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Writing the “Love Letter” from the Lack: The Economy of Absence in Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris

Peter B. FORD

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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. (Hazlitt 78, 142)

1William Hazlitt’s intensely ambivalent Liber Amoris functions on a number of different narrative levels. These narrative levels, however, seemingly lie outside much expressible literary value for many Hazlitt critics, both contemporaneous with Hazlitt and more contemporary with current readership (Jack 274-275; Albrecht 161, 163). As Jonathan Gross analogously notes in his fairly recent recuperation of Hazlitt, “Hazlitt’s Worshipping Practice in Liber Amoris,” Hazlitt’s novel “has caused almost as much pain to his recent literary commentators as it did to him” (Gross 707). For reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay — but which are not too difficult to intimate — Liber Amoris has incited far more negative than positive responses, causing, as Gross explains, outright pain to many readers of the novel. For instance, Henry Crabb Robinson referred to it as “disgusting,” exclaiming how “it ought to exclude the author from all decent society”; La Gallienne called it “silly”; and Frank Swinterton termed it a “tragic piece of futility” (quoted in Morgan 10, 17). There are, in turn, very few reviewers who have treated Hazlitt and Liber Amoris as De Quincey did, applauding it for the novel’s confidence and sheer human frenzy (De Quincey 233-4). My aim is therefore to revisit the novel in a recuperative manner, such as the work of Gross and Stanley Jones suggests (Jones 318), however, focusing instead on Hazlitt’s problems of subjectivity and of man in love, locating us in a novel of incomplete melancholia par excellence.

2On one level, then, the novel is a love story, transcribed by the broken-hearted lover and published by a close friend, detailing the trajectory of a man and the object of his love, while including the way in which she completely “abandons” him (Hazlitt 63-4). On another, it is a collection of disturbing letters, some of which address directly Hazlitt’s — known throughout the text as “H.” — apparition-like love object, Sarah Walker, while others are to and from H.’s friends who maintain surveillance over Sarah and who report back to H., who in turn tries to write the distance away. What runs through both levels of narrative, however, and what will occupy the focal point of this essay, is the violent movement of the loved object and the ways in which her faults and failures are reflected back upon H. himself.

3Performing the melancholic role in a seemingly Freudian manner, H. appropriates all the love-based hate he has projected onto Sarah Walker, both in letters to her and to others, and internalizes them himself, as his own personal denigration of self-regard (Freud 244). As we know from Freud’s well-known essay, “Mourning and Melancholia,” the only expressible difference between mourning and melancholia is this loss of self-regard, which is in turn replaced by self-loathing and other venomous feelings that one holds against the object (243-5). Thus in Freud’s terms, those feelings that H. assigns to Sarah Walker, his “lost” object, reflect back upon H. in a way that directly engages the ego. What results from this lost object and empty ego are the compulsory writings that address others on a purely communicative level, while attempting to write away the distance and the reflected loss of self-regard. These moments often emerge as disillusioned questions, as Hazlitt confirms in a letter to his confidant, J.S.K., “What had I done in her absence to have incurred her displeasure? Why had she not written to me?” (Hazlitt 133, 197). While mourning the loss of a truly “lost” object, e.g. the death of a loved one, necessitates a prolonged cathexis which monitors and regulates the outpouring of emotion, the melancholic most often occupies this space of anti-cathexis, thriving on the economic expenditure of feelings run rampant, and more often than not against himself: “I had gone into the bed-room, merely to hide away from myself… raging-mad with a new sense of present shame and lasting misery (142, 206).

