Amicable Annotation, Part 9 (Women and Men)

[Image: Marginal remark by Hester Piozzi (a.k.a. “Mrs. Thrale” of Johnson-lore) in a copy of her Observations and reflections made in the course of a journey through France, Italy, and Germany. This annotated copy was given by Piozzi to her friend William Augustus Conway in 1819.]

In recent installments in this miniseries (particularly Parts 6 and 8), I have been stressing that book culture in the long eighteenth century could create a more equal context capable of sustaining cross-sex friendship. Yet we must admit that in both of the cases cited so far the men still had the upper hand, even if they didn’t wish to wield it. Richardson was the great author, Bradsheigh the devoted and, as often comes with readerly devotion, opinionated reader. Scott enjoyed greater literary success than Baillie, though he counted her the superior poet. But what, we might ask, about the opposite scenario–in which the woman was the more successful, better-known, more influential member of the friendship-by-the-book?

Here, too, the long eighteenth century offers a few notable instances. In Romantic Readers, Jackson observes that “Women also, on occasion, adopted the role of mentor and fond companion to friends both male and female. Their notes appealed to common interests and aimed to please without invoking the spell of sex.” Jackson then cites the example of Felicia Hemans, whom her male friend and biographer Henry Chorley would recall as having enhanced books lent by friends. “If one of her intimate friends,” Chorley writes in a footnote to Memorials of Mrs. Hemans (1836), “lent her a book which she chanced to adopt, it was sure to return […] enriched” with “thoughts excited by” her “perusal, and with such parallel passages from other writers as bore upon their subject.” Chorley’s depiction of Hemans recalls the famous conclusion of Charles Lamb’s essay “Two Races of Men” (1820), which marks Coleridge’s (here “STC”) habit of “enriching” friends books with marginalia:

Reader, if haply you are blessed with a moderate collection, be shy of showing it; or if your heart overflows to lend them, lend your books; but let it be to such a one as STC: he will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury, enriched with annotations, tripling their value. I have had experience. […] I counsel you, shut not your heart, nor your library, against STC.

While Lamb, of course, intends “men” in the generic human sense (as in the Latin homo), his essay depicts the trade in books among friends as a male activity. If Chorley echoes Lamb here regarding an annotator’s enrichment, he also amends “Two Races” by observing a woman whose talent for marginalia could yield the same “interest” on the borrowed book’s return.


Within Jackson’s annals, though, perhaps the most striking illustration of a woman whose status exceeded that of her male friends lies in the case of Hester Piozzi. She is better known to literary history as Hester Thrale, the friend of Samuel Johnson. Under that name and within Johnson’s lifetime, we may encounter her later in this series, since Johnson’s encouragement propelled her earliest efforts as a writer (in the form of the so-called “Thraliana” notebooks). For Joseph Epstein in Friendship: An Expose, this relationship serves as the exemplar of cross-sex friendship–and its difficulty accepting the competition of other loves (in this case Hester’s for Gabriel Piozzi, her daughter’s music teacher). As Mrs. Thrale, though, Hester models the reverse scenario of the one now in question, since in that relationship the male friend dominated, as her familiar title “Dr. Johnson’s Mrs. Thrale” well attests.

Decades after Johnson’s death and her own rise to literary fame, Piozzi befriended men who, in a striking parallel to her own experience with Johnson, were decades her junior, most notably, Sir James Fellowes, a military doctor; Rev. Edward Mangin, eventually her biographer; and William Augustus Conway, an actor. Within Jackson’s history of marginalia, Piozzi is one of the primary examples of the long eighteenth century’s “sociable” readers: “she realized that, far from spoiling them, her marginalia might increase the value of the books they were written in, and she began to capitalize on her habit, making the gift of annotated books a means of communication supplementary to and possibly more permanent than letters.” Each of the men I have just named received such annotated copies (a practice that carried over to her friendships with women as well). Her delivery of one such “deformed” volume is reported in a 1817 letter to Mangin (made available online by TCU Digital Repository):


Thanks to the Harvard Open Collections Program’s module on Marginalia, we can see that such marginal comments were anything but “nonsense.” As Jackson’s discussions of Piozzi in both Marginalia and Romantic Readers attest, the Piozzi marginalia shows us the “state of the art” of reading in the long eighteenth century context: here is a reader who moves easily from gossipy anecdotes to literary criticism to philological reflection to moral pronouncements to speculation on the date of the eschaton.

