DR BURNEY was giving a “command” party at his house in St. Martin's Street, Leicester Fields—the house which Sir Isaac Newton did once inhabit, and which was still crowned with the most celebrated observatory in Europe. In the early years of his musical career he had had a patron, Mr. Fulk Greville, who had done a great deal for him, and in later days he had never quite forgotten this fact, although Dr. Burney had climbed high on the professional as well as the social ladder, and was better known in the world than Mr. Greville himself. He had become quite intimate with many great persons and several curious ones. It is uncertain whether Mr. Greville regarded Dr. Johnson as belonging to the former or the latter class, but at any rate he had heard a great deal about Dr. Johnson, and did not think that, provided he took every reasonable precaution, any harm could come to himself from meeting such a notability. He accordingly instructed Dr. Burney to bring him and Johnson together, and Burney promised to do so. Before the day for this meeting was fixed Mrs. Greville—who, by the way, was Fanny Burney's godmother—had signified her intention of viewing the huge person also, and of bringing her daughter, the exquisite Mrs. Crewe, to attend the promised exhibition of genius in bulk.

Of course Dr. Johnson was ready to lend himself to any plan that might be devised to increase the circumference of his circle of admirers, and besides, this Mr. Fulk Greville was a descendant of the friend of Sir Philip Sidney, and had large possessions, as well as a magnificent country seat, and altogether he would make a most desirable listener; so he agreed to come to the party to be inspected by the Greville family. Burney, however, wishing, as every responsible proprietor of a menagerie should wish, to be on the safe side and exhibit his bear under the eye and the controlling influence of his favourite keeper, invited Mr. and Mrs. Thrale to the party.

These were to be the “principals” in the comedy of this entertainment; and for the subordinates he selected his married daughter and her husband—both admirable musicians—Mr. Davenant, Mr. Seward, and a certain Italian musician, a vocalist as well as a performer on the violin and that new instrument which was at first called the fortepiano, then the pianoforte, and later on simply the piano. This person's name was Gabrielli Piozzi.

Such were the harmonious elements which Dr. Burney proposed to bring together for the gratification of Mr. Fulk Greville and his wife. Mr. Greville was an amateur of some little capacity, and he had certainly at one time been greatly interested in music. He had paid £300 to Burney's master, the celebrated Dr. Arne, who composed in the masque of “Alfred” the rousing anthem known as “Rule Britannia,” for the cancelling of Burney's indentures as an apprentice to the “art of musick,” and had taken the young man into his own house in a capacity which may best be described as that of entertaining secretary. Dr. Burney may therefore have thought in his wisdom that, should Johnson be in one of his bearish moods and feel disinclined to exhibit his parts of speech to Mr. Greville, the latter would be certain of entertainment from the musicians. This showed forethought and a good working knowledge of Dr. Johnson. But in spite of the second string to the musician's bow the party was a fiasco—that is, from the standpoint of a social entertainment; it included one incident, however, which made it the most notable of the many of the Burney parties of which a record remains.

And what records there are available to any one interested in the entertainments given by Dr. Burney and his charming family at that modest house of theirs, just round the corner from Sir Joshua Reynolds' larger establishment in Leicester Fields! Hundreds of people who contributed to make the second half of the eighteenth century the most notable of any period so far as literature and the arts were concerned, since the spacious days of Elizabeth, were accustomed to meet together informally at this house, and to have their visits recorded for all ages to muse upon. To that house came Garrick, not to exhibit his brilliance as a talker before a crowd of admirers, but to entertain the children of the household with the buffooning that never flagged, and that never fell short of genius in any exhibition. He was the delight of the schoolroom. Edmund Burke and his brother, both fond of conversation when oratory was not available, were frequently here; Reynolds came with many of his sitters, and found fresh faces for his canvas among his fellow-guests; and with him came his maiden sister, feeling herself more at home with the simple Burney circle than she ever did with the company who assembled almost daily under her brother's roof. Nollekens, the sculptor; Colman, the dramatist and theatre manager, who was obliged to run away from London to escape the gibes which were flung at him from every quarter when Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, which he had done his best to make a failure, became the greatest success of the year; Cumberland, the embittered rival of Goldsmith, who was the person who gave the solitary hiss during the first performance of the same play, causing the timid author to say to the manager on entering the playhouse, “What is that, sir—pray, what is that? Is it a hiss?” To which Colman replied, “Psha! sir, what signifies a squib when we have been sitting on a barrel of gunpowder all night?”

These were among the notabilities; and the “curiosities” were quite as numerous. The earliest of Arctic voyagers, Sir Constantine Phipps, who later became Lord Mulgrave, put in an appearance at more than one of the parties; and so did Omai, the “gentle savage” of the poet Cowper, who was brought by Captain Cook from the South Seas in the ship on which young Burney was an officer. The sisters, who, of course, idolised the sailor, sat open-mouthed with wonder to hear their brother chatting away to Omai in his native language. Upon another occasion came Bruce, the Abyssinian traveller, who told the story of how steaks were cut from the live ox when needed by the inhabitants of one region. He was immensely tall, as were some of his stories; but though extremely dignified, he did not object to a practical joke. Another person of great stature who visited the Burneys was the notorious Count Orloff, the favourite of the Empress Catherine of Russia; and from the letters of one of the young people of the household one has no difficulty in perceiving with what interest he was regarded by the girls, especially since the report reached them that he had personally strangled his imperial master at the instigation of his imperial mistress.

