Wives and Mistresses

Hester by Ian McIntyre
Lady Worsley’s Whim by Hallie Rubenhold

Books Family Gender History Literature

“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.

McIntyre himself had a massive amount of material to embroider, edit and rearrange – Hester’s copious life-long journal Thraliana and the six volumes of her published letters just for a start. He devotes half his book to her life with Piozzi, which involves a lot of travelogue, made readable by her lively judgments on places, people and current events as she moves between the continent, Bath and her family home in Wales. This second half also documents the hostility of her neglected daughters. No one at the time, however, saw anything untoward in abandoning young girls for years on end to paid minders. She had two more quasi-maternal passions, the first for a nephew of Piozzi’s, on whom she lavished inordinate amounts of sentimental correspondence, property – and money, which was all he wanted from her. Her last attachment was for an actor called Conway, whom she subjected to a “rolling barrage” of outrageously affectionate letters to which he had neither the skill nor the inclination to respond.

McIntyre’s biography is illuminated by the extraordinary vitality of this tiny, plump woman, who engineered passionate attachments as an outlet for her energies and who would rush into the freezing sea for a bathe in her eighties. She was always the life and soul of the party, and the heroine of her own story.

The notorious Lady Worsley was only eight years younger than Hester. Theirs was a very racy generation. As her subtitle suggests, Hallie Rubenhold’s Lady Worsley’s Whim is a well-researched romp. In 1782 Sir Richard Worsley, MP and Privy Counsellor, sued his wife’s lover Maurice Bissett for criminal conversation, which means adultery. The “lurid sexual details” revealed in court hit the headlines. “The country gossiped about it for months while the newspapers hounded and lampooned its protagonists.” Rubenhold’s reconstruction of the “sordid history” of the marriage is largely garnered from the court reports, from “Grub Street drivel” and from the “obscene trash” of scandal sheets.

Lady Worsley, née Fleming, married Sir Richard when she was 18. He had an estate on the Isle of Wight. The next-door estate belonged to Bissett, who became the intimate friend of both parties. Lady W had a daughter by Bissett, who was accepted by Sir Richard as his own. Sir Richard, we gather, liked watching. He was a voyeur.

With the threat of French invasion, there was a mustering of 15,000 troops at Coxheath in Kent, among them Sir Richard’s South Hampshire Militia. Lady W joined the vast undisciplined encampment, like all the other WAGs, and Bissett came too. One day, she went into Maidstone, to the baths. Her husband invited Bissett to stand on his shoulders and leer through a high window at Lady W emerging from her bath, to the delectation of all three.

Then Lady W and Bissett spoiled the threesome by running away together, leaving Sir Richard humiliated. He hired James Farrer of Farrer & Co – then as now, evidently, the solicitors of choice for high-end marital disputes. He chose not divorce, but “Separation from Bed and Board”, which meant Lady W was not free to marry in her husband’s lifetime. Although Sir Richard asked for £10,000 compensation, the jury, in consideration of the bath-house episode, awarded him just one shilling. He became a reclusive and fanatical collector of antiquities, bid unsuccessfully for a slave-girl in Constantinople, brought home an Abyssinian boy instead, and died.

Lady W was soon abandoned by Bissett. She was pregnant again at the time. (All her various children either died or disappeared.) Just like Hester Thrale, she chose as her second husband a foreign musician. There must have been a supply of them to hand, ready and able. Hers was Swiss, and 26 years younger.

Hester Piozzi may never have met Lady Worsley, but Fanny Burney wrote to her with all the gossip about Lady Worsley’s “flaming prank”, and Mrs Piozzi, if she read the newspapers, would have known that Lady Worsley and Bissett, after they eloped from Coxheath, holed up in the Royal Hotel, Pall Mall. The hotel servants testified in court about the locked door of room 14, and about instructions given at odd hours to have rumpled and stained sheets changed.

The Piozzis stayed at the same hotel a couple of years later, Hester describing it as “the very worst Hotel I have ever been at in any Capital City of Europe”. Personal research reveals that the site of the Royal Hotel is now occupied by “100 Pall Mall”, a serviced office complex. No bedrooms, though, so far as I know.