Taking "Other Liberties" with Hazlitt's Liber Amoris

By Robinson, Daniel | Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Taking "Other Liberties" with Hazlitt's Liber Amoris


Robinson, Daniel, Studies in Short Fiction


However much readers and critics psychoanalyze William Hazlitt's persona in Liber Amoris (1823), it is abundantly clear that "H" simply wants what he cannot have--sex with "S." In the first part of Liber Amoris, William Hazlitt constructs--supposedly re-constructs--conversations he had with Sarah Walker, the daughter of the landlord of a boarding house where he lived from 1820 until 1822, when he moved to Scotland to facilitate his divorce from his first wife. He persists in his attempts to seduce her but is met with chaste resistance, despite his assertions that she sits in his lap, kisses him, and lets him "take other liberties" with her (302). The ambiguity of the "other liberties" he takes with the young woman makes us wonder if he is closer to his goal--literally and figuratively--than literary propriety permits him to reveal; but, more importantly, the linguistic ambiguity raises questions about the veracity of Hazlitt's portrayal of her in his short "book of love," the literal translation of Liber Amoris. Considering the liberties he claims she has allowed him to take, no elaborate linguistic &construction is necessary to reverse the title to read Amor Liberis--or "free love"--which is essentially what "H" wants from her in the first part of the book. Such linguistic confusion is apparent throughout as language opens up an interconnectedness of meanings, verbal similarities, and associations in Hazlitt's text, leaving him linguistically caught on the semantic difference between "her lover" (himself) and his "love of her" (his desire; my emphasis): "The gates of Paradise were once open to me too, and I blushed to enter but with the golden keys of love! I would die; but her lover--my love of her--ought not to die. When I am dead, who will love her as I have done?" (325). These similar sounds further point to the wordplay in the rifle. The text calls into question, therefore, whether we can accept this as actual experience or as Hazlitt's highly literary and textual creation.

The point of these maneuvers is to suggest that, despite its tortured histrionics and passionate despair, Liber Amoris is the locus of great textual and intertextual playfulness that emphasizes its literariness and warns against reading the work simply as autobiography, as many readers and critics have done. For embedded in the very phrase Hazlitt uses, "other liberties," is the concept of "book" and "other books" which in and of itself calls for the marking of intertextual relationships. Hazlitt takes all kinds of liberties with Sarah Walker and with his obsession with her in order to forge a work that finally, despite its biographical resonances, casts him in the role of "the New Pygmalion"--an undeniably literary performance that coincides to a remarkable degree with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus of 1818. After discussing some of the ways in which biographical and psychological determinism have prohibited freer readings of the text, I will suggest that the intertextual echoes of Frankenstein in Liber Amoris help free the literary text from biographical determinism as well as mythological determinism, showing it in a new relationship with texts of the period that may help us see the work as "a key text for Romantic passion," as one critic has suggested we should (McFarland 53). But I should point out that what follows is not a discussion of sources for Liber Amoris, nor is it an assertion of Bloomian notions of influence: I mean simply to show that Hazlitt's text can be opened up to permit readers' taking "other liberties" with it, perhaps reviving it from the quietus of interpretative determinacy and critical neglect.

Hazlitt's Liber Amoris: or The New Pygmalion has long held an anomalous place among fiction of the Romantic period and, as many critics and readers have expressed it, an "aberrant" one among Hazlitt's otherwise respectable literary works (Daniels 200). However, along with Mary Shelley's tales, Liber Amoris is an important instance of Romantic short fiction. …

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