Prefazioni e polemiche/XII. Strictures on signora Piozzi's publication of doctor Johnson's letters (1788)/Stricture the first

Stricture the first

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XII. Strictures on signora Piozzi's publication of doctor Johnson's letters (1788) XII. Strictures on signora Piozzi's publication of doctor Johnson's letters (1788) - Strictures the second

[p. 329 modifica]STRICTURE THE FIRST «Life — says mr. Steevens, in a preface to some of Shakespeare

  • s plaj’s — does not often receive good unmixed with evil.

The benefits of the art of printing are depraved by the facility with which scandal may be diffused, and secf^ts revealed; and by the temptation by which traffìc solicits avance to betray the weaknesses of passion or the confìdence of friendship. I cannot forbear to think these posthumous pubHcations injurious to society-. A man conscious of literary reputation will grow in time afraid to write with tenderness to his sister, or with fondness to his child; or to remit on the slightest occasions, or most pressing exigence, the rigour of criticai choice and grammatica! severity. That esteem which preserves his letters, will at last produce his disgrace, when that which he wrote to his friend or his daughter shall be laid open to the public». When mr. Steevens made this observation, little did -he imagine that it would soon be exemplifìed to the prejudice of his fellow-commentator, and that the treacherous trick would be played to doctor Johnson by the ver>- person whom he, in the simplicity of his heart, had honoured above any other of his acquaintance with a most sincere attachment during a long, long interval of time. Yet so it has shockingly happened, that the frontless female, who goes now by the mean appellation ofPiozzi, actuated by no other incentive but that of mere avance, has dared to publish a large number of letters, written to her by the doctor during the long course of their friendship, though she must be convinced, and certainly is, that never [p. 330 modifica]

would she have obtained his sanction to their publication, had she asked for it in time; as too many of those letters are by much too trifling, uninteresting and even contemptible for such an eye as that of the British nation; and too many, in spite of their numerous blanks, initials and abbreviations, ali easily interpreted, vex, disgust and prove considerably obnoxious not only to a great number of individuais, but even to whole families, without the compensation of their ansvvering the least good purpose; which at worst ought to be the case with any printed writing that anyway diminishes the good name of our stili living contemporaries.

It was not likely, indeed, that doctor Johnson, a supreme despiser of trifles, abhorrent from ali propagation of scandal, and inoffensive to the inoffensive, as ali his works amply testify, would have given his consent to her putting forth the two volumes, wherein, independent of the many censurable parts, a poor reader must frequently trudge on until he is weary through a hundred pages of trash and rubbish, to meet with a dozen of lines that are worth his perusal. But the cunning she has delayed her shameless bargain till after the doctor ’s demise and the two ill-favoured volumes are now brought into the world, to the no small discontent and indignation of ali the doctor ’s true friends, who, long accustomed to see him lead on the phalanx of literature, see him now riding upon a broomstick; and to the great comfort and diversion of ali the witlings and witsnappers of the Thames and of the Tweed, who behold him at last brought down from that envied summit to which the Rambler, the Lives of the poets and so many other of his works had gloriously exalted him. Take warning, take warning, ye heroes of the quill, and, upon seeing yourselves deservedly raised by the unanimous suffrages of mankind to the highest posts of literary honour, keep in mind mr. Steevens ’s philanthropic observation, nor be so unguarded as our good Johnson has been, lest, like him, you draw hereafter upon your names the sarcastic and slanderous obloquies of indefatigable dulness and unextinguishable malignity. [p. 331 modifica]

Among the manj’ who bave reason to be exasperated on account of those letters, I \vill frankly own that I am one; and as such, am resolved to animadvert on certain passages in them that have proved harsh to my feelings, even though I should run the risque of being disapproved for not treating their editor with any great ceremony, as must be the case in ali discussions produced by the necessity of clearing our characters from calumnious assertions. But by what right can «la Piazzi^, as my fiddling countrymen now term her, claim ceremony and respect from any one of the many whom she has offended by her publication, now that, in the great wisdom of her concupiscence, she has degraded herself into the wife of an Italian singing -master? And, as to myself, what respect or ceremony do I owe to an Italian singing-master ’s wife, who treats my name in print with as much freedom as if it were allied to that of the folks at Brescia, who cali her sister, cousin, aunt and niece? Yet there is another circumstance stili, that excludes her from ali claim to my tenderness; and it is that she is fully conscious of my having by heart the long rubric of her sins, and knows that I can teli them ali one by one, without fear of the least contradiction from her conscience: yet she has attacked me with such arrogant temerit}-, as could not be borne by patience itself sitting on the monument of Job, or that of saint Lawrence, who suflfered himsell to be roasted alive without uttering the least complaint.

