‘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.

He had a ‘set’ or pair of upstairs rooms – bedroom and sitting-room – at the back of the house. The rent was 14 shillings a week. Among his fellow lodgers were a Welsh apothecary named Griffiths, who had the garret-room on the floor above him; a married couple, the Folletts; and a certain ‘well-made’ young man, a solicitor’s clerk, who is referred to in the Liber Amoris as ‘Mr C – ’, but whose real name is given in the manuscripts as Tomkins. Downstairs there was a front parlour, at whose window Sarah sometimes sat; a back parlour where Hazlitt stored a hamper of books, and where Griffiths hung up his grey drab overcoat; and the kitchen, where the Walkers themselves congregated to gossip. Elsewhere – the topography fails us here – were the family’s bedrooms. Sarah shared a bedroom with her sister Betsey, as she primly told Hazlitt when he suggested an assignation there. Nothing remains of the house today. It seems to be commemorated by Hazlitt House, a vaguely Neo-classical office-block in red brick, dating perhaps from the 1930s. This building was recently the premises of Haseltine, Lake & Co (‘Patents, Trademarks and Designs’: a reminder of the Great Seal patent-office which stood nearby). It is now, in its turn, slated for demolition. Whether it correctly marks the site of No. 9 I do not know.

Three days after he moved in – the hiatus is not explained – Hazlitt first saw the ‘apparition’ of Sarah Walker. She was a small, ‘delicate-looking’ girl. The engraving on the title-page of the Liber Amoris gives an idea of her face, but is not quite a portrait: it is a version of an Italian miniature which Hazlitt (but not Sarah) thought was ‘like her’. She was dark in colouring but pallid in complexion. Hazlitt rhapsodises on her skin as marble or alabaster, though he later told De Quincey that he had not really liked her ‘look of being somewhat jaded, as if she were unwell, or the freshness of the animal sensibilities gone by’. She is variously glimpsed in a ‘print dress’, a ‘mob-cap’, a ‘loose morning-gown’; he buys her a length of ‘plaid silk’ to make a summer dress; she goes out of an evening ‘shawled and bonneted’ and ‘drest all in her best ruff’. One thing everyone noticed was her strange, gliding walk, which Hazlitt found entrancing but others thought sinister. And then there were her eyes, very dark, which she fixed on you with an intense gaze – ‘one of her set looks’ – into which much could be read or misread. Hazlitt fell victim to them instantly: ‘The first time I ever saw you … you fixed your eyes full upon me as much as to say: Is he caught?’ Again he recanted: her eyes, he later decided, ‘had a poor, slimy, watery look’. Her manner was prim and modest yet somehow disconcerting. She spoke in a ‘pretty, mincing, emphatic way’. Her phrasing, as recorded in the Liber, is wooden and full of clichés. She is ‘little Yes-and-No’. Hazlitt’s emissary ‘Mr F.’ said ‘he thought at first she would not talk, but now he was convinced she could not.’ But she was certainly not uneducated: she owned books and liked going to the theatre. She had read Byron’s Cain, but not Don Juan because ‘her sister said it was impious.’ Jones surmises that her meaningful stares and melting sighs were in part an affectation picked up from romantic novelettes. Her handwriting is a neat, sloping, schoolroom script. It has a cramped, buttoned-up look.

Few who passed judgment on her had met her. Mrs Hazlitt had, and said ‘she was as thin and bony as the scrag-end of a neck of mutton,’ but she was hardly impartial. Another who knew her was Hazlitt’s genial friend Bryan Waller Procter, who wrote under the pen-name Barry Cornwall. Some lines in his play Mirandola, performed at Covent Garden in 1821, were modelled on her (or so Hazlitt believed) – ‘With what a waving air she goes/Along the corridor! How like a fawn/Yet statelier.’ Many years later, Procter published a more prosaic reminiscence:

I used to see this girl, Sarah Walker, at his lodgings, and could not account for the extravagant passion of her admirer … Her face was round and small, and her eyes were motionless, glassy, and without any speculation (apparently) in them. Her movements in walking were very remarkable, for I never observed her to make a step. She went onwards in a sort of wavy, sinuous manner, like the movements of a snake. She was silent, or uttered monosyllables only, and was very demure. Her steady, unmoving gaze upon the person whom she was addressing, was exceedingly unpleasant. The Germans would have extracted a romance from her, enduing her perhaps with some diabolical attribute. To this girl he gave all his valuable time, all his wealth of thought, and all the loving frenzy of his heart. For a time I think that on this point he was substantially insane – certainly beyond self-control. To him she was a being full of witching, full of grace, with all the capacity of tenderness. The retiring coquetry, which had also brought others to her, invested her in his sight with the attractions of a divinity.

