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Happy Birthday Sam and Hester, OR, Favourites of Wiggydom

January 27, 2014

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Two wonderful birthdays today.  Samuel Foote and Hester Lynch Piozzi.  I don’t believe they ever shared a birthday party, but if they had done, it would have been the best birthday party the eighteenth-century could provide. The guest list would have been stellar.  And hilarious.

Samuel Foote was the funniest man of the eighteenth-century.  Oh, for sure there were people who have written things that read better these days and playwrights who devised entertainments that have held the stage better.  But Samuel Foote was the funniest man in person, the one who would set the table in a roar.  Samuel Johnson met Foote vaguely hoping to hold his composure but had to admit defeat and fell about with everyone else.

He was the product of the bizarrely inventive time in theatrical history defined by the Licensing Act of 1737 which dictated that only plays pre-censored by the Lord-Chamberlain’s office could be performed and then only in licensed venues.  People like Foote got around the Act by officially only charging for cups of hot chocolate and then declaring that the performance that people had come to see was just a bit of fun going on in the background.  Later in life he would suffer an accident resulting in an amputation that resulted in his surname becoming even funnier.  He was also the target of a bitter and dangerous homophobic character assassination.

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Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi was one of the most admirable and likable people of the century.  From an old Welsh family, she married Henry Thrale – a very successful brewer, whose wealth bought Hester into London literary society.  The morbidly obese Thrale seems to have understood Hester’s relationship with Samuel Johnson – a close necessary friendship which saw Johnson spend more and more time at the Thrale’s house in Streatham.  Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi would subsequently become one of the most important sources for our knowledge of Johnson’s private life.

She lost a child.  She painfully documented this process.  She is one of our most important sources for the experience of grief in the eighteenth-century.

When fat old Henry died comparatively young, as everyone knew he would, there were some (including Boswell) who assumed that Johnson would marry her.  This is probably to misunderstand the nature of their relationship.  Johnson was never jealous of Henry Thrale, who understood and respected the peculiar intellectual quality of the friendship.  However, Hester instead married an Italian musician called Piozzi and Johnson as devastated.  The idea of an unknown foreigner monopolising her affections was intolerable to him and he broke with Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi forever.

The young but very great novelist Frances Burney sided with Johnson and refused to ever make things up with Hester Piozzi.  Years later Burney married a French émigré.  Mrs Piozzi had hope that this would forge a reconciliation on the basis of “see – aren’t they fun – these inappropriate foreigners” but Burney refused to see any equivalence in their respective situations.

Foote and Lynch-Thrale-Piozzi belong not so much to the literary eighteenth-century as the anecdotal eighteenth-century, a century of personalities who slightest quirks are a joy to rediscover and inhabit.  Foote and Lynch-Thrale Piozzi are eighteenth-century characters for the hardcore eighteenth-centuryists.  Bless.  Happy Birthday.

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