The follo wing periods penned by the witty madam, and not by Johnson, so wickedly traduce my moral character, that I \vill now hasten to confute their import, and prove that they contain a most infamous calumny. Here I copy the whole paragraph out of one of her letters to doctor Johnson, dated may 3, 1776, from Bath, where, presently after the sudden death of her only son, she thought of retiring for a short time with her cldest daughter. The paragraph runs thus: «How does doctor Taylor do? He was very kind, I remember, when my thunder-storm carne first on. So was count Manucci, so was mrs. Montague, so was every body. The world is not guilty of [p. 332 modifica]

much general harshness, nor inclined, I believe, te increase pain, which they do not perceive to be deserved. Baretti alone tried to irritate a wound so very deeply inflicted, and he will find few to approve his cruelty».

How this woman could be so dishonest as to speak of me in such terms and to accuse me so audaciously of a savage inclination to encrease the affliction of the afflicted, without specifying how and in what manner 1 displayed that savageness, is what I should not be able to comprehend, had I not frequently bestowed my attention upon the tortuosities of her disposition, and with much greater attention than ever doctor Johnson would be at the trouble of bestowing. But, that I may not digress from the matter in hand, the only motive she ever had, in my opinion, for writing that beastly paragraph, was what I am going to relate.

On the coming-on of her thunder-storm, by which she means the sudden death of her son, count Manucci, ayoung nobleman from Florence, who was then on his travels, happening that fatai morning to be at her house, and fully sensible of the attachment I then had to the Thrale family, hurried his servant to me with the dreadful news.

Not an instant did I delay to run from Titchfíeld-street, Marybone, to the Borough, to assist the count in administering comfort to the wretched parents; and there, as you may well imagine, was I witness to a scene of woe not often visible, though we live in a world replete with woeful scenes. Mr. Thrale, both his hands in his waistcoat pockets, sat on an arm-chair in a corner of the room with his body so stiffly erect, and with such a ghastly smile in his face, as was quite horrid to behold. Count Manucci and a female servant, both as pale as ashes, and as if panting for breath, were evidently spent with keeping madam from going frantic (and well she might) every time she recovered from her fainting-fíts, that followed each other in a very quick succession. It matters not whether doctor Taylor and mrs. Montague went to her succour in that distress, as her paragraph seems to import, by joining their names to that of [p. 333 modifica]

count Manucci. I do not recollect that either of them appeared at that disconsolate house before her setting out for Bath, and have reason to suspect her honesty at the time she penned those few periods. Was the paragraph a due compliment to doctor Taylor and that lady, or were their names brought in it but the other day as a contrast to mine, that the blow she aimed at me might fall u-ith redoubled force upon my poor head? Hester Lynch, Hester Lj-nch, I have often read the blackest pages of thy heart, as thou well knowest; therefore bc not surprised at my surmise. My suspecting thee of dealing false with me is backed by the inefficacy of thy malicious paragraph, which, as it váW presently be seen, produced as much effect in the mind of him to whom it was directed, as if he had never received that letter of thine.

