»  The New Criterion

October 2008

  Hazlitt's Philocaption: a very child in love

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The great fifteenth-century treatise on witchcraft Malleus Maleficarum ("Hammer of the Witches") includes a lengthy discussion of the question: "Is it a Catholic view to maintain that witches can infect the minds of men with an inordinate love of strange women, and so inflame their hearts that by no shame or punishment, by no words or actions can they be forced to desist from such love?"

Later, in a section given over to remedies for various kinds of bewitchment, the horrid art is named: "Philocaption, or inordinate love of one person for another, can be caused in three ways. Sometimes it is due merely to a lack of control over the eyes; sometimes to the temptation of devils; sometimes to the spells of necromancers and witches, with the help of devils."

One does not need to believe in witchcraft to acknowledge that philocaption as a psychological catastrophe is all too real. It has, I am sure, happened in all times and places, to both sexes, but nineteenth-century Englishmen seem to have been particularly susceptible, or perhaps just particularly willing to record the experience in their literary productions. Some of the most sensitive and intelligent Englishmen of that age were victims of philocaption, succumbing to the imagined charms of uncultivated, dramatically unsuitable women.

The novelist George Gissing was ruined by his passion for a common prostitute named Nell. Gissing actually married this Nell, who of course made him thoroughly miserable; then, when she died, either of drink or venereal disease, Gissing promptly fell for another girl he met in the street — perhaps also a prostitute, we are not sure — and proceeded to repeat the whole ghastly blunder with her.

The poet Ernest Dowson ("I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind …") was at least spared the pain of marriage with the philocaptrix. His Cynara was a waitress in a cheap restaurant who, according to Dowson's friend Arthur Symons, "listened to his verses, smiled charmingly, under her mother's eyes, on his two years' courtship, and at the end of two years married the waiter instead. … Did it ever mean very much to her to have made and to have killed a poet?" I very much doubt it.

Somerset Maugham provided a characteristically unsparing account of philocaption in his autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage. Given that Maugham was homosexual, you have to wonder about the precise identity of "Mildred," but the overall experience he describes fits the pattern.[*]

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The brightest star in this galaxy of philocaptive misery is the essayist William Hazlitt. Early in the morning of Wednesday, August 16, 1820, on the second floor of a lodging-house in west-central London, Hazlitt had his breakfast brought to him by his landlady's daughter, Sarah Walker. She was 19; he, 42. Having delivered the breakfast-tray, Sarah left. But:

[T]he first time I ever saw you, as you went out of the room, you turned full round at the door, with that inimitable grace with which you do every thing, and fixed your eyes full upon me, as much as to say, "Is he caught?"

He certainly was. There followed two years of dreadful infatuation — an exceptionally severe case of philocaption.

Jon Cook, who is Professor of Literature at the University of East Anglia (in Norwich, England) has recently given us a book about the business: Hazlitt in Love — A Fatal Attachment (Short Books, London, 2007). This is a well-written and neatly-structured brief account, broadly sympathetic to its subject, in so far as it is possible to be sympathetic to the extremes of self-deceptive folly.

Jon Cook is by no means the first writer to take up the Hazlitt-Walker affair. The first was Hazlitt himself. In May of 1823, a few months after the end of the episode, Hazlitt published Liber Amoris, a thinly-fictionalized narrative in the form of letters and brief diary-style memoranda. "Taken as a whole," says Jon Cook, "the book is like an album or a reliquary of a love affair."

Liber Amoris carries no author's name. However, Hazlitt's numerous literary enemies took no time at all to smoke him out. No great effort was required to do so. Hazlitt was not the type to hide his misery under a bushel. His friend the playwright and journalist Bryan Procter reports Hazlitt telling him, while still under the philocaptive spell, and before Liber Amoris came out, that:

I just saw J— going into Wills' Coffee-house yesterday morning; he spoke to me, I followed him into the house; and whilst he lunched, I told him the whole story. Then I wandered into the Regent's Park, where I met one of M—'s sons. I walked with him some time, and on his using some civil expression, by God! Sir, I told him the whole story. Well, Sir, then I went and called on Haydon, but he was out. There was only his man, Salmon, there; but by God! I could not help myself. It all came out; the whole cursed story! …

A. C. Grayling, Hazlitt's most recent biographer, correctly describes the effect of Liber Amoris as "repulsive to any reader who does not know the story of [Hazlitt's] enchantment and destruction, and unbearably poignant to anyone who does."

Whether "destruction" overstates the case is a matter of dispute. Meeting Hazlitt in August 1824, two years after the Sarah Walker affair ended and six years since her previous sight of him, Mary Shelley was shocked: "gaunt and thin, his hair scattered, his cheek bones projecting … his smile brought tears into my eyes, it was like a sun-beam illuminating the most melancholy ruins."

Yet just that Spring Hazlitt had married a wealthy widow, Isabella Bridgwater. He was living in financial security at last, and writing prolifically. On the other other hand, the marriage soon collapsed, Isabella taking herself and her fortune off to Switzerland in the fall of 1827. We do not know the cause of the failure; but that post-philocaptive stress had nothing to do with it, seems to me improbable.

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Hazlitt has had at least six biographers, but so far as I know Jon Cook's is the first nonfiction book to concentrate on the Hazlitt-Walker affair (counting Liber Amoris as fiction). Novelists have been less reticent. Jonathan Bate's 1998 novel The Cure for Love put an ingenious modern spin on the story, while Anne Haverty's 2001 The Far Side of a Kiss made a feminist tract of the affair, with Sarah Walker as the victim — an intellectual gal stifled by the conventions of her time, drawn to Hazlitt for the opportunities he offered her to enlarge her cramped understanding.

In fact, so far as can be ascertained from the dialogues recorded in Liber Amoris, and from accounts by Hazlitt's friends, Sarah Walker was an unremarkable young woman of her class and time, certainly not intellectual. She flirted with male residents at the lodging-house in part from a girl's natural inclination to flirt, in part very likely because she was encouraged to do so by her parents, to assist the family business.

Nor was she of striking appearance to anyone not bewitched. That same Bryan Procter recalled her in a memoir, from which Jon Cook gives extracts:

"Her face was round and small, and her eyes were motionless, glassy and without any speculation (apparently) in them." Something in the way she moved impressed [Procter]: "Her movements in walking were very remarkable, for I never observed her make a step. She went onwards in a sort of wavy, sinuous manner, like the movements of a snake."

Intellectual? When the affair was over and Liber Amoris on the verge of publication, Hazlitt persuaded a male friend, whom we know only as F, to test the girl by checking into the lodging-house and making advances to her. The results were predictable. Sarah teased F, flirted with him, and permitted minor "liberties" to him, just as she had to Hazlitt, but drew the line firmly at any real sexual engagement. After receiving F's debriefing, Hazlitt asked him whether he would like to have Sarah as his mistress in a set-up funded by Hazlitt, if the matter could be arranged. F declined, saying that he preferred a woman who could read and talk.

It is probable that Sarah's own heart had been captured by another lodger, John Tomkins, who stayed at the house for a few months in late 1821 and early 1822 (which is to say, from about Month 14 to Month 20 of Hazlitt's 23-month trauma). It was an accidental encounter with Sarah and Tomkins out walking together on July 29, 1822, followed by a four-hour conversation with Tomkins that evening, that finally woke Hazlitt from his dream of love. Two years later, Sarah gave birth to a son. She moved in with Tomkins shortly afterwards, and lived with him more than twenty years, though they never married.

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William Hazlitt's father was a Unitarian minister whose unbending principles caused him to refuse most of the opportunities for a stable living that came his way. The family actually spent the years 1783-87 — William aged five to nine — in North America, whose stern Congregationalism proved stony soil for the "rational religion" Hazlitt, Sr. offered them. The family's landlady at one point was Abigail Adams, wife of John and mother of John Quincy. (She was not the last famous person to house William. His London landlord for the seven years just prior to the Sarah Walker affair, 1813-19, was the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.) William's only recorded recollection of the family's American adventure was of the taste of barberries found under snow.

His father wanted William to enter the Unitarian ministry. The boy lost his faith early, though, and abandoned the idea. He spent his later teen years reading everything he could find in literature and philosophy, and accumulating literary acquaintances: William Godwin (later Shelley's father-in-law), then the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth.

At age twenty Hazlitt happened upon an exhibition of Italian old masters in London and was, he tells us, "staggered" by them: "From that time I lived in a world of pictures." He took painting lessons from his older brother John, a successful portraitist, and at age 24 had a painting exhibited by the Royal Academy. All through his twenties Hazlitt made a living of sorts by painting, increasingly supplemented by art criticism and hack writing.

Hazlitt married at thirty in 1808. His bride was Sarah Stoddart, four years his senior. Sarah was an intelligent and well-read freethinker like himself, daughter of an officer in the Royal Navy. It was a marriage of affection and shared sympathies rather than love. Sons were born at one, three, and seven years into the marriage, but only the second survived. By 1817 the Hazlitts were living more apart than together, though they always remained friends.

