[The falling out between Dr. Johnson (1709-1784) and Mrs. Thrale (1741-1821), after twenty years of intimate friendship, is probably the most famous broken friendship in the English speaking world. Neither friend understood the other very well, nor did they possess sufficient self-knowledge to understand their own emotions and motives. Indeed, it has been said that emotions disguise motives. Perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from Hugh Kingsmill’s (English biographer, novelist, and conversationalist extraordinaire) account of a common little tragedy that took place more than two centuries ago is this: in emotional conflicts the person who is morally greater can be completely in the wrong, while the other party is entirely in the right. It also provides an education into the unreasonableness, tactlessness, and cruelty which we can expect to discover in otherwise admirable people when they feel their happiness or security is threatened, however inadvertently. It is an education which could prove very useful in our own dealings with others.]
Mr. Thrale’s health grew worse, and in June 1779 he had a stroke. In the spring of 1780 Johnson wrote to Mrs. Thrale, urging that Mr. Thrale should decide on a diet and stick to it. But no advice could curb what Mrs. Thrale calls his “preternatural desire for food.” Early in 1781 he was warned that his life was in danger and that he must go into the country. “Leave London! Lose my Ranelagh season!” he cried, and refused to hear the suggestion again. His vanishing strength was applied to the organization of a large entertainment. The musical side of the entertainment he placed in the charge of Piozzi, a distinguished Italian musician, but the chief attraction was to be a Brahmin and two Parsees.
A few days before his death he begged Sir Philip Jennings Clerke to write to his brother, the Prebendary of Worcester, to request for Thrale the first lampreys the Severn should produce that season; but before the lampreys could arrive he had a second stroke, and died on the day fixed for the entertainment, April 4, 1781.
That “Nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left” was a truth which Johnson had expressed in Rasselas, but the application of which to his own position with Mrs. Thrale after her husband’s death he did not at once realise. During Thrale’s life Johnson had preferred the gift of ease to the gift of independence. When Thrale died he grasped at both gifts, expecting to enjoy the comforts with which Thrale had required Mrs. Thrale to provide him, and the unconstraint of a house no longer dominated by Thrale.
If Mrs. Thrale had been in love with him, his expectation would have been reasonable, and it is possible that, half-consciously, he had hopes of marrying her. Fanny Burney records that shortly after Thrale’s death, Johnson gave more care to his dress, bought silver buckles for his shoes, and grew daily gayer and gayer, and more cheerful and pleasant. But when Thrale’s brewery had been sold, Johnson began to see his mistake. It was the sale of the brewery which made Mrs. Thrale conscious of her freedom. By it, she wrote in her journal, she had purchased peace and a stable fortune, restoration to her original rank in life, and a situation undisturbed by commercial jargon, unpolluted by commercial frauds, and undisgraced by commercial connections. She was free, she was wealthy, and forty was not too late an age for happiness.
Johnson had no place in the pictures of happiness which her growing love of Piozzi was beginning to evoke. Though she had affection and a deep respect for him, he was too closely connected with the dreariness of her life with Thrale, whose authority he had always supported. Above all, association with him made her more conscious of her age and of the inappropriateness in a woman who had borne twelve children of expecting romance and passion from the future. Johnson, in short, symbolised for her everything from which she wished to escape, while she stood to Johnson for everything which during many years had made life endurable, and might now make it more than merely endurable.
Accustomed so long to submit her will to another’s, and having little natural dignity or self-possession, Mrs. Thrale was neither firm nor gracious with Johnson in this difficult situation. She had not the heart nor as yet the wish to sever their connection, and equally she lacked the tact and self-confidence to transform their relations into those of ordinary friendship.
The position was made more embarrassing by the newspapers, which shortly after Thrale’s death began to speculate about whom his widow would marry, naming among other possible candidates Sir Richard Jebb, George Selwyn, Johnson, and Piozzi. How she dealt with this embarrassment, she records in her journal with some consciousness that she had not improved a delicate situation:
Somebody mentioned my going to be married t’other day, and Johnson was joking about it. ‘I suppose Sir,’ said I, ‘they think they are doing me honour with their imaginary matches when, perhaps, the man does not exist who would do me honour by marrying me!’ This, indeed, was said in the wild and insolent spirit of Baretti, yet, ’tis nearer the truth than one would think for. A woman of passable person, ancient family, respectable character, uncommon talents, and three thousand a year, has a right to think herself any man’s equal, and has nothing to seek but return of affection from whatever partner she pitches on. To marry for love would therefore be rational in me, who want no other advancement in birth or fortune, and till I am in love, I will not marry, nor perhaps then.