These are but, a few names out of the many on the Burneys' visiting list. Of course, as regards musical artists, the house was the rendezvous of the greatest in London. While the opera-house in the Haymarket was open there was a constant flow of brilliant vocalists to these shores, and the young people had many opportunities of becoming acquainted with the ignorance, the capriciousness, the affectations, and the abilities which were to be found associated with the lyric stage in the eighteenth century, as they are in the twentieth. Among the prime donne who sang for the Burneys were the Agujari—a marvellous performer, who got fifty pounds for every song she sang at the Pantheon—and her great but uncertain rival, Gabrielli. The former, according to Mozart, who may possibly be allowed to be something of a judge, had a vocal range which was certainly never equalled by any singer before or after his time. She won all hearts and a great deal of money during her visit to London, and she left with the reputation of being the most marvellous and most rapacious of Italians. Gabrielli seems to have tried to make up by capriciousness what she lacked in expression. Her voice was, so far as can be gathered from contemporary accounts, small and thin. But by judiciously disappointing the public she became the most widely talked of vocalist in the country. Then among the men were the simple and gracious Pacchierotti—who undoubtedly became attached to Fanny Burney—Rauzzini, and Piozzi.


The Burneys' house was for years the centre of the highest intellectual entertainment to be found in London, and the tact of the head of the household, and the simple, natural manners of his daughters, usually succeeded in preventing the intrusion of a single inharmonious note, in spite of the fact that a Welsh harpist named Jones had once been among the visitors.

But upon the occasion of this “command” party, when Greville was to meet Johnson, and the latter had dressed himself with that extreme care which we suspect meant that he tied up his hose, and put on a wig the front of which had not yet been burnt away by coming in contact with his lighted candle, Burney's tact overreached itself. Mr. Greville may have felt that the Thrales had no business to be of the party, or Johnson may have gained the impression that Burney's old patron was anxious to play the same part, in an honorary sort of way, in regard to himself. At any rate, he refused to be drawn out to exhibit his conversational powers to a supercilious visitor; and after a brief space of time he turned his back upon every one and his face to the fire, and there he sat, greatly to the discomfiture, no doubt, of his host. In a very short time a gloom settled down upon the whole party. Mr. Thrale, stiff and reserved, was not the man to pull things together. He sat mute on his chair, making no advance toward Mr. Greville, and Mr. Greville had probably his chin in the air, having come to the conclusion that Dr. Johnson's powers as a conversationalist had been greatly overrated by rumour.

It was when all hope of sociability had vanished that Dr. Burney, who, when a church organist, may have had occasion to cover up the shortcomings of the clergyman by a timely voluntary, begged Signor Piozzi to oblige the company with a song. But Piozzi was a forlorn hope. He was the last man in the world to save the situation. Had he been a vocalist of the calibre of Pacchierotti he could have made no headway against the funereal gloom that had settled down upon the party.

Piozzi had a sweet and highly trained voice, though some years earlier he had lost its best notes, and he sang with exquisite expression; but when playing his own accompaniment, with his back turned to his audience, he was prone to exaggerate the sentiment of the music until sentiment became lost in an exuberance of sentimentality.

This style of singing is not that to which any one would resort in order to dissipate a sudden social gloom. As the singer went on the gloom deepened.

It was just at this moment that one of those ironic little imps that lurk in wainscot nooks looking out for an opportunity to influence an unconscious human being to an act which the little demon, seeing the end of a scene of which mortals only see the beginning, regards with sardonic glee, whispered something in the ear of Mrs. Thrale, and in an instant, in obedience to its prompting, she had left her chair and stolen behind the singer at the piano. Raising her hands and turning up her eyes in imitation of Piozzi, she indulged in a piece of mimicry which must have shocked every one in the room except the singer, who had his back to her, and Dr. Johnson, who, besides being too short-sighted to be able to see her, was gazing into the grate.

No doubt the flippant little lady felt that a touch of farcical fun was the very thing needed to make the party go with a snap; but such flagrant bad taste as was involved in the transaction was more than Dr. Burney could stand. Keeping his temper marvellously well in hand, considering his provocation, he went gently behind the gesticulating woman and put a stop to her fooling. Shaking his head, he whispered in a “half joke whole earnest” way:

“Because, madam, you have no ear yourself for music, will you destroy the attention of all who, in that one point, are otherwise gifted?”

Or words to that effect, it might be safe to add, for the phrases as recorded in the diary of one of his daughters are a trifle too academic for even Dr. Burney to have whispered on the spur of the moment. But he certainly reproved the lady, and she took his remonstrance in good part, and showed herself to be admirably appreciative of the exact pose to assume in order to save the situation. She went demurely to her chair and sat there stiffly, and with the affectation of a schoolgirl who has been admonished for a fault and commanded to take a seat in silence and apart from the rest of the class. It must be apparent to every one that this was the precise attitude for her to strike in the circumstances, and that she was able to perceive this in a rather embarrassing moment shows that Mrs. Thrale was quite as clever as her friends made her out to be.

