When Emily met John Mullan at the Bloomsbury Institute, he suggested that we investigate the friendship between Frances Burney and Hester Thrale. We soon discovered a story full of intrigue and betrayal.
On a summer’s evening in 1778, Frances Burney’s father took her to Hester Thrale’s literary salon at Streatham Park. The grand occasion would have been intimidating indeed for the shy twenty-six-year-old writer, whose identity had only recently been revealed.
Burney had penned her novel, Evelina, at the dead of night and then audaciously published it anonymously without her parents’ consent. When her music-teacher father finally discovered its authorship, however, he astounded his daughter by not only giving his blessing but fizzing with such pride that he divulged the secret to his friend and employer, Hester Thrale.
London’s literati flocked to Thrale’s gatherings, attracted by the thirty-nine-year-old hostess’s wealth, ebullience, arrogance and wit. Thrale was delighted to introduce her friends to the mysterious author of the novel that was causing such a stir.
Thrale had literary ambitions of her own. She would go on to write a popular history book that failed to win over critics of the day but is now considered a radical pre-cursor to feminism, and she was a consummate memoirist, letter-writer and diarist. Perhaps envy soured Thrale’s pen that summer’s night in 1778 when she jotted in her journal that Burney’s ‘Conversation would be more pleasing if She thought less of herself’. Or perhaps fame really had gone to the young author’s head for a while. Either way, Thrale did admit that Burney’s ‘Merit cannot as a Writer be controverted’.
Despite Thrale’s mixed first impressions, she nonetheless welcomed Burney into her home, inviting her first for a weeklong visit and later for several months on end. Over the next six years, the pair forged an intense bond cemented by their shared wit and storytelling flair.
‘Irresistible Burney!’ Thrale wrote in one of her daily letters: ‘and who was ever like you for warm affection, cool Prudence, and steady Friendship!’ But this same ‘cool Prudence’, which Thrale once so admired, ended up causing a great rift between the two authors.
During her husband’s final illness, Thrale confessed to Burney her growing tenderness towards one of the musicians she employed: an impoverished Italian singer called Gabriel Mario Piozzi. Thrale felt determined that, after the death of her spouse, she would finally secure a love match.
Although Burney’s own father was a music teacher from a similar social milieu to Piozzi, she was horrified by the thought of her friend marrying a Catholic foreigner of lower social rank, and by what she saw as the emotional and financial abandonment of Thrale’s children. ‘Think a little’, Burney pleaded. ‘The mother of 5 children, 3 of them as Tall as herself, will never be forgiven for shewing so great an ascendance of passion over Reason’.
Thrale married Piozzi in 1784. From then on, Burney’s letters went unanswered and she was no longer welcome at the home of her former friend.
During the next thirty years and more, Burney ‘made every possible overture’ of friendship but Thrale, now Signora Piozzi, could no longer trust the woman she referred to as ‘l’aimable Traitesse’. But her name did continue to appear on the subscription list for Burney’s novels, as, indeed, did that of the young Jane Austen – an ardent fan.
Burney’s persistence may well have been motivated by an increased empathy with her former friend’s predicament. At the age of forty-one, Burney defied her father by marrying a penniless French Catholic and becoming known as Madame D’Arblay.
In 1817, Burney, now sixty-six, dared to call in on the seventy-five-year-old Thrale. ‘At the sound of my name’, Burney wrote immediately afterwards, ‘she came hastily from her Boudoir to receive me in the grand sallon’. But Thrale, suffering from asthma, was so embarrassed and agitated that she could not utter a single word.
Once she recovered, they sat together on a sofa and entered into a political debate. Though spirited, their conversation lacked the affection of old. And yet, they talked on as night fell, quite forgetting about dinner. When Burney finally realised the time and made to leave, Thrale affectionately thanked her for calling in. ‘Much surprised, & instantly touched,’ wrote Burney, ‘I turned back, & held out my hand. She gave me hers, & each hand again pressed the other’. And this late-life reconciliation endured.
Burney and Thrale often surprised each other. This month, we’ll take the opportunity to reflect on the unexpected things we have learnt while working together on Something Rhymed.