Hazlitteering

John Bayley

  • Hazlitt: A Life. From Winterslow to Frith Street by Stanley Jones
    Oxford, 397 pp, £35.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 19 812840 1
  • Shakespearean Constitutions: Politics, Theatre, Criticism 1730-1830 by Jonathan Bate
    Oxford, 234 pp, £27.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 19 811749 3

Hazlitt has a modern feel about him. Among the poets of his age, dying young or turning, like Wordsworth, into pillars of the establishment, he represents a kind of muddling through, an honesty baffled and contingent, inconsistent even; not living in the world of romantic ideals and simplifying gestures but ground in the daily mill of intrigue and accommodation. Like many unworldly men, he was drawn inexorably into the haunts of worldliness, in the same way that he was drawn as a romantic lover to the most matter-of-fact and calculating females. He needed a milieu which hardly suited him, and from which he made efforts to escape, as he did from the women. He would be a likely character in a modern novel, and were he to appear, resurrected, among the newspapers and gossip columns of today he would be excited and disgusted and upset and at home. He would recognise that things were as in his own time. He would be familiar with Private Eye, though he would miss periodicals called the Black Dwarf and the Yellow Dwarf.

The former, a radical news-sheet of 1816, succeeding Cobbett’s Political Register as the most widely read reformist journal until its demise in 1824, attacked Hazlitt as bitterly as did the reactionary press as ‘this critical minim, who has no purpose on earth but to write a smart essay’. The reason for the animus in this case was Hazlitt’s expressed regret that Jeremy Bentham had no great influence with the Establishment, and his mild criticism of the reformer Major Cartwright, who since the American Declaration of Independence had stumped about the country founding Hampden Clubs, as an example of ‘men with one idea’. Hazlitt shrewdly perceived the good Major, however much he admired him, as the kind of bore who suffers from ‘the fallacy of retrogression’ and tries to bring back an imaginary past, an epoch of freedom and justice. The phrase is not Hazlitt’s but Stanley Jones’s, and gives an idea of the crispness of Jones’s style, as the instance does of the erudition with which he has reached into every cranny of Hazlitt’s distracted polemical existence. His book is a monument of scholarship and a labour of love; he has tracked down all sorts of detail previously left in the world of lost things and unfiled newsprint. Much of Hazlitt’s life is as anonymous and ephemeral as some of the journals to which he contributed: until Jones’s researches not much was known even of Hazlitt’s second wife, a widow of Scottish family who had been out in the Caribbean, and who abandoned Hazlitt in much the same circumstances as his first wife had done.

It was characteristic of Hazlitt that the radicals should have had it in for him as much as the Lockharts and Ellenboroughs of his time. When Blackwood relaunched his scurrilous Maga in 1817 (a contributor to a later number remarked that ‘the public curiosity is always stimulated to an astonishing degree by clever blackguardism’) he hired Lockhart and Wilson, a couple of Scottish lawyers as blackguardly as they were cynical. ‘Wilson was tall, burly, fair-haired, florid-complexioned, gregarious: Lockhart small, dark, atrabilious, conspiratorial.’ What does that sentence of Stanley Jones remind one of? Shakespeare of course, for Shakespeare has penetrated his mode of presentation because of his omnipresence in Hazlitt’s own outlook and essays. ‘The Example of Hazlitt’ occupies the second part of Jonathan Bate’s book, by far its longest section, and the whole literary atmosphere of Regency London, seen through Hazlitt’s eyes and those of his two critics, is alive with Shakespearean character and quotation, with the wiles of Shylock and the arrogance of Coriolanus, the tears of Desdemona, and the outrageousness and ingratitude of Prince George as Prince Hal.

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