But regarding the incident itself, surely the phrase, “the irony of fate,” was invented to describe it. A better illustration of the sport of circumstance could not be devised, for in the course of time the lively little lady, who had gone as far as any one could go in making a mock of another, had fallen as deep in love with the man whom she mocked as ever Juliet did with her Romeo. She found that she could not live without him, and, sacrificing friends, position, and fortune, she threw herself into his arms, and lived happy ever after.

The conclusion of the first scene in this saturnine comedy which was being enacted in the drawing-room in that house in St. Martin's Street, was in perfect keeping with the mise-en-scène constructed by Fate, taking the rôle of Puck. It is admirably described in the diary of Charlotte Burney. She wrote that Mr. Greville—whom she nicknamed “Mr. Gruel”—assumed “his most supercilious air of distant superiority” and “planted himself immovable as a noble statue upon the hearth, as if a stranger to the whole set.”

By this time Dr. Johnson must have had enough of the fire at which he had been sitting, and we at once see how utterly hopeless were the social relations at this miserable party when we hear that the men “were so kind and considerate as to divert themselves by making a fire-screen to the whole room.” But Dr. Johnson, having thoroughly warmed himself, was now in a position to administer a rebuke to the less fortunate ones, and, when nobody would have imagined that he had known the gentlemen were in the room, he said that “if he was not ashamed he would keep the fire from the ladies too.”

“This reproof (for a reproof it certainly was, although given in a very comical, dry way) was productive,” Charlotte adds, “of a scene as good as a comedy, for Mr. Suard tumbled on to a sopha directly, Mr. Thrale on to a chair, Mr. Davenant sneaked off the premises, seemingly in as great a fright and as much confounded as if he had done any bad action, and Mr. Gruel being left solus, was obliged to stalk off.”

A more perfect description of the “curtain” to the first act of this, “as good as a comedy,” could not be imagined. In every scene of this memorable evening the mocking figure of an impish Fate can be discerned. There was the tactful and urbane Dr. Burney anxious to gratify his old patron by presenting to him the great Dr. Johnson, and at the same time to show on what excellent terms he himself was with the family of the wealthy brewer, Mr. Thrale. Incidentally he has caused Johnson to put himself to the inconvenience of a clean shirt and a respectable wig; and, like a thoughtful general, lest any of his plans should fall short of fulfilment, he has invited an interesting vocalist to cover up the retreat and make failure almost impossible!

Dr. Burney could do wonders by the aid of his tact and urbanity, but he is no match for Fate playing the part of Puck. Within an hour Johnson has disappointed him and become grumpy—the old bear has found the buns to be stale; Mr. Greville, the patron, is in a patronising mood, and becomes stiff and aloof because Johnson, secure with his pension, resents it; Mrs. Thrale, anxious to do her best for Burney, and at the same time to show Mrs. Greville and her fine daughter how thoroughly at home she is in the house and how delicate is her sense of humour, strikes an appallingly false note, and only saves herself by a touch of cleverness from appearing wholly ridiculous. This is pretty well for the opening scenes, but the closing catastrophe is not long delayed. The men huddle themselves together in stony silence; and they are reproved for impoliteness by—whom? Dr. Johnson, the man who has studied boorishness and advanced it to a place among the arts—the man who calls those who differ from him dolts and fools and rascals—the man whose manners at the dinner table are those of the sty and trough—the man who walks about the streets ungartered and unclean—this is the man who has the effrontery to rebuke for their rudeness such gentlemen as Mr. Fulk Greville, Mr. Seward, and Mr. Thrale! Puck can go no further. Down comes the curtain when one gentleman collapses upon a “sopha,” another into a chair, a third sneaks off like a culprit, and the fourth stalks off with an air of offended dignity!

It might be thought that the imp of mischief who had assumed the control of this evening's entertainment would be satisfied at the result of his pranks so far. Nothing of the sort. He was only satisfied when he had made a match between the insignificant figure who was playing the musical accompaniment to his pranks and the lady who thought that his presence in the room was only justifiable on the ground that he made an excellent butt for her mockery!

And the funniest part of the whole comedy is to be found in the fact that the pair lived happy ever after!