In the earlier book, Jackson lovingly dissects the various species of annotation that Piozzi deposited in a particular copy of Rasselas once gifted to Conway and now held in the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Johnsoniana at Harvard. The Harvard librarians have generously made it viewable through Mirador. Jackson’s treatment shows the truth of Hillaire Belloc’s claim in a 1925 article on the volume that “I could write all day upon this singular treasure of a book.” There’s no need in the present space to rehash Jackson’s superb observations about the diverse strategies shown in Piozzi’s notes (though I commend this section of Marginalia to you, dear reader). My concern is with the relational dimensions of Piozzi’s annotations. The obvious party in this respect is, of course, the book’s intended recipient, Conway. As his Dictionary of National Biography entry explains, Conway had a troubled career in the theater. As Jackson explains, he had an even more troubled personal life, “[believing] himself to be the illegitimate son of a peer” and having failed in courtship. Jackson argues that he was a “godsend” to Piozzi, coming on the scene at a time, ca. 1819, when Fellowes and Mangin had become less available to Piozzi’s attentions due to recent marriages. And “like Johnson’s old crony Richard Savage he had a cause” with which Piozzi, then in her late seventies, could lend an ear and her sympathies. When they met, in other words, both were in need a friend.

For present purposes, what’s most striking about Piozzi’s annotations is their concern for the friendship-at-hand. Several of the notes discuss friendship, and almost always with a personal ring. Thus, in response to a passage in the Rasselas‘s second chapter in which the prince “[receives] some solace of the miseries of life, from consciousness of the delicacy with which he felt, and the eloquence with which he bewailed them” and then  “[mingles] cheerfully in the diversions of the evening,” Piozzi argues: “Pretty enough … yet his own feelings of his own Superiority must soon have been blunted by the Consciousness that they were not re-echoed by any one.” In the marginal comments, Mrs. Piozzi makes a number of such claims for what we might call a “social self”– in which real understanding and moral progress require interpersonal exchange. Here the train of thought concludes with an observation about friendship, which, to underscore the strength of her personal commitment to this assertion, she initials:

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-10-11-02-am(“Enjoyment implies Friendship–one can enjoy nothing alone–at least I cannot. H.L.P.” [Full page here]) This claim–“one can enjoy nothing alone”–has, of course, its most obvious application to the present activity: H. L. P. invites Conway to join her in the enjoyment of her reading. She would do friendship by the book. That she seems to have had more to offer in this respect is shown by the absence of corresponding remarks in Conway’s hand, though, to be fair to him, he may have sensed that the book would be more valuable  if it only contained her marks. His letters to her, moreover, suggest that he took her “reading assignments,” to use the scholar Devoney Looser’s phrase, “seriously.” Their correspondence shows books moving back and forth between them, though seemingly all of them originated in her library.

Another notable comment that discusses their relationship appears in response to a passage on the emptiness of old age in Chapter XLV. Piozzi acknowledges the youth of their friendship and its contrast to her antiquity:

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-9-54-49-am(little indeed … except as they can wound me thro’ a new-found Friend, whose Esteem even if I can flatter myself with deserving, I cannot keep long; & in whose Remembrance I can hardly hope to be retained … [Full page here]) There is an irony here, of course, (and one that I suspect to be quite plain to the annotator,) that arises from the contrast between the sentiment and the medium used to express it. Again, there is–or perhaps we might say from Piozzi’s perspective ca. 1819, there will be–the book. This robustly annotated volume contains by Jackson’s count some 120 total notes in the book, in addition to light underlining and a few manicules. At this point in her life, Piozzi surely understood that the ink-investments of a writer of her stature and an annotator of her talent enhanced the value of not only this but the other annotated books that she gave to Conway. As Looser reports, Conway took several of her gift-books with him when he left for a fresh start to his acting career in the United States in 1823 (while she made marks in others remaining in England that they should be kept for him), and her literary remains–not only books but also letters–were in his possession at the time of his suicide in 1828.

That the nineteenth century didn’t have a vocabulary for this kind of relationship is evident in the scandal that erupted posthumously with the publication of Love Letters of Mrs. Piozzi, Written When She Was 80, to W. A. Conway in 1843. Though indeed containing seven letters written by Piozzi to Conway, modern scholars have disagreed with Victorian critics who interpreted them as “love letters.” As Looser argues in her study Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850, the relationship is better understood as a mentorship, even if her correspondence verges on the mawkish. Or perhaps we might put the matter this way: who sends a lover an annotated copy of Rasselas? From the start of the book in question, Piozzi speaks as mentor, framing–in two long notes on the first page of the text–directions for how to understand the book’s place in literary history (Johnson’s best book and an elegant improvement on Candide) and about how to read it (the end, she tells Conway, will be “natural result” of the beginning). Piozzi the marginalia-maker would give advice about how to pass through a world full of disappointments (which, alas, didn’t sustain their recipient). Though still witty, she often speaks with the gravitas of old age. Reflecting on a passage about suffering in XXXV, Piozzi writes: “The Lord gave says patient Job. & the Lord takes away. & blest be the name of the Lord. Privation can be endured by such reflexions, Patience gives the power of suffering and saying nothing but … Patience implies Pain.” Examining the Conway-Piozzi correspondence, Looser argues that “rather than imagining Conway as her Johnson replacement, Piozzi imagined herself as the mediating mentor and Conway as the would be protege.” That statement applies equally well to the annotated Rasselas: Piozzi calls on Johnson’s help, albeit with quite a few amendments in the form of corrective marginal comments, in her own work as mentor.


