Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale

by Andrada Costoiu

Perhaps because I’m fascinated with people that have left traces in our history, I feel compelled to write about Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale. 

Who are these two English writers that lived in England in the 1700s?

Samuel Johnson is the one that created the first comprehensive English dictionary (it wasn’t the first English dictionary, the very first one belongs to Robert Cowdrey: Table Alphabeticall—in 1604). It took Johnson more than 8 years to complete it. Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used 22 years to compile his American Dictionary (for good reason!) 

Hester Thrale is probably one of the earliest cases of British feminism. Some sort of an earlier Jane Austen!

Both these writers have made great contributions to the English literature and they were linked by friendship or also by love? 

Hester Thrale

Photo: Hester Thrale, WikiCommons

Hester Thrale is part of the early women writers and her case is a classic feminist Cinderella story.  Perhaps the reason why I like her is that (like other the other women I admire) she was able to move from an image tailored for her by the social norms of the time to a self-made image of a woman with an independent way of expressing herself.  

What does it take to be like that? I think it takes the same courage and determination that you would need nowadays to go do something, write something, build something to leave to the posteriority. Women or men, we’re all the same. We all have strengths and weaknesses and we all have choices. We can easily get entangled in meaningless lifestyles or we can all be founders or supporters of something that matter for “Tomorrow”. 

Back to Hester.  She was born January 27th, 1741 at a farmhouse in Wales, UK. I don’t think she was raised for intellectual stagnation because she was encouraged early on to read and learn foreign languages. She was writing and translating French, Italian, Spanish and before her marriage she was contributing poems and political satires to newspapers.

Then she married a rich brewer Henry Thrale and she was constantly pregnant. They had 12 children…..yes, 12! Her husband was not very nice, he neglected her and he had numerous love affairs.

I think her wits saved Hester from total misery. She continued writing. After the birth of her first daughter she started documenting the various moments in her daughter’s life in a “baby book” called The Children’s Book.

Then she met Johnson, who moved into her family estate. He was much older than her, but they had literary and other intellectual affinities. She also took care of him. Despite being so much older, he became a sort of adopted child.

Thrale narrated her life experiences throughout her work. Her writings are marked by her personal conflict between her public image of the wonderful salon hostess and the private sorrows for her husband’s infidelity.

Thraliana, her first book, is a collection of her diaries, which are focused on her experiences with her family, on the society’s life at the time and it also contains anecdotes and stories about the life of Samuel Johnson. This collection wasn’t published until 1942.

Her works, among which are Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) and Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson (1788), challenged the gendered conventions of writing of the time and the traditional masculine discourse. I think she was kind of an early Jane Austen! She used a “feminine” form of writing, by introducing in her narratives her observations and experiences that evoked sensations, sentiments and feelings. Imagine that, an early 18th century woman evoking her feelings in writing ….it seems scandalous :-).

Her pen remained active until her late years. She continued to publish works that revealed her intellectual vivacity, works that presented her ideas, opinions and interesting stories. 

Samuel Johnson

Photo credit: Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) – Samuel Johnson – NPG 1597 – National Portrait Gallery

Samuel Johnson, also often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, biographer and as a lexicographer.  His most prominent work is A Dictionary of the English Language. You can access it online here:

Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 173 years later, his dictionary was viewed as the pre-eminent English dictionary. He took more than 8 years to complete it! Even today, Johnson’s Dictionary, is among the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language.

Here are some interesting facts about his dictionary:

  1. He left out the letter X! he says that  “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.”
  2. His definitions weren’t always so scholarly, in fact some were really funny:

oats is “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

luggage is “anything of more weight than value.”

—-Samuel Johnson

Ah, I shall remember his definition of “luggage” when I will pack my bags for future trips : ).

3. He left out a lot of words. His  dictionary of 42,000-words vocabulary is impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as  five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755.

Johnson was nearly blind in his left eye and suffered from tics that may have been indications of Tourette syndrome (back then nobody knew anything about this, and this disease was not even defined).

He married an older woman, who was the wife of a deceased friend. At the time they got married  he was 25, she 46. I think they were happy, he nicknamed her affectionately “Tetty”. Her marriage settlement provided with enough money to open a school in Edial, near Lichfield.

He had a long association with The Gentleman’s Magazine, often considered the first modern magazine of the time. He published here many works, including a series of a series of speeches purporting to represent the actual debates in the House of Commons.

Throughout his life he wrote so many important works, I will not mentioned them all as this is not a literary work review. Though it is important to mention the English dictionary I talked above, his Shakespeare volumes and his work on the lives of the poets:  Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets .

Johnson died in 1784 and is buried at Westminster Abbey.

This is a picture of the Abbey that I took this summer

Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale relationship

He lived at Thrale’s estate for many years. In theory, their friendship was platonic. However, some letters from Johnson to Thrale were found, in florid French that suggest something more. Rumor has it that there is evidence of a masochistic element, as Johnson letters to her include images of bondage and restraint, and he entrusted to her a padlock …which she was supposed to use on him.

What do you know! The private lives …. many times they’re not always what they seem!

Also, the way he severed his ties with her after she decided to marry her daughter’s singing instructor, point to feelings deeper than just camaraderie. When he got the news she will get married he  was appalled. He wrote to her:

“ 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”

— Samuel Johnson

I wrote about them because I wanted to revive the memory of both these writers. I like them both, him, for his writings and her, for her literary work and also for  her keen sense of herself as an autonomous woman and writer, which not an experience that many 18th-century women were able to enjoy. 


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