Hester Thrale was a political wife before the term was invented, a landowner at a time when wives could not own land in their own name, mother of four surviving daughters and
an adopted nephew and, above all, diarist and author. Her ambitious final book, Retrospection, was the first attempt by an Englishwoman to write a history of the world. Yet her
name is scarcely known today other than as the friend and companion to Dr Johnson.
Hester Salusbury married Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer, in October 1763, shortly after her father’s death had severely reduced her options. Eleven months later she gave birth
to their first child and from then on was pregnant almost yearly during her marriage to Thrale. He forbad her from riding – too masculine- and from entering the kitchen – too
smelly. So she gloomily expected her days would offer little more than, needlework, reading and educating her children. .
She was saved from a life of stultifying boredom by the fortuitous arrival for dinner in 1764 of Samuel Johnson, then 55, widowed, living in disorderly squalor and close to a
mental breakdown. Yet, in spite of his dirty, unprepossessing appearance, greed at table, scrofula and scarring, Hester and Johnson immediately took to each other. He soon
considered the Thrale home – Streatham Park – his own and encouraged her to write more poetry.
How this young woman came to rescue Johnson and in turn find her own strong literary voice, forms the core of this biography. For 16 years she provided him endless cups of tea
and stimulation as they debated national politics, child rearing, world affairs and literature. Boswell was jealous. But even if there were erotic overtones to what was clearly an
intimate relationship, there is no evidence that Johnson ever made anything resembling a pass at his “dear mistress.”
However, the book’s interest goes far beyond the deep friendship between Hester and Johnson. Hester Thrale, bluestocking and wit, was a remarkable woman imbued with deep
intellectual curiosity revealed in six leather bound volumes now housed in the Huntington Library in California, known as Thraliana. The blank books, a gift to her (and posterity)
from her husband on their 13th wedding anniversary, were eventually filled with detailed accounts of domestic politics, the French Revolution, cameo portraits of friends and
enemies as well as Latin epigrams, gossip, poetry and such fascinating details as the price of a shirt in 1801, shedding a powerful beam of light on the life and culture of
Hester threw herself into whatever life offered. When her second child died after 3 days, instead of grieving she vigorously campaigned for her husband, who was duly elected MP
for Southwark. During another campaign, although four months pregnant, only after canvassing votes all day did she go to visit her daughters at boarding school and then had
an accident on the way there which left a permanent facial scar.
She put up with death, illness and her husband’s frequent infidelities in a way that indicates this was nothing more than the age expected. Aged 38, after a stillbirth which
nearly killed her, Hester nonetheless hoped that a visit to his mistress might “dissipate” her husband’s gloom.
By contrast, some of her preoccupations seem very modern, especially her desire to find emotional satisfaction through romantic love. Her second marriage to her daughter’s
Italian music master, Gabriel Piozzo, gave her renewed enthusiasm for writing but lost her Johnson’s admiration, Fanny Burney’s friendship and cruelly blighted relations with her
daughters for the rest of her life. McIntyre’s detailed account of their shabby treatment of Hester makes painful reading.
This entertaining book brings her out of the Johnsonian shadow at last. Hester is revealed: a heroine for any age.
Anne Sebba is the author of Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American
Mother (John Murray Pbk £8.99)