In October 1796, Hester Piozzi’s youngest daughter, Cecilia, found herself facing a little scandal. She had eloped with John Mostyn, a member of the North Wales gentry, in June 1795, marrying him at Gretna Green as they were both underage. Now however Cecilia’s maid, Mason, had become pregnant, and rumour had it that Mostyn was the father. Hester Piozzi was furious, unable to understand her daughter’s apparent indifference to the affair when she brushed it aside as ‘a Bustle about nothing’ among fashionable people. Piozzi, who privately felt that Cecilia should divorce her husband for his infidelity, didn’t hold back in pointing out the local significance of the matter:
But Place makes a great Difference, as I had the honor to tell her; for the Man who keeps a Mistress in Titchfield Street unknown to his Wife after a Dozen Years living together, is a far less Impudent Fellow than he who in a quiet-Christian-like Country sets all the Neighbours staring by Proofs of Intimacy with his Lady’s Female Attendant, That Lady but 19 years old and but 19 Months married.[i]
It was clearly the public nature of the affair, and particularly the couple’s disregard for a local moral code, that so concerned Piozzi, who was at this point (as we will see) perhaps more than usually conscious of her place in the social landscape of north-east Wales.
In this paper, I look at some of the ways in which place made the difference in the 1790s. Working through Hester Piozzi’s correspondence, I explore the construction of Welsh space via letter writing, in parallel with a consideration of the role of Wales in the mid-later career of a writer who was arguably ‘by far the most considerable of the Bluestocking writers, and one of the most eminent women writers in England before Jane Austen.’[ii] This is a provocative but important claim to make for Piozzi, a prolific and ambitious writer, who published little in the genres historically valued by literary critics: no novels, no major poetry, no full-length writing for the theatre. The question of measuring her significance leads us, then, elsewhere, beyond poetry and fiction to history, travel, and life-writing. Her very literary letters and diary – both at turns gossipy, philosophical, prophetic, reflective, intimate, introspective, political, personal, often with the feel of having been written to the moment – represent a unique record of the constantly changing context of the revolutionary decade. They also provide rich commentaries on her writing life in a period in which anxiety about the present, and deep uncertainty for the future, consciously or otherwise shaped the decisions she made in her work.
Piozzi was born Hester Salusbury in 1741, at Bodfel Hall near Pwllheli, into a Welsh gentry family. She was unusually well educated, apparently bookish and brilliant as a young woman, but in 1763 she married, for financial reasons, a wealthy London-based brewer, Henry Thrale. Entering the less-than-genteel world of trade, she felt as though she’d married beneath herself, and later as though she’d been sold to Thrale. Motherhood quickly followed marriage, as twelve children and several miscarriages filled the next fifteen or so years of her life, but in this period she also became known as a literary hostess, and a central figure in the circle around Samuel Johnson. Henry Thrale’s death in 1781 marked the end of one phase and the beginning of another for Hester. In 1784 she married, for love, an Italian musician, Gabriel Piozzi – a match that drew painful criticism from family and friends. But it is following this second marriage that she becomes a significant, even groundbreaking, writer of non-fictional prose: first in travel writing and biography, then, in the 1790s, in philology and large-scale history writing. A second crucial shift occurred in the middle of her life when the Piozzis, still wounded by the hostile reaction to their marriage, decided to move to Wales, building a country house, Brynbella, in the Vale of Clwyd. It was here that Piozzi wrote occasional poems, loyalist polemic, and a work of popular history intended to coincide with the turn of the new century, Retrospection (published in 1801), alongside the correspondence that uneasily charted her connections to a world beyond Wales, and (equally uneasily) measured her distance from it.
