Mrs Piozzi’s Reminiscences


Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi (1741-1821), the friend of Dr Samuel Johnson and his circle, married the brewer Henry Thrale in 1763, whose death in 1781 left her wealthy, and then the Italian musician and composer Gabriel Piozzi in 1784. She wrote numerous letters to a wide range of mainly literary correspondents. In 1776 she began to keep a kind of diary-cum-literary-scrapbook in which she recorded her reminescences, from which the following are reprinted. She had an extraordinary ability to recognize homosexuals (men and women), a couple of whom she liked even though she strongly disapproved of their sex lives. Most of her perceptions seem to be accurate, and her analysis of the consequences of repression are very penetrating.

[Thomas] Payne the Bookseller was making out his Catalogue; Mr Steevens the Editor of Shakespeare sitting in the shop ...

In the Year 1772. one Captain Jones was convicted of Crimes against Nature, and sentenced to die: He was a Gentleman famous for his Invention in the Art of making Fireworks, and adapting Subjects fit to be represented in that Genre; & had already entertained the Town with two particular Devices which were exhibited at Marybone Gardens & greatly admired: viz: the Forge of Vulcan in the Cave of Mount Etna, & the calling Eurydice out of Hell – If he is pardoned says Steevens, He may shew off the Destruction of Sodom and Gommorrah; it will have an admirable Effect. (i. 246-7, a memory recorded sometime during late March early April 1778)
[Note: The Vulcan fireworks was actually contrived by Torré, not by Jones.]

Mr Cumberland’s Delicacy is very troublesome, his Peevishness very teizing, & his Envy very hateful. he looks to me like a Man that had been poysoned, so sallow is his Complexion, & so sunk are his Eyes. – Yet his Person is genteel & his Manner elegant; but he professes to be easily galled, & says of himself that he was born without a Skin. Effeminacy is however an odious Quality in a He Creature, and when joined with low Jealousy actually detestable: he is a Man one cannot love.

I have a Notion (Dieu me pardonne) that Cumberland is a —— he is so over-attentive, so apparently afraid of his Wife, who seems scarce able to conceal her Hatred & Contempt of him, while he pays her most diligent Court in hopes every body will observe it some how. N.B. – he is a profess’d Favourite of Ld George Sackville who made his Fortune for him. (Aug. to Sept. 1777, i. 135)
[Note: Richard Cumberland (1732-1811), dramatist and novelist, and noted for a series of Odes. He was jealous of the success of Fanny Burney.]

I have been reading Dr Moore’s Edward [1796], & Cumberland’s Henry [1795]: – Both have made choice of a deserted Boy’s Life to weave into a Novel, & both have done it well. Doctor Moore is ever elegant and unaffected, but he is unaffecting too: yet he knows Manners, & describes them justly. ... Edward is a most desirable Character, firm, manly, wise & virtuous: but he does too little somehow, & suffers too little; We want more Pepper than this Authour gives, his Characters lie too close to the Level of one’s Eye, and his Adventures have in them too little of Adventure. His constant Care to set our Sex in an advantageous Light from genuine Esteem & Love of Women as it plainly appears – must not bribe me to give yt Preference to his Novel over that of Cumberland, whose Ladies are all vicious for ought I see, at least strangely prone to lewdness – more than Live exhibits in England, – so far as I have been capable of observing: but something always did whisper to my heart, that Cumberland liked the Masculine Gender best, I have given a hint on’t in this Book somewhere a vast many Years ago, and all his Manner, and all his Works confirm my old Suspicion.

     I recollect nothing done by Cumberland’s Women except snatching at Fellows, either for Marriage or for worse. while Dr More’s Laura Seidlitz unites a hundred Excellencies; & Mrs Barnet is a Model of Conjugal Virtue joined to a most liberal & Noble Spirit. When Dr Moore describes a handsome Youth he does it as a Man does, who cares nothing for his Beauty, but as it may interest another: Cumberland dwells upon the personal Charms of his Heroes always with a luscious fondness exceedingly particular, as if he were in Love with them himself. The same is to be observed in Vathek a Romance written by Beckford with much Invention, but then Beckford is a Profesor of Pæderasty. (entry for Nov. 1796, ii. 968-9)

Can the Stories told by Suetonius be all true? I scarce believe it possible. Otho’s weeping about Poppæa, and half refusing her to Nero is incredible. – with half that Provocation Nero would have murdered half Mankind. Abate Ravasi used to tell just such Tales of the Popes; much Evil was done to be sure – but one would hope it could not have been quite so bad: tho’ I might have heard similar Stories in Italy all Day, had I not hated lewd Conversation as I do, Old Cardinal de York [Henry Benedict Maria Clement, Cardinal York, the second son of James Stuart, the Old Pretender] kept a Catamite publicly at Rome while I was there, tho’ a Man of the best Character possible, for Piety & Charity: – with which as a Person said to me – that Vice has nothing to do. They consider’d it as mere Matter of Taste.

