Love in a ‘green old age’: the octogenarian romance of Mrs Piozzi

14 February 2020

Gender and Sexuality | Literature

This Valentine’s Day, the newly launched Research Source: Women's Studies brings us a beautiful and empowering story of love in later years. Western culture so often associates old age with infirmity and weakness, and many of us fear growing old for the loss and loneliness that seem to accompany it.

Writers in the long eighteenth century treated age in much the same way; in a culture fond of classical learning, age – particularly the age of a woman – was often euphemised with Ciceronian nature metaphors. A young woman was in flower-like bloom, bright and beautiful, while an elderly woman was considered to have wilted and faded away. However, many women resisted this trope, rebelling against it as they aged through a sheer refusal to wilt. One such woman is the remarkable Hester Piozzi, who proves to us all that there’s no such thing as too old for romance.

 

Hester Lynch Thrale (Mrs Piozzi), c.1773-1776. Image via: Wikimedia Commons, National Library of Wales.

 

Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741-1821) was ‘of no small note as a literary lady’, famed for her letters and prose and for an ability to read no less than five languages – but here we look to her personal life instead. First Hester married the wealthy brewer Henry Thrale, but eighteen years later the diaries of her close friend Fanny Burney would describe her as a ‘not quite broken-hearted widow’. It is speculated that Thrale, having money but lacking Hester’s breeding, had married to improve his social status. Three years later Hester would marry the penniless Italian musician Gabriel Piozzi, causing a minor scandal for marrying below her station and irreparably fracturing her friendship with the writer Samuel Johnson. It seems that both of her marriages were marred in some way by questions of social politics.

 

Portrait of Mrs Hester Lynch Piozzi, 1811. Image via: Wikimedia Commons, National Library of Wales.

 

Twice widowed, the now elderly Mrs Piozzi met the young actor William Augustus Conway around 1818 (a man no less than forty-eight years her junior), and it is the love she found for him in her old age that seems the most powerful. The love letters she wrote to him remained in his possession until his death, and have been published in this resource. These beautifully honest letters portray Hester as a woman deeply attached and unafraid to admit it. She openly acknowledged their vast age difference: ‘How did I ever dream – in 1791 – that fretted as I was about my own affairs; a Baby just then born—or—not Born, should in the year 1819 take up the whole attention of H.L.P….’ It is apparent that the gap did not deter her; Hester Piozzi was a woman who did not feel her eighty years, and the love she felt for Conway crossed barriers of age and society alike.

And so, if the pressure and consumerism of Valentine's Day have left you cold this year, let me warm you with this final quote from a woman deeply in love:

 

‘This is Preaching – but remember how the Sermon is written at three, four, and five o’clock by an Octogenary pen – a Heart … 26 years old: and as H. L. P. feels it to be; ALL YOUR OWN.’

 

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About the Author

Lauren Clinch

Lauren Clinch

I joined Adam Matthew in February 2019, and since then have had the chance to work on some fantastic projects such as 'Ethnomusicology - Global Field Recordings' and 'Research Source'. I studied MA History & Heritage at Aberystwyth University and my academic interest lies in hidden histories, particularly race and gender history.