Despite his bluff disclaimer he too finds in her something disturbing. She is snake-like, a Melusine, a ‘diabolical’ presence. She would do for a ‘German romance’, or perhaps more particularly a Grimm fairytale (first published in English in 1823). She is also an intentional entrapper, he thinks. Her ‘coquetry’ had already ‘brought others to her’.

The affair began immediately: ‘that very week you sat upon my knee, twined your arms around me, caressed me with every mark of tenderness.’ It drifted on in a kind of idealised, erotic stalemate through the autumn and winter of 1820. The printed text speaks of kisses and caresses, of her sitting on his lap for hours on end, of the ‘liberties’ he took and the ‘endearments’ she whispered. The manuscript material, particularly the excised portions of the letters to Patmore, puts it more harshly: ‘whenever I poked her up she liked me best’; ‘she has an itch to be slabbered and felt’; ‘she has been rubbing against me, hard at it an hour together.’ These frissons in a fusty room are as far as it ever went, physically. The affair was never consummated, which haunted him more than anything: ‘The gates of paradise were once open to me, & I blushed to enter but with the golden keys of love.’ Or more bluntly, in the manuscript: ‘I was only wrong in not pulling up her petticoats.’

Much of this, on Sarah’s part, is the standard coquetry of the situation. Later revelations in the Liber Amoris make this clear. She is an unmarried teenage daughter in a middle-market London lodging house. She offers sexual favours (‘liberties’) to the gentlemen upstairs, who are thereby disposed to stay longer and complain less. She is precisely – a word Hazlitt throws at her frequently – the ‘decoy’ of the house. She is encouraged in this not by her ‘strict’ and mostly absent father, but by her mother, of whom we get gothic glimpses in the Liber Amoris: a scrawny, vulgar woman, a ‘preternatural hag’, a ‘bawd’. Whether Sarah went ‘all lengths’ with any of the lodgers is another matter. It is not necessary to believe she did. Given the fallibility of contraception at the time – a plug of raw opium was a popular method – this would not be a wished for consummation, or only at certain times of the month. Despite the dark suspicions of Hazlitt, and the casual aspersions of many since, it is likely she was still a virgin.

It is easy, but unfair, to deduce from all this that she was a coldly calculating girl. One of the grating assumptions of the Liber Amoris, unthinkingly adopted by the majority of biographers, is that he was the exploited (a ‘poor, tortured worm’) and she the exploiter. If there is a moral question, it is whether she led Hazlitt to believe she really loved him, and then cruelly jilted him. Even the Liber Amoris makes this doubtful. His great protestations are always undercut by Miss’s pursed-mouth answers. The love-affair is all in his head – ‘La, Sir! You’re always fancying things.’ One of the book’s recent champions, Michael Neve, finds it a ‘subtle meditation on the philosophical ludicrousness of love’, a ‘picture of driven desire that, with Freudian exactness, ends up without even an obscure object’.

All the while Hazlitt continued his punishing schedule of literary work. In January 1821 he wrote an essay called ‘On Great and Little Things’: it appeared early the following year in the New Monthly Magazine. This marks Sarah’s first appearance in his writing. He calls her his ‘Infelice’, his sad girl: ‘Shouldst thou ever, my Infelice, grace my home with thy loved presence, as thou hast cheered my hopes with thy smile, thou wilt conquer all hearts with thy prevailing gentleness.’ (And much more in the same vein.) It is to this that Mrs Hazlitt refers in her journal: ‘I told him he had done a most injudicious thing in publishing what he did in the Magazine about Sarah Walker … and that everybody in London thought it a most improper thing.’ He mumbled something in reply about the New Monthly having got hold of it without his consent, and then added: ‘it had hurt the girl too, and done her an injury.’ If this innocuous publicity had ‘hurt’ Sarah, how much worse, and more deliberate, was the pain inflicted on her by the publishing of Liber Amoris. The motives for this act of literary suicide are generally given as catharsis and profit (he reputedly received £100 for the copyright), but one must also consider that old-fashioned balm for broken hearts, revenge.

