Solitude and Infatuation
His lecturing in particular had drawn to Hazlitt a small group of admirers. Best known today is the poet John Keats, but there were others, such as the diarist and chronicler Henry Crabb Robinson and the novelist Mary Russell Mitford. But the rumours that had been spread demonising him, along with the vilifications of the Tory press, not only hurt his pride but seriously obstructed his ability to earn a living. Income from his lectures had also proved insufficient to keep him afloat.
His thoughts drifted to gloom and misanthropy. His mood was not improved by the fact that by now there was no pretence of keeping up appearances: his marriage had failed. Years earlier he had grown resigned to the lack of love between him and Sarah. He had been visiting prostitutes and displayed more idealised amorous inclinations toward a number of women whose names are lost to history. Now in 1819, he was unable to pay the rent on their rooms at 19 York Street and his family were evicted. That was the last straw for Sarah, who moved into rooms with their son and broke with Hazlitt for good, forcing him to find his own accommodation. He would sometimes see his son and even his wife, with whom he remained on speaking terms, but they were effectively separated.
For long periods, for solace and so he could concentrate on his writing, he frequently retreated to the country, staying at "The Hut", an inn at Winterslow, near where his wife had some property (he had come to love that countryside at the beginning of his marriage). He shut himself away like a hermit and returned to contributing to periodicals, including the recently reestablished (1820) London Magazine, to which he contributed drama criticism and miscellaneous essays.
One idea that particularly bore fruit was that of a series of articles called "Table-Talk". (Many were written expressly for inclusion in the book of the same name, Table-Talk; or, Original Essays, which appeared in different editions and forms over the next few years.) These were essays in the "familiar style" of the sort that had begun with Montaigne two centuries earlier, and were greatly admired by Hazlitt. Here he brought his essay writing much closer to the model of the "familiar essay" as distinct from the eighteenth-century periodical essay. The personal "I" was now substituted for the editorial "we". In a preface to a later edition of the book, Hazlitt explained that rather than being scholarly and precise, these essays attempted to combine the "literary and the conversational". As in a conversation between friends, the discussion would often branch off into topics related only in a general way to the main theme, "but which often threw a curious and striking light upon it, or upon human life in general".
Though the essays were structured in the loose manner of conversations held at a table, this was a time when Hazlitt frequently secluded himself in isolation at Winterslow. His motivation is explained in one of the Table-Talk essays, "On Living to One's-Self" (January 1821), as not wanting to withdraw completely but rather to become an invisible observer of society. Also here and elsewhere in the series he weaves personal material into more general reflections on life, frequently bringing in long recollections of happy days of his years as an apprentice painter (as in "On the Pleasure of Painting", written in December 1820) as well as other pleasurable recollections of earlier years, "hours ... sacred to silence and to musing, to be treasured up in the memory, and to feed the source of smiling thoughts thereafter" ("On Going a Journey", written January 1822).
Hazlitt also had to spend time in London in these years. In another violent contrast, a London lodging house was the stage on which the worst crisis of his life was to play itself out.
In August 1820, he rented a couple of rooms in 9 Southampton Buildings in London from a tailor named Micaiah Walker. Walker's 19-year-old daughter Sarah, who helped with the housekeeping, would bring the new lodger his breakfast. Immediately, Hazlitt became infatuated with Miss Walker, more than 22 years his junior. His brief conversations with Walker cheered him and alleviated the loneliness that he felt from his failed marriage. He dreamed of marrying her, but that would require a divorce from Sarah Hazlitt—no easy matter. Finally, his wife agreed to grant him a Scottish divorce, which would allow him to remarry (as he could not had he been divorced in England).
Sarah Walker was, as some of Hazlitt's friends could see, a fairly ordinary girl. She had aspirations to better herself, and a famous author seemed like a prize catch, but she never really understood Hazlitt. When another lodger named Tomkins came along, she entered into a romantic entanglement with him as well, leading each of her suitors to believe he was the sole object of her affection. With vague words, she evaded absolute commitment until she could decide which she liked better or was the more advantageous catch.
Hazlitt discovered the truth about Tomkins, and from then on his jealousy and suspicions of Sarah Walker's real character afforded him little rest. For months, during the preparations for the divorce and as he tried to earn a living, he alternated between rage and despair, on the one hand, and the comforting if unrealistic thought that she was really "a good girl" and would accept him at last. The divorce was finalised on 17 July 1822, and Hazlitt returned to London to see his beloved—only to find her cold and resistant. They then become involved in angry altercations of jealousy and recrimination. And it was over, though Hazlitt could not for some time persuade himself to believe so. His mind nearly snapped. At his emotional nadir, he contemplated suicide.
It was with some difficulty that he eventually recovered his equilibrium. In order to ascertain Sarah's true character, he persuaded an acquaintance to take lodgings in the Walkers' building and attempt to seduce Sarah. Hazlitt's friend reported that the attempt seemed to be about to succeed, but she prevented him from taking the ultimate liberty. Her behaviour was as it had been with several other male lodgers, not only Hazlitt, who now concluded that he had been dealing with, rather than an "angel", an "impudent whore", an ordinary "lodging house decoy". Eventually, though Hazlitt could not know this, she had a child by Tomkins and moved in with him.
By pouring out his tale of woe to anyone he happened to meet (including his friends Peter George Patmore and James Sheridan Knowles), he was able to find a cathartic outlet for his misery. But catharsis was also provided by his recording the course of his love in a thinly disguised fictional account, published anonymously in May 1823 as Liber Amoris; or, The New Pygmalion. (Enough clues were present so that the identity of the writer did not remain hidden for long.) Critics have been divided as to the literary merits of Liber Amoris, which is quite unlike anything else Hazlitt ever wrote. Wardle suggests that it was compelling but marred by sickly sentimentality, and also proposes that Hazlitt might even have been anticipating some of the experiments in chronology made by later novelists.
One or two positive reviews appeared, such as the one in the Globe, 7 June 1823: "The Liber Amoris is unique in the English language; and as, possibly, the first book in its fervour, its vehemency, and its careless exposure of passion and weakness—of sentiments and sensations which the common race of mankind seek most studiously to mystify or conceal—that exhibits a portion of the most distinguishing characteristics of Rousseau, it ought to be generally praised".
However, such complimentary assessments were the rare exception. Whatever its ultimate merits, Liber Amoris provided ample ammunition for Hazlitt's detractors, and even some of his closest friends were scandalised. For months he did not even have contact with the Lambs. And the strait-laced Robinson found the book "disgusting", "nauseous and revolting", "low and gross and tedious and very offensive", believing that "it ought to exclude the author from all decent society". As ever, peace of mind proved elusive for William Hazlitt.
Famous quotes containing the words infatuation and/or solitude:
“There are few people who are not ashamed of their love affairs when the infatuation is over.”
—François, Duc De La Rochefoucauld (16131680)
“When was it that the particles became
The whole man, that tempers and beliefs became
Temper and belief and that differences lost
Difference and were one? It had to be
In the presence of a solitude of the self....”
—Wallace Stevens (18791955)