The extraordinary influence which Boswell has had upon almost every student of the life of the latter half of the eighteenth century is shown in a marked way by the general acceptance of his view—which it is scarcely necessary to say was Johnson's view—of the second marriage of Mrs. Thrale. We are treating Boswell much more fairly than he treated Mrs. Thrale when we acknowledge at once that his opinion was shared by a considerable number of the lady's friends, including Dr. Burney and his family. They were all shocked when they heard that the widow of the Southwark brewer had married the Italian musician, Signor Gabrielli Piozzi. Even in the present day, when one might reasonably expect that, the miserable pettiness of Boswell's character having been made apparent, his judgment on most points would be received with a smile, he is taken very seriously by a good many people. It has long ago been made plain that Boswell was quite unscrupulous in his treatment of every one that crossed his path or made an attempt to interfere with the aim of his life, which was to become the biographer of Johnson. The instances of his petty malevolence which have come to light within recent years are innumerable. They show that the opinion which his contemporaries formed of him was absolutely correct. We know that he was regarded as a cur who was ever at Johnson's heels, and took the insults of the great man with a fawning complacency that was pathetically canine. He was daily called a cur. “Oh, no,” said Goldsmith, “he is not a cur, only a burr; Tom Davies flung him at Johnson one day as a joke, and he stuck to him ever since”—a cur, and an ape and a spy and a Branghton—the last by Dr. Johnson himself in the presence of a large company, that included the creator of the contemptible Mr. Branghton. (The incident was not, however, recorded by Mr. Boswell himself.) But as the extraordinary interest in his Life of Johnson began to be acknowledged, the force of contemporary opinion gradually dwindled away, until Boswell's verdicts and Boswell's inferences found general acceptance; and even now Goldsmith is regarded as an Irish omadhaum, because Boswell did his best to make him out to be one, and Mrs. Thrale is thought to have forfeited her claims to respect because she married Signor Piozzi.

People forget the origin of Boswell's malevolence in both cases. He detested Goldsmith because Goldsmith was a great writer, who was capable of writing a great biography of Johnson, with whom he had been on the most intimate terms long before Tom Davies flung his burr at Johnson; he hated Baretti and recorded—at the sacrifice of Johnson's reputation for humanity—Johnson's cynical belittling of him, because he feared that Baretti would write the biography; he was spiteful in regard to Mrs. Thrale because she actually did write something biographical about Johnson.

The impudence of such a man as Boswell writing about “honest Dr. Goldsmith” is only surpassed by his allusions to the second marriage of Mrs. Thrale. He was a fellow-guest with Johnson at the Thrales' house in 1775, and he records something of a conversation which he says occurred on the subject of a woman's marrying some one greatly beneath her socially. “When I recapitulate the debate,” he says, “and recollect what has since happened, I cannot but be struck in a manner that delicacy forbids me to express! While I contended that she ought to be treated with inflexible steadiness of displeasure, Mrs. Thrale was all for mildness and forgiveness and, according to the vulgar phrase, making the best of a bad bargain.” This was published after the second marriage. What would be thought of a modern biographer who should borrow a little of Boswell's “delicacy,” and refer to a similar incident in the same style?

In his own inimitable small way Boswell was for ever sneering at Mrs. Thrale. Sometimes he did it with that scrupulous delicacy of which an example has just been given; but he called her a liar more than once with considerable indelicacy, and his readers will without much trouble come to the conclusion that his indelicacy was preferable to his delicacy—it certainly came more natural to him. He was small and mean in all his ways, and never smaller or meaner than in his references to Mrs. Thrale's second marriage.

But, it must be repeated, he did not stand alone in regarding her union with Piozzi as a mésalliance. Dr. Burney was shocked at the thought that any respectable woman would so far forget herself as to marry a musician, and his daughter Fanny wept remorseful tears when she reflected that she had once been the friend of a lady who did not shrink from marrying a foreigner and a Roman Catholic—more of the irony of Fate, for Fanny Burney was herself guilty of the same indiscretion later on: she made a happy marriage with a Roman Catholic foreigner, who lived on her pension and her earnings. Dr. Johnson was brutal when the conviction was forced upon him that he would no longer have an opportunity of insulting a lady who had treated him with incredible kindness, or the guests whom he met at her table. Upon one of the last occasions of his dining at Mrs. Thrale's house at Streatham, a gentleman present—an inoffensive Quaker—ventured to make a remark respecting the accuracy with which the red-hot cannon-balls were fired at the Siege of Gibraltar. Johnson listened for some time, and then with a cold sneer said, “I would advise you, sir, never to relate this story again. You really can scarce imagine how very poor a figure you make in the telling of it.” Later on he took credit to himself for not quarrelling with his victim when the latter chose to talk to his brother rather than to the man who had insulted him. Yes, it can quite easily be understood that Johnson should look on the marriage as a sad mésalliance, and possibly it is fair to assume from the letter which he wrote to the lady that he felt hurt when he heard that it was to take place.

Mrs. Thrale wrote to tell him that she meant to marry Piozzi, and received the following reply:

“Madam,—If I interpret your letter right, you are ignominiously married; if it is yet undone, let us once more talk together. If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness; if you have forfeited your fame and your country, may your folly do no further mischief!”

Possibly the lady may have gathered from the hint or two conveyed to her, with Boswellian delicacy, in this letter, that Johnson was displeased with her. At any rate, she replied, declining to continue the correspondence.

In her letter she summed up the situation exactly as a reasonable person, acquainted with all the facts, and knowing something of the first husband, would do.