4And while it may at first seem to be a bit abstract to discuss another component in a sort of freeplay with the above points, I find it difficult to neglect and simultaneously necessary to keep the momentum of the above foci, on which the weight of this essay will meditate, to invoke the subtitle Hazlitt gives his “love” story: The New Pygmalion. Building on the Greek mythological tale of Pygmalion, the sculptor who obsessively caresses and cares for his ivory woman until the day his wishes are confirmed and granted by Venus, bringing her to life (Ovid 335-8), Hazlitt inverts the story. Instead of crafting an inanimate object and cultivating his love for the sculpture, one day finally transforming the object into a flesh-and-blood woman, Hazlitt begins with a real lodging-house girl; through overdetermined, obsessive-compulsive mannerisms, he therefore attempts to sculpt her into a ivory statue, even confirming once how his love for her was notably increased when she was ill and pale (Hazlitt 65, 129). This essay will therefore examine the underlying theme of the Freudian “loved” object and put it into dialogue with Hazlitt’s own inversion of the myth, in an effort to elucidate the role melancholy plays in economy of H.’s actions. Reading Hazlitt’s most “marginalized” text, Liber Amoris, in this manner, I will suggest in this essay how it is not only crucial to reevaluate his oeuvre through the lens of this eccentric and psychological epistolary novel; but perhaps more importantly it is how Hazlitt’s text helps us to rethink and critique the Freudian notion of outpourings of subjectivity in melancholia — the “unexpected explosion” or the “eddying violence of my passion,” according to H. (142, 143; 206, 207) — through the lens of H.’s pre-Freudian self.

5Reading like a medieval poem, with the pining lover trying to win the love of his coy mistress, the opening pages of Liber Amoris afford us an exquisite look into the relationship between H. and Sarah Walker. When he realizes that his compliments on her fair complexion and a beautiful disposition are falling on deaf ears, H. begins to draw comparisons between Sarah and a painting he has with him, hoping that will heighten her spirits. The comparisons, however, come with several qualifications. Explaining how Sarah would mirror the painting, H. states, “[B]ut if your colour were a little heightened, and you wore the same dress, and your hair were let down over your shoulders, as it is here, it might be taken for a picture of you” (1-2, 65-66). H.’s pining never comes to any fruition, however, but it sheds provocative light on what he is doing by imaging Sarah as a painting; and in this case, by debating whether the painting — of which Sarah is a supposed replica — is a “Madona” or a “Magdalen,” he situates Sarah as a lost and infinitely unobtainable object, like the women of the painting (3, 67). Depicting Sarah as pale-bodied, sculpting her into his idolatrous mistress, the “new” Pygmalion’s mannerisms in this little tableau should alert us to his role as the melancholic, struggling with his fleeting object and foreshadowing the break that will occupy the narrative. Utilizing the painting as a stand in for Sarah here, H. signals the first object that he employs in his metonymic substitution — the second and more central is the Buonaparte bust of which I will speak below. “Ah! if you are never to be mine,” H. laments, regarding his unloving (in)animate object,

I shall not long be myself… I think of nothing, I have no feeling about any thing but thee: thy sweet image has taken possession of me, haunts me, and will drive me to distraction. Yet I could almost wish to go mad for thy sake: for then I might fancy that I had thy love in return, which I cannot live without! (2, 66).

6What we are delving into here, stemming from the underlying theme of the lost object and the melancholic’s disposition, returns us to the Freudian ego. The inability for H. to live on, to sur-vivre, without reciprocal love and emotion from Sarah, locates our analysis on the level of H.’s ego and its desire to devour the lost object.

7The hate and disdain toward Sarah, which builds up from the moment when he cannot feel some sort of loving return for his great expenditure, turns back on and assaults his own self through channels of self-loathing and self-reproach. The libidinal attachment to Sarah Walker, the loved and lost object, breaks and, in turn, gives way to what Freud notes as the “oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development” (Freud 249). What this means is that H.’s ego, which has been activated by the break from the object, now seeks to ingest and incorporate the object into itself as an act of internalizing the Other. This is why, as we will continue to unpack in relation to Liber Amoris, H.’s melancholic disposition — and specifically the loss of self-regard — concerning himself seems to be a mere replication of the ways in which Sarah neglects and mistreats H. himself. Because of the status of his ego, the maltreatments — or rather the disavowal — of H. by Sarah Walker are appropriated and internalized as H.’s own deficiencies.

