the Beggars who interrupt you without ceasing, some receiving Messages and dispatching Answers, some beating Time to the Musick, but scarce any one praying except for one Moment when the Priest elevates the Host.’ This is Hester Thrale on tour in France, and not having much good to say about the religious life there. She was travelling with her friend Dr Samuel Johnson, which she often did, and recording her experiences in a diary, which Johnson dubbed as ‘Thraliana’. Today is the 170th aniversary of Hester’s birth.
Hester Lynch Salusbury was born at Bodvel Hall, Wales, on 27 January 1741 into an educated and literate family. Her father, John Salusbury, was a Welsh nobleman, explorer and the co-founder of Halifax, Nova Scotia. However, back in Britain, he got into financial troubles, and after his death, Hester was married off to Henry Thrale, a wealthy Southwark brewer, in 1763. Though the marriage was often strained they had twelve children, only four of which survived into adulthood.
In the mid-1760s, Samuel Johnson began to spend several days a week at the Thrales family estate in Streatham, and he accompanied the family on trips to Wales, for example, and France. Through Johnson, Hester met other famous and literate people of the day, not least the young Fanny Burney, now remembered for her diaries, who, like Johnson, travelled with her and the family.
Henry Thrale died in 1781, and three years later, Hester married again, this time for love, to Gabriel Piozzi, a Catholic Italian music master who had been one of her daughter’s teachers. The match was criticised by Johnson and by Burney (though she herself would later marry a Catholic émigré), and the couple moved to north Wales. When Piozzi died in 1809, Hester went to live in Bath; and she died in Bristol in 1821. Thrale.com has a lot more about Hester, and Wikipedia has a short article; also, The Diary Junction has various links.
Hester wrote a good deal during her life, and indeed contributed to some of Johnson’s books. Her own first published works were about Johnson - Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson and Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson - and were a great success. But she also wrote poetry, plays and kept a diary for much of her life. This latter was referred to, long before publication, by Johnson: in a letter dated 6 September 1777, he wrote: ‘As you have little to do, I suppose you are pretty diligent at the ‘Thraliana’; and a very curious collection posterity will find it.’ Wikipedia has a much longer entry about Thraliana than about Hester Thrale herself
Extracts of Hester’s diary were first published in the two-volumes of Autobiography, Letters and Literary Remains of Mrs Piozzi (Thrale) which was edited by A Hayward and published in 1861 by Longman (freely available online at Internet Archive). Also available at Internet Archive is Charles Hughes’ Mrs Piozzi’s Thraliana published by Simpkin, Marshal, Hamilton, Kent and Co in 1913. A much fuller version of the diary was brought out by Clarendon Press in 1951, and other published versions include The Thrales of Streatham Park, and The French Journals of Mrs Thrale and Dr Johnson.
Here are several extracts from the latter, The French Journals of Mrs Thrale and Doctor Johnson. This was edited from original manuscripts in the John Rylands Library and the British Museum with an introduction and notes by Moses Tyson and Henry Guppy; and it was published by Manchester University Press in 1932.
‘Until a year or so prior to publication,’ says Guppy in his Prefatory Note, ‘the existence of the small leather-covered note-book in which Mrs Thrale recorded her journal while touring around in France in 1775 was unknown, and not even suspected. . . It was found under a large collection of letters, papers and other note-books, which had passed down the generations and eventually acquired by the John Rylands Library.’ The book also includes Dr Samuel Johnson’s briefer diary notes of the same journey, as well as the diary of Mrs Thrale, by then Mrs Priozzi, kept during another tour of France in 1784. (Queeney was Hester’s eldest child and had been so named by Johnson.)
17 September 1775
‘Queeney’s Birthday. She is now eleven Years old, God preserve & continue her Life till mine is spent: on this day we weighed Anchor in a very neat Sloop - Capt Baxter, Commander, an old School-fellow of Mr Thrale’s. The Weather was lovely - the Ship all our own, the Sea smooth & all our Society well but Queeney, whose Sickness oppressed her beyond Conception. Sam and Molly too were cruel sick, but Queeney worst of all or I thought her so.
I was vastly surprized when I landed at Calais to see the Soldiers with Whiskers and the Women mostly so ugly and deform’d. They however seemed desirous to hide their frightfulness, for all wore long Clokes of Camlet that came down to their Heels. The Inn at this Place kept by Dessein is the most magnificent I ever saw - the Mount at Marlborough is nothing to it. We had an excellent Dinner which a Capuchin Fryar enlivened by his Company. When it was over we were entertained with a Sight of his Convent, Cells, Chapel & Refectory; the Library was locked, & I was not sorry, for Mr Johnson would never have come out of it. The Fryer was a handsome Man, had been a Soldier & ended his Pilgrimage a Monk; he had travelled Europe & seen Asia, and was as pleasing a Fellow as could be met with. Johnson said he was as complete a Character as could be found in Romance. The book open in his Cell that he had been reading was the History of England & he had a Fiddle for his Amusement. We saw a Ship such as might serve for a Model of a Man of War hung up in the Chapel of the Convent. I asked the meaning & the Fryer told me it was a Ship some honest Man had made, & grown more fond of than it is fit to be of any earthly Thing - so he had piously given it away to the Capuchin Chapel. Johnson observed that I ought to give them Queeney.’
23 September 1775
‘This Morning my Curiosity was abundantly gratified by visiting two Convents of Religious Woman. The first were Gravelines or poor Claires into whose House however I was not permitted to enter further than the Chapel through the Grate of which I conversed quite at my Ease with them - the more as they were all my Countrywomen, & some still retained a strong Provincial Northern Dialect. They were truly wretched indeed, wore only Petticoat, and that of the coarsest Stuff, they were bare legged and bare footed, & had no Linnen about them except a sort of Band, which was very dirty though I had Reason to think I was expected. The Sister at the Speak House . . . smelt very offensive when I saluted her, which I find is the Custom at all Convents. . . Their Fingers all seem knotted at the Joynts, their Nails broken & miserably disfugured, they are extremely lean too . . .’
24 September 1775
‘I have now acquired pretty good Notions of the Monastick Life, and have found that these Austerities are never chosen by any Women who have the least Experience of any other Mode of Life: but Parents who want to be rid of their poor Girls send them at the Age of ten or eleven to these Convents where they - seeing these Nuns perpetually & seeing nothing else - fall in the Snare, & profess Poverty, Misery & all which the rest of the World unite to avoid - much less from Religion than Stupidity. . .
I went to High Mass at one of the most considerable Churches in the Town, & was astonished at the want of Devotion in the Audience; some were counting their Money, some arguing with the Beggars who interrupt you without ceasing, some receiving Messages and dispatching Answers, some beating Time to the Musick, but scarce any one praying except for one Moment when the Priest elevates the Host.’
1 October 1775
‘We have driven about the Town ever since 11 or 10 o’Clock & I have stolen half an hour for my Journal & general Observations. Nothing can be truer than what Baretti says, that the Extremes of Magnificence & Meanness meet at Paris: Extremes of every sort are likewise perpetually meeting. Yesterday I was shewn a Femme Publique dress’d out in a Theatrical Manner for the Purpose of attracting the Men with a Crucifix on her Bosom; & today I walked among the beautiful statues of Tuilleres, a Place which for Magnificence most resembles the Pictures of Solomon’s Temple, where the Gravel is loose like the Beach at Brighthelmstone, the Water in the Basin Royale cover’d with Duck Weed, & some wooden Netting in the Taste of our low Junketting Houses at Islington dropping to Pieces with Rottenness & Age.’