Johnson now began to regret Thrale, for whom, however mixed its nature, his affection had been great. Writing to a friend, nearly a year after Thrale’s death, he said that his life had been mournful of late. In the spring of the previous year he had lost Thrale, and for such another friend the general course of human things would not suffer a man to hope. He had passed the summer at Streatham [Thrale’s estate], but there was no Thrale; and having idled away the summer with a weakly body and neglected mind had journeyed to Staffordshire on the edge of winter, sickly himself and finding the friends sickly whom he went to see.
Mrs. Thrale meanwhile was falling more and more in love with Piozzi, whom she had first met at a party at Dr. Burney’s. That she was at once affected by him appears from Fanny Burney’s account of her curious but not inexplicable behaviour, when he sat down to the piano. He had his back to the company, and Mrs. Thrale, stealing up behind him on tiptoe, began to imitate his playing, squaring her elbows, elevating them with ecstatic shrugs of her shoulders, and casting up her eyes, while languishingly inclining her head.
A little later, seven months before Thrale’s death, they met at Brighton. Mrs. Thrale’s interest in Piozzi had been encouraged by Fanny Burney, who praised Piozzi as a man just to Mrs. Thrale’s taste, a companion who would lighten the burden of life to her. Encountering him in a library at Brighton, Mrs. Thrale asked him to give Hester [her daughter] singing lessons, and within a few days was writing in her journal:
Piozzi is become a prodigious favourite with me, he is so intelligent a creature, so discerning, one can’t help wishing for his good opinion...his hand on the pianoforte, too, is so soft, so sweet, so delicate, every tone goes to the heart, I think, and fills the mind with emotions one would not be without, though inconvenient sometimes.
Half in love with him before Thrale died, her passion grew quickly during the summer which Johnson passed so unhappily at Streatham, and was intensified by the fear of losing him when he was summoned to Paris to play before Marie Antoinette. “I have got my Piozzi home at last,” she wrote in November; “he looks thin and battered, but always kindly upon me, I think.”
While she was waiting for Piozzi to return, Johnson was wandering drearily through the Midlands. “All here is gloomy,” he wrote to her from Lichfield in October; “a faint struggle with the tediousness of time; a doleful confession of present misery, and the approach seen and felt of what is most dreaded and shunned.” From Lichfield he went to Taylor, at Ashbourne, where he heard from Mrs. Thrale that Piozzi was returning to Streatham: “When he comes and I come,” he replied, “you will have two about you that will love you; and I question if either of us heartily care how few more you have.” He still looked on Streatham as his home, and his letters on his way back, through Birmingham, Lichfield, and London, almost openly entreat Mrs. Thrale to welcome him as in old days. “You have got Piozzi back...,” he wrote in one, “Pray contrive a multitude of things for us to do when we meet. Something that may hold all together; though if anything makes me love you more, it is going from you”; and in another letter “Do not neglect me, nor relinquish me. Nobody will ever love you better or honour you more...”
When he reached Streatham, Mrs. Thrale noted the arrival of “dear Mr. Johnson,” and expressed a fear that he might become paralytic, some symptoms being already discernible about his mouth; but her growing impatience with him is made clear. Queeney [her daughter] is working hard with him at the classics, she says, and adds: “I hope she will be out of leading strings at least before he gets into them.”
As he felt the breach between himself and Mrs. Thrale widening, his thoughts turned to his other friends, and at the beginning of the new year, 1782, he wrote with unusual tenderness to Boswell: “I sit down to answer your letter on the same day in which I received it, and am pleased that my first letter of the year is to you... Shall we ever have another frolick like our journey to the Hebrides? I hope that dear Mrs. Boswell will surmount her complaints; in losing her you would lose your anchor, and be tost, without stability, by the waves of life. I wish both her and you very many years, and very happy.” Some days later, sitting in his bedroom at Streatham, he thought of Levett [one of Johnson’s little household of dependents], and resolved with uncommon earnestness, as he afterwards wrote to Langton, that whatever changes came into his life, and wherever he might go, he would try to keep Levett with him. In the morning Francis Barber [Johnson’s black servant] brought him the news that Levett had died during the night.