Be this as it will, ali that day and the t\vo followáng, the parents, the count and rayself were quite immersed in sorrow, as the boy had been a favourite with us ali and had well deserved to be so. But on the fourth day, as the fits had nearly ceased, madam abruptly proposed to set out immediately for Bath, as wishing to avoid the sight of the funeral, that began now to be thought on. Her eldest daughter, who had been a while in a precarious state of health, she would take with her, in hopes that the joumey and the air of Bath would do her good ; but she had no man-friend to go with her and take care of her during the excursion. To travel with people in the deepest affliction is certainly no pleasant thing; jet as the count did not offer to go, I made a tender of mjself without the least hesitation, and my company was accepted with thanks, that I am confident were unfeigned, at least in that single instance. I just asked leave to run home to fetch some wearing-apparel while the horses were putting to her coach, reached Salibili that same evening, and Bath in three days more. I must however not forget telling, that a few minutes before our setting out, doctor Johnson arrived in a post-chaise from Litchfield, as madam, among her first fits, had found a lucky interval to acquaint him with her thunder-storm, as we see by his answer in her publication; [p. 334 modifica]

and her letter brought him to town in a hurri\ I expected at that moment that he would spare me the jaunt, and go himself to Bath with her; but he made no motion to that effect; therefore, after the sad exchange of a few mournful periods, as is customary on such occasions, we got into the coach and were soon out of sight. And here I will leave the reader to guess at the torture I put my brains to during the journey, to furnish talk for the relief of the mother, and inventions proportionate to a child ’s mind to keep the daughter diverted and in spirits: nor do I think that my efforts were quite thrown away, though the task was not one of the easiest, considering that I myself couid not get poor little Harry out of my thoughts, and mourned internally for him as much as ever I did for any other dear object that ever I lost during the long course of my life.

We had been at Bath but a day, when, on the arrivai of the post, madam proved so very wise, as to shew me a letter from doctor Jebb, afterwards sir Richard, in which she was pretty bluntly reprimanded for her playing the physician with her children, and earnestly entreated at the same time to forbear giving her daughter what he termpd «tin-pills». «It may be true — said the doctor in that letter — that the child has worms, and you will probably kill them by means of those pills; but stili the remedy is greatly worse than the disease, as the tin, though ever so much beaten to powder, will tear the child ’s bowels to pieces». How the doctor carne to hear of madam ’s pills, I do not know; but guess it was from old nurse, as, after mr. Thrale ’s death, old nurse was presently turned out of the house by her lady, though she had been a servant there no less than forty years, and would probably bave ended her wretched days in some parish-workhouse, had not miss Thrale, as soón as she carne of age, been more merciful to the poor woman than her virtuous mother, who, I have heard, was much vexed at the transaction.

In the act of giving me the doctor ’s letter to read: — See, see — said madam with a pert promptitude that always formed [p. 335 modifica]

one of her chief characteristics, — see what fools these physicians are! They presume to know better how to manage children than their raothers themselves ! — On my receiving in this odd manner this odd piece of information about madam ’s private doings in her medicai capacity, and hearing to boot such a mad comment on a letter that I thought very wise and very timely, mj- bile suddenly rose to such a degree, that I am sure I uttered my indignation in the most severe terms, and swore that she would soon send the daughter to keep company with the son, if she gave her any more of her damn ’d pills, and not satisfied with this, I informed the daughter of the horrid quality of the physic that her good mamma administered her against the positive order of doctor Jebb, of whose letter I told her the contents, exhorting her to resist the taking of any tin-pills, and assuring her that they would soon destroy her.

My siding in so vehement a manner with doctor Jebb against her absurd expectation, made madam ’s grief presently give way to her fury; and, after a pretty long exchange of very strong words, I suppose she proceeded to write the above paragraph in the above letter to doctor Johnson, supposing that she did actually write it at that time, and not eleven years after, for the noble purpose of injuring me. But, teli me freely, honest reader, was I on so important an occasion to play the sycophant to a woman at once so proud and so absurd, as to teli me without reserve Ihat she utterly despised doctor Jebb ’s knowledge and remonstrances? to a woman, that, to spight him, probably would bave run that instant to the pili-box and forced some part of its contents down her child ’s throat, though energetically warned, that the life of the amiable thing was at stake, had I not deadened her resolution by shewing myself ready to oppose it with ali my power?