     Mrs Greatheed & I call those Fellows Finger-twirlers; – meaning a decent word for Sodomites: old Sir Horace Mann & Mr James the Painter had such an odd way of twirling their Fingers in Discourse; – & I see Suetonius tells the same thing of one of the Roman Emperors ‘nec sine molli quadam digitorum gesticulatione.’ Vid. C. Suet. Tranq: Tib: Nero Cæsar. [Life of Tiberiuis, chap. 68] (entry for 29 March 1794, ii. 874-5)

Concealed Fire burns very fatally – concealed Thoughts lead to Wickedness or Madness: what a Man is not unwilling to talk about, he is not so strongly tempted to put in Execution as the Designs he is secretly & silently meditating. Dear Mr Thrale had a Building Fever always lurking in his Constitution, which afforded Consolation to his private Hours, but was seldom (except to very distant Acquaintance,) made the theme of Talk at any Time: accordingly when he died, Plans & Elevants for new Buildings both pleasurable & Commercial were found, of which I had not myself the smallest Idea or Expectation. ’Tis this Avarice of mental Enjoyment, this Hoarded Folly; which now & then so blazes out of a sudden under the Name of Love; & I think the Reason of that Furor being more violent among the Female Sex is chiefly because being less tolerated to declare their Passion, it preys upon the Mind till it bursts all Reserve, & makes itself amends for the long Concealment.

The unnatural Vice among the Men (now so modish) appears to me to owe its vehemence to the same Cause; they cannot talk of this internal Torment, so after having glutted their vile Imaginations for some Time; the Senses take Alarm, & burst out with uncontrolable [sic] Frenzy: as in Bickerstaff, Onslow, & Lady Fanny Burgoyne’s Footman, who attacked a grave Man of 50 years old in a gross Manner even before his Lady’s Face at the very Chariot door. The Scotch seem strangely addicted to this Enormity, & ’tis a cold Country too: – I can think of no Reason but one – their wearing Fillibegs. (entry for 30 Oct. 1781, i. 517-18)

Mr James brought me some pretty Verses about Melancholy written by a Boy; Mr James tasting Verses in praise of Melancholy seems odd enough, as he is a merry Mortalo, and full of native Drollery; besides the artificial Character intended for others Amusement. An Ignorant Man, and I have heard – a vicious one – but exquisitely skilled in Mimickry, and Arch Imitation, without grossiereté or the least apparent Intent of offending – is Mr George James: his Brothers are equally ingenious, one paints to make fun of Claude Lorraine while he shd be setting his Neighbour’s Bones, another sings to take off Lovattini, while he should be drawing his Friends Pictures. (entry for 8 January 1784, i. 584)
[Note: George James was a portrait painter, a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists, and an Associate of the Royal Academy. He moved to Bath in 1780, married a lady of fortune, and retired from professional painting (Bryan, Dictionary of Painters); in due course he had three children. His brother William James was a landscape painter, and exhibitor at the Royal Society, 1769-71.]

The Anecdotes of [Dr Samuel Johnson’s] Life written by me in various parts of Italy – begun here at Milan, continued at Florence & finished at Leghorn, met I understand with an extremely favourable Reception in England; so I ought to be thankful, & in good humour with my own Country now – for every Reason. Indeed comparing it with others, one must allow it a gainer; for tho’ vicious enough God knows – our People do not run after each other with unbridled Licentiousness as the Venetians make no scruple of doing – passing their Time like Silk-Worms in the last Stage of Existince [sic] when become Butterflies they forbear to eat drink or sleep, & think only of leaving Successors behind ’em. – Our People of Fashion do not rob, nor our Robbers acknowledge themselves such without a Blush, like the Inhabitants of Milan or Ancona; our Beckfords & Bickerstaffs too run away at least from the original Theatre of their Crimes, & do not keep their Male Mistresses in Triumph like the Roman Priests & Princes. This Italy is indeed a Sink of Sin; and whoever lives long in it, must be a little tainted. Our young English for that Reason run to Switzerland from hence with haste, where morality is I believe substituted for Religious Belief, to as great a Degree (or I fancy so;) as the External Rites of Worship here are supposed a complete Compensation for the utter Absence of all moral Virtue, & all Sense of honor. (entry for 27 June 1786, ii. 639-40)

At Rome few Things shock one so much as the Theatre; where Men perform the parts of Women both in Song & Dance, and where the rapturous Applauses of Priests & Fryars who compose the Audience are more indecent if possible than the Representation itself: one can hardly sit to see or hear the gross & worse than beastly Manner in which those Gentlemen express their Satisfaction at a Fellow kicking his Hoop half over his Head – ’Tis too bad indeed! I went but one Night, & Mr Piozzi said nothing should tempt him to a second Exhibition of such Behaviour.