The deep emotion and the absolute sincerity with which Johnson had written of Peyton’s death appear again in his verses on the death of Levett:
Condemn’d to Hope’s delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blast or slow decline
Our social comforts drop away.
Then, with no throbs of fiery pain,
No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
And freed his soul the nearest way.
The reference to social comforts in the first verse, and to Levett’s quick and painless death in the last, reflect the two fears which were now oppressing Johnson. Returning very ill to London, he wrote to Mrs. Thrale at the end of January that he had been bled and hoped soon to be well enough to visit her, but if he came now he would only cough and cough. “We are here all three sick, and poor Levett is gone. Do not add to my other distress any diminution of kindness...”
Meanwhile Mrs. Thrale’s position was increasingly difficult. She knew that every one would cry out against a marriage with Piozzi, an Italian, a musician, and a Catholic; and being herself dominated by conventional prejudices, she lacked for the time being the courage to ignore public opinion. Nor was she yet equal to defying Johnson. Her distracted state appears in her note on Johnson’s return to Streatham in February. “Here is Mr. Johnson ill, very ill indeed, and—I do not see what ails him; ’tis repelled gout, I fear, fallen on the lungs and breath of course. What shall we do for him? If I lose him, I am more than undone: friend, father, guardian, confidant!—God give health and patience. What shall I do?”
During the next few months Johnson, when he was away from Streatham, wrote as usual to Mrs. Thrale, but not with his old easiness. His tone, whether he is affectionate or vivacious, is generally forced. One letter begins: “Dearest of all dear Ladies”; another, “Yesterday I was all so bonny, as who but me?”; a third, “Wisely was it said by him who said it first, that this world is all ups and downs.” But sometimes his real feeling is shown, and once he begs her not to let Mr. Piozzi or anybody else put him quite out of her mind, or think that anybody will love her like him.
His health was now so bad that Mrs. Thrale expected his death to solve the problem of his inevitable opposition to her marriage with Piozzi. The opposition of the rest of her circle she hoped to circumvent by going to Italy with Piozzi and her daughters, winning her daughters to her side while in Italy and confronting society with an accomplished fact on her return. How far her plans were discussed with Piozzi is not known, nor even if their love for one another had been declared at this date, the summer of 1782. That Piozzi was punctilious in money matters, prudent, sensitive, honourable and, in short, everything that an Italian musician wooing a rich English widow might reasonably have been expected not to be, we know. We know, too, that he made her an excellent husband, and thereby disappointed the forebodings of all her friends. But whether he directed events, or merely submitted to them, rode the storm or was blown by it, is impossible to say. Cecilia, Mrs. Thrale’s youngest daughter, writing to her mother some years after her marriage with Piozzi, quotes what was perhaps his most frequent expression about the countrymen of his wife: “My godda bless, never I see such a people.” He had full reason to use it during his lifetime, and if he returned to this world would certainly use it again on learning that his wife was still being abused for entering on a second marriage which proved as happy as her first was miserable.
As Johnson did not die, Mrs. Thrale, who knew that Johnson longed to see Italy, was at a loss what to do. To travel with him, she says, she could not bear, and to leave him behind he could not bear. But when at last she mentioned the Italian project to him, he approved of it cordially, expressed no wish to go with her, and said he hoped he would live to see her return in two or three years. Her vanity was hurt by his calmness, though she exaggerated her annoyance in order to whip up her courage against him. She wrote in her journal:
He feels nothing in parting with me, nothing in the least; but thinks it a prudent scheme, and goes to his books as usual... I begin to see that Johnson’s connection with me is merely an interested one... Yet I really thought he could not have existed without my conversation forsooth! He cares more for my roast beef and plum pudden, which he now devours too dirtily for endurance; and since he is glad to get rid of me, I’m sure I have good cause to desire the getting rid of him.