Though the new house would not be ready until 1795, Piozzi was confiding hopes of a return to Wales to her diary as early as 1788. ‘Were some great Windfall to drop in,’ she mused in February of that year, ‘I would coax my Husband to buy a House in London, & build a cottage on Dymerchion Hill: the Situation is demidivine, and it would be his own.’[iii] In the same entry, she described living in Streatham Park, her house just outside London, as ‘like being abroad’ (original emphasis); haunted longings for independence, and for home, flicker behind this passage as a whole. Wales held various attractions for Piozzi. Leaving behind her first marriage, returning to Wales meant reconnecting with her gentry origins: it was where her second husband would live as a country squire. Though Thrale’s death had left her a wealthy woman, Piozzi also knew that she could live more cheaply in Wales. And there is also a sense in which the move was a way of showing two fingers to those who had dropped or mocked her on her remarriage. She had, however, spent little time in Wales during the Thrale years, and her descriptions of what would become Brynbella hint at rediscovery, at a new identity built up in time with the house.
Brynbella stands in the hillside in the Vale of Clywd, in the small village of Tremeirchion some five or six miles across the valley from Denbigh. We can see from her letters that Piozzi relocated and recalibrated her life there emotionally as well as physically during the house’s construction. The visual realm formed an important part of this process: it works both ways, balancing how the house looks with what can be seen from the plot. In July 1794, for instance, the view from the building site [fig. 1] seems ‘all Softness and Amaenity’ (2: 185). But writing to her clergyman friend Leonard Chappelow just days later, she is gauging the beauty of the setting against rising anxieties about distance, especially fears that her new life will put her out of sight and out of mind:
We are in Danger of being forgotten by all our Friends at this immense Distance, whither it may be well enough to retire two or three Years hence perhaps; when Holland is devoured, Germany conquered, England betrayed … But Mr. Piozzi and I had more need mind our new House than the Politics, whilst every Event we can mention is stale to you; and pretty Brinbella [sic] looks white and lovely, admired by those who see it, and hid from no one, It stands so very conspicuous. (2: 186-7)
Outlined even before the Piozzis move into Brynbella, here is the central tension of their new life, which wavers between the comforts and safety of Welsh retirement, and expectations of being forgotten and cut off – something that particularly worried Piozzi in the never-quite-predictable 1790s.
Piozzi’s depictions of space in her letters from Wales point in several directions. More abstract patterns of place and locatedness lie behind the physical, architectural dimensions of the new house, and in these, Welsh space is repeatedly subject to, even created by, pressures from elsewhere – London, France, political radicalism, or the dread of imagined invasion. One way of explaining this figuring of Wales is through Henri Lefebvre’s sense of space as socially produced: ‘always and only produced as a complex of relationships and separations, presences and absences’.[iv] This model maps interestingly onto correspondence, and the letter’s unique construction and negotiation of relationships rendered textually via separations, presences, and absences.
Piozzi’s visibility seems more stable, however, in its Clwydian contexts. Viewing the unfinished house from her Denbigh lodgings on the other side of the valley in August 1794, she tells her eldest daughter that, ‘Brinbella is not only visible from these upper Windows, but from every body’s Windows and every Body’s Grounds about this pretty Vale’ (2: 192). Brynbella, a new mark ‘so very conspicuous’ in the landscape, is Piozzi’s way of claiming a place in the local social order. Her comments on the view from the house in the same month reinforce, from the opposite perspective, the idea that the new house is an intervention in a symbolic, politically stratified landscape:
[F]rom the Rock above Brinbella heavy with the gathering Winters of a hundred years is seen Snowdon; frowning in sullen Majesty like the gros St. Bernard – but not over as rich a Foreground. Ours is however admirably diversified, we have Cathedral and Castle, and Country Seats and Sea which last is inestimable and one can contemplate that yet, and say tis a Subject of England. (2: 189: original emphases)