About a year after their first meeting the relationship entered a stormy phase, as described in the dialogue entitled ‘The Quarrel’. The cause of the quarrel, we learn, was a conversation in the kitchen which Hazlitt overheard and was shocked by. Readers of the book were spared the details, but a precise record of it is found in a letter to Patmore:

Betsey: Oh! If those trowsers were to fall down, what a display there would be!

Mother: He’s a proper one: Mr Follett is nothing to him.

Son (aged 17): Then I suppose he must be seven inches.

Mother: Oh! He’s quite a monster. He nearly tumbled over Mr Hazlitt one night …

Son (laughing): Sarah says –

Sarah: I say Mr Follett wears straps.

To the sentimental lover lurking outside the kitchen door, this bawdy talk is a revelation of the true nature of his ‘angel’. A similar accusation about her behaviour occurs in the same dialogue: ‘Or what am I to think of this story of the footman?’ In the printed text this is rendered unintelligible by a series of asterisks. ‘It is false, Sir, I never did anything of the sort,’ Sarah replies, but what is she supposed to have done? The missing words can be found in the manuscript, from which it appears that her mother had deliberately ‘pulled up’ Sarah’s ‘petticoats’ in front of a visiting footman, this being a ‘sport’ they often indulged in. From now on Hazlitt is in a fit of Othello-style jealousy, liberally seasoned with fears about his own sexual adequacy. He suspected just about everyone in the house: the apothecary Griffiths, whose dimensions were the subject of the kitchen talk; Mr Follett, whose intimate sartorial arrangements she appeared to know. And then there was Tomkins, or ‘Mr C – ’, tall and ‘well-made’, a ‘strapping lad’ (those straps again?): ‘The instant Tomkins came, she made a dead set at him, ran breathless upstairs before him, blushed when his foot was heard.’ She denied it, of course: ‘Mr C – was nothing to her, but merely a lodger’; ‘she didn’t think Mr C – was so particularly handsome’; ‘she hated Mr C – ’s red slippers.’ Hazlitt did not learn the truth until much later.

In early 1822, torn between obsession and doubt, Hazlitt left for Scotland to obtain a divorce. (The divorce was by mutual consent; it was certainly precipitated by his affair with Sarah, but the marriage had effectively broken down about a year before he met her.) En route he stopped off at the Renton Inn, near Berwick, and here drafted up the ‘conversations’ which form the first part of Liber Amoris. He also corresponded with Sarah. Her letters, he complained to Patmore, are ‘cold & prudish’. One survives in autograph, dated 17 January 1822. It gives the sound of her:

Sir

    Doctor Read sent the London Magazine with compliments and thanks, no Letters or Parcels except the one which I have sent with the Magazine, according to your directions. Mr Lamb sent for the things which you left in our care likewise a cravat which was not with them. – I send my thanks for your kind offer [of theatre tickets] but must decline accepting it. – Baby [her niece Emma Roscoe] is quite well the first floor is occupied at present, it is very uncertain when it will be disengaged. My Family send their best Respects to You.

  I hope Sir your little Son is quite well.

         From yours Respectfully

                   S Walker

A Scottish drunkard called Bell, who was involved in the divorce proceedings, told Mrs Hazlitt that ‘he had seen some passages’ of Sarah’s letters, ‘and they were such low vulgar milliner’s or servant wench’s sentimentality, that he wondered Mr Hazlitt could endure such stuff.’ Either he saw some very different letters or he was lying. In this exemplar there is not a dram of sentiment.

Up in Edinburgh – the unlikely Reno of the story – the black comedy of the divorce unfolded. By coincidence the Edinburgh prostitute, with whom he went in order to be caught in flagrante, was called Mary Walker. (He later told people she was ‘one-eyed’, but this seems to be a humorous embroidery.) The divorce went through in mid-July 1822. When it was over he hurried back down to Southampton Buildings, a free man. There were scenes: tearful recriminations, shaky reconciliations – and then the axe fell. On an evening in late July, on King Street, he saw her walking arm in arm with young Mr Tomkins: ‘the murder was out.’