The Italian journey fell through, and as the next best step to cutting free from her old life Mrs. Thrale decided to leave Streatham, which in October 1782 she let to Lord Shelburne. She had been during some months irritable and ill-at-ease with her old friends. “Sad and altered Streatham,” Dr. Burney called it, and left it one day in tears, one’s sympathy for his distress being, however, lessened by his horror at the widow of a brewer falling in love with a distinguished member of his own profession. Another day, Johnson and Fanny Burney travelled up to town together, and as they drove away from Streatham, Johnson pointed at the house with a shaking hand and exclaimed, “That house is lost to me for ever!”
On October 7, he records in his Journal, he packed up his bundles, read for the last time in the library at Streatham, and after breakfast prayed with Mrs. Thrale and the children, commending them to the protection of God, and asking for grace to remember with thankfulness the comforts and conveniences he had enjoyed at Streatham, and to resign them with submission.
There was no open breach between him and Mrs. Thrale, and he joined her towards the end of October at Brighton, in such a state of weakness that he had to rest four times between the coaching inn and his lodgings. As his strength came back, rage succeeded to resignation, and during his stay at Brighton he was so savage to every one, friends and strangers alike, that he was excluded from the invitations sent to Mrs. Thrale.
Meanwhile the secret tension between Hester Thrale and her mother had snapped, and the battle over Piozzi had opened. “I am not to think about myself,” Mrs. Thrale wrote: “I married the first time to please my mother, I must marry the second time to please my daughter; let me rise to the rank of a human being conscious of its own power to discern good from ill. The person who has uniformly acted by the will of others has hardly that dignity to boast.”
Thrale had left his five daughters 20,000 pounds each. They had guardians to look after their interests, and Hester, who was now eighteen, was cool, resolute, and experienced in worldly matters. Since Thrale’s death, she had assumed the headship of the family, her sisters looking to her for guidance, not to their mother, whose subjection to their father had deprived her of authority over them. The picture, drawn by a long succession of writers, of Mrs. Thrale abandoning her fatherless and unprotected children to the chances and perils of life, is the exact reverse of the truth. It was her daughters, led by Hester, who forced on her the alternatives of exile with Piozzi or England without him, and who, when she chose the former, attracted to themselves the sympathy and concern of society as a whole.
Hester no doubt thought the ardours of her mother ridiculous and undignified; but her chief objection to the marriage was that it might compromise her own social position, and so lessen her chances of a good match. That Mrs. Thrale invited, and in some degree justified, her daughter’s contempt by trying to conciliate her, is undeniable. If Mrs. Thrale had had more character, and been herself less troubled about the opinion of society, she would have married Piozzi without consulting anyone.
The battle between Hester and her mother raged from October 1782 till April 1783; and though the next two sisters, Susan and Sophy, did not join in actively, they taught the two youngest girls to cry, “Where are you going, mama? Will you leave us and die as our poor papa did?” and whenever Piozzi called, all the girls would run away, Mrs. Thrale laments, as if they saw a serpent.
Towards the close of January, Fanny Burney called on Mrs. Thrale and told her in front of Hester that if she wished to keep her reputation, she must either marry Piozzi at once or give him up. Mrs. Thrale threw herself groaning on her bed, perhaps hoping to move Hester, who looked on impassively. “She had indeed never,” Mrs. Thrale says, “by one tender word endeavoured to dissuade me from the match, but said coldly that if I would abandon the children, I must; that their father had not deserved such treatment from me; that I should be punished by Piozzi’s neglect, for that she knew he hated me; and that I turned out my offspring to chance for his sake, like puppies in a pond to swim or drown as Providence pleased; that for her part she must look herself out a place like the other servants, for my face would she never see more. ‘Nor write to me?’ said I. ‘I shall not, Madam,’ replied she with a cold sneer, ‘easily find out your address; for you are going you know not whither, I believe.’”
A few weeks later Mrs. Thrale and Piozzi became engaged, an act of desperation of her part, which redoubled her daughter’s attacks. In April she gave way. It was agreed between her and Piozzi that he should return to Italy, and they met for the last time in London, in the house in Argyll Street to which she had now moved. “God give me strength to part with him courageously,” she wrote on April 6; “I expect him every instant to breakfast with me for the last time. Gracious Heavens, what words are these! Oh no, for mercy may we meet again! without diminished kindness. Oh, my love, my love!”
