‘A Being full of Witching’

Charles Nicholl looks out for the ‘poor half-harlot’ of Hazlitt’s affections

In early September 1878, an old woman named Sarah Tomkins lay dying at her lodgings on Penton Place, an undistinguished terrace in the South London district of Newington. The street was poor but it clung to respectability: one might call it ‘shabby genteel’. Once it had led down to the popular Surrey Gardens, but now the gardens had closed and a rash of new housing was spreading across the area. No. 65 was a typical three-storey house of sooty grey London brick, with a thin garden out back and a pub nearby on the corner (the Giraffe, named after a popular attraction at the Surrey Gardens Zoo). The railway passed close to the back of the house: the busy London-Dover line. Here Sarah Tomkins lived her last days, with the trains rattling her window and the smell of the sperm-oil works blowing over from Newington Butts. She was 77 years old, a relic of the days of mad King George. She had outlived both her husband and her son. It was her daughter-in-law Caroline, now married to a clerk named Eastwood, who was with her when she died.

There were no obituaries. It was a small event in a small corner of the metropolis; a drop in the great grey ocean of Victorian rooftops. Obscurity clouds most of Sarah’s long life, and perhaps that was how she liked it. She had had her moment of fame, or as most would have called it, infamy. Even at her death, so long after the event, there were few in the literary world who would not have recognised her by her former name. For Sarah Tomkins had once been Sarah Walker, also known as Sally Walker; and she was that little ‘lodging-house hussy’ (or ‘poor half-harlot’ or ‘callous jilt’) with whom the great Hazlitt had fallen so hopelessly in love, for whom he had divorced his wife, and about whom he wrote, with alarming frankness, in his Liber Amoris. It had happened nearly sixty years before – they met in 1820; the Liber Amoris was published in 1823 – but memories had been jogged more recently. The two-volume Memoirs of William Hazlitt, by his grandson W.C. Hazlitt, had appeared in 1867. The reminiscences of old friends such as Bryan Procter and P.G. Patmore had also been published. Hazlitt was in vogue again: new editions were being prepared, new judgments being framed. How much Sarah knew of all this, how much it touched her, is debatable.

Admirers of Hazlitt tend to wince when Sarah Walker’s name comes up. She is his Achilles’ heel, his dreadful gaffe. The rebarbative champion of political liberties is here discovered on his knees, abasing himself before this ‘worthless’ coquette less than half his age, and then – to compound the blunder – actually publishing his outpourings of sentiment in an anonymous mémoire à clef whose lock was so easy to pick he might as well have used real names. For his enemies in the combative world of the political magazines, the Liber Amoris was a godsend. The Literary Register called it ‘Silly Billy’s Tomfoolery’ and dismissed its ‘indecent trash’. John Bull said that ‘the dirty abominations of the raffs of literature are far below notice,’ then devoted three issues to reviews, spoofs and comments on the book. They even got hold of one of his letters to her, and published it (thus, ironically, doing a service to Hazlitt scholars). It was a total humiliation for Hazlitt, and presumably for Sarah too, who found herself trailed through the press as a ‘pert, cunning, coming, good-for-nothing chit’, and a ‘dowdy trollop’.

Hazlitt can, and did, look after himself. He was a spiky, awkward, self-absorbed man: total frankness was his forte – ‘I say what I think; I think what I feel.’ Though he was, in the opinion of his friends, ‘substantially insane’ during his three-year infatuation with Sarah, he picked himself off the floor, got married for the second time to a well-off widow, wrote The Spirit of the Age and the Life of Napoleon, toured France and Italy, and died in Soho in 1830 reputedly with the words: ‘Well, I’ve had a happy life!’ But what about Sarah Walker? She moves forever – alternately prim and sensuous, banal and bewitching – across the lurid stage of the Liber Amoris, but what do we really know about her? What were her feelings about the affair? And what happened to her after she cast off this unwilling role of Romantic dreamboat, and returned to the obscure reality of her lower-middle-class life in 19th-century London?

