Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1447
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...
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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, assured Walker that “it was a constant habit; it has happened a hundred times since, and a thousand before. I lived on her caresses as my daily food, nor can I live without them.”
The conversations are convincing and lively, more self-revealing than Hazlitt probably supposed. They show a man convinced of his ability to charm with language one whom he had so often kept busy with embraces. From Sarah’s brief answers, it is clear that she found Hazlitt something of a chatterbox and wished that he would pay more attention to the physical side of love and less to the spiritual and literary aspects of the experience.
For Hazlitt the overwhelming problem of his affair with Sarah was how to reconcile their hours of intimacy with her refusal to marry him or, at least, to live with him “in friendship.” He asked her for an answer; he asked his friends; he asked her mother and father. Sarah had given him the answer all along, but he lacked the ability to recognize its truth: “I told you my regard could amount to no more than friendship.” Sarah’s friendship was that of a healthy young woman who enjoyed being fondled by the lodgers in her father’s house, whereas Hazlitt had the conventional notion that a young woman who seems innocent and demure makes love only because she wishes to accept a proposal of marriage.
The course of the affair is simply told. Hazlitt met the tailor’s daughter, kissed her on their first meeting, and held her on his lap. The entertainment continued for hundreds of performances. Hazlitt spent a good part of the time expressing his love in elaborate, literary ways that Sarah, for the most part, failed to appreciate. He repeatedly tried to win from her a declaration of love to match his own, but she insisted that he could never be more than a friend to her. He gave her various books—including several he had written—and a small bronze figure of Napoleon, which she treasured because it reminded her of a man she had cared for, a nobleman who considered the social distance between himself and Sarah too great to be bridged.
After Hazlitt went to Scotland to await his divorce, he wrote entreating letters to Sarah, which were either not answered or answered perfunctorily. Hazlitt expressed his doubts and hopes at great length in letters to his friend Patmore.
Upon returning to London after having obtained the divorce, Hazlitt again tried to persuade Sarah to marry him. On the pretext that he had insulted her in a quarrel before his journey, when he had suggested vaguely that she was easy in her favors, she not only refused to marry him but also returned the books and the statuette, which he promptly smashed. He finally discovered that she was playing the same game with another gentleman, C——, and that she had been doing so during the very period when he thought he had her embraces to himself alone. His final opinion of her, contrasting with his first image of her, was that she was “a practiced, callous jilt, a regular lodging-house decoy, played off by her mother upon the lodgers, one after another, applying them to her different purposes, laughing at them in turns, and herself the probable dupe and victim of some gallant in the end.”
Despite Hazlitt’s literary flights shown in both the conversations and the letters, Liber Amoris is a convincing and compelling account of an ordinary love affair. The style is mannered, in the fashion of a time when literary elaboration of ordinary passion was as much a sport as holding the landlord’s daughter on one’s knee. Beneath the poetry and the banter, however, there is something of the English spirit and attitude, which gives a dignity to what would otherwise be too trivial to warrant description, whatever the joys and pains of the participants. Hazlitt shows himself to be a divided man, worldly enough to realize that Sarah, for all her demureness, allowed him liberties that she could not have allowed were she all she seemed to be, yet romantic enough and idealistic enough to suppose that somehow the fault was in himself and that all he had to do was to make himself worthy of her love and esteem. In this division of self Hazlitt shows himself to be the romantic Englishman, at once cynical and hopeful.
It is not enough to say that the portrait of Hazlitt and his “statue” is convincing and typical. Considered as a piece of literary work, Liber Amoris is remarkable because it sustains interest with such slight material. What accounts for Hazlitt’s success is the spirit of the piece, for it is amusing, lively, sophisticated, and revealing of human foibles. It is a minor piece, and perhaps it is better to remember Hazlitt as a critical essayist; yet it is from such minor pieces that English literature acquires its distinctive flavor and enduring charm.