Piozzi begged to see her once more, but she could not face another interview. “I never knew,” she wrote later, “till Piozzi told me after he returned to England, that he had been sitting at a front window of some public-house on the road all that dreadful Sunday, to see my carriage pass backwards and forwards to where the children resided. Oh, what moments! Oh, what moments!”
The passing months did not reconcile Mrs. Thrale to the separation from Piozzi, and though she continued to correspond with Johnson she saw in him one of the chief obstacles to her happiness, and found the task of forcing sympathy with his ill-health increasingly irksome. Had he been able to judge the situation with detachment, he would for every reason, selfish and unselfish, have told her to recall Piozzi. But, unreasonable as King Lear, he nursed his growing resentment.
The right of the individual, within the limits imposed by his conscience, to act without regard to the prejudices and conventions of society was one of Johnson’s deepest convictions. “Disdain to regulate your own practice by the practice of another, or by any other principle than the desire of doing right,” he wrote to Boswell. He approved Taylor’s separation from his wife, he was always opposed to the tyranny of parents over children, and he was equally opposed to the sacrifice of parents to their children. “I entreat you to take care of yourself,” he once wrote to Mrs. Thrale. “Whatever number of boys and girls you may give us, we are far from being certain that any of them will ever do for us what you can do.” But now, half in jealousy, half in wounded vanity that Mrs. Thrale should desire to elevate an Italian fiddler to the place once held by his “master,” he was ready to join with the rest of the social herd in attacking a mother who by marrying for love might make it harder for her daughters to marry for position.
One day in the autumn of 1783 Fanny Burney called on Johnson, and they talked for a while on general matters. Suddenly he fell silent, his face became stern, and he began to see-saw to and fro, his eyes fixed on the fire. He had never mentioned Piozzi’s name to her, but now he could no longer contain himself, and, turning abruptly to her, hoarsely ejaculated—“Piozzi!” “He evidently,” she continues, “intended to say more; but the effort with which he articulated that name robbed him of any voice for amplification, and his whole frame grew tremulously convulsed. At length, and with great agitation, he broke forth with: ‘She care for no one. You only—you, she loves still. But no one—and nothing else. You she still loves——’ A half-smile now, though of no very gay character, softened a little the severity of his features, while he tried to resume some cheerfulness in adding: ‘as—she loves her little finger.’”
On June 31 Johnson heard from Hester Thrale that Piozzi was returning to marry Mrs. Thrale. Johnson had corresponded with Mrs. Thrale fairly regularly throughout the previous twelve months, being still unable altogether to abandon the hope of renewing their old friendship, though he must have realized that she was staying in Bath chiefly to avoid him. “Your kind expressions gave me great pleasure,” he wrote to her in March; “do not reject me from your thoughts. Shall we ever exchange confidence by the fireside again?”
When he heard about Piozzi from Hester, he replied: “I read your letter with anguish and astonishment, such as I had never felt before. I had fondly flattered myself that time had produced better thoughts... You have not left your Mother, but your Mother has left you... I send my kindest respects to your sisters, and exhort them to attend to your counsels, and recommend you all to the care of Him who is the Father of the fatherless.”
The next day he received a circular letter which Mrs. Thrale had sent to all Thrale’s executors, informing them that her three eldest daughters had left Bath form Brighton with a Miss Nicholson, having refused her company because they had heard that Mr. Piozzi was returning from Italy to marry her. With this circular she sent Johnson a letter in which she asked his pardon for concealing a connection he must have heard of, but perhaps never believed.
Indeed, my dear Sir, it was concealed only to save us both needless pain; I could not have borne to reject that counsel it would have killed me to take, and I only tell it you now because all is irrevocably settled, and out of your power to prevent. I will say, however, that the dread of your disapprobation has given me some anxious moments, and I feel as though acting without a parent’s consent till you write kindly to——Your faithful servant.
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. 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,
I will come down, if you permit it.
To this letter Mrs. Thrale sent the following answer:
SIR,——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.
Whether Johnson received this letter in an interval of calm, or was composed by its dignity and absence of recrimination, he replied very tenderly:
DEAR MADAM,——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.
I wish that God may grant you every blessing, that you may be happy in this world for its short continuance, and eternally happy in a better state; and whatever I can contribute to your happiness I am very ready to repay, for that kindness which soothed twenty years of a life radically wretched.
