Hazlitt: A Life: From Winterslow to Frith Street Summary

Stanley Jones


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Stanley Jones has spent twenty-five years on the researches which have culminated in this book. Jones clearly knows more than any other scholar about Hazlitt, his life and times. This book is replete with names, dates, addresses, and footnotes.

The list of principal personages at the head of this article does not begin to do justice to the list of literally hundreds of persons whom Hazlitt knew, with whom he dealt and quarreled, or to whom he was related—and Jones has given us all of them, often in such detail that the anticipated portrait of Hazlitt sometimes emerges only fitfully.

Hazlitt is usually known today as an element of one of those famous “pairs” so dear to the heart of the literary historian: Beaumont and Fletcher, Dryden and Pope, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley—Hazlitt and Lamb. The pairing suggests that which is Hazlitt’s greatest contribution to letters, the personal or informal essay. Hazlitt and Lamb were both inheritors of the periodical essay tradition of Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, and Samuel Johnson; and they pass on the tradition, modified much by the subjective romantic element, to such later writers as Robert Louis Stevenson, Max Beerbohm, and G. K. Chesterton. As Jones makes clear, however, in his day at least, Hazlitt was considerably more than a writer of essays.

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was the son of a radical Unitarian minister, and was himself for a time educated for the ministry. He early sought to be a philosopher of sorts and an artist. He eventually gave up these occupations, for which he was probably unsuited; his philosophical schemes were derivative, and his painting talent did not rise above solid competence. For most of the last thirty years of his life, he earned his bread as a writer and a lecturer, principally in London. He subsisted mainly as a paid contributor to various London newspapers and journals, also writing for theEdinburgh Review. He contributed essays, dramatic criticism, political opinion, book reviews, and articles on literature generally. He was a fair way to being a jack-of-all-trades, able to turn his hand to many things; but it was always a characteristic of Hazlitt that he had to be personally and emotionally involved in his subject before he felt himself able to contribute. No doubt, to many of the day, including many of the editors for whom he labored, he was the traditional hack writer.

Hazlitt’s early works brought him little reputation or remuneration. From 1813 onward, he was generally involved in the hurly-burly of London, its feuds, its politics, its pleasures, and much of this is recorded in his journalistic contributions. After 1812, almost the only work of Hazlitt that had not previously appeared in the periodicals of the day was The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (4vols., 1828-1830); his fascination with Napoleon was that Hazlitt continued to regard him as a radical hero who played a large part in the toppling of kings throughout Europe.

In spite of his marriage in 1808 to a woman with a small income, Hazlitt continued to live hand-to-mouth. He was never obliged to subsist in extreme squalor and poverty, but he was constantly bothered by money worries. He never owned property and after 1820 never lived but in furnished rooms. Re was unlucky (to say the least) in love, divorcing one wife in order to marry a young girl who clearly led him on and eventually refused to marry him. His second wife, a widow whom he married in 1824, refused to live with him after 1827. A fairly obscure affair with a peasant girl in the Lake Country in 1803 dogged him, in various corrupt and adorned versions, throughout his life, especially when his enemies made it a point to spread it about during his days in London. Exactly what happened will probably never be clear, though Jones does his best to exculpate Hazlitt. The main burden of criticism of Hazlitt in this affair and in the foolishness with his landlord’s daughter in 1820-1823 was apparently the stigma of the low social level of the women involved. He was, in addition, a frequent resorter to the prostitutes who roamed the streets of London.

As Jones makes clear, Hazlitt, like many a man before him, was a mass of contradictions; to Jones’s credit, he does not attempt to gloss them over or explain them away, nor does he attempt to fit them into some predetermined scheme or explanation. The contradictions are there, and they are a part of the man, even the man himself. Very early in chapter 1, Jones provides a fairly succinct general description of the psychology of William Hazlitt, a description that he develops in detail throughout the book:

In both Hazlitt and his father there was a fundamental intransigence, a stubborn idealism, a perverse zeal to relinquish the profitable delusion and embrace the dowerless truth, which produced in both the same pattern of behaviour: initially, a rejection of the career their parents had intended for them, and then a failure to attract adequate...

(The entire section is 2036 words.)