“The birth of my second husband is not meaner than that of my first,” she wrote; “his sentiments are not meaner; his profession is not meaner; and his superiority in what he professes acknowledged by all mankind. It is want of fortune, then, that is ignominious; the character of the man I have chosen has no other claim to such an epithet. The religion to which he has always been a zealous adherent, will, I hope, teach him to forgive insults he has not deserved; mine will, I hope, enable [me] to bear them at once with dignity and patience. To hear that I have forfeited my fame is indeed the greatest insult I ever yet received. My fame is as unsullied as snow, or I should think it unworthy of him who must henceforth protect it.”

This brought the surly burly mass of offended dignity to his proper level; but still he would not offer the lady who had been his benefactress for twenty years an apology for his brutality. He had the presumption to offer his advice instead—advice and the story (highly appropriate from his point of view) of Mary Queen of Scots and the Archbishop of St. Andrews. He advised her to remain in England—he would not relinquish his room in her house and his place at her table without a struggle—as her rank would be higher in England than in Italy, and her fortune would be under her own eye. The latter suggestion was a delicate insult to Piozzi.

Mrs. Piozzi, as she then became, showed that she esteemed this piece of presumption, under the guise of advice, at its true value. Immediately after her marriage she went abroad with her husband, though eventually she settled with him in England.

Now, most modern readers will, we think, when they have become acquainted with the whole story of Mrs. Thrale's life, arrive at the conclusion that it was her first marriage that was the mésalliance, not her second.


Henry Thrale was a man of humble origin—a fact that revealed itself almost daily in his life—and he was incapable of loving any one except himself. He certainly never made a pretence of devotion to his wife, and it is equally certain that, although she did more for him than any other woman would have done, she never loved him. It might be going too far, considering the diversity of temperament existing among womankind, to assert that he was incapable of being loved by any woman; but beyond a doubt he was not a lovable man. He was a stiff, dignified, morose, uncongenial man, and he was a Member of Parliament into the bargain. What could a pretty, lively, brilliant girl of good family see in such a man as Thrale to make her love him? She never did love him—at times she must have detested him. But she married him, and it was a lucky day for him that she did so. Twice she saved him from bankruptcy, and three times she induced his constituents, who thoroughly hated him, to return him to Parliament as their representative. He never did anything in Parliament, and he did little out of it that was worth remembering. It is customary to make large allowances for a man of business who finds that his wealth and a charming wife serve as a passport into what is called society, though latterly such men do not stand in need of such a favour being shown to them. But if a man betrays his ignorance of certain social usages—not necessarily refinements—his friends excuse him on the ground that he is a first-rate business man. Thrale, however, was unworthy of such a title. He inherited a great scientific business, but he showed himself so incapable of appreciating the methods by which it had been built up, that he brought himself within a week or two of absolute ruin by listening to a clumsy adventurer who advocated the adoption of a system of adulteration of his beer that even a hundred and fifty years ago would have brought him within sight of a criminal prosecution.

His literary wife, by her clever management, aided by the money of her mother and of sundry of her own, not her husband's, friends, succeeded in staving off the threatened disaster. But the pig-headed man did not accept the lesson which one might imagine he would have learned. Seeing the success that crowned other enterprises of the same character as his own, he endeavoured to emulate this success, not by the legitimate way of increasing his customers, but by the idiotic plan of over-production. He had an idea that in the multiplying of the article which he had to sell he was increasing his business. Once again he was helped from the verge of ruin by his literary wife.

He must have been a dreadful trial to her, and to a far-seeing manager whom he had—a man named Perkins. Of course it was inevitable that the force of character possessed by this Mr. Perkins must eventually prevail against the dignified incompetence of the proprietor. The inevitable happened, and the name of Perkins has for more than a hundred years been bracketed with Barclay as a going concern, while the name of Thrale has vanished for ever from “the Borough.”

It was this Mr. Perkins who, when the brewery was within five minutes of absolute disaster, displayed the tactics of a great general in the face of an implacable enemy, and saved the property. As a reward for his services his master authorised the presentation to him of the sum of a hundred pounds. His master's wife, however, being a more generous assessor of the value of the man's ability, ventured to present double the sum, together with a silver tea-service for Mrs. Perkins; but she did so in fear and trembling, failing to summon up sufficient courage to acquaint her husband with her extravagance until further concealment was impossible. She was so overjoyed at his sanctioning the increase that she at once wrote to her friends acquainting them with this evidence of his generosity.

This episode was certainly the most stirring in the history of Thrale's brewery. The Gordon rioters had been terrorising London for several days, burning houses in every direction, as well as Newgate and another prison, and looting street after street. They had already overthrown one brewery, and they found the incident so fascinating that they marched across the bridge to the Southwark concern, raising the cry that Thrale was a Papist. The Thrales were at this time sojourning at Bath, and were in an agony of suspense regarding their property. They had left Dr. Johnson comfortably ensconced at their Streatham house in order that they might learn in dignified language how things were going on.

This is Johnson's thrilling account of the incident:

“What has happened to your house you all know. The harm is only a few butts of beer, and I think you may be sure that the danger is over. Pray tell Mr. Thrale that I live here, and have no fruit, and if he does not interpose am not likely to have much; but I think he might as well give me a little as give all to the gardener.”

