Radical chic

The Quarrel of the Age: the life and times of William Hazlitt

A C Grayling <em>Weidenfeld and Nico

Move over, Mozart. How's this for the work of a 12-year-old child: "Happy indeed, unspeakably happy, are those people who, when at the point of death, are able to say, with a satisfaction none but themselves can have any idea of: I have done with this world, I shall now have no more of its temptations to struggle with." Thus the young William Hazlitt wrote, in 1790, from a summer holiday in Liverpool to his father, a Unitarian minister, in Shropshire.

The precocity of Hazlitt (1778-1830) never slackened, only matured. Aged 19, after meeting Coleridge and Wordsworth, he wrote "My First Acquaintance with Poets", a vivid, lasting portrait of Romanticism's dynamic duo, which Somerset Maugham later called "the finest essay in the English language".

Even so, Hazlitt did not instantly become a writer. He intended to follow his father into the Unitarian ministry. However, after five years at New College in Hackney, London, and under Coleridge's influence, he shifted his gaze from metaphysics to painting, and his pictures were good. That of his father, "in a green old age with strong-marked features, and scarred with the smallpox", was accepted by the Royal Academy. A fortunate commission in 1802 sent him to copy the Old Masters in the Louvre. In Paris, he acquired a French sensibility and a lifelong admiration for the French revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Returning to England, he was propelled by Charles and Mary Lamb into a loveless marriage from whose many pregnancies only one cherished son survived. Living for a time in his wife's village in Salisbury, he became a landscape painter; however, when they were back in London, he changed course again and again. From lecturing on philosophy, Hazlitt shifted to writing parliamentary reports for the Morning Chronicle. With liberal views acquired from his father and a deep concern for the social ills of his country, he disliked what he saw. As Anthony Grayling comments in this richly textured biography, Hazlitt's portrait of the House of Commons is depressingly familiar: "a go-cart of prejudices", a place of verbosity, mummery and silly jargon.

Next came theatre criticism, and then essays, through which Hazlitt elevated the short article into an art form. "On the Qualifications Necessary to Success in Life" was the first in a series of essays in the London Magazine, later republished as Table Talk, which became his finest achievement. Robert Louis Stevenson said: "We are all mighty fine fellows, but none of us can write like Hazlitt." Or, indeed, earn like him. Hazlitt led the way for future generations of English writers to graze the lush pastures of journalism. With his pen, he could earn 30 guineas a week, at a time when a good annual income was £100. Ordered prose did not reflect an ordered life. How did the young lad who was called "one of the most entertaining and prepossessing children ever seen" turn into the caustic adolescent and the self-destructive man?

Unlike many academic biographers, Grayling, a reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, does not exaggerate the intellectual side of his subject at the expense of the emotional. He even permits himself personal asides on the ways of the human heart. Plausibly he traces the pattern of self-destructiveness back to Hazlitt's adolescence. The child moralist could not accept the sexual longings that burst upon him in adolescence. Later, he was unable and unwilling to fight his ruinous impulses.

Hazlitt was doubly addicted - to prostitutes and to falling in love at first sight. The most famously destructive of many obsessive loves lasted for more than three years. Sarah Walker was the daughter of the keeper of a lodging house in Southampton Buildings, where Hazlitt lived having sent his wife and son back to Wiltshire. Sarah took tea into the lodgers' rooms and often stayed for a cuddle. The smitten Hazlitt was permitted hours of fondling, only to find out that at least one of his fellow lodgers was allowed considerably more. Fearing to lose his sanity over the young woman, with her small round face, glassy eyes, monosyllabic utterance and waving walk, he foolishly imagined that, were he free to marry, Sarah might accept him. He obtained a Scottish divorce - but to no avail. Still wild with love, he poured all the sordid details of his frustrated affair into the confessional Liber Amoris (1823). The book, sadder in many ways (because more honest) than Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, ruined his reputation.

A second loveless marriage, this time to a rich woman, provided Hazlitt with the Grand Tour he had never had. The couple visited Florence, Rome, Venice and the Alps before his son joined them. The boy - who, like his father, had metamorphorsed from charming child to sullen adolescent - was too much for his stepmother to bear. She disappeared from Hazlitt's life, leaving him the consolation of having gathered on his travels material for a life of his idol, Napoleon. He wrongly believed the four-volume biography that emerged to be the pinnacle of his achievement.

Hazlitt died at 52 - of cancer, or perhaps it was an ulcer - in love with yet another woman his friends judged worthless. If his sexual torments seem anachronistic, there is nothing dated about the philosophical questions he posed. He attacked the doom-saying demographer Malthus for the condescending assumption that the poor are oversexed and thus unable to stop themselves from overbreeding. His "Essay on the Principles of Human Action", written when he was 26, anticipates the current debate between the selfish gene and altruism. A true liberal, Hazlitt came down on the side of altruism, maintaining that the human mind is "naturally disinterested" - naturally inclined to take into account the experience of others who share the same consciousness of self. Thus Grayling's poignant portrait of this sad, clear-sighted master scribe ends on a positive note.

Brenda Maddox has written books on, among others, D H Lawrence and W B Yeats