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She can tell all her Letters great & small & spell little Words as D,o,g, Dog, C,a,t, Cat &c. She knows her nine Figures & the simplest Combinations of ’em…
Today it is commonplace for new parents to write about every detail of their darling offspring’s development on social media, or to agonise or show off over parenting in online forums. But once again, a study of personal writings from the past reveals these habits to be nothing new.
Last week I looked at the ‘black dog’ of melancholy or depression which hounded Dr Samuel Johnson and his friend Hester Thrale (c.1741–1821). Hester’s name is linked forever with his, as her writings were a key source for details of his personality and work – but she was a remarkable figure in her own right.
Hester and Henry lived in what was then a country mansion, Streatham Park, where they entertained many notable literary figures of the age – it was demolished in 1863 but some of the parkland survives although now of course absorbed into Greater London.
After the Thrales’ first child, Hester Maria, was born on 17 September 1764, Hester senior began to keep a record of her development, followed by that of their other children, in a journal known either as ‘The Children’s Book’ or ‘The Family Book’. It was only first published in 1977.
I find it fascinating to see how a mother describes the blossoming of her young daughter, who was clearly what today we’d describe as precocious. Young Hester herself became a favourite of Dr Johnson, and he bestowed on her the nickname Queeney. She went on to live a long and interesting life of her own. This week, I give you her mother’s account of Queeney’s first six years, as told in The Family Book.
Henry and Hester had 12 children in all, although sadly only four daughters survived to adulthood. The Family Book covers all the inevitable delights and sorrows – we read, for example, of young Henry Salusbury Thrale who…
…went into Breeches at the Age of two Years & 3 Months: he was not quite two, when he carried a Bag containing 27.d in Copper from the Compting House to the Breakfast parlour in the Borough: He is remarkably strong made, course & bony: not handsome at all, but of perfect Proportion; & has a surly look with the honestest & sweetest Temper in the World.
Henry, alas, died at the age of 10 in 1776. The loss of Anna Maria (born in April 1768, “remarkably small bon’d & delicately framed, but not pretty, as She has no Plumpness in her Face… & seems to intend being Queen of us all if She lives which I do not expect”) was hard felt in March 1770 when Hester was pregnant with her next, and she gives heartbreaking details which I’ll only excerpt here:
Anna Maria Thrale died yesterday. She had apparently drooped since last Month begun, and on the second of this threw up her Victuals… fits of languor and screaming succeeding each other by turns; no danger however was apprehended except by myself who had long fancied her in a Decay… I am now myself near five Months gone with Child, and l fear the Shock & Anxiety of this last fortnight has done irreparable Injury to my little Companion if so l have lost two Children this Spring…
Hester Maria had her own health problems, but on the whole hers was a happier tale, and her intellectual prowess was detailed by her mother with great pride, as you’ll see.
17th September 1766
Hester Maria Thrale born on the 17th Sept. 1764 at her Father’s House, Southwark.
This is to serve as a Memorandum of her Corporeal & Mental Powers at the Age of two Years, to which She is arriv’d this 17th Sept. 1766. She can walk & run alone up & down all smooth Places tho’ pretty steep, & tho’ the Backstring [attached to her pinafore] is still kept on it is no longer of Use. She is perfectly healthy, of a lax Constitution, & is strong enough to carry a Hound/puppy two Months old quite across the Lawn at Streatham, also to carry a Bowl such as are used on bowling Greens up the Mount to the Tubs. She is neither remarkably big nor tall, being just 34 inches high, but eminently pretty. She can speak most Words & speak them plain enough too, but is no great Talker: She repeats the Pater Noster, the three Christian Virtues & the Signs of the Zodiac in Watts’s Verses; She likewise knows them on the Globe perfectly well. She can tell all her Letters great & small & spell little Words as D,o,g, Dog, C,a,t, Cat &c. She knows her nine Figures & the simplest Combinations of ’em as 3, 4, 34; 6, 8, 68; but none beyond a hundred: She knows all the heathen Deities by their Attributes & counts 20 without missing one.
17th March 1767
Six Months have now elapsed since I wrote down an Acc[oun]t of what She could do; the following is for a Record of the amazing Improvements made in this last half Year; Her Person has however undergone no visible Change. She cannot read at all, but knows the Compass as perfectly as any Mariner upon the Seas; is mistress of the Solar System can trace the Orbits & tell the arbitrary Marks of the planets as readily as Dr Bradley [the Astronomer Royal]. The Comets She knows at Sight when represented upon Paper, & all the chief Constellations on the Celestial Globe. The Signs of the Zodiack She is thoroughly acquainted with, as also the difference between the Ecliptick and Equator. She has too by the help of the dissected Maps acquired so nice a knowledge of Geography as to be well able to describe not only the four Quarters of the World, but almost, nay l do think every Nation on the Terrestrial Globe, & all the principal Islands in all parts of the World: these with the most remarkable Seas, Gulfs, Streights &c… She can repeat likewise the Names of all the Capital Cities in Europe besides those of Persia and India… the seven Days of the Week, the 12 Months of the Year, the twos of the Multiplication Table, the four points of the Compass the four Quarters of the World… She has also in these last six Months learned to distinguish Colours, & to name them: as also to tell little Story with some Grace & Emphasis, as the Story of the Fall of Man, of Perseus & Andromeda of the Judgment of Paris & two or three more. These are certainly uncommon performances of a Baby 2 Years & 6 Months only; but they are most strictly true. She cannot however read at all.
