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Memoirs of William Hazlitt

Chap. I 1778-1811
Ch. II: 1791-95
Ch. III 1795-98
Ch. IV 1798
Ch. V 1798
Ch. VI 1792-1803
Ch. VII 1803-05
Ch. VIII 1803-05
Ch. IX
Ch. X 1807
Ch. XI 1808
Ch. XII 1808
Ch. XII 1812
Ch. XIV 1814-15
Ch. XV 1814-17
Ch. XVI 1818
Ch. XVII 1820
Ch. XX 1821
Ch. I 1821
Ch. II 1821-22
Ch. III 1821-22
Ch. IV 1822
Ch. V 1822
Ch. VI 1822
Ch. VII 1822-23
Ch. VIII 1822
Ch. IX 1823
Ch. X 1824
Ch. XI 1825
Ch. XII 1825
Ch. XIII 1825
Ch. XIV 1825
Ch. XV 1825
Ch. XVI 1825-27
Ch. XVII 1826-28
Ch. XVIII 1829-30
Ch. XX
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HAZLITTIANA, Part the Third—Personal Characteristics.

Like Dr. Johnson, Mr. Hazlitt addressed everybody as Sir. The youngest and most intimate of his friends was not exempt from this rule, unless Mr. Hazlitt happened to be in an unusually happy and cordial humour. Mr. C. H. Reynell’s sons, whom he knew as well as his own child, were almost invariably saluted in what would now appear a ludicrously formal manner; but indeed this mode of allocution had not gone out then so entirely as it has in our day.

He was accustomed to speak low, like Coleridge, with his chin bent in and his eyes widely expanded; and his voice and manner, as a rule, were apt to communicate an impression of querulousness. His was the tone of a person who related to you a succession of grievances.

But when he entered on a theme which pleased or animated him, or when he was in the presence of those whom he knew well, and trusted, he cast off a good deal of this air, and his demeanour was easy, yet impassioned.


“In person,” writes the late Mr. Justice Talfourd, “Mr. Hazlitt was of the middle size, with a handsome and eager countenance, worn by sickness and thought; and dark hair, which had curled stiffly over the temples, and was only of late years sprinkled with grey. His gait was slouching and awkward, and his dress neglected; but when he began to talk he could not be mistaken for a common man. In the company of persons with whom he was not familiar his bashfulness was painful; but when he became entirely at ease, and entered on a favourite topic, no one’s conversation was ever more delightful. He did not talk for effect, to dazzle, or surprise, or annoy; but with the most simple and honest desire to make his view of the subject entirely apprehended by his hearer. There was sometimes an obvious struggle to do this to his own satisfaction: he seemed labouring to drag his thought to light from its deep lurking-place; and, with modest distrust of that power of expression which he had found so late in life, he often betrayed a fear that he had failed to make himself understood, and recurred to the subject again and again, that he might be assured he had succeeded.”

Where Talfourd speaks of his “intense sense of his individual being,” he intends, however, I should think, an euphuism for what somebody else more candidly terms “ingrained selfishness.” In some people egotism is simply delightful. In children it is not unpleasant very often. We rather like it in diarists. But in the main it is an unamiable quality, there is no doubt; and where a great man is discovered to be
an egotist, and to love himself best, society takes all the worse offence. It is a surprising frailty.

Some admirer of his was astonished to find that his conversation was so ordinary. Could this be the author of ‘Table Talk?’ It was a gentleman who evidently expected Hazlitt to speak essays. Enough for him to have to write them! He considered himself off duty when he was not at work on something he had thought of.

Haydon the painter was scandalized at surprising him once looking at himself in the glass. Did Mr. Haydon never look at himself in the glass?

Southey, in the ‘Doctor,’ takes occasion to observe, as something which had come to him upon report, “that Mr. Hazlitt saw his likeness in one of Michael Angelo’s devils.” The writer evidently meant mischief or wit; but was not very successful, if so, in attaining either.

My grandfather, it is well known to all who understood him, often said things half in jest (did the author of the ‘Doctor’ never do so?); and this, if said by him at all, was in one of these semi-serious moods. But it was Mr. Southey’s cue to interpret him literally. The injustice done to a person on the other side of the question was of course scarcely worth considering: a fling at a Jacobin and a friend of Mr. Leigh Hunt was no harm, even if the joke was not very good or very true.

