Introduction to Liber Amoris by Zeeba Sadiq
William Hazlitt is perhaps unique in English literature for the transparent honesty with which he approached his writing, particularly when expounding on the subjects that he held dear to his heart, be they politics, literature, or even love. An uncompromising absolutist, possessing neither the cunning nor the wiles necessary for someone in the public eye, Hazlitt was a man so comfortable with his beliefs and convictions that he wrote of the world as he saw it, uncontrived and without any hunger for approval, emotionally charged but never lacking for pure reason. His exceptionality in all that he did stemmed from an inexhaustible passion for life and a blind belief in the innate goodness of things, a belief that often left him deeply at odds with the world, such that he was eventually to become a victim of his own deep-rooted innocence. In his essay ‘On Living to One’s-Self’ Hazlitt observed:
“What I mean by living to oneself is living in the world, as in it, not of it: it is as if no-one knew there was such a person, and you wished no-one to know it: it is to be a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things, not an object of attention or curiosity in it: to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in the world, but not to feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it. It is such a life as a pure spirit might be supposed to lead, and such an interest as it might take in the affairs of men: calm, contemplative, passive, distant, touched with pity for their sorrows, smiling at their follies without bitterness, sharing their affections, but not troubled by their passions, not seeking their notice, nor once dreamt of by them. He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart looks at the busy world through the loopholes of the retreat, and does not want to mingle in the fray…”
But this life of retreat and repose of which Hazlitt wrote belied the reality of his own existence: the victim of two unsuccessful marriages; a further disastrous love affair which was to bring about his ultimate ruin; and the humiliating iniquity of becoming, in his words “an object of attention and curiosity”. Riddled by debts and taunted by the Tory press—which, as a life-long humanist, he had consistently attacked in his writings—Hazlitt died penniless at the age of 52.
Hazlitt had been born in Maidstone, Kent on 10 April 1778, the son of William Hazlitt Snr and Grace Loftus Hazlitt. His father, a fundamentalist Unitarian, enjoyed the company of many of the leading dissenters of the day and it was to him that Hazlitt owed his liberal beliefs and his obsessive fervour for reform. He was, however, to disappoint his father deeply by not following him into the priesthood of the Unitarian Church.
It was while staying with his brother John in London in 1798 that Hazlitt first contemplated a career in the arts. Visiting the Italian masters on display in Pall Mall, he was overwhelmed by the depth, the detail and the power of painting, and he was moved to consider whether the visual arts could match the importance of literature in his life. As a consequence he began to paint obsessively but soon decided that, by his own extremely high standards, his talents in this field were disappointingly mediocre. Mediocrity in any form did not sit well with Hazlitt and, though three of his paintings still survive in the National Portrait Gallery, he himself abandoned the idea of pursuing painting as a viable professional option and returned to his foremost passion of writing, beginning to compose essays on those matters that concerned him; those subjects which ignited his passion.
Never one to do things by halves, Hazlitt approached love with the same passion that he approached art and literature, driving himself to the brink of nervous and mental exhaustion with his obsession for a certain Sarah Walker, the unlikely inspiration for Liber Amoris.
Sarah was the eldest of three children who Hazlitt met in 1819 when he moved into lodgings above a tailor’s workshop following his separation from his first wife. As the eldest child of the tailor’s family, Sarah helped her mother with the care of the various lodgers in the household and Hazlitt fell in love with her immediately. She stoked his passion during endless hours sat on his knee, fondling him flirtatiously and cruelly allowing him to reciprocate. By his own account Hazlitt had never known true love before and Sarah’s contrived affections only served to fuel his obsession for her. When Hazlitt first met her he had been in a state of deep vulnerability, with his marriage to Sarah Stoddart in its final throes, and his firstborn child and his father both on the point of death. He had been in desperate need of affection and though he was to discover later that she had been wholly unfaithful to him during their courtship, two-timing him with another lodger, she had not bargained with the ferocity of his passion and the depth of his devotion to her.