Do not think slightly of the advice which I now presume to offer. Prevail upon Mr. Piozzi to settle in England: you may live here with more dignity than in Italy, and with more security: your rank will be higher, and your fortune more under your own eye. I desire not to detail all my reasons, but every argument of prudence and interest is for England, and only some phantoms of imagination seduce you to Italy.
I am afraid, however, that my counsel is vain, yet I have eased my heart by giving it.
When Queen Mary [Queen of Scots] took the resolution of sheltering herself in England, the Archbishop of St. Andrew’s, attempting to dissuade her, attended on her journey; and when they came to the irremeable stream that separated the two kingdoms, walked by her side into the water, in the middle of which he seized her bridle, and with earnestness proportioned to her danger and his own affection pressed her to return. The Queen went forward—— If the parallel reaches thus far, may it go no further. The tears stand in my eyes.
I am going into Derbyshire, and hope to be followed by your good wishes, for I am, with great affection,——Your, etc.
His comparison of her journey to Italy and the flight of Mary to England, with its sequel of imprisonment and execution, bore no relation to reality. The general outcry against Mrs. Thrale’s marriage made it necessary for her to leave England; and she naturally chose Italy to go to, both for its own sake and as the country of her husband. Had Piozzi held her to ransom in a cave in the Appenines, as seems to have been expected by her London friends, and is implicitly foretold in Johnson’s historical parallel, Johnson’s advice would have been timely. But Piozzi did not turn into a brigand on crossing the Italian frontier. He remained what he had been before, gentle, and well-conducted, and his wife’s happiness was still further increased by his countrymen, in Milan, Florence, and elsewhere, who gave her a social triumph which made up to her for what she had for the time being lost in England.
In her reply to Johnson she tried to persuade him that her journey to Italy was reasonable:
Not only my good Wishes but most fervent Prayers for your Health and Consolation shall ever attend and follow my dear Mr. Johnson. Your last letter is sweetly kind, and I thank you for it most sincerely. Have no Fears for me, however; no real Fears. My Piozzi will need few Persuasions to settle in a Country where he has succeeded so well; but he longs to show me to his Italian Friends, and he wishes to restore my Health by treating me with a Journey to many Places I have long wish’d to see... He is a religious Man, a sober Man, a Thinking Man—he will not injure me, I am sure he will not, let nobody injure him in your good Opinion, which he is most solicitous to obtain and preserve, and the harsh Letter you wrote to me at first grieved him to the very heart. Accept his Esteem, my dear Sir, do; and his Promise to treat with long continued Respect and Tenderness the Friend whom you once honoured with your Regard and who will never cease to be, my dear Sir,
Your truly affectionate and faithful serv’
The rage of the old man flared up again when he read this letter, the signature to which he violently erased. His self-control had been sapped by the strain of the previous three years, and his rage was the revolt, suppressed through a long life of misery, against the exclusion from happiness to which his mental and physical infirmities had condemned him. Everything which he had missed was symbolised to him in the picture of Mrs. Thrale in Italy with her lover. Her letter was tender and respectful, but no malice could have hurt him so much as the ignorance of his feelings which allowed her to write: “He wishes to restore my Health my treating me with a Journey to many Places I have long wish’d to see.”
His anger against life, masked as disgust with Mrs. Thrale, fastened its hold on him. “I love you,” he wrote to Hester Thrale a few weeks later, “I loved your Father, and I loved your Mother as long as I could.” Public opinion, he continued, was always worthy of great attention; such practices could very seldom be right which all the world had concluded to be wrong. Four years after he wrote this, Mrs. Piozzi was again in Bath, surrounded by the admiring attention of the public which four years earlier had driven her out of England.
As the autumn approached, his asthma become severe again, and his dropsy returned. He visited his old haunts for the last time, Ashbourne, Lichfield, Birmingham, and Oxford. At Lichfield, Anna Seward relates, he spoke of Mrs. Thrale as a being without veracity or worth of any kind. “The great Johnson is here,” she wrote to a friend on October 29, “labouring under the paroxysms of a disease, which must be speedily fatal. He shrinks from the consciousness with the extremest horror.” She visited him often, she continues, though conscious that he had small regard for her, and was anxious only to forget in any society his terror of the approaching end.