There was a double catastrophe threatening, it would appear: the burning of the brewery and the shortage in the supply of Dr. Johnson's peaches.

This is how Mrs. Thrale describes the situation:

“Nothing but the astonishing presence of mind shewed by Perkins in amusing the mob, with meat and drink and huzzas, till Sir Philip Jennings Clerke could get the troops, and pack up the counting-house, bills, bonds etc. and carry them, which he did, to Chelsea College for safety, could have saved us from actual undoing. The villains had broke in, and our brew-house would have blazed in ten minutes, when a property of £150,000 would have been utterly lost, and its once flourishing possessors quite undone.”

It seems almost incredible that Johnson, living at Streatham as the guardian of Mr. Thrale's interests, should require the lady to write to him, begging him to thank Perkins for his heroism. But so it was.

“Perkins has behaved like an Emperor,” she wrote, “and it is my earnest wish and desire—command, if you please to call it so—that you will go over to the brew-house and express your sense of his good behaviour.”

Mrs. Thrale was unreasonable. How could Johnson be expected to take any action when he was deprived of his peaches?

It will strike a good many modern readers of the account of this and other transactions that if it was Perkins who saved the brewery for Mr. Thrale, it was Mrs. Thrale who saved Perkins for the brewery. Possibly it was her prompt gift of the silver plate to Mrs. Perkins that induced this splendid manager to pocket the insult of the beggarly two hundred guineas given to him by Mrs. Thrale—though this was double the amount authorised by the “master.” Thrale never sufficiently valued the services of Perkins. If he had had any gratitude in his composition he would never have made Johnson one of his executors. What a trial it must have been to the competent man of business to see Johnson lumbering about the place with a pen behind his ear and an ink-pot suspended from a button of his coat, getting in the way of everybody, and yet feeling himself quite equal to any business emergency that might crop up. He felt himself equal to anything—even to improve upon the auctioneer's style in appraising the value of the whole concern. “Beyond the dreams of avarice” remains as the sole classic phrase born beneath the shadow of a brew-house.

In the matter of the premium to Perkins, Thrale should have felt that he had a treasure in his wife, to say nothing of all that she had done for him upon another occasion, involving a terrible sacrifice. A quarrel had broken out among the clerks at the brewery, which even the generalship of Perkins was unable to mollify. Had Mrs. Thrale been an ordinary woman she would not have jeopardised her own life and the life of her child—her thirteenth—in her husband's interests. As it was, however, she felt that the duty was imposed on her to settle the difficulties in the counting-house, and she did so; but only after many sleepless nights and the sacrifice of her child. “The men were reconciled,” she wrote, “and my danger accelerated their reconcilement.”

If Henry Thrale was deficient in the best characteristics of a business man, his qualifications to shine socially can scarcely be regarded as abundant. There were stories of his having been a gay dog in his youth, but assuredly he and gaiety had long been strangers when he married his wife, and upon no occasion afterwards could he be so described even by the most indulgent of his friends; so that one rather inclines to the belief that the dull dog must have been a dull puppy. We know what his eldest daughter was, and we are convinced that the nature of that priggish, dignified, and eminently disagreeable young lady was inherited from her father. In Miss Thrale as a girl one feels that one is looking at Henry Thrale as a boy. The only story that survives of those mythical gay days with which he was accredited is that relating to the arrival of the Gunnings to take London by storm. It was said that he and Murphy thought to make these exquisite creatures the laughing-stock of the town by introducing them to a vulgar hanger-on of Murphy, in the character of a wealthy man of title and distinction. Possibly the two young men were put up to play this disgraceful prank upon the Gunnings by some jealous female associate; but however this may be, it not only failed most ignominiously, it recoiled upon the jesters themselves, for Mrs. Gunning, herself the sister of a nobleman, and destined to become the mother-in-law of two dukes and the grandmother of two more—the parent of a peeress in her own right, and an uncommonly shrewd Irishwoman into the bargain—“smoaked,” as the slang of the period had it, the trick, and her footman bundled the trio into the street.

The story may be true; but as both the Gunning girls were married in 1752, and Thrale did not meet Hester Lynch Salusbury till 1763, it was an old story then, and it was not remembered against him except by the Duchess of Hamilton. If it represents the standard of his adolescent wildness, we cannot but think that his youth was less meteoric than his wife believed it to be. At any rate, we do not know much about his early life, but we do know a great deal about his latter years, and it is impossible to believe that his nature underwent a radical change within a year or two of his marriage.

He became the host of a large number of the most notable people of that brilliant period at which he lived, and we perceive from the copious accounts that survive of the Streatham gatherings that he was greatly respected by all his visitors. He never said anything that was worth recording, and he never did anything memorable beyond stopping Johnson when the latter was becoming more than usually offensive to his fellow-guests. He had no ear for music any more than Johnson had, and it does not appear that he cared any more for painting, although he became a splendid patron of Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom he commissioned to paint several portraits of his distinguished friends for the decoration of the library at Streatham. To his munificence in this respect the world owes its finest portraits of Goldsmith, Burke, Garrick, the painter himself, and Mrs. Thrale.