Perhaps the relational meaning of this book is not limited to Conway, however. Perhaps this volume can tell us something about Piozzi’s relationship to her mentor’s memory; in other words, perhaps we can turn this volume around and consider how it does exactly the work of “remembrance” that Piozzi solicits from Conway. As I mentioned above, “Dr. Johnson’s Mrs. Thrale,” that is to say, the Hester Thrale of Johnson’s lifetime, may appear in a later segment of this study of “friendship by the book.” I am talking now about Hester Piozzi at age 78 (three years older than Johnson when he died). This woman was more than three decades removed from her first husband’s death, remarriage, falling out with Johnson, and their unsatisfying reconciliation (events that passed within the three-year span of 1781-1784). Two years after Johnson’s death, we should recall, Piozzi published her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, the fruit of her Thraliana, a work that modern critics have found deeply ambivalent. As the critic Elizabeth Hedrick writes, modern readings often argue that a “barely suppressed anger continually threatens to warp or even overturn the formal praise Piozzi offers to the memory of her longtime friend.”

In the anecdotes as in her comments on the text, Piozzi offers a range of responses. For the most part, her Johnsonian anecdotes stress his wisdom, verbal facility (including in Latin), and quick wit. She often agrees with the text’s claims, though, even in doing so she often makes sure to add something of her own, as here in which Johnson cues a reflection on egotism’s relation to madness:

When she disagrees or doubts the text’s claims or observations, she is usually quite direct:

And while Piozzi offers a few anecdotes in the annotated Rasselas that highlight how stubborn and, at times, domineering Johnson could be, I sense no angry undercurrent here. She can state plainly that Johnson made mistakes or behaved foolishly. She invites Conway to respect the Doctor, but also to laugh a bit at Johnson too. Piozzi is thus not simply marking up Johnson’s wisest words for Conway’s instruction. Rather, Piozzi’s marginalia shows her to be actively reading and reflecting on Johnson’s book, offering critique, praise, and expansion as the occasion requires. The annotator is not at all cowed by the great Dr. Johnson’s words; in some cases, indeed, Piozzi’s marginal remark seems to out-Johnson Johnson in articulating an elegant moral sentence.

My point is that the Rasselas might be understood to stage two often overlapping conversations, one with Conway and one with Johnson. In the first case, she speaks as mentor; in the second, as a peer. The annotated Rasselas, in other words, was doing friendship by the book in two directions at once. To return to the phrase hatched several posts ago in this miniseries, Piozzi’s BEAU (book enhanced for amicable uses) is looking before and after, honoring the departed friend, in part by assuming an equality with him impossible in life, and imagining a future act of friendly remembrance for herself.


That note of remembrance recalls the starting point of this miniseries–when we caught the speaker of Dickinson’s “[Death sets a thing significant]” observing how the annotated book preserves the remnants of her dead male friend’s pleasure. As I noted in that first post and have reiterated in subsequent ones, such a cross-sex transaction has no place in the world of humanist book exchange. The recent posts in this miniseries have noted how the changing nature of eighteenth-century book culture allowed for the scenario that Dickinson describes to become possible. We have also observed how the approach to annotation evolves with the times, socially and technologically. Annotators such as Piozzi and her contemporaries Coleridge and Hemans, though, are notably loquacious where Dickinson’s friend is taciturn–his annotations consist of mere “notches.” In the next post, we will turn to that issue: when and why did annotation become so tight-lipped?

Tune in again soon for Part 10.


Citation for the annotated Rasselas:

  • Persistent Link
  • Description Johnson, Samuel. The history of Rasselas, prince of Abyssinia :a tale. London : Printed for John Sharpe, Piccadilly, by C. Whittingham, Chiswick, 1818. *EC75.P6598.Zz818j. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Repository Harvard University Library
  • Institution Harvard University
  • Accessed 14 October 2016


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