Mr. Patmore has fallen rather wide of the mark here. What he chooses to characterize as demoniacal in my grandfather’s expression, was, in the main, assuredly
nothing more than grimace and wilfulness. I do not pretend to dispute that bitter, gloomy recollections did not haunt his brain upon occasion, and darken his brow, producing a lowering passionate expression; but I am convinced, from all that I have learned and understood from those who were as good judges as Mr. Patmore, that the latter has seriously, nay grossly, misconceived the truth here; and that these physiognomical phenomena were, oftener than not, mere tricks to mislead people, as they must have misled Mr. Patmore, into the persuasion that some satanic train of thought was going on within.

But he has anticipated these strictures and touched this point himself in a passage already cited. Besides, he gives us plainly to understand that he used to cultivate this intensity of expression; for he thought that when people were no longer young, it was a good thing to have. The truth is, that my grandfather’s expression, as a rule, was thoughtful, and that his strongly-marked eyebrows communicated to his habitual look an air of sternness. But I have heard those who knew him better than Mr. Southey or Mr. Patmore declare that his smile was particularly sweet and agreeable.*

Leigh Hunt used to describe my grandfather’s shake of the hand as something like a fish tendering you his

* Mr. De Quincey, in his ‘Speculations, Literary and Philosophic’ (Works, xii.), enters upon this topic rather largely and confidently. But Mr. De Quincey, by his own confession, saw very little of him, and, moreover, was a Conservative in politics.

fin. The same gentleman, on meeting him abroad, was surprised at the change in his appearance. He used to wear his hair long and curly, and then he had had it cropped, finding that it was beginning to turn grey.

When Leigh Hunt was in Italy, my grandfather, then newly married to his second wife, paid him a visit and dined with him. It seems that Mr. Hunt had been piqued by the manner in which my grandfather on one or two occasions, in those fits of spleen which sometimes came over him, retorted on him; and L. H. became anxious to prove to Mr. Hazlitt that he could do the same if he chose. He selected the present opportunity to do so, and before dinner was served, L. H. said to Mrs. Hazlitt, “I have something to show Hazlitt, but I will not let him see it till after dinner, as it might spoil his appetite.” “Oh!” said Mrs. H., “it will do him good.” Thereupon Hunt gave Hazlitt a paper, in which he had spoken his mind pretty freely on the sore subject, and Hazlitt sat down in a chair and read it through. When he had done, he observed, “By God, sir, there’s a good deal of truth in it.”

He used to visit Leigh Hunt, when the latter resided at Hampstead, in the Vale of Health. The country thereabout was much more lonely than now, and he used to be so nervous of meeting with some dangerous adventure, that Mr. Hunt was generally obliged to send some one to see him as far as the London Road.

When Leigh Hunt was forced to discontinue the ‘Chat of the Week,’ which did not extend beyond an octavo volume, he happened to meet the printer of the
Examiner newspaper, Mr. C. W. Reynell, to whom he mentioned his dilemma. The Stamp Office had required Mr. Whiting, printer of the ‘Chat of the Week,’ to have a stamp, on the plea that it was a newspaper.

Mr. Reynell suggested, that as the old names of the Spectator and Examiner had been revived in modern times, it would be a good idea to have a new Tatler; and Mr. Hunt liked the idea so well, that he acted upon it. Mr. Reynell, unluckily for him, undertook the speculation, and the first number appeared on September 4, 1830. It was continued till December, 1832, and forms four folio volumes. The publisher went on with it some little time longer, and completed a fifth volume. But Mr. Hunt had nothing to do with this.

The title was ‘The Tatler: a Daily Journal of Literature and the Stage—Veritas et Varietas. Price Twopence.’ The price was afterwards altered to a penny, and the title was amplified.

Mr. Hazlitt called at Broad Street shortly before the first launch of the new Tatler, and heard from Mr. Reynell what was taking place. He drew Mr. Reynell into a window, and said, roguishly, “What do you think, sir, of the Esoteric—or the Exoteric?”