8In the few pages following the painting discussion, H. begins to pick up on and comment freely about the seeming excuses that Sarah makes in order to avoid him. As these would seem to be clear signifiers of a waning love, or perhaps of one that never existed, H., however, interprets them as a sort of bait, continuing to bombard Sarah with his fantasies of a future love relation. Friendship is all she will guarantee to him; yet he continues to devote more attention to her and her “seemingly” ill disposition. Picking up on her tact, H. realizes how “[S]omething therefore was to be omitted as an excuse. Exquisite witch! But do I love her the less dearly for it? I cannot” (Hazlitt 15, 79). Forgotten items and missed appointments only strengthen H.’s attachment to his loved object. As Sarah continues to negate anything that could possibly be interpreted as “love” toward him, H.’s attachment to his object only increases. The further the object pulls away, the more the ego is incited to act, in turn, incorporating the object as its own. Performing the object incorporation, H. exclaims, “Cruel girl!… Sadness only heightens the elegance of your features. How can I escape from you, when every new occasion, even your cruelty and scorn, brings out some new charm. Nay, your rejection of me, by the way in which you do it, is only a new link added to my chain” (12-13, 76-7). Because of the quarrel that develops between H. and Sarah, causing the above outburst, H.’s cannibalistic ego presents itself in an early stage. The comments from his loved object signal a possible separation between subject and object, which at once sends H.’s psychological disposition further into the stage at which the ego seeks to ingest the lost object. However, at this moment, the full “loss” has not yet occurred, and the earliest stage, in which the libido drive breaks down and gives way to the ego, is only beginning.

9As the separation between the subject and object continues and the break from libido development is further perpetuated, H.’s discussion noticeably deteriorates — as we can see from the tone of the above two statements. What this signifies, and here Freud again allows us to establish the link with self-denigration, is the move of the ego towards tendencies of cruelty and sadism. These tendencies, which he calls “self-tormenting in melancholia” (Freud 251), arise when the self becomes embedded in a sadistic project to abuse and debase the object at hand. By projecting outward upon the object, which at the same time is in the process of being drawn within, the subject carries out this torture and suffering on his own self. This act, which Freud claims is “without doubt enjoyable, signifies… a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self” (251). This move, which becomes all too evident in H.’s self-loathing and lack of self-regard, signals the break between subject and object that has already subterraneously occurred.

10This break, moreover, is materially depicted in the novel by H.’s use of the second material object, to which I referenced above, the “Buonaparte” bust. The bust, which is described as a “small bronze figure” (Hazlitt 37, 101), initially functions for H. as his proper idol. Its “value” changes, however, as soon as Sarah shows interest in the bust — albeit because of the resemblance to another lover of hers — in turn becoming a fetish. As Jonathan Gross rightly remarks, there is a slight but important difference between an idol and a fetish, and that difference is explicitly noted in H.’s actions that follow. “A fetish,” Gross notes, “is an inanimate object… [that] possess some magical power whereas an idol is distinguished from the fetish… precisely because it is worshipped as a deity” (Gross 713). Before the melancholic break occurs between H. and Sarah, the bust functions for H. as “the God of my idolatry” (Hazlitt 37, 101); but as soon as Sarah shows any sort of affection for the bust, it exudes magical powers in its “seduction” of Sarah — therefore functioning as a fetish. This slight alteration in the role of the bust alerts us to a material bond H. attempts to forge with the object of his love — the woman who never loves him — which inevitably becomes additional fodder for H.’s cannibalistic drive. And what it therefore foreshadows is the shattering of the material object and the castration of H. In what remains, then, we will continue to examine the decline of H.’s own self and the simultaneous incorporation of the lost object, because for H., the process of his working through becomes severely one-dimensional, as he claims, “[T]he words I uttered hurt me more than they did you” (31, 95).