‘We passed at the crossing of the street without speaking … I turned and looked – they also turned and looked – and as if by mutual consent, we both retrod our steps and passed again,’ Hazlitt continued. She showed ‘no more feeling than a common courtesan shews, who bilks a customer and passes him, leering up at her bully, the moment after’. Later, amicably enough, he challenged Tomkins. They talked for four hours. He learned she had been playing the same game with Tomkins; their affair had begun in earnest the previous autumn; they were now ‘on the most intimate footing’. The extent of her duplicity was revealed: Tomkins took his breakfast earlier than Hazlitt; she had moved from one lap to the next without either man knowing. Tomkins ‘again and again expressed his astonishment’. It was, he said, ‘too much’. Here the Liber Amoris ends, with a kind of deliverance: ‘she will soon grow common to my imagination, as well as worthless in herself.’ By the end of September Hazlitt was in new lodgings near Curzon Street. ‘You see by this I have moved. I have come away alive, which in all the circumstances is a great deal.’

But the ending was not so neat: there remains the tawdry, unpublished coda of the ‘trial’. This had long been mooted in the letters to Patmore – ‘Try her!’ – but did not actually happen until early March 1823. He is still obsessed, still in need of proof – ‘to know if she is a whore or an idiot is better than nothing.’ Hazlitt’s emissary, ‘Mr F.’, may be an actor named William Farren, or the critic Albany Fonblanque, or it may be the man called ‘E – ’ in the letters who was originally suggested for the job, and who is identified in the MS as one Elder. (If it was the latter, one might have to conclude that the ‘Mr F.’ of the journal connotes the word ‘fuck’ or one of its derivatives.) Over two weeks Hazlitt skulkingly records the progress of his proxy seducer. He ‘kissed her several times on the staircase’ and ‘laid his hand on her thigh’ and ‘paddled on her neck’; she lit his way upstairs and ‘they had a regular scamper for it, he all the way tickling her legs behind.’ Yet on the evidence of this rather grotesque ‘trial’ Sarah had her limits, or indeed her self-respect. On the evening of 15 March, as she put down the curtains, ‘F.’ came up and ‘put his hand between her legs’. She said coldly, ‘Let me go, Sir,’ and left the room. She was ‘altered in her manner’, and did not return. The following evening, at dusk, ‘F.’ saw her walking alone by Lincoln’s Inn Fields. When he asked if he might ‘accompany’ her, she refused, ‘and on his offering to take her arm, stood stock still, immoveable, inflexible – like herself’. This last vicarious rejection brings the curtain down on Hazlitt’s doomed courtship of Sarah Walker. The journal ends with a semi-legible scrawl up the margin: ‘Let her lie to hell with her tongue – She is as true as heaven wished her heart and lips be. My own fair hell.’

He wished now only to ‘burn her out of my thoughts’. If he hoped to do so by publishing the Liber Amoris, he does not seem to have succeeded. It arrived on the bookstalls in early May, but four months later, the painter Haydon reports, ‘he came to town for a night or two, and passed nearly the whole of each in watching Sally’s door.’ But Haydon is not always a reliable witness, and this last vigil may be gossip rather than fact.

Whether ‘Sally’ was still to be seen at the door of No. 9 is uncertain. The scandal would have made her life there difficult, and there is another more pressing reason for her absence. Perhaps as early as July 1823, and certainly before the spring of 1824, she became pregnant, and when the baby was born it was not at Southampton Buildings, or even nearby, but in the distinctly poorer neighbourhood of St Pancras. She had family connections there. Her maternal grandmother, Sarah Plasted, had lived in the area, in the warren of lowly streets called Somers Town: we hear much of Sarah’s visits there in the Liber Amoris. Though her grandmother had recently died – she was buried in St Pancras Churchyard in February 1823 – this seems a cogent reason for the pregnant Sarah to be there. Under the circumstances, it is where we might expect to find her.