Hazlitt has attracted scores of biographers, but with a single honourable exception, none has had the slightest interest in these questions. The Liber Amoris has its champions, Hazlitt has been forgiven his lapse, but Sarah continues to live this two-dimensional life, hardly real at all except as a figment of one man’s amour fou. The exception is the Hazlitt scholar Stanley Jones. In the late 1960s he succeeded in tracing a direct descendant of Sarah’s younger brother, Micaiah Walker. He pursued certain trails this opened up for him, and published his findings about her and her family in his biography, William Hazlitt: A Life (1989). To these I can now add some findings of my own.

Sarah Walker was born on Great Smith Street, in Westminster, shortly before midnight on 11 November 1800. She was the second of six children – four girls, two boys – of Micaiah Walker, tailor, and his wife Martha, née Hilditch. The family was of Dorset origin: Anthony Walker, Sarah’s grandfather, was born in Lyme Regis. In religion they were Nonconformists. In 1816, they moved into a large, rambling and probably rather scruffy house, 9 Southampton Buildings, between Chancery Lane and Staple Inn. Here Micaiah pursued his career as a tailor – among his customers was Hazlitt’s friend John Payne Collier, later famous for his Shakespearean forgeries – while his wife ran a lodging house, letting furnished rooms to professional men. The family worshipped at the Elim Baptist Chapel on Fetter Lane, where in 1819 they buried grandfather Anthony. In the same year Sarah’s elder sister Martha married a well-to-do young solicitor, Robert Roscoe, who had been one of their first lodgers at Southampton Buildings. This was an excellent match from the Walkers’ point of view, one they were no doubt keen to repeat for Sarah, now in her late teens, and their other children, Micaiah (Cajah), Leonora Elizabeth (Betsey), Emma and baby John.

Here, in the summer of 1820, William Hazlitt entered their lives, and here Sarah steps into the limelight of the Liber Amoris. That book remains the primary source for what happened between them – how could it be otherwise? – but if it is Sarah’s story one is trying to tell, one has in some way to turn the pages inside out, to dispense with the egomanic confessional element, and see what documentary traces remain. The book is in three parts. The first part consists of a series of ‘conversations’ or dialogues between ‘H.’ and ‘S.’, charting the course of their curious, stalled romance. The rest of the book consists of letters: two to Sarah; several to ‘P – ’, who is Hazlitt’s confidant Peter George Patmore; and three to ‘J.S.K. – ’, or James Sheridan Knowles, recounting the final, farcical agonies of the affair. But the printed Liber Amoris is not the only source. There is a manuscript copy of Part One with additions and emendations in Hazlitt’s hand. There are the uncensored originals of some of the letters to Patmore. There is the full text of that letter to Sarah purloined by the chequebook journalists of John Bull. And, strangest of all, there is the small leather-bound ‘journal book’ for March 1823 in which Hazlitt records, unedited and in extremis, the ‘trial’ of Sarah’s virtue by his emissary, a certain ‘Mr F.’, who took rooms at the Walkers’ lodging house for this purpose. This steamy logbook was not published in its entirety until the late 1950s. To these may be added some passages in other published writings by Hazlitt, and some comments by well-informed bystanders, not least the outgoing Mrs Hazlitt, whose journal briskly records their divorce proceedings in Scotland. From these overlapping sources one can reconstruct a rather more detailed picture of events chez Walker.

He took up his new lodgings on 13 August 1820. There is a faint prior connection, for Hazlitt probably knew Robert Roscoe, the Walkers’ new son-in-law; he certainly knew Roscoe’s father, who had been an early patron of his in Liverpool, and whose portrait he had painted. But the connection is not really needed. This was Hazlitt’s stamping ground, among the legal eagles and literary gents whose new blue suits Micaiah Walker sewed. He had formerly had rooms down the street at No. 34; he was a habitué of the Southampton Coffee-House round the corner, which features in his essay ‘On Coffee-House Politicians’. He is a man in his milieu, an intense, thin-lipped, dishevelled scribbler of medium height, moving into rented accommodation not much different from the last or the next.

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