He was untidy in his dress as a rule, and with this untidiness went, as is mostly the case, a prodigality. He never enjoyed the credit of having new clothes. He appeared to best advantage when he was attired for some special occasion. A gentleman (since dead) who knew him well during the last thirteen years of
his life, said that he was never more astonished than when he saw
Mr. Hazlitt accoutred in readiness to go to dinner at Mr. Curran’s. He wore a blue coat and gilt buttons, black smalls, silk stockings, and a white cravat, and he looked the gentleman. But he did not often do himself this justice; the processes of the toilet proved irksome. His second wife coaxed him for a time into conforming to the gentilities, but it was not for long, I fear. She abandoned the attempt in despair. An indifference to conventionalities had set in ever since his one great disappointment in life.

Montaigne the essayist had a cloak which he prized as having belonged to his father. He used to say that when he put it on he felt as if he was wrapping himself up in his father. There is still to this day preserved in our family just such a cloak as that of Montaigne; it is the one in which Mr. Hazlitt went habitually to the play. His son values it, though he may not go so far as Montaigne went in his fine and fanciful enthusiasm.

I have understood that this cloak (of blue cloth with a red lining and a cape) was made on the supposed model of one worn by Mr. Patmore. Mr. Hazlitt found however, to his surprise and chagrin, that although Patmore’s garment passed unquestioned at the doors of the opera, his own, on some technical ground, was refused admittance.

His abstinence from stimulants, he said, was the reason why Blackwood’s people called him “pimpled Hazlitt,”—thus holding him up to the world as a dram-
drinker. Had they told nothing but the truth of him, they would not have made him out to the world as anything worse than he really was; and he did not desire to pass for anything better. Whereas, by ascribing to him that vice which was the farthest removed from his actual habits, they gained a great point against him. “Had I really been a gin-drinker and a sot,” a friend has heard him say, “they would have sworn I was a milksop.”*

His diet was usually spare and plain. I have before me one of the bills of Mr. Carter, his landlord at Winterslow Hut. It is for the month of August, 1821; and among the items tea and rice are conspicuous. His breakfast seems to have cost him eighteen pence, his supper the same, and his dinner from eighteen pence to four shillings. There is one entry of wine, “twelve shillings:” he must have had company on the 25th of the month, for he did not take wine.

He met my mother one day in Piccadilly, and as he looked more out of spirits than usual, she asked him if anything was the matter. He said, “Well, you know, I’ve been having some hot boiled beef for my dinner, Kitty—a most uncomfortable dish.”

He had had a pheasant for dinner one day when my mother saw him, and it turned out that he had been at a total loss to know what to order, and so had ordered this—pheasants that day being ten shillings a-piece in the market. “Don’t you think it was a good deal to give?” she asked. “Well, I don’t know but what it

* Patmore, ii. 314.

Kitty,” he replied, opening his eyes in his way, and tucking his chin into his shirt-collar.

He would eat nobody’s apple-pies but my mother’s, and no puddings but Mrs. Armstead’s, of Winterslow. Mrs. A. contrived to persuade him that she had the art of making egg puddings without eggs.

His natural gastric weakness, which is hereditary in the family, was a constant torment to him; and his love of all good things in the eatable way, and abstinence (during a long term of years) from every description of liquid, except tea and water, tended to aggravate the constitutional tendency to this class of disorder.

But it was a way of his to complain of indisposition sometimes, when he called anywhere, and the people of the house were not as pleasant as usual, or something was said which put him out of temper with them and himself. It did not signify very much which side was in fault, so long as matters went amiss, and he did not happen to be in the best cue.

A great deal depended on the humour he was in. He saw things with a different eye, he judged people from a different light. He was two different men in his own person—the Mr. Hazlitt of Mr. Southey’sDoctor’ and the ‘Liber Amoris,’ and the Mr. Hazlitt, metaphysician, philosopher, philanthropist, who desired to see some prospect of good to mankind—according to the condition of his mental equilibrium and his immediate frame of liver.

On such occasions as I have alluded to, he would get up, say he was very ill, with his chin in and his eyes
wide open, and make the move to go, with a “Well, good-morning.”