The father of the child was John Tomkins, the rival suitor of the Liber Amoris, the tall, ‘gentlemanly’ young man whose red slippers she had once made fun of. He was now about 25 years old – two years older than Sarah – and was completing his articles of apprenticeship as a solicitor. He was a young man with prospects. Hazlitt thought she was attracted to Tomkins because of what she ‘conjectured of his circumstances’ – ‘her sister had married a counsellor’, i.e. solicitor, ‘and so would she’ – and perhaps he was right.

A son was born and christened Frederick, a popular name with royal associations. I have narrowed down his birthdate – between 31 March and 6 October 1824 – but cannot specify it. He is not to be found in the baptismal records of St Pancras parish church; it is more than likely he was baptised at one of the many chapels in the area for which no registers remain. ‘Miss is religious,’ Hazlitt had said, a touch sourly, and perhaps she held to the Nonconformist principles of her family. Of Tomkins’s religion or lack of it we know nothing. It remains possible that the child was illegitimate. No record of a wedding, shotgun or otherwise, has yet been found, and the family records unearthed by Jones are ambiguous on the subject. She took Tomkins’s name, at any rate, whether officially or in ‘common law’. More precious even than prospects, he offered her anonymity. In a documentary sense, Sarah Walker now ceases to exist.

In 1825, the year after the birth of Frederick, John Tomkins first appears on the Law List as a practising solicitor. Thereafter the trail goes a bit cold. Sarah may or may not have heard of the death of Hazlitt, from stomach cancer, in 1830. We can guess her presence at her mother’s funeral in 1835. By this time her younger brother, Micaiah junior, was an up-and-coming solicitor and a father; while little Betsey, the impish child of the Liber Amoris, was the rather posh Mrs Nott, with a father-in-law who had been knighted for colonial services in the East Indies. In the early summer of 1841, when the first national Census was taken, John and Sarah Tomkins were living together at 31 Gloucester Street (now Old Gloucester Street), a tall, narrow, shady street just the other side of Holborn from Southampton Buildings. Their son Frederick, now about 17, was not there. This may be a casual absence – the Census is only a snapshot – or he may already be living and working elsewhere.

A few years later there comes a crisis in the career of John Tomkins. In 1848, having appeared continuously for more than twenty years, his name is dropped from the annual Law List. It does not reappear, and ten years later his occupation is merely ‘lawyer’s clerk’. It seems possible that he and Sarah split up around this time. He was not apparently present at his son’s wedding in the summer of 1849, and he is not found at the same address as Sarah in the Census of 1851. Young Frederick Tomkins was now a solicitor’s clerk in his mid-twenties, as his father had been when he courted Sarah; and perhaps he, too, had ‘prospects’ when he married. His bride was Caroline Jane Scarborough, 22 years old, born in Whitechapel. Her father’s occupation is given as ‘messenger’. The following year they were living at 25 Jewin Crescent, in the downmarket London area of Cripplegate. Here, on 20 December 1850, their son was born; he was christened Frederick William. Sarah was probably present at the birth of her grandson. Three months later, at any rate, the Census records her presence there, as part of the household of which Frederick was the head. She is Sarah J. Tomkins, mother, aged 50. Jewin Crescent disappeared a few decades ago: it lies beneath the cultural redoubt of the Barbican Centre. A Victorian map shows two chapels, a brass foundry and a wireworks in the immediate vicinity. Also living at No. 25 were a young Frenchman, Louis François Bavent, ‘importer of foreign goods’; and the Woodmans, William and Elizabeth, with two young daughters. He was a clerk at a ‘foreign newspaper office’. The Woodmans could afford a house servant; the Tomkins, it seems, could not.

Tragedy lies round the corner. The next we hear of Frederick Tomkins is the following year, up in Highgate. The address sounds pleasant enough – 6 Prospect Terrace, on leafy North Hill – but if he was there for reasons of health it was to no avail. He died there on 6 October 1852, at the age of 28, his head horribly swollen by cerebral dropsy or ‘water on the brain’. The informant entered on the death certificate is one of his in-laws, Mary Scarborough. This does not necessarily mean that Sarah was missing at her son’s death, only that it was Mrs Scarborough who attended to the formalities thereafter. The whereabouts of John Tomkins at this point are unknown. He died six years later, at King’s College Hospital, aged 60. The causes of death were paralysis and erysipelas. The latter, popularly called ‘the rose’, is a febrile disease characterised by a vivid red inflammation of the skin. According to the Victorian textbook Archives of Surgery, it was associated with ‘the too liberal use of alcoholic beverages’.

