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"A Man must fondle something," wrote Hester Thrale, with characteristic pithiness, about her horrible father who nevertheless doted on her - as did her widowed uncle and her clerical tutor. But Henry Thrale, the wealthy Southwark brewer whom she married, did not dote on her at all. "Ours was a Match of mere Prudence; and common good Liking, without the smallest Pretension to Passion on either side." Thrale was brazenly unfaithful, while keeping her permanently pregnant. She bore at least 12 children, of whom only a few daughters survived to adulthood.

Two years into the marriage, a friend brought Samuel Johnson to dinner with the Thrales. Thirty years older than Hester, widowed for a decade, eccentric, on the verge of mental collapse and living in "disorderly squalor", he was virtually adopted by them. He became their "great man-child" and to Hester, another doting father. However, if there was "an erotic element", as Ian McIntyre believes, there was no fondling. Johnson was equally attached to both the Thrales. He accompanied them on holidays at home and abroad, and had his own apartment at the top of the brewery house. Hester was clever and wrote verses, and the comparison between her lovingly teasing relationship with Johnson and Jonathan Swift's with Vanessa or Stella is inevitable and curious.

Hester was also a competent businesswoman and sorted out crises in the brewery as Mr Thrale grew depressed, ate compulsively and suffered the results of his promiscuity. Hester, on her knees, changed poultices twice a day on his swollen testicle. Even in Thrale's lifetime, she was an admiring champion of the Italian musician Gabriele Piozzi. It's hard to work out exactly when Mr Thrale did die; one of my few quarrels with McIntyre's really excellent book is that he tells you the month, sometimes even the day of the week, when things happen, but you have to backtrack for pages and pages to discover what year we are in. Another is that being a supremely rational male, he is somewhat lacking in sympathy with some of Hester's responses and reactions.

The link with Johnson was broken by her second marriage, her heart as she said being "penetrated by its Passion for Piozzi". After Johnson's death, when she published her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson and their correspondence, Boswell became her enemy, mortified by his own "near-invisibility" in her material. Both of them had the "anecdotal itch", both embroidered, edited and rearranged even as they ensured Johnson's immortality.

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Jordan Richman
June 27th, 2011
5:06 PM
Hi Victoria, I posted this review on my blog johnsonsquarrelwithswift.blogspot.com

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