Dr Johnson & Mrs Thrale’s Tour in North Wales 1774

johnson thrale walesPoor Hester Thrale, she had high hopes for her tour of North Wales with Samuel Johnson. In 1773 he had made his famous tour to the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles with James Boswell, which he enjoyed immensely, and which made him hanker after further travels. In 1774 Johnson and his friend Mrs Thrale planned a visit to Italy, discussing various options, until Mr Thrale put a spanner in the works.

Mrs Thrale had recently inherited her family estate near Denbigh, and her husband wanted her to get her hands on it, deciding that she had to travel to Wales to take possession. He would pay for the trip, Dr Johnson could come too, and they could combine the business trip with a sightseeing one; his wife and the Doctor concurred.

Mrs Thrale looked forward to showing Dr Johnson her homeland, probably having in mind how impressed he had been with his trip round Scotland.

They travelled via Lichfield (so the Doctor could show Mrs Thrale his hometown and introduce her to some of his friends, including David Garrick’s brother Peter) and Ashbourne to Chester, and thence into Wales. They then took a trip along the north coast road to Pwllheli (‘a mean old town at the extremity of the country’) and back, returning home via Shrewsbury, Birmingham and Oxford.

Samuel Johnson wasn’t very taken with Wales, and Mrs Thrale was very disappointed with his reaction. On his return Johnson told Boswell ‘Wales is so little different from England that it offers nothing to the speculation of the traveller’, and later wrote to John Taylor ‘Wales has nothing that can excite or gratify curiosity. The mode of life is entirely English. I am glad I have seen it, though I have seen nothing because I now know that there is nothing to be seen’.

Dr Johnson & Mrs Thrale’s Tour in North Wales 1774, with an Introduction & notes by Adrian Bristow, brings together the diaries of both Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale of this trip. Dr Johnson’s is very patchy – it wasn’t apparently intended as an aide-memoir for writing up the trip like the Scottish one, nor was it intended for publication; some days have no entry, or just, for example, ‘Dined at Mr Gell’s.’; some have quite long descriptions of country seats, castles or towns they are visiting; others have descriptions of Johnson’s health problems (often describing his bowel motions, in Greek – he thought them important enough to set down, but I would hope he had more than he records). Mrs Thrale’s journal is more detailed, and is useful to help fill in the many gaps left by Johnson, as well as being a more interesting read in its own right, even though it, too, wasn’t intended for publication either.

I think the book could have been laid out in a more user-friendly way. The introductory matter take us up to p.28; then Johnson’s diary pp.31-56; the notes on his diary 57-86; Mrs Thrale’s diary 90-126; notes on her diary 127-142. Here we have two journals of the same period, so to follow what’s happening it’s useful to read each entry for a particular date together, and also to refer to any notes about them. I’m used to having two markers, usually a bookmark on the page I’m reading, and a post-it note sticking out of the relevant endnote page I’ve got to; with this book I had four markers on the go at once. It would have been easier had the diary entries been presented as a parallel text with the notes as footnotes (the Thrale entries are usually much longer than Johnson’s, so the footnotes could have used the space left under his).

What were Dr Johnson’s preoccupations on this trip? Well, what sort of seat (i.e. house) his host had and whether the meals were good, bad or indifferent. He liked looking at castles and was always keen to look for the well, he was particularly taken with Lord Bulkeley’s (it was in this family’s possession until 1925) Beaumaris Castle: ‘This castle corresponds with all the representations of romancing narratives. Here is not wanting the private passage, the dark cavity, the deep dungeon or the lofty tower. We did not discover the well. This is [the] most complete view that I have yet had of an old castle. It had a moat. The towers.’ Not forgetting, as previously mentioned, his obsession with his health generally and his bowels in particular: before he left he wrote to a friend ‘I have never recovered from the last dreadful illness but flatter myself that I have grown gradually better; much, however, yet remains to mend.’ Καθαρσις δρ(αστική) apparently signified a ‘convulsive evacuation’; and at Bangor: ‘we found a very mean Inn, and had some difficulty to obtain lodging. I lay in a room where the other bed had two men. I had a flatulent night.’ Did I mention that he didn’t intend it for publication?

Mrs Thrale’s diaries are vastly more entertaining than Dr Johnson’s, more descriptive of place and person; she has a preoccupation with the health of her family – not surprising, given that the previous year her mother had died of cancer after a long illness and her four year old daughter Lucy had suddenly died of mastoiditis; three other daughters had previously died (two of meningitis); and she had left all but one (Hester, aka Queeney, aged 10) of her remaining children in London. She was worrying about them even before she left.

‘Tomorrow we set forward on our Journey to Wales. Yesterday, – no! this very Morning I set Sophy [3 years old] safe at Kensington with her Sister [Susanna, 4] … I am very lowspirited at leaving them, – the two Boys too – what will become of them? Ralph is just eight Months old, a fine Boy to look at, but strangely backward somehow in his Understanding – however if he lives and thrives – that will come; Old Nurse doats upon him & will I am sure be careful; my sweet Harry! I have ordered him to board at Thomas’s School during our absence, and come home only to bed; – for I thought he might take Liberties of chusing his own Dinners if he tabled here, and not only eat too much perhaps & of improper Things … I can do no better for them all, yet somehow I am not satisfied with myself: had my Mother been living perhaps I had done better; perhaps I have lost my Virtue with my Parent: She would not have approved my leaving them & then I should not have gone. I shall now perhaps neglect them more & more – Oh God forbid! and grant us if it be thy blessed will, a happy meeting at my return from Wales. I cannot write for crying tonight, I am so very low spirited; I shall perhaps be better in the Morning. Adieu to my Dear Children then! – Adieu indeed, for to God’s care do I commit them – late at night.’

Adieu, indeed – Ralph was to die in December; Henry (Harry) two years later, aged 9.

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