     The Abates cry out Oh my Dear Maddalena, Oh my enchanting Cecchina! to the Men that excite their horrid Appetites & cry aloud. At Naples two Fellows lived in criminal Intimacy on Mount Vesuvius for many Years in Hermit’s or Fryars Dresses; How astonishing! (entry for 3 July 1786, ii. 655-6)

Nature does get strangely out of Fashion sure enough: One hears of Things now, fit for the Pens of Petronius only, or Juvenal to record and satyrize: The Queen of France is at the Head of a Set of Monsters call’d by each other Sapphists, who boast her Example; and deserve to be thrown with the He Demons that haunt each other likewise, into Mount Vesuvius.

     That Vice increases hourly in Extent – while expected Parricides fright us no longer, & we talk familiarly among ourselves how King George’s Extinction would certainly have followed the appointment of his own two Sons to the Government of our Nation, and to the Head of our Army. (entry for 1 April 1798, ii. 740)

I have been reading Vathek, ’tis a mad Book to be sure, and written by a mad Author, yet there is a Sublimity about it – particularly towards the Conclusion.

     Mr Beckford’s favourite Propensity is all along visible I think; particularly in the luscious Descriptions given of Gulchenrouz: but his Quarantine seems to be performed, & I am told he is return’d quietly to Fonthill. When we were at Milan Mr Bisset brought over the news how he was hooted from Society by my Lord Loughborough, who threatened corporal or legal Puishment for Mr Beckford’s Violation of young Courtenay – Brother to Lady Loughborough [actually, she was his aunt]. At Lausanne no Englishman would exchange a Word with the Creature; & charming Doctor Fisher’s charitable Heart pitied his wretched exclusion from the World.

     But since Courtenay came to his Estate and Title [he became 3rd Viscount Courtenay in Oct. 1788], and I suppose treated the whole Business as a Joke, or common Occurrence, all is over; and I hear nothing said of Mr Beckford but as an Authour. what a World it is!!!! (entry for 3 Jan. 1791, ii. 799)

They say Mr James of Bath, has been guilotined in Bretagne. [A false report.] Neddy Onslow was certainly massacred at Paris. See how Vengeance does pursue the Guilty!!! (entry for 25 Jan. 1794, ii. 868)

The Death of two Friends! oh how unlike each other! put every thing else out of my Head. Venerable, virtuous, pious, exemplary [James] Hutton [the Moravian], elegant, sprightly, chearful, charming Mr James [who died in Boulogne after being released from prison at the fall of Robespierre]. They both loved me exceedingly – ’twas all they had in common – but Humanity: they both contributed to sweeten my Existence; one in this life, the other in that which is to come. Dear, Dear Creatures! who ever will hope to equal the excellence of one, the social Gayety of the other? Had not his atrocious Vice forced him to hide from public Notoriety – James must have been actually the delight of every Circle where Pleasure is sought in the Company of airy good humour, & elegant Hilarity – so much the Gentleman, yet so full of Knowledge; ay & of Science I may say – Painting and Geometry in particular – Poor Fellow! now perished almost for Want in a french Prison, where Debts had driven and Prejudice confined him: for those he lived among there did not – I dare say – detest his odious Propensity – as much as those who drove him from Society in England did; probably not at all; and as to Politics, he was Democrate enough I believe. but Heaven pursues such horrid Violation of its Laws with Vengeance first or last, and George James is dead as Roger Asham says the Wits expire –

          Man marks not where.

     Mr Piozzi’s Expression at His Death is to me irresistibly comical: to him not at all so. – È morto da vero? says He; che le prenda il Diavolo in Gloria!

     Mean while old Hutton’s piety & Virtue will even in this degenerate Age, be honoured with a Monument I doubt not – Such even in this Wrld is the Reward of Merit – But they both take my thanks with them: poor James’s Wickedness injur’d not me, whilst his sweet Pleasantry and cordial Friendship, comforted my Sorrows when I had little else to sooth them, about the end of the year 1783, and beginning of 1784. I find dear Mr James did not fall unrevenged tho’ stifled to Death in a French Prison, he has left some nice Caricatures of the Poissardes. (entry for 11 May 1795, ii. 926-7)

