Another writer introduced me to William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris as if he were passing along a tip to eat in a restaurant with great food but clumsy waiters. “It’s not for everybody,” he said. “But you definitely won’t get bored reading it.”

I had never heard of Liber Amoris and knew Hazlitt only as a 19th-century English essayist with a bad-boy reputation. The tale it tells – mostly factual, at best – is about a lodger who tries to seduce a lovely, sometimes eager, but ultimately unwilling servant. Of course that sounds like an old familiar storyline. My introducer was right, though. I found Liber Amoris more than interesting: this epistolary memoir, or novella, or comedic tragedy, or whatever it is, fascinated me, and I’ve recommended it to my own writer friends and students ever since. While I don’t condone its blurring of the boundary between real and imagined experience, I do love it as an example of a writer’s ability to color his voice and narrative persona to keep readers off balance.

Published in 1823, Liber Amoris draws from the true story of Hazlitt’s woeful crush some years earlier on a 19-year-old housemaid named Sarah Walker. Hazlitt, then in his 40s with his marriage in shambles, rented rooms in a lodging house where Walker worked. The young woman immediately captivated him, and she didn’t discourage his advances. He fantasized about marrying her. Meanwhile, the housemaid was cultivating romantic relationships with other lodgers, the discovery of which tormented Hazlitt. He finally got a divorce, but Walker was no longer interested in him. Hazlitt tumbled into depression and poured his angst into writing Liber Amoris while fortunately retaining his literary faculties.

The narrator’s personality in Liber Amoris seems bizarrely modern, with a manipulation of voice and the reader’s psyche worthy of David Shields. Hazlitt managed to have fun writing this humiliating narrative, with his glee coming through in his efforts to confuse the reader. Is the narrator a pitifully wronged naïf or a stalking lunatic of Lifetime-movie proportions? Here’s a writer, working two centuries ago, who shows us what few narrative journalists understand today: Ambiguous narration can propel a story forward by posing a question. Is the narrator right or wrong in his perceptions? Built around such a storyteller, a narrative can set readers on a quest to reach their own conclusions.

There’s plenty to dislike about Hazlitt’s narrator: his rages, puppy-like adulation of the young woman, childish jealousy, and self-hatred, for starters. What honesty! But these qualities don’t obscure his attractive aspects. At times he’s supremely self-aware and funny. When Sarah fails to answer a letter he has sent, for example, the narrator unleashes a torrent of tongue-in-cheek, nonsensical agony:

The rolling years of eternity will never fill up that blank. Where shall I be? What am I? Or where have I been?

The reader’s sympathy is important in Liber Amoris. Without it, Hazlitt cannot confuse us about his narrator’s motives, sense, and even sanity. After Sarah ultimately spurns his love, he declares:

My state is this, that I shall never lie down again at night nor rise up in the morning in peace, nor ever behold my little boy’s face with pleasure while I live — unless I am restored to her favour.

However ridiculously Hazlitt’s narrator has behaved, few readers can dismiss a sorrow so deep that it spoils the joy a man feels at the sight of his own child.

The account’s narrator meets Sarah while he’s in an emotional state that today would be called “vulnerable.” He’s lying low in Scotland, hiding from a vindictive wife who wants a divorce. He feels lonely and believes that his life is empty. Sarah, in his mind, fills the void. He writes to her: 

Your ordinary walk is as if you were performing some religious ceremony: you come up to my table of a morning, when you merely bring in the tea-things, as if you were advancing to the altar. You move in minuet-time: you measure every step, as if you were afraid of offending in the smallest things.

But we know better: Sarah is nothing special.

Even so, who can argue with a man who wants only peace, serenity, a glimpse of beauty, and love? These desires are universal. That’s how Hazlitt gets his narrator on our good side. At other times, he makes the narrator disgust us with his clumsy seductive moves, and they are nothing more than that. That’s Hazlitt’s game in Liber Amoris: make us like the guy, make us recoil from him, and demonstrate that in telling a partly nonfiction tale (or at least a story largely autobiographical) he can thoroughly bewilder us.

The subtitle, “The New Pygmalion,” refers to a mythological story of a sculptor who falls in love with his statue. It’s easy to see how the subtitle applies to Hazlitt’s infatuation with his fantasy housemaid and literary character. Less obvious, perhaps, is the subtitle’s connection to readers, who want nothing more than to open a book and conjure up an irresistible narrator. In Liber Amoris, Hazlitt delivers on that dream.

Jack El-Hai is the author of The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness and the forthcoming book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist. He teaches nonfiction in the MFA program in creative writing at Augsburg College.

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