The debt which we feel we owe to Thrale on this account is, however, somewhat discounted when we learn that this enthusiastic patron of art never paid the painter for his work. He left the pictures and the obligation to pay for them as a legacy to his widow—and to pay for them at more than the current rate for each into the bargain. Sir Joshua Reynolds was as good a man of business as Thrale was an indifferent one. At the time of his painting the portraits his price for a three-quarter-length picture was £35, but in the course of a year or two he felt it necessary to charge £50 for the same size, and this was the price which the unfortunate widow had to pay for her husband's pose as the munificent patron of the Arts.

Men of the stamp of Thrale usually have no vices.

They are highly respected. If they had a vice or two they would be beloved. He had a solitary failing, but it did not win for him the affection of any one: it was gluttony. For years of his life he gave himself up to the coarsest form of indulgence. He was not a gourmet: he did not aim at the refinements of the table or at those daintinesses of cuisine which in the days of intemperate eaters and drinkers proved so fatally fascinating to men of many virtues; no, his was the vice of the trough. He ate for the sake of eating, unmindful of the nature of the dish so long as it was plentiful enough to keep him employed for an hour or two.

The dinner-table of the famous Streatham Park must have been a spectacle for some of the philosophers who sat round it. We know what was the food that Johnson's soul loved, and we know how he was accustomed to partake of it. He rioted in pork, and in veal baked with raisins, and when he sat down to some such dainty he fed like a wild animal. He used his fingers as though they were claws, tearing the flesh from the bone in his teeth, and swallowing it not wholly without sound. It is not surprising to learn that his exertions caused the veins in his forehead to swell and the beads of perspiration to drop from his scholarly brow, nor can any one who has survived this account of his muscular feat at the dinner-table reasonably be amazed to hear that when so engaged, he devoted himself to the work before him to the exclusion of every other interest in life. He was oblivious of anything that was going on around him. He was deaf to any remark made by a neighbour, and for himself articulation was suspended. Doubtless the feeble folk on whom he had been trampling in the drawing-room felt that his peculiarities of feeding, though revolting to the squeamish, were not without a bright side. They had a chance of making a remark at such intervals without being gored—“gored,” it will be remembered, was the word employed by Boswell in playful allusion to the effect of his argumentative powers.

Thanks to the careful habits of some of the guests at this famous house we know what fare was placed before the Gargantuan geniuses at one of these dinners. Here is the carte du jour, “sufficient for twelve,” as the cookery book says:

“First course, soups at head and foot, removed by fish and a saddle of mutton; second course, a fowl they call galena at head and a capon larger than some of our Irish turkeys at foot; third course, four different sorts of ices, pine-apple, grape, raspberry and a fourth; in each remove there were fourteen dishes.” The world is indebted to an Irish clergyman for these details. It will be seen that they did not include much that could be sneered at as bordering on the kickshaw. All was good solid English fare—just the sort to make the veins in a gormandiser's forehead to swell and to induce the lethargy from which Thrale suffered. He usually fell asleep after dinner; one day he failed to awake, and he has not awakened since.

Of course Johnson, being invariably in delicate health, was compelled to put himself on an invalid's diet when at home. He gives us a sample of a diner maigre at Bolt Court. Feeling extremely ill, he wrote to Mrs. Thrale that he could only take for dinner “skate, pudding, goose, and green asparagus, and could have eaten more but was prudent.” He adds, “Pray for me, dear Madam,”—by no means an unnecessary injunction, some people will think, when they become aware of the details of the meal of an invalid within a year or two of seventy.

It was after one of the Streatham dinners that Mrs. Thrale ventured to say a word or two in favour of Garrick's talent for light gay poetry, and as a specimen repeated his song in Florizel and Perdita, and dwelt with peculiar pleasure on this line:

I'd smile with the simple and dine with the poor.

This is Boswell's account of the matter, and he adds that Johnson cried, “Nay, my dear lady, this will never do. Poor David! Smile with the simple! What folly is that? And who would feed with the poor that can help it? No, no; let me smile with the wise and feed with the rich!”

Quite so; beyond a doubt Johnson spoke from the bottom of his heart—nay, from a deeper depth still.

Boswell was amazed to find that Garrick's “sensibility” as a writer was irritated when he related the story to him, and in Mrs. Thrale's copy of Johnson she made a note—“How odd to go and tell the man!”

It was not at all odd that Boswell, being a professional tale-bearer and mischief-maker, should tell the man; but it is odd that Garrick should be irritated, the fact being that the sally was directed against a line which he did not write. What Garrick did write was something very different. The verse, which was misquoted, runs thus:

That giant Ambition we never can dread;

Our roofs are too low for so lofty a head;

Content and sweet Cheerfulness open our door,

They smile with the simple and feed with the poor.

Such a muddle as was made of the whole thing can only be attributed to the solidity of the Streatham fare.

