“So Rough a Letter”

Well, enough about sex (here, here!), for now.

One of Johnson’s closest friends in his latter years, and frankly one that accommodated him (literally and figuratively) and put up with a lot of his idiosyncrasies, was Hester Thrale. He met her for the first time in 1765, when he was 55 and she was 23, and their long and close friendship ended in 1784, only about five months before his death. The end was ugly, and heart-breaking to anyone who knows how much they had shared as friends, and it was also categorical. Johnson expressed himself harshly to her in a letter, and her reply to him effectively put an end to everything. Johnson was hurt and perhaps jealous in his letter, and Thrale was also hurt in hers as well, but she maintained her dignity and integrity.

The issue was simple: she had decided to marry Gabriel Piozzi, a “singer and composer … who [had] taught the girls [her daughters] singing and encouraged them to translate Italian poetry.”1 Johnson was livid when he found out about it, and sent her this letter:

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. If the last act is yet to do, I who have loved you, esteemed you, reverenced you, and served you, I who long thought you the first of humankind, entreat that, before your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see you. I was, I once was

Madam, most truly yours,

Sam: Johnson

I will come down, if you permit it.

Thrale’s response was:

I have this morning received from you so rough a letter in reply to one which was both tenderly and respectfully written, that I am forced to desire the conclusion of a correspondence which I can bear to continue no longer. The birth of my second husband is not meaner than that of my first; 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 is henceforth to protect it.

I write by the coach the more speedily and effectually to prevent your coming hither. Perhaps by my fame (and I hope it is so) you mean only that celebrity which is a consideration of a much lower kind. I care for that only as it may give pleasure to my husband and his friends.

Farewell, dear Sir, and accept my best wishes. You have always commanded my esteem, and long enjoyed the fruits of a friendship never infringed by one harsh expression on my part during twenty years of familiar talk. Never did I oppose your will, or control your wish; nor can your unmerited severity itself lessen my regard; but till you have changed your opinion of Mr. Piozzi let us converse no more. God bless you.

Johnson did write a letter in reply — “What you have done, however I may lament it, I have no pretence to resent, as it has not been injurious to me: I therefore breathe out one sigh more of tenderness, perhaps useless, but at least sincere,” it says in part — but the damage had been done, and their friendship was ruined. I’ve always found this one of the saddest exchanges and one of the worst things that ever happened during Johnson’s life — a life that had many sad things in it.

Johnson’s letter to Thrale, July 2, 1984. (Image from Harvard University, Houghton Library [here])
  1. Martin, Peter. Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008)
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