The next definite sighting of Sarah Tomkins is in early 1861: she has migrated south of the Thames, to Newington – the furthest move, as far as we know, in her circumscribed London life. We can reconstruct a little of her progress there. Her daughter-in-law Caroline, a widow at 25, had soon attracted a suitor, one Henry Horatio Neville Eastwood. He was a ‘merchant’s clerk’ a year older than she. He, too, had been widowed, and had an infant son about the same age as Frederick junior. They were married at Holy Trinity, Islington in July 1855. A couple of years later they had a son, Henry junior. His birthplace is given as Highgate: it is possible that the Eastwoods (and perhaps Sarah) were living in the house on Prospect Terrace where Frederick Tomkins had died. By 1858, they had moved to Newington, where two more children arrived in quick succession, and here I find them in the 1861 Census, at 14 Newington Crescent, and with them Sarah Tomkins, ‘mother-in-law’, now 60 years old. And Sarah has an occupation; in the poorly formed hand of the Census clerk I thought it was ‘annuitant’ (in other words, that she was living off a legacy of some sort), but it is not: it is ‘assistant’. We can trace her various addresses, and the family events which touched her, but this is the only clue we have to the kind of person she became in the long blank years after the Hazlitt affair. One wishes it said more. Whom did she assist and how? One thinks of the rather fastidious handwriting in the preserved letter to Hazlitt: was she perhaps a secretary of some sort, a businessman’s or shopkeeper’s assistant, a tidy keeper of lists and ledgers? Or maybe the term is more precise, and she is an assistant in the classroom (see OED, s.v. ‘assistantship’, citing an 1870s advertisement for such a post by a ‘non-certificated teacher’). Either way, unless the term disguises some more menial reality, we seem to find her, at the age of 60, with a pen in her hand and a pair of small round spectacles on her nose.

Some time after 1871, Sarah moved into her last lodgings, at 65 Penton Place, just around the corner from Newington Crescent. Perhaps there was no longer room with the expanding Eastwood family: they now had seven children. Her grandson Frederick continued to live with the family. He was now in his early twenties and had work as a ‘clerk mercantile’. The word ‘clerk’ echoes dully through the story of Sarah’s life: the literate drudges of Victorian law and commerce, the low-paid office workers among whom she lived. How much she kept up with her own family is uncertain. Her brother Micaiah had prospered, and founded a successful law firm, Walker, Son & Field; he would live to the age of 96. In 1882, four years after Sarah’s death, he drew up the document entitled ‘Particulars of my Family’ which Jones later found. As well as many valuable facts, it contains a glaring untruth: he states that Sarah died unmarried and childless. A lingering sense of ignominy, rather than ignorance, must surely be the reason for this. (She was not quite blotted out of the family, however. Micaiah’s grandson, Reginald, knew of her as Sarah Tomkins, and knew she had a son; he was born in 1864, and may have met her as a child.)

The house on Penton Place has gone (one finds instead Lynford French House, a low-rise council block on the edge of the Newington Estate), but it can be inferred from the extant houses opposite, with their sash windows and chimney pots and bruised grey brick. The Giraffe pub is still in business, though I do not fancy her as much of a tippler. Her landlady was Sarah Dods, a native of Burton-on-Trent; among other lodgers recorded in the house are an elderly nurse, a hackney-carriage driver, and a print-worker. Here Sarah Tomkins née Walker died, on 7 September 1878. The death certificate gives the cause of death as ‘old age’, which seems perfunctory but which probably means she died peacefully. Perhaps she remembered those distant days of her youth, and that strange, hectic man who loved her so passionately, and wanted to marry her, and ended up marking her life and her name with a taint of scandal that would never quite go away. He had told her as much: ‘My Infelice! You will live by that name, you rogue, fifty years after you are dead.’ And she had replied in her pert way, ‘I have no such ambition, Sir,’ not then knowing the truth of what he said.