Mr. Hazlitt was to be seen to best advantage where he was least seen—at Winterslow. There, in the maturity of his genius and fame, he spent many a happy month, living his youth over again in spirit and memory.

My grandfather was an enthusiastic admirer of the game of fives, and regularly, at one time of his life, attended the fives-court, St. Martin’s Street. In one of his essays he alludes to the death of John Cavanagh, the celebrated fives-player, in 1819, at his house in Burbage Street, St. Giles’s. Mr. Hazlitt had often seen him play, and was much struck with his skill.

“There was Jack Spines,” the racket-player, he tells us, “excelled in what is called the half-volley. Some amateurs of the game were one day disputing what this term of art meant. Spines was appealed to. ‘Why, gentlemen,’ says he, ‘I really can’t say exactly; but I should think the half-volley is something between the volley and the half-volley.’ This definition was not quite the thing.

“The celebrated John Davies, the finest player in the world, could give no account of his proficiency that way. It is a game which no one thinks of playing without putting on a flannel jacket, and after you have been engaged in it for ten minutes you are just as if you had been dipped in a mill-pond. John Davies never pulled off his coat; and merely buttoning it that it
might not be in his way, would go down into the fives-court and play two of the best players of the day, and at the end of the match you could not perceive that a hair of his head was wet. Powell, the keeper of the court, said he never seemed to follow the ball, but that it came to him—he did everything with such ease.”

In one of the essays there is an interesting sketch of a game at cribbage between my grandfather and a Mr. Dunster, whose real name was Fisher. Mr. H. describes Fisher winning three half-crown rubbers of him, and putting them in a canvas pouch, out of which he had produced, just before, first a few half-pence, then half-a-dozen pieces of silver, then a handful of guineas, and lastly, lying perdu at the bottom, a fifty pound banknote.

Mr. Fisher was a poulterer in Duke Street, and Mr. Hazlitt met him at some Christmas party or Twelfth-Night celebration. There is a story too long to tell, and not sufficiently relevant either, to have a place in these pages, but it arose out of Mr. H. saying to Mr. Fisher, when they had done playing at cribbage, “I’ll tell you what; I should like to play you a game at marbles;” whereupon Fisher’s eyes sparkled with childish glee. Fisher was a man of some literary taste, and an admirer of Sterne and Le Sage. He was a true Cockney.

A visit to the theatre in Mr. Hazlitt’s company was not always the most comfortable thing in the world. He had a slow way of moving on such occasions, which, to less habitual playgoers, was highly trying. He took
my mother to the play one evening, when he was in Half-Moon Street—it must have been in 1828: there was a great crowd, but he was totally unmoved by that circumstance. At the head of the staircase he had to sign the Free Admission Book, and perfectly unconscious that he was creating a blockade, he looked up at the attendant in the middle of the operation—a rather lengthy one with him—and said, “What sort of a house is there to-night, sir?” It was a vast relief to his two companions, my mother and her elder sister, when they had run the gauntlet of all this, and were safe in their places.

Mr. Hazlitt objected to be teased with such questions as, “Which do you think, Mr. Hazlitt, was the greater man, Sir Isaac Newton or Mr. Sarratt the chess-player?” Yet he did not dislike to be pointed out in the street, or to overhear people in the fives-court asking, Which is Mr. Hazlitt? for this, he considered, was “an extension of one’s personal identity.”

Mr. Huntly Gordon recollects an evening he spent with him, and the “long, eloquent, and enthusiastic” dissertation on Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge with which he indulged him. This was not long before his death.

But it was not invariably that he became very fluent or ready of speech, even where, as at the Reynells’ and the Hunts’, he felt at home and among friends; and he often helped himself out of a dilemma with “You know what I mean, sir;” though it might not in every case be the fact that the person addressed did.


He told Kenney that, whereas formerly he thought women silly, unamusing toys, and people with whose society he delighted to dispense, he was now only happy where they were, and given up to the admiration of their interesting foibles and amiable weaknesses.

The author of the ‘Every-Day Book’ used to speak of him as one of the most candid of men, and as wanting in that natural tenderness which we are all apt to have for our own deficiencies and frailties.