William Hazlitt was one of the age's best writers and more troubled characters. He has been a challenge for biographers since information about him is sometimes scarce and because it is difficult to make a coherent, edifying story out of his life. When the barrister and bibliographer William Carew Hazlitt (1834–1913) undertook the life of his grandfather the elder Hazlitt's status was much less secure than today. Readers who warmed to Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt were put off by Hazlitt's unamiable personality, not unfairly described by his admirer Bulwer Lytton:
He cared about the Indian Empire as little as he did about Lord Wellesley. He would have resolved both into limbo for the head of any wrinkled old hag on the canvas of Rembrandt. Hurried away by a temperament thus vehemently aggressive, there was scarcely a section of opinion or a class of fellow-subjects whom William Hazlitt did not, at one time or other, go out of his way to offend. A bitter politician, though without giving us the slightest idea what he would destroy, except the principle of hereditary monarchy, or what he would reconstruct, except universal suffrage; equally a fanatic against constitutional kings and for Napoleonic autocracy, he smote with the same unexpected swing of his flail Tory, Whig, Radical, Reformer, Utopianist, Benthamite, Churchman, Dissenter, Free-thinker. He believed in nothing but Hazlittism plus Napoleonism. There was but one Hazlitt, and Napoleon was his prophet. Quarterly Review 122 (January 1867) 5
That William Hazlitt had a talent for alienating people no one would deny. To modern readers of biography the monomania described by Bulwer Lytton is not an impediment: we expect literary heroes to be rebellious. When W. C. Hazlitt was writing readers were more inclined to admire pious, hard-working, patriotic family men given to random acts of benevolence—the Walter Scott of Lockhart's biography. Hazlitt was the antithesis of all that. He rejected a clerical career to embrace French rationalism, insisted that he worked only to earn his bread, and adored Britain's great national foe. He divorced his first wife and the second walked out on him; when his elderly father died neither his mother nor his wife knew where to send for him. While Hazlitt wrote a book on benevolence his charitable acts seem to have gone unrecorded. Presenting him to Victorian readers would be a challenge.
The grandson, who obviously loved the grandfather he never met, partly succeeds by making an advantage of seeming liabilities. If Hazlitt was not much written about he did write a great deal about himself, and like his mentor Rousseau he was adept at creating sympathy for his own cantankerous, unlovable character. What Hazlitt did love—childhood memories, paintings in the Louvre, the excitement of sport, the idealism of the French Revolution, the dazzle of theatrical characters—he described as few others could, and since lovers tend to be amiable objects, Hazlitt could and did become an object of admiration himself. Since haters are not so lovable, W. C. Hazlitt wisely keeps his grandfather's antipathies largely out of sight, leaving readers to wonder how such an agreeable person could be so maligned by his contemporaries. Surely he, like Jean-Jacques, was misunderstood?
In fact the biographer had little choice but to represent Hazlitt through his essays. Hazlitt did not care for writing letters and few have survived, either from him or to him. How to write a life and letters without the letters? W. C. Hazlitt did what he could, seeking papers, collecting family stories, and interviewing surviving acquaintances. He had access to the correspondence of Charles and Mary Lamb in which Hazlitt appears, and prints excerpts from the memoirs of Hazlitt's friend P. G. Patmore and the journals of Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt, the essayist's first wife. Still, extending the biography to the standard two volumes required no small amount of what can only be described as padding—nearly a third of the second volume is given to less-than-compelling excerpts from Hazlitt's printed account of his trip to Italy in 1825. Where the printed record is thin, so is the biography.
The story of Hazlitt's life as it emerges from his essays is about thwarted ambition, the glorious hopes for reform raised by the French Revolution and the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge dashed by the perfidy of government tools and the disloyalty of the writers he had once admired. He, almost alone, remained constant, sacrificing his prospects for success to his commitment to the cause, and relegating his later years to rumination on the lost happiness of his youth. It is a compelling story. Yet fidelity hardly seems like the leading characteristic of one so given to changing occupations, employers, lovers, associates, and residences. How much does Hazlitt's youth as remembered resemble his youth as lived? Was he a victim of political circumstances, or a restless soul who burned his bridges behind him? We have only fleeting glimpses of the first thirty-five years of his life.
W. C. Hazlitt accepts what his grandfather had to say about himself largely uncritically, even to being remarkably forthright about the affair with Sarah Walker. He does, however, temper the extremity of Hazlitt's Jacobinism, presenting his grandfather as more reformer than revolutionary. This renders the acrimony surrounding him difficult to understand, especially his antipathy for the Foxite Whigs and Benthemite Utilitarians. While Hazlitt was inclined to blame Blackwood's and the Edinburgh Review for destroying his public character, it was likely the low estimation in which he was held by fellow liberals that did the most harm. When the Tory attacks came he, like Leigh Hunt, was hung out to dry. Nor were the attacks unprovoked; the pages of the Examiner had for years been filled with bitter “personality” directed against Gifford and Southey of the Quarterly, and more recently against Coleridge and Wordsworth who had ties with Blackwood's.
They came, wrote Hazlitt, just when “my little bark was seen ‘hulling on the flood’ in a kind of dubious twilight, and it was not known whether I might not prove a vessel of gallant trim” (2:72). In March 1818, Blackwood's, which had been running Patmore's essays praising Hazlitt's performances, took a passing swipe at “pimpled Hazlitt’s coxcomb lectures” and in August again mocked the “Cockney Aristotle” in John Wilson's snarky “Hazlitt Cross-questioned.” This flyting was a mere tithe of the abuse then being directed at Leigh Hunt. The Quarterly Review in January and July of 1818 revenged itself on the Examiner in hostile reviews of Hazlitt's published lectures. Whether such transparently partisan treatment did more to help or hinder Hazlitt's sales it would be hard to say; Hazlitt believed that grave harm had been done to him and sued Blackwood, who settled rather than reveal the identity of his contributors.
The criticism still rankled. Thomas Medwin spoke with Hazlitt in Switzerland in 1825: “His works, he allowed, were fair game, and that reviews of them would have affected his pocket, not his peace of mind. Working himself up, at last, into a fury, he poured forth the venom of a tongue, that was never equalled but by the gall of his pen. Yet, as he talked, I could sympathise with him” (Fraser’s Magazine, March 1839: 283). Medwin could sympathize because his own character was just then being destroyed by Hobhouse and his allies. The substance of what Medwin heard was published the next year in “On the Jealousy and the Spleen of Party” in which “pimpled” Hazlitt lashes out at “fat M[udford], lean J[erdan], black C[roker], flimsy H[ook], lame G[ifford], and one-eyed M[urray]” (The Plain Speaker, 1826: 2:433). But Hazlitt's particular scorn is directed at Thomas Moore who had not only failed to come to the defense of Hunt and Hazlitt in 1818, but who in 1821-22 had conspired against the Liberal, Hunt's new periodical.
W. C. Hazlitt, while suppressing the “personality,” quotes a long passage from this blistering essay in which the author explains that he had been attacked by the Tories out of political antagonism and by the Whigs out of class snobbishness. While there is obvious truth to this, it overlooks the fact that the hostility was directed against himself and Hunt personally, and that it was a reaction to what they had written in the Examiner. Writers who indulged in personality journalism faced not only retaliation from their opponents but social exclusion by their allies. There was more to this than simple prejudice. Thomas Campbell and Thomas Moore were welcome at Holland House despite their obscure origins while Theodore Hook and William Maginn would never be invited to Abbotsford in spite of their political loyalties. So too with the publishers: James Perry and John Murray could mix in polite society; John Hunt and William Blackwood could not.
Hazlitt's editor at the London Magazine, John Scott, died in a duel provoked by the question of gentility versus journalism, and so might have Lockhart and Wilson had not Walter Scott bribed them into respectability. Might someone at Holland House have done the same for Hunt and Hazlitt? Probably not; as thoroughgoing democrats they did not acknowledge the necessary distinction. Hazlitt, like Scott, believed that Sir Walter was behind the Blackwood's attacks. He believed that what he had written was true and that his opponents were hired liars. After all, he did not have a pimpled face, and John Murray was blind in one eye. The nuances of politeness, or for that matter politics, did not enter into his judgments: Southey had supported democracy and then opposed it; Byron had admired Napoleon and then slandered him. Hazlitt's biographer includes letters from Hunt begging him to retract his criticisms of Shelley in the name of personal friendship and political solidarity. Hazlitt criticized Shelley again at the next opportunity.
If there are good reasons for being skeptical of Hazlitt's retrospective interpretation of his life, there were also good reasons for W. C. Hazlitt to give it: there was more to the man than his politics, and after half a century the passions aroused by Waterloo had cooled considerably. Moreover, he had other materials useful for softening his perceived character: early letters that present his grandfather as a dutiful child, Sarah Hazlitt's journals revealing that she bore her husband no ill will, evidence to verify Hazlitt's love for his son, anecdotes from Patmore's memoirs, and especially the Lamb correspondence to show that at least one friendship endured for decades, if fitfully. But the essays were the chief thing; as Thomas Noon Talfourd put it, “His warfare was within; its spoils are ours!” Last Memorials of Charles Lamb (1849) 228.
Memoirs of William Hazlitt was reviewed in neither the Edinburgh nor the Quarterly, which must have been disappointing, but the couple of reviews it did get were sympathetic. Probably more important for the rehabilitation of William Hazlitt was Alexander Ireland's List of the Writings of William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, published the same year. Ireland illustrated his bibliography with extensive quotations from reviews and commentators, positive and negative, that reinforce the idea that Hazlitt was a wronged man. Readers then and since have been appalled at the virulence that typified Regency journalism. But surely Duncan Wu, Hazlitt's most recent biographer, has done the right thing in asserting its centrality to Hazlitt's story; the hard-scrabble journalist is, to modern sensibilities, a more compelling character than the Rousseauvian waif.
David Hill Radcliffe