Study Guide

Liber Amoris

by William Hazlitt

Liber Amoris Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Because William Hazlitt was a writer, it was not enough that he found himself passionately attracted to his landlord’s daughter; he had to write about it. Liber Amoris: Or, The New Pygmalion appeared in 1823, slightly disguised by initials in place of names, as the anonymous account of a writer’s foolish passion, but it was not long before the secret was out. A reviewer for the magazine John Bull, claiming that the review in The Times of London, which was favorable, had been written by Hazlitt himself, attempted to picture the young woman in the book as a young, innocent child and Hazlitt as an “impotent sensualist.”

Hazlitt quite properly gave his work a subtitle, for his passion led him into flights of creative imagination whereby he sought to give his beloved traits of character and depth of feeling to match her physical charms. His conversations with the landlord’s daughter, delightfully transcribed at the beginning of the work, show Hazlitt to have been as much dazzled by his own literary facility in describing her charms as he was with the charmer herself when she was seated on his lap returning his kisses. By the time the affair ended—after he had discovered that she was no more than a flirt, and not an innocent one at that—what impressed him most was that she was not what she had seemed. What she had seemed to be is what, in his writer’s imagination, he had made her; what he discovered, when he realized her true nature, was that reality does not copy the images of poets, even when they write a Liber Amoris.

The Pygmalion theme is never explicitly developed in the book, but Hazlitt speaks of Sarah as “the statue.” In the first of his letters to C. P., Esq., written from Scotland, Hazlitt says in a footnote, “I have begun a book of our conversations (I mean mine and the statue’s) which I call Liber Amoris.” Later, in letter 13, the penultimate letter of part 2, he writes to Peter George Patmore again about Sarah: “Since I wrote to you about making a formal proposal, I have had her face constantly before me, looking so like some faultless marble statue, as cold, as fixed and graceful as ever statue did.”

Liber Amoris begins with a series of conversations, apparently the result of Hazlitt’s attempt to re-create the substance and feeling of amatory moments spent with Sarah. After that, a series of letters to Patmore carries the narrative forward as it tells of Hazlitt’s hopes and doubts while in Scotland awaiting a divorce from his wife. The book closes with some letters to J. S. K., which, unlike the letters to Patmore, were never actually sent but composed solely to complete the book.

Hazlitt became acquainted with Sarah Walker after his separation from his wife. Sarah, the second daughter of Hazlitt’s landlord, Micaiah Walker, a tailor, was then in her late teens, and, according to the account in Liber Amoris, Sarah let Hazlitt kiss her the first time they met. During the first week of their acquaintance, she sat upon his knee, and, as he wrote, “twined your arms round me, caressed me with every mark of tenderness consistent with modesty.”

Later, Hazlitt was to tell Sarah’s father that she had made a habit of sitting on his knee and kissing him. The father had supposed that the occasion upon which he had surprised the two lovers together was the only time such a thing had occurred, but Hazlitt, trying to win sympathy for himself when he could not convince Sarah to marry him,...

(The entire section is 1447 words.)