When, after a year, she abandoned him for someone else, Hazlitt was far from crushed, believing that if she had been able to love him once, then she could quite easily love him again, and he convinced himself that the power and purity of his love was sufficient to draw her back to him. But Sarah Walker was an unremarkable flirt who would have died unknown had not Hazlitt immortalised her in his confessional novella Liber Amoris, a work that was to do more to damage his career and reputation than the love affair itself. Charting his yearnings and disappointments with a callow truthfulness and transparency, he never once attempted to elicit the sympathy of the reader by subverting the facts in his favour, instead recording with singular brutality every detail of the relationship.
As he observed in his essay ‘Romeo and Juliet’:
“It is not from the knowledge of the past that the first impressions of things derive their gloss and splendour, but from our ignorance of the future, which fills the void to come with the warmth of our desires, with our gayest hopes, and brightest fancies. It is the obscurity spread before it that colours the prospect of life with hope, as it is the cloud which reflects the rainbow.”
It was this obstinate hope that sustained Hazlitt’s ardour, his profound intellect detaching him from the hopeless reality. He wrote too in his essay ‘On Living to One’s-Self’:
“He who looks at beauty to admire, to adore it, who reads of its wondrous power in novels, in poems, or in plays, is not unwise; but let no man fall in love, for from that moment he is ‘the baby of a girl’. I like well to repeat such lines as these in the play of Mirandola–
With what a waving air she goes
Along the corridor! How like a fawn!
Yet statelier. Hark! No sound, however soft,
Nor gentlest echo telleth when she treads,
But every motion of her shape doth seem
Hallowed by silence.
“But however beautiful the description, defend me from meeting with the original!
The fly that slips treacle
Is lost in the sweets;
So he that tastes woman
“The song is Gay’s, not mine, and a bitter-sweet it is.”
Liber Amoris is divided into three sections: the first a series of conversations and letters between Hazlitt and Sarah; the second section letters addressed to ‘C P Esq.’, identified as P. G. Patmore, father of the poet Coventry Patmore; and the third comprising a series of letters to another friend, the dramatist Sheridan Knowles. The book showcases the sincerity of Hazlitt’s emotions and, in the letters to his friends, his inability to understand Sarah Walker’s behaviour. Hazlitt saw Sarah only as he wanted to see her: an idealised image of purity and beauty, discussing at length the grace of her movements and her demure and ethereal charm. To his friends, more brutal in their observations, she was glassy-eyed and had a ‘snake-like’ gait. But the illusion sustained Hazlitt and, for all her faults, he was always able to find excuses for her behaviour and apportion any blame to himself. The most honest of literary confessionals, with its singular lack of vanity, Liber Amoris is the study of a highly intellectual mind impaired by a hopeless and unrequited love, an obsession so absolute that reason and intellect were no weapon against mania, an elevated mind offering no immunity to the vulgarities of emotional cravings and jealousies.
Eternally uncompromising in his writings and in his life, Hazlitt had no interest in courting public opinion and so Liber Amoris, when published, gave his critics and enemies all the tools they needed to destroy his reputation. But Hazlitt owned self-sufficiency in abundance and in his essay ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’ he remarked:
“So have I loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best. I have wanted only one thing to make me happy; but wanting that, have wanted everything!”
In fact, Hazlitt rarely enjoyed this idealised existence but, with the aid of his self-sufficiency and with ‘dithyrambic mythology’, he was able to keep himself stable through the pain and turmoil of his love affair with Sarah Walker and its aftermath, whispering on his deathbed in 1830 that “I have had a good life.” As a humanist and an idealist, Hazlitt’s writings remain universal in their appeal, and the range of their emotions are to be relished by readers today.
I first discovered Hazlitt through the writings of A C Grayling and the pathos of the words and their simplicity and emotion sent me on a quest after his work. I devoured his Table Talk essays and thus began a journey that led to Liber Amoris. Although beautifully written and the genuine, heartfelt plea of an intellectual, I can’t help but wish he had not printed it. To those of you who read and admire Liber Amoris, I urge you to read his essays too – not just for the language or the thought but as a guide to life.
Zeeba Sadiq was born in Karachi in 1962 and studied in England. Her novel 38 Bahadarabad was published by Faber and Faber in 1996. She lives and writes in London.