One day she called at Lucy Porter’s to take tea with him, and found him in an arm-chair in deep but agitated slumber. “I stood by him several minutes,” the stout and sentimental Anna records, “mournfully contemplating the temporary suspension of those vast intellectual powers, which must so soon, as to this world, be eternally quenched.”
The servant entered to announce a visitor, and Johnson, awaking with convulsive starts, got to his feet with an alacrity which surprised Anna, but may be explained by his realisation that he had been lying at the mercy of her melting regard. “Come, my dear lady,” he exclaimed, “let you and I attend these gentlemen in the study.”
Salutations exchanged, Johnson seated himself astride a chair, his face to its back, and keeping up a trotting motion as if on horseback poured forth a stream of eloquence, illuminated by frequent flashes of wit and humour.
From Lichfield Johnson went to Birmingham, where he spend a few days with Edmund Hector, and then on to London where he arrived on November 16. His dropsy increased rapidly, and thinking the town air might be the cause he went to Islington for two or three days, but as there was no improvement he returned to Bolt Court. Before setting out for Islington, he was visited by Fanny Burney, who said she had just seen Hester Thrale and asked him if he ever heard from Hester’s mother. “No,” he cried, “nor write to her. I drive her quite from my mind. If I meet with one of her letters, I burn it instantly. I have burnt all I can find. I never speak of her, and I desire never to hear of her more. I drive her, as I said, quite from my mind.” This was his last word about the person he had loved most in the world, and to whom he had once said “The cup of life is surely bitter enough, without squeezing in the hateful rind of resentment.”
His love for the poor remained with him till the end. He was bound to them not merely because he had shared their struggles, but also because, even when he became famous, his infirmities still excluded him, as their circumstances excluded them, from a full share in the inheritance of life. Peyton and Levett, and many others of whom we have no record, were to him fellows in affliction, not the uncouth objects of a great man’s bounty.
The provisions of the will were settled on November 27. Calling on Johnson the next day, Hawkins found several friends with him, but Johnson was asleep. Presently he awoke and collecting himself said that they could see the state he was in, conflicting with bodily pain and mental distraction. Let them, while they were in health and strength, labour to do good and avoid evil, if ever they hoped to escape the distress that now oppressed him. Yet sometimes, he said, rays of hope shot into his soul, almost persuading him that he was in a state of reconciliation with God.
His horror of what might await him beyond death was intensified by his innate scepticism. In one of his last prayers he wrote: “And while it shall please Thee to continue me in this world, where much is to be done and little to be known, teach me by Thy Holy Spirit to withdraw my mind from unprofitable and dangerous inquiries, from difficulties vainly curious, and doubts impossible to be solved.” The doubts which made God unreal to his intellect increased instead of lessening his terrors, because they seemed to him a sign that he was not worthy to be saved.
Bennet Langton visited him often towards the close, and Edmund Burke and Joshua Reynolds came to pay their last tribute of respect to the great spirit which had never fainted in the prison of its corrupted body. “I am afraid, Sir,” said Burke, “such a number of us may be oppressive to you.” “No, Sir, it is not so,” said Johnson; “and I must be in a wretched state, indeed, when your company would not be a delight to me.” “My dear Sir, you have always been too good to me,” Burke answered in a trembling voice, and left the room.
The dropsy increased, and Johnson kept on begging his physicians to make deeper incisions, both to relieve the pain and to prolong his life. “How many men,” he cried, “die through the timidity of those whom they consult for health! I want length of life, and you fear giving me pain, which I care not for.” On the day before his death he refused to take any more food or medicine, feeling that it was useless to resist the inevitable any longer. During the night the dropsy increased beyond endurance. A friend had left a servant with him, and Johnson forced the man to hand him a lancet. He had concealed a pair of scissors in his bed, and with the lancet and scissors made several deep incisions, which gave him the relief he craved. The poison which had tormented him throughout his life flowed away, and he slept tranquilly through the next day, December 13, waking once or twice to take some nourishment. At a quarter past seven, he turned to Sastres [a friend turned nurse], murmured, “Jam moriturus,” [Now I am about to die] and breathed out his last breath without any struggle or sign of pain.
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