William had by this time become moderately well-known as an essayist and pamphleteer of radical opinions. Hazlitt's young imagination had been fired by the French Revolution, and he never lost that egalitarian ardor. He was an admirer of Napoleon — England's mortal enemy in a long series of wars — and his last book was a four-volume biography of the dictator. Oddly, he was also an unwavering admirer of Edmund Burke, about whom he wrote a flattering essay: "I cannot help looking upon him as the chief boast and ornament of the English House of Commons …" etc. Considering the two men's contrary views of the French Revolution, this is puzzling. All Hazlitt's praise was, though, for Burke's powers of mind, pen, and speech. Here, as in the Sarah Walker affair, one comes away with the strong impression that Hazlitt was much more a form man than a content man. "I live in a world of pictures."

Hazlitt's manner of life was precarious. He was usually hard up, and was arrested for debt at least twice. It was for non-payment of rent that Jeremy Bentham evicted him in the winter of 1819-20. The last thing Hazlitt ever wrote, from his death bed, was a begging letter to a friend, asking for £10.

If not precisely bohemian in the sense that Thackeray put into common English currency twenty years later, Hazlitt's lifestyle was certainly not sexually abstemious. He was embarrassed one day when out walking with a friend to be surrounded by a cheerful flock of street women, to whom he was obviously a familiar client.

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And then that two-year infatuation with his landlady's lackluster daughter. Jon Cook gives the essential details, but you really have to brave Liber Amoris for the full horror of the thing.

Here is every stage in the progress of amorous obsession, described with a frankness that makes it all too familiar to anyone who has endured philocaption. Here are the soaring hopes and plunging disappointments, the paralyzing anxiety, the moments of incomparable sweetness. The sweetest of those latter are public excursions with the beloved, of which Hazlitt was vouchsafed just one: a trip to the theater with Sarah and her mother on January 24, 1822. The play — you can't make this stuff up — was Romeo and Juliet. Sarah allowed Hazlitt to hold her hand, a moment of perfect rapture for her victim: "Oh! Could we but be always so — do not mock me, for I am indeed a very child in love."

Above all, Liber Amoris shows the extraordinary vividness, the intensity of the philocaptive experience — every slightest event, every trivial exchange, every word, every gesture, every date and time, luminous with meaning and glowing bright for ever in memory. The rest of the philocaptive's life, before and after, seems shadowy and insubstantial by contrast.

Here too, perhaps hardest of all for fellow-victims to read, is the occasional awareness of one's own folly and humiliation. If philocaption struck only the dim-witted and incurious, there would be little to say about it. In Hazlitt it found a victim already cursed with self-knowledge — one of what he himself called "the reflective portion of humanity."

Who is there so low as me? Who is there besides … so vile, so abhorrent to love, to whom such an indignity could have happened? …

I am tossed about … by my passion, so as to become ridiculous. I can now understand how it is that mad people never remain in the same place — they are moving on for ever, from themselves!

And of course, as Hazlitt perceived, seen from the outside, the business was ridiculous. It descended from the merely ridiculous to the utterly farcical when he decided to divorce his wife in order to be free to marry the other — who had never had nor voiced any willingness to marry him!

Divorce was very difficult in England at the time, but much easier in Scotland, though there was a 40-day residency requirement. Hazlitt persuaded his wife to go to Scotland with him so that he could divorce her. Sarah Hazlitt comes out of the trip rather well. She kept a journal of it, which Grayling describes as "disarming and brave." She occupied herself for the required 40 days with long walking tours, taking in the Scottish scenery and the art collections at great country houses.

At one of these houses, Dalkeith Palace, she unexpectedly encountered Hazlitt, who was killing time in the same way. Husband and wife gazed together at the allegorical painting Truth Finding Fortune in the Sea, then attributed to Luca Giordano, but now believed to be Pietro Liberi's. Hazlitt was stunned by the principal nude in the painting, who (he said) was the image of his other Sarah. He recorded this incident — or rather, curiously mis-recorded it — in Liber Amoris:

Do you know I saw a picture, the very pattern of her, the other day at Dalkeith Palace (Hope Finding Fortune in the Sea) … and the resemblance drove me almost out of my senses.