It was inevitable that Thrale could not continue over-eating himself with impunity. He was warned more than once by his doctors that he was killing himself, and yet when he had his first attack every one was shocked. He recovered temporarily, and all his friends implored him to cultivate moderation at the dinner-table. A touch of humour is to be found among the details of the sordid story, in his wife's begging Johnson—Johnson of the swollen forehead and the tokens of his submission to the primeval curse in the eating of his bread—to try to reason the unhappy man out of his dreadful vice. After wiping from the front of his coat the remains of the eighth peach which he had eaten before breakfast, or the dregs of his nineteenth cup of tea from his waistcoat, Johnson may have felt equal to the duty. He certainly remonstrated with Thrale. It was all to no purpose, however; he had a second attack of apoplexy in the spring of 1780, and we hear that he was copiously “blooded.” He recovered and went to Bath to recruit. It was during this visit to Bath that the brewery was attacked by the Gordon rioters. On returning to London he failed to induce his constituents to remain faithful to him, and he continued eating voraciously for another year. He began a week of gorging on April 1st, 1781. His wife implored him to be more moderate, and Johnson said very wisely, “Sir, after the denunciation of your physicians this morning, such eating is little better than suicide.” It was all to no purpose. He survived the gorge of Sunday and Monday, but that of Tuesday was too much for him. He was found by his daughter on the floor in a fit of apoplexy, and died the next morning.

Such was the man whose memory was outraged by the marriage of his widow with Piozzi, an Italian musician, whose ability was so highly appreciated that his earnings, even when he had lost his voice, amounted to £1200 a year, a sum equal to close upon £2500 of our money. And yet Johnson had the effrontery to suggest in that letter of his to Mrs. Thrale, which we have quoted, that she would do well to live in England, so that her money might be under her own eye!

The truth is that Mrs. Thrale was in embarrassed circumstances when she married Signor Piozzi. Her worthy husband left her an annuity of £2000, which was to be reduced by £800 in the event of her marrying again; and also £500 for her immediate expenses. Johnson wrote to her, making her acquainted with this fact, in order, it would seem, to allay any unworthy suspicion which she might entertain as to the extent of her husband's generosity. But his last will and testament cannot have wholly dispersed the doubt into which her experience of Mr. Thrale may have led her. For a man who had been making from £16,000 to £20,000 a year to leave his wife only £2000 a year, with a possibility of its being reduced to £1200, would not strike any one as being generous to a point of recklessness. When, however, it is remembered that Thrale's wife plucked him and his business from the verge of bankruptcy more than once, that she bore him fourteen children, and that she lived with him for eighteen years, all question as to the generosity of his bequest to her vanishes. But when, in addition, it is remembered that the lady's fortune at her marriage to Thrale amounted to £10,000, all of which he pocketed, and that later on she brought him another £500 a year, that it was her mother's money, added to the sum which she herself collected personally, which saved the brewery from collapse—once again at the sacrifice of her infant—all question even of common fairness disappears, and the meanness of the man stands revealed.


It was through the exertions and by the business capacity of his widow that the brewery was sold for £135,000. She was the only one of the trustees who knew anything definite about the value of the property, and had she not been on the spot, that astute Mr. Perkins could have so worked the concern that he might have been able to buy it in a year or two for the value of the building materials. And yet when she became involved in a lawsuit that involved the paying of £7000, she had difficulty in persuading her daughters' trustees to advance her the money, although the security of the mortgage which she offered for the accommodation would have satisfied any bankers. A wretch named Crutchley, who was one of this precious band of incompetents, on the completion of the deed bade her thank her daughters for keeping her out of gaol. It is not recorded that the lady replied, though she certainly might have done so, and with truth on her side, that if her daughters had kept her out of a gaol she had kept her daughters out of a workhouse. She would have done much better to have gone to her friends the Barclays, whose bank had a hundred and fifty years ago as high a reputation for probity combined with liberality as the same concern enjoys to-day.

Enough of the business side of Mrs. Thrale's second marriage has been revealed to make it plain that Piozzi was not influenced by any mercenary motives in the transaction. On the contrary, it was he who came to her assistance when she was in an extremity, and by the prompt loan of £1000 extricated her from her embarrassment, and left the next day for Italy, without having any hope of marrying her.

Johnson's verdict on Piozzi, communicated to Miss Seward, was that he was an ugly dog, without particular skill in his profession. Unfortunately for this musical enthusiast and devotee to beauty, Miss Seward met Piozzi on his return from Italy with his wife. (His excellent control of her money had resulted in every penny of the mortgage being paid, and of the lodgment of £1500 to their credit in the bank). And Miss Seward, writing from Lichfield—more of the irony of Fate—in 1787, affirmed that the great Lichfield man “did not tell me the truth when he asserted that Piozzi was an ugly dog, without particular skill in his profession. M. Piozzi is a handsome man in middle life, with gentle, pleasing, unaffected manners, and with very eminent skill in his profession. Though he has not a powerful or fine-toned voice, he sings with transcending grace and expression. I was charmed with his perfect expression on his instrument. Surely the finest sensibilities must vibrate through his frame, since they breathe so sweetly through his song.” From this verdict no person who was acquainted with Signor Piozzi differed. Mrs. Thrale's marriage with Piozzi was as fortunate for her as her first marriage was for Thrale.

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