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Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale
on 22 February 2013
Having recently read a book about Samuel Johnson and his friendship with Richard Savage, I looked forward to reading this book about Johnson's friendship in his later life with Hester Thrale, who lived from 1741 to 1821, and whose writings are a vital source of information on Johnson's life. Her eldest daughter, another Hester (nicknamed "Queeney") was born in 1764 and died in 1857, and lived a full life, marrying the 1st Viscount Keith.
The novel begins with a prologue, though set in 1784 (after the main action of the novel), when a body is removed from a house to be taken for post mortem. At the time, the reader is not aware of who this corpse belonged to. The story then moves by chapters through the years 1765 to 1784, with the relationships of Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale, Queeney, and their family and acquaintanced (including Johnson's household, Mrs Thrale's mother and other children, and more well-known figures such as David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds and others) moving through the years. Interspersed between the chapters are brief letters from Queeney dated from 1807 onwards, addressed to Miss Laetitia Hawkins, daughter of Sir John Hawkins, a friend for some years of Johnson, and to Fanny Burney.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book; I can imagine it would be a bit confusing in parts if you approached the book with no knowledge of eighteenth-century England, or of Samuel Johnson and his circle. But the writing is engaging, the story-telling captivating, and the characters conveyed empathetically, although you did feel that none of them came across as particularly loveable. Totally recommended.