Some water-gruel soul may possibly reply, that I ought not to have taken up the matter in so rude and violent a manner, but gently expostulated with madam about the preposterousness of her wild notions, and endeavoured by kind reasoning to bring her over to the opinion of the doctor, considering especially [p. 336 modifica]

that I had no manner of rigbt to interfere. What? no right to interfere when I conceive a child ’s life in danger through the ignorance and superlative pride of a mother? expostulate gently with a creature so infernally conceited, that she makes nothing of doctor Jebb ’s medicai knowledge, and, ruatcaelum, will go impetuously on in her mad career? Little does he know what he says, who talks of gentle expostulation and kind reasoning with Hester Lynch, when she has gotten any idea, however strange, in her head! We shall see by the sequel what Johnson himself got by only offering to expostulate and reason with her about another point of as great importance to her as the welfare of a daughter. The woman, I teli you, may be forced into a measure; but, persuaded! Satan may possibly do it; but I am sure no man would ever succeed in such an attempt ! Give me but time for a few strictures, and I will bring you acquainted with her, much better than you will ever be by your going every concert night to hear her turn Italian stupidity into English wit. However, notwithstanding our hot words, the morning after my rough boutade, madam thought better of it; and well aware that she could not bring me to any terms of accommodation with regard to the tin-pills, resolved for the present on dissembling her rage, carne down to breakfast with some serenity in her looks, talked to me as aflfably as usuai, and entirely made it up with me before dinner by a present of a red morocco memorandum -book, nearly as large as a common visiting-ticket, that she bought on purpose at the great toy-shop in Melsomstreet, for half-a-crown at least. In consequence of her sweet condescension, if you except a bite she gave her under-lip because I did not fly into an extacy of admiration once, that she came home with a great bunch of black cock-feathers in her hat, which I thought an untimely piece of finery so soon after her son ’s death; excepting that bite, I say, we became as good friends as ever, and continued so ali the time we staid at Bath; especially as miss assured me that mamma had given her no tin-pills, and even permitted her to eat at dinner whatever she liked best. [p. 337 modifica]

But, though matters were so soon and so happily made up between madam and me, the letter to doctor Johnson with the vengeful paragraph in it was already dispatched, if \ve credit the publication that now exhibits it. Had she an answer to that letter? Sure, she must have had one, as Johnson could not have heard with apathical frigiditá’ a charge of cruelty brought by his divine mistress against his friend; and it is rationallj- to be supposed that he could not have helped taking the most serious notice of it, had he received her letter. Yet we do not find the doctor ’s answer in that same publication, and have not the least hint of any rebuff to me either from him or from mr. Thrale, to whom Johnson would have shewn her letter, had he been convinced in his own mind that the charge was a just one. Let now the woman account for her suppressing the doctor ’s answer, and say what she has to say in support of that paragraph, which I cali awickedcalumny. Doubtless, doctor Johnson must have desired her to specify the particulars of my savage cruelty to her, or we must think him a very sorr>’ correspondent to his dearest dearest madam.

— Ay, ay — she may reply, — I have no answer from Johnson to produce, as we left Bath soon after your acts of cruelt>’ to me, and went back side by side in the same coach that had carried us there.

Be it even so, shuffling madam! But stili, how did it come to pass that, on our arrivai at your house, the cruel Baretti heard not a single word about his cruelty to you, though the charge had gone before in black and white? How came it to pass that the sharp-fanged savage continued with you, with your husband, with Johnson, on the usuai friendly footing for several months after our return from Bath? Account, my prett>-, in some plausible manner for such strange peculiarities, and, above ali, for the hundred pounds which, soon after that return, mr. Thrale made me a present of, for my having, as he said, brought back in good health and spirits both the mother and the daughterl

Well, signora Piozzi! I have now told in my own way the reason that, I think, induced you to write your iniquitous

G. B/> RETTI, Prefazioni e polemiche. 22 [p. 338 modifica]

paragraph, no matter whether on the 3/’ of may 1776, or on any day in the year 1787. Assign you in your turn, and in your own way, any cause different from that which I have assigned for your paragraph, and give us the true reason why mr. Thrale and doctor Johnson took no kind of noti ce of my cruelty to you, be the cause of it what you shall please to have been. Substantiate your accusation, mistress Hester Lynch, and take pains to substantiate it well, or give me leave to say once more, and a thousand times more, that you are a wicked calumniator; and to continue firm in my persuasion, that, as far as I have surveyed the circle of life, I could not easily have met with a worse misfortune than that of your acquaintance.