But the first word in that painting's name is not "hope," it is "truth." This cannot have been a deliberate substitution for fictionalizing purposes, or why did the author not fictionalize "Dalkeith"? It is an interesting slip. Perhaps Hazlitt had been reading Dr. Johnson: "The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope." They are assuredly not, other than in very exceptional cases, from truth to truth.

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Hazlitt was not indifferent to the metaphysical interests we see reflected in the literature and philosophy of his age — those interests lampooned so mercilessly by Peacock in Nightmare Abbey and painted so darkly by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. His first book was a work of moral philosophy: Essay on the Principles of Human Action. Given this interest, and his own self-awareness, the experience of philocaption must have caused Hazlitt to wonder at the ease with which intellect and will can be unhorsed and disarmed.

In March of 1821 — Month 8 of his 23-month ordeal — Hazlitt published an essay titled "On Personal Character," setting out a rather grimly deterministic view of human life and human action.

No one ever changes his character from the time he is two years old; nay, I might say, from the time he is two hours old … the character, the internal, original bias, remains always the same, true to itself to the very last … A temper sullen or active, shy or bold, grave or lively, selfish or romantic, … is manifest very early; and imperceptibly but irresistibly moulds our inclinations, habits, and pursuits through life. The greater or less degree of animal spirits … the disposition to be affected by objects near, or at a distance, or not at all, — to be struck with novelty, or to brood over deep-rooted impressions, — to indulge in laughter or in tears, the leaven of passion or of prudence that tempers this frail clay, is born with us and never quits us. … The accession of knowledge, the pressure of circumstances … does little more than minister occasion to the first predisposing bias …

So much for the shelves of self-improvement manuals at your local bookstore. To the degree that self-improvement is possible, Hazlitt implies, it is only walking north on the deck of a south-bound ship.

Is this a true account of human nature? It may well be. Earlier this year I attended a conference on the current state of the mind sciences. Though none of the important questions in those sciences is as yet dispositively answered, the overall impression given by the researchers who addressed us was strongly Hazlittian. We act, and then we make up stories to supply reasons to ourselves and others. The commonplace notion of human volition — perceive a choice; choose; act — is only what neuroscience researchers cheerfully call "folk volition." It bears as little relation to the actual brain processes involved in volition as the crystal dome of ancient "folk astronomy" does to the actual night sky.

Hazlitt's philocaption could not, at any rate, have come to him as a complete surprise. He was chronically susceptible to infatuations with women much below himself in class and intellect. His friend Peter George Patmore tells us that he "never knew [Hazlitt] out of love." The Sarah Walker obsession was thus only the most serious flare-up of a condition to which Hazlitt had always been susceptible.

His political disappointments paralleled his personal ones, reinforcing the pessimism. In a very perceptive commentary on Hazlitt's early-1823 essay "My First Acquaintance with Poets," Jon Cook notes that the essayist's first meetings with Coleridge and Wordsworth in 1798 occurred in "a time of hope." Those political hopes did not survive the quarter-century to 1823, any more than did Hazlitt's personal hopes.

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!" Hazlitt surely agreed with Wordsworth's famous lines on the French revolutionary period. He was even younger than Wordsworth (by eight years) and for an Englishman of instinctively liberal, dissenting, egalitarian impulses, the fading memory of that bliss through the long, dreary Napoleonic wars (Truth Drowning Hope in the Sea), the reactionary administration of Lord Liverpool, and the buffoonish monarchy of George IV, cast public affairs in a sad, dwindling light. Could Hazlitt have foreseen the great reforms of the 1830s and the unifying good sense of Victoria, the prospects might have cheered him up; but he died in September 1830, aged 52, from cancer of the stomach.

In a startling digression in the middle of that 1823 essay, Hazlitt, in Jon Cook's words, "looks back upon an existence that had somehow failed to happen":

So have I loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best. I have wanted only one thing to make me happy; but wanting that, have wanted everything!

Hazlitt in Love leaves no doubt what that one thing was.

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*  From Jeffrey Meyers' Somerset Maugham: A Life (2004), pp. 110-111:
The boyish Mildred does not resemble any woman in Maugham's life. But she's so indelibly lifelike that she must, like all the other major characters in the novel, be based on a real person. Harry Philips, Maugham's companion in Paris, revealed that "the real Mildred was a youth" and, with tantalizing suggestiveness, linked himself to her: "Mildred was a composite character & one incident in the book, Of Human Bondage, was undoubtedly an episode in our friendship not very creditable to me which he attributed to her. At the time I was somewhat ashamed as I realised that I had hurt his feelings more than I thought."