The Advent Sermon at St Asaph was very good today – very good indeed: Mr Butler Clough of Eriviatte one of the Canons preached it – he is an excellent Man they say, and I doubt it not: he said how Christianitiy had mended the World in general; & how the Vices of the Ancients were unknown to Modern Times excepting as they are preserved by Poets & Historians. – poor Dear Man!! I read Juvenal’s Satires when I came home, and found that Insatiability was the worst thing he could urge against the Roman Ladies – except their unnatural Passion for Eunuchs; – of those two Brutal & detestable Vices I’ll swear Christianity has not cured them – Witness Cæcilia Tron, & Principessa Belmonte – and hundreds, hundreds more: while French and English Women are now publicly said to practise Atrocities of which He – Juvenal was ignorant, for he says in His Satire against Men’s horrible Propenswity for their own Sex – ‘that even Women are more virtuous than they –’ ‘because tho’ Flavia does hire herself out to Fellows – She goes home to Bed at last, and lies chastly by the Side of Catulla.’ Whereas ’tis now grown common to suspect Impossibilities – (such I think ’em) – whenever two Ladies live too much together; the Queen of France was all along accused, so was Raucoux [Françoise Marie Antoinette Saucerotte, called Raucourt, tragic actress] the famous Actress on the Paris Stage; & ’tis a Joke in London now to say such a one visits Mrs Damer. Lord Derby certainly insisted on Miss Farren’s keeping her at Distance & there was a droll but bitter Epigram made while they used to see one another often –

Her little Stock of private Fame
     Will fall a Wreck to public Clamour,
If Farren herds with her whose Name
     Approaches very near to Damn her.

     Altho’ Juvenal inveighs against Male Harlots ’tis only ye Effeminacy of ye Thing offends him. He professes to keep a young Country Lad as Ganymede to his rustic Table – & in Ye Satire against Marriage recommends a Boy as preferable to a Wife.

     Its odd that ye Roman Women did not borrow that horrible Vice from Greece – it has a Greek name now & is call’d Sapphism, but I never did hear of it in Italy where the Ladies are today exactly what Juvenal described them in his Time – neither better nor worse as I can find. Mrs Siddons has told me that her Sister was in personal Danger once from a female Fiend of this Sort; & I have no Reason to disbelieve the Assertion. Bath is a Cage of these unclean Birds I have a Notion, and London is a Sink for every Sin. – Gibbon blames Justinian for making no Difference between the Guilt of active & passive Pæderasty. Justinian was right, were there none of ye 1st the last wd dye away. (entry for 9 Dec. 1795, ii. 948-9)

Mr Glasse [note: George Henry Glasse, clergyman and classical scholar, whose first wife, Anne Fletcher, died in 1802, leaving him seven children] is a Character – as the Phrase is – warm-headed & full of Talents; forced out to uncommon Exertion by His violent Love for Miss Eliz: de Blaquiere. I never saw so passionate an Admirer either of another or of himself as is George Henry Glasse. The Men consider him as a profound Scholar, We Women find him a High-flying Wit; – & the Blaquieres know that he is bursting with Money – So God a mercy Bess! She will be 17 years old, when he is 45. (entry for 17 Sept. 1803, ii. 1045)

     Ah Ha! Ah Ha! Fine Mr George Henry Glasse! a Man of true Classical Taste it seems: – Alexis or Amaryllis (as Mr Bradford says: he told it me 13: Jan: 1804). Ah Ha! fine Mr Glasse!!.

     And I poor Fool! tho’ I disliked the Man’s Manières Empresseès I deem’d him a Miracle of Excellence – all bright with Religion & solid in Virtue. Happy the Parish (said I) that has such a Pastor – a Pastor quoth ’a, Pastor Corydon in Virgil’s 2d Bucolic. Well! I’ll mind old Johnson in future, & think but slightly of these Teachers in Morality: – ‘They talk like Angels, but they live like Men’ –

     Mr Glasse is, or affects to be – ignorant why he is at last rejected by the Blaquieres: And They are, – or affects to be – influenced by some suppos’d Stains in his Character: had his Fortune however, answer’d his own Description & their Hopes; I know not when we shoulld have heard Talk of the other Scruples. (entry for 1 & 13 January 1804, ii. 1047).
[NOTE: Glasse married Miss Harriet Wheeler in May 1805. He committed suicide in 1809, after losing a large sum of money (which he had just raised to pay his debts) by leaving it in a hackney coach.]

Sir Lumley St. George Skeffington [1777-1850, playwright], the Macaroni playwright, has written a Play call’d Friends & Enemies – he beg’d a Prologue & I gave him this. [omitted]. (entry for 10 June 1804, ii. 1050)

     Skeffington is a Character as We say – a Man wearing Rouge, and making it his Point to appear the very Prince of Petits Maitres in Society; a Studious Person meanwhile with good Sense and good Literature, When You take him out of the Ton Routine, in which he professes to delight. I wonder how he will end, most probably by marrying a Dairy Maid when Threescore, & retiring into the Country to try for Heirs to the Estate. (entry for 1 June 1808, ii. 1094)

SOURCE: Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (Later Mrs. Piozzi) 1776-1809, ed. Katharine C. Balderston, 2 vols., 2nd edn, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Mrs Piozzi's Reminiscences, 1770s-1790s", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 20 April 2003 <>.

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