17th December 1768
Hester Maria Thrale is this Day four Years & a Quarter old; l have made her up a little red Book to which I must appeal for her Progress in Improvements: She went thro’ it this Day quite well. The Astronomical part is the hardest. She can now read tolerably, but not at sight, and has a manner of reading that is perfectly agreable free from Tone or Accent. At 3 Years & a half however She wrote some Cards to her Friends with a Print taken from the Picture which Zoffany drew of her at 20 Months old [see above]: but as I lay in soon after, the writing was totally forgotten, & is now all to begin again… She is come vastly forward in Sense & Expression & once more I appeal to her little red Book.
With regard to her Person it is accounted exquisitely pretty; her Hair is sandy, her Eyes of a very dark blue, & their Lustre particularly fine; her Complexion delicate, and her Carriage uncommonly genteel. Her Temper is not so good; reserved to all, insolent where She is free, & sullen to those who teach or dress or do anything towards her. Never in a Passion, but obstinate to that uncommon Degree that no Punishment except severe Smart [i.e. a whipping] can prevail on her to beg Pardon if She has offended.
21st March 1770
I passed this last Winter chearfully too, to what I ever did a Winter since I was married: for I have been at an Oratorio — the first Theatre have set foot in, since my eldest Daughter was born; & this Time She went with me: I never have dined out, nor ever paid a visit where did not carry her, unless I left her in bed; for to the Care of Servants (except asleep) l have never yet left her an hour and this is the 21st March 1770. She is now five Years & a half old…
[A few months later, Hester recalled more details of that night out…]
…we saw the King [George III] there; when She came home She swaggered poor Harry [i.e. Henry Thrale] with telling him the Wonders She had seen. I saw the King said She, do you know what a King is? Yes replies Harry, a Picture of a Man, a Sign of a Man’s head — no, no, cries the Girl impatiently the King that wears the Crown: do you know what a Crown is — Yes I do, says Harry very well, it is 3s. and 6d.
17th September 1770
Hester Maria Thrale is this Day 6 Years old; her Person & Face have undergone so little change that a Servant of my Mother who left her just five Years ago knew her again & said She was not altered — She is tall enough of her Age, elegantly shaped, and reckoned extremely pretty. Her Temper continues the same too; reserved and shy with a considerable Share of Obstinacy, & I think a Heart void of all Affection for any Person in the World — but Aversion enough to many: — her Discretion is beyond her Years, and She has a solidity of Judgement [which] makes me amazed. Her Powers of Conversation and copiousness of Language are surprising even to me who know her so well… She read and p[a]rsed to Dr. Goldsmith yesterday & he wonder’d at her Skill — She has a little Compendium of Greek & Roman History in her Head; & Johnson says her Cadence, Variety & choice of Tones in reading Verse are surpassed by nobody not even Garrick himself…
[Hester goes on… four months later her daughter was tested by the Rev Henry Bright, head of Abingdon Grammar School, and Hester senior crows “the man acknowledged fairly that had the Examination passed in Latin, She would have been qualified for a Degree in the University of Oxford.” Of course, women weren’t admitted to Oxford until 1879…]
30th January 1771
This eldest Girl of mine could at the Age of Six Years, look words in the Dictionary with perfect readiness, could tye up a Bow of Ribbon for Breast & Sleeve-Knots as neatly as any Woman in the House; could do the common Stitch upon Catgut, & has actually worked Doctor Johnson a Purse of it; could be trusted with a little Brother or Sister as safely as any Person of twenty Years old, & had such a Share of Discretion, that three Days ago being somewhat hot & uneasy with a troublesome Cold, & I had recommended Turneps, Apples or Other light vegetables to her rather than more feverish Food — We happen’d to have some Company at Dinner who officiously help’d her to Plum Pudden She took it therefore & looked pleas’d keeping it before her till She observ’d her Friend engaged in Talk; & then beckoning a Serv[an]t She sent it quietly away — for said She to me afterwards, I knew it was not fit for me to eat, but one could disoblige Mr Such a one by a peremptory Refusal — those were her Words. She is now taking Senna & other offensive Medicines for the Worms, which She does with a Courage & Prudence few grown people possess — God preserve her precious Life!
God, or this stern attitude to healthy eating, certainly did, for Queeney lived until the age of 92. And no pressure, fellow parents!
In The Thrales of Streatham Park by Mary Hyde (Harvard University Press).
Thankfully that unborn child became Susannah Arabella, who lived to the ripe old age of 88.
In her notes to this text, editor Mary Hyde provides a list of other precocious literary children between the 17th and 19th centuries – but comparisons to our own are odious, right? In an entry six months later, which I haven’t included here, Hester reports that her daughter was still a poor speller and could yet barely read. Tsk.
This is brilliant —- thanks for sharing. I’m an amateur Johnsonian and wonderful to see Hester Thrale brought into the 2020s.