This passage brings out the sense that it is possible to read Piozzi’s 1790s letters as a kind of country house writing. Like the major seventeenth-century country house poets, she finds some refuge from the pressures of a new, post-revolutionary world in country retirement, and in an idyllic setting inscribed with the language of class, power, and social hierarchy (‘Cathedral and Castle, and Country Seats’). The turn to England at the end of this quotation, in the context of eighteenth-century naval supremacy, is characteristic of her loyalist perspective and defensive patriotism. But she is just as likely to figure her perspective as explicitly Welsh in the 1790s, writing about her ‘Welsh blood’, or embracing the collective identity of ‘we Welsh’. When, for example, in September 1795 she describes waking up for the first time at Brynbella – the place she called ‘Paradise’ – the independence she outlines resonates as Welsh: ‘My own house; my beautiful new Residence built for me in my own lovely Country … Never ought there to be so grateful a Creature as I.’[v]
Piozzi’s new house grants her a certain amount of liberty, now independent from her first husband, and to an extent from her second, who was a marginal figure in all kinds of ways: foreign, Catholic, not independently wealthy, increasingly limited by illness in the 1790s. And yet Brynbella was, as its Welsh-Italian compound name suggests, very much their house, a joint project. Like the name, the building itself looks two ways – his and hers – in its contrasting elevations: one facade more conventionally Georgian [fig. 2], the other, fronting the Vale of Clwyd, aspiring to an Italianate style [fig. 3]. It is also a deeply personalized space, down to the fine interior details, including the furniture that was designed for the house, some of which is still there. These points suggest how much the couple invested emotionally in this house, and its status as an expression of identity, a sort of love token or symbol of their marriage. For example, the balconied French doors at the top and centre of the Italianate exterior lead to what was Gabriel Piozzi’s music room – a small room in which the fire surround is decorated with musical instruments. Although it is a modest space, set at the top of the house and in the middle of the building it also offers the finest view. Perhaps it represents the intimate, hidden heart of Brynbella.
To conclude, I want to return briefly to Piozzi’s letters and the anxiety of distance. Country house writing is usually understood as panegyric, a mode that, in Raymond Williams’s terms, mystifies through celebration the carefully-guarded power and privilege of the house’s owner. And yet one of the best-known of these poems, Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ (written around 1651), is deeply bound up with national conflict: the ‘ambulations’ of the poem, one critic has recently argued, ‘suggest the inescapability, both tactically and morally, of the national crisis’.[vi] Hester Piozzi found that national crisis was just as inescapable in 1790s Wales, and that retirement there was ambiguous, contested, and threatened. We can sense this particularly in her approach to correspondence; her fretful dependence on the post and enthralment to the news, as in this plea to Chappelow: ‘do write to me … Pray do not you forsake us, or one shall hate to see home any more: and faintly look up here at Dymerchion Hill, with a quiet Resolution to sit still at its Foot, till carried up for the last Journey – and be buried at its Top’ (2: 283, original emphases).
The return to Wales coincided with a new sense of retrospection (literally, in the case of the history book she would write there), and, at times, of weariness about life in general. Still in Denbigh in September 1794, Piozzi sent this broad brush sketch of her life to her eldest daughter:
After half a Century Spent in this empty yet bustling World – here am I like a Hare ending at the Place I set out from. This Day ten years I passed in France, how changed since that Hour! This Day Twenty Years we were in Wales together, and dined at Gwaynnyog: the Master and Mistress of which both are dead … and this day Fifty Years I past at Bodvel in North Wales – most probably in my Mother’s Lap or my Nurse’s Arms – A curious Recapitulation! and now I write Political Ballads, and feel much pleased that you like my ‘King-Killers.’ (2: 208)
She used this image of the hare on at least two other occasions in letters from the 1790s: ‘I should like to hie home and dye like a Hare … near the Place I was kindled at’, she writes in May 1793 (2: 120, original emphasis). By January 1796, now living at Brynbella, the symbol has shifted from yearning to something tending more towards completion and homeliness: ‘we are not going anywhere’, she tells Leonard Chappelow,
when you come here you will see that we have enough to do at home, so we begin to call Brynbella. The Hare after many Doublings and many Pursuits sits on her old Forme to be caught by Death at last’ (2: 300, original emphases).
This turn to the image of the hare – coupled as it is with a sense of an ending, and with imagining her own death – articulates some of the tensions within the return ‘home’. In folklore, hares variously represent good luck, act as warnings of disaster, and are witches’ familiars. But Piozzi’s references to shapeshifting (‘Doublings’) also invoke the mythological figure of the Welsh witch, Ceridwen, and it’s not completely clear whether she is in pursuit or being pursued; whether she’s the witch or the witch’s quarry, as she conjures with her new (or reconstructed) Welsh identity.
The tone of the September 1794 passage is equally suggestive. Pitched between surprise, dry amusement, and perhaps hints of regret, the phrase she reaches for, ‘curious Recapitulation’, deftly sums up what is happening in this circular biography-by-flashpoint ending up at ‘the Place I set out from’. ‘Recapitulation’ obviously means recap, summary, but its lesser-used meanings of retreat or surrender also apply here. The move was, as we have seen, a turn away from former London friends. However, being in Wales in the 1790s does not just involve the negotiation of personal and familial space for Piozzi. It also prompts – to a certain extent, demands – the creation of new forms of political space in a writerly sense.
‘[N]ow I write political ballads’, Piozzi reflected, as though marvelling at the change. The political energy of her writing in the 1790s has usually been seen (when it has been seen at all) in the context of the extraordinary pressures of the times, but there is more to be drawn out from the Welsh surroundings and perspective she adopted in that decade. Piozzi’s depictions of peaceful, isolated Wales can be read as a denial of, or refuge from, politics, as Jon Mee has recently argued.[vii] But given her anti-revolutionary sympathies – and frequent revolutionary nightmares – they are just as likely to represent loyalist fantasies of social order in a region where disorder could never quite be counted out. Piozzi may even have felt that she had gained a particular ability to comment on public affairs because of her (perhaps exaggerated) distance from them. In this sense, it would have suited her to cultivate a pose of Welsh detachment because remoteness offered her an authorising strategy and moral purchase through which to speak to, or on behalf of, the nation. This perspective may partly explain the political works she wrote in the later 1790s, including her pamphlets on the invasion crises of the French wars, Three Warnings to John Bull before he dies (1798), and Old England to her Daughters (1803), which calls on women ‘to act rationally & steadily: & to maintain that place among reasonable beings we have so often heard you urge a claim to’ (an unexpectedly Wollstonecraftian moment for the arch-conservative Piozzi). Living in conflicted independence in a ‘Neighbourhood … so very unlike the Vicinage of London’ (2: 392), Piozzi seems to have struggled long with the tensions between connection and separation, but she had more success, perhaps, in making political capital from them.
Grateful thanks to the current owners of Brynbella, Peter and Maria Neumark, for allowing me to visit and photograph the house in July 2013.
[i] Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom (eds), The Piozzi Letters: Correspondence of Hester Lynch Piozzi 1784-1821 (formerly Mrs Thrale), 6 vols (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989-2002), 2: 392, original emphasis. All further references are to this volume and included in the text. See 2: 402 for financial provisions made by Piozzi for a possible divorce.
[ii] Felicity Nussbaum, ‘Hester Thrale: “What Trace of the Wit?” ’, in Elizabeth Eger (ed.), Bluestockings Displayed: Portraiture, Perfomance and Patronage, 1730-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 187-210, here 187. Nussbaum is here quoting from William McCarthy’s 1985 biography of Piozzi, who is a writer, in Nussbaum’s view, still ‘much-neglected and seriously underestimated’ (188).
[iii] Katherine C. Balderston (ed.), Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs Hester Lynch Thrale (later Mrs Piozzi) 1776-1809, 2 vols (2nd edn; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), 2: 708, original emphasis.
[iv] Fran Tonkiss, Space, the City and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), 3.
[v] Thraliana, 941, original emphasis.
[vi] Joshua Scodel, ‘Alternative sites for literature: rural, convivial, and intellectual domains’, in David Loewenstein and Janel Mueller (eds), The Cambridge History of Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 763-789, here 770.
[vii] Jon Mee, ‘ “A good Cambrio-Briton”: Hester Thrale Piozzi, Helen Maria Williams, and the Welsh sublime in the 1790s’, in Mary-Ann Constantine and Dafydd Johnston (eds), ‘Footsteps of Liberty and Revolt’: Essays on Wales and the French Revolution (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013), 213-30, here 214.
Illustration by Dean Lewis
Photos by Elizabeth Edwards