11Thirty pages into Hazlitt’s multi-dimensional narrative, H.’s loved object drops from the text, at least as a first-person subject. Her resignation of the first-person position and her demotion to the third-person position for the duration of the narrative does not, however, minimize H.’s compulsory writings of his denigration of the self. In fact, I would argue, the loss of a present and tangible object only incites a further downward spiral of the self, on H.’s account. Part II of Liber Amoris is, therefore, reserved for H.’s letters to his friend — confidant and spy, Peter George Patmore — in which we discover the violent relationship between the ego and the lost object it appropriates, through the act of writing. This relationship — and the focus of H.’s letters — is, however, two-fold. As Freud notes, “[T]he melancholic’s erotic cathexis in regard to his object has thus undergone a double vicissitude: part of it has regressed to identification, but the other part, under the influence of the conflict due to ‘ambivalence,’ has been carried back to the stage of sadism which is nearer to that conflict” (Freud 251-2). Bridging the gap from what I above mentioned about the identification and incorporation of the object to the sadistic disposition that he enacts, H.’s concerns and, in turn, his letters turn towards thoughts of the body and contagion. But as is the case with the melancholic, the hate and sadistic tendencies — as mentioned above — are not aimed at his lost object, Sarah Walker; rather, the thoughts of open wounds, poison, wounded flesh, etc., are spurred on by the denigration of his own self, vis-à-vis the lost object, and then projected outward through his own body, consisting of pure mental expenditure.

12Psychologically evaluating the loss of his own self-regard, H comments on how, if he had any self-worth, he would end the torment that the lost object causes him. Seeing that he has none, however, he exclaims, “[I]f I knew she was a mere abandoned creature, I should try to forget her; but till I do know this, nothing can tear me from her, I have drank in poison from her lips too long — alas! mine do not poison again” (Hazlitt 59, 123). By acknowledging his own downward movement — due to his obsessive-compulsive incorporation of the “remembrance” of Sarah Walker — and finding no real wrong in it, H. sinks deeper into the conflicted regions of the self, where the object is incorporated and the supposed faults of the once loved object merely reflect back upon the ravaged subject. The oozing, wound-like contagion of the body signifies the location on which H. now meditates: “If she had a plague-spot on her, I could touch the infection: if she was in a burning fever, I could kiss her, and drink death as I have drank life from her lips” (65, 129). Open wounds and bodily fluids both signal and allow for the flow of the cannibalistic ego as it incorporates the object, as well as providing the body with the appropriate channel by which it attempts to purge its system of any residual feelings towards the lost object. As we have seen with H., however, neither one of these directions of flow really wins out over the other, and this, in turn, is the reason for the detrimental, lingering, and incomplete melancholy.

13As the mostly unanswered letters to Patmore concerning Sarah Walker, continue, H.’s image of his lost object alters drastically — especially when he shatters the fetishized bust as an attempted act of freeing her from the impurities of loving another (142, 206), thus locating his own castration at the dénouement of the novel. Instead of the pristine and innocent goddess that we see before us in the first section of the narrative, H. later depicts Sarah as a “cankerous,” decaying beast. Not only does she have open wounds and poison on her lips, such as the above examples, but H. has dreams in which he “wake[s] with her by my side, not as my sweet bedfellow, but as the corpse of my love, without a heart in her bosom, cold, insensible, or struggling from me; and the worm gnaws me, and the sting of unrequited love, and the canker of a hopeless, endless sorrow” (79, 143). As Sarah now resembles, for H., a corpse — albeit that of his love — it is important to note the attachment he still upholds to the lost and once loved object. H. comes to terms with his eternal sorrow in this passage; however, the point I wish to emphasize is that he is no more free when he comes to terms with this than before. The worm from the corpse, from the object, continues to drive H. further into a depressