Rate your mates, 1778
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I remember to have seen a Book… where Beauties were classed under these three Heads—Colour Grace & Expression, & 20 settled as the perfect Number, which some might reach, but none could exceed. It would not be amiss to class one's Friends in that Manner…
Last week we followed Hester Thrale’s diary of her children’s infancies, much like a parenting blogger of today might have written. There’s so much more to discover about this witty, interesting woman, far beyond her renowned friendship with Dr Samuel Johnson. This week, I bring something short but quirky from her main collection of writings.
Her diaries, thoughts and anecdotes were somewhat self-consciously compiled by her under the title Thraliana, having been written in a series of six notebooks given to her by her first husband, the politician and brewery magnate Henry Thrale (d.1781).
Thraliana is a remarkable collection of, well, all sorts of stuff – it often reads like a stream-of-consciousness ragbag of life events, bons mots (her own, as much as Dr Johnson’s), bits of autobiography and philosophical ponderings. It was only published in full for the first time in 1942, edited by Katherine C. Balderston and running to more than 1000 pages.
Balderston herself notes the mix of being “at once a wit’s catch-all… and a private record of her life”, and how Hester herself clearly vacillated between seeing it as something for a wider audience or just a private project for her own benefit; hence the mixture of artful tale-telling and intimate moments. In fact, Hester’s work marks something of a first in English letters – this sort of diverse collection of writings is in a recognised genre of its own, the ‘ana’. She noted that when her husband gave her the notebooks for this purpose, he “provided it with the pompous Title of Thraliana” – the genre itself was a close cousin of ‘table talk’ collections, of which there were a few in English, but the ‘ana’ style was popular only in France and Balderston comments that Hester Thrale “had no English precedent” for such a collection of “anecdotes of living people and treasures of wit”.
Another feature of online writing today is the idea of rating things: most of us succumb to clickbait ‘top ten’ listicles even if we know we shouldn’t, and so many aspects of modern life are subjected to data gathering. But once again, we shouldn’t assume this disposition is new – merely the media that facilitate it.
In one of her literary ponderings recorded in Thraliana in July 1778, Hester notes:
Was I to make a Scale of Novel Writers I should put Richardson first then Rousseau; after them, but at an immeasurable Distance—Charlotte Lenox, Smollet & Fielding…
But what she does next is, I think, more original, risky and funny… she decides to score her friends on various criteria.Some of those friends were members of the ‘Streatham Worthies’ set which Hester and her first husband Henry entertained at their south London mansion, and numerous others were luminaries of their day. Let’s see how they score.
Talking of Classing Authors, I remember to have seen a Book called Crito written by Polymetis Spence as they called him, where Beauties were classed under these three Heads—Colour Grace & Expression, & 20 settled as the perfect Number, which some might reach, but none could exceed. It would not be amiss to class one's Friends in that Manner for Example
[Note how Johnson is the only person who gets any 20s (but, er, 0 for person and manner) – while his right-hand man and Hester’s arch-rival, James Boswell, gets pretty mediocre scores, other than for his good humour. Murphy sounds fun. Hester continues…]
Now with regard to these People really think they are very fairly rated: those that have 0s have none of ye Quality mentioned, those that have Strokes made thus—I do not know well enough to decide N:B: by Good humor is meant only the Good humour ne[ce]ssary to Conversation.
Now for the Women; as they must possess Virtue in the contracted Sense, or one wd not keep em Company, so that is not thought about, & I would not be contracted about Beauty neither; it is general Appearance rather than Beauty that is meant by Person Mien & Manner the useful Knowledge we can all comprehend—By ye ornamental is meant Singing Dancing Painting & suchlike.
[Bravo, Mrs Montagu – who was the original bluestocking, in fact. And Hester is not too proud to rate herself…]
I have run this foolish Amusement already out of Breath before half my Acquaintance are classed: if I was to endeavour at classing myself It should run thus
I’m sure she deserves higher than that, but all credit to her modesty. Farewell to Hester for now.
It makes me think of an episode of the US sitcom Community, where a social media app which allows people to rate each other – MeowMeowBeenz – causes chaos.
More general descriptions of this set can be found elsewhere in Hester’s work, where she describes a series of portraits by fellow Worthy, Sir Joshua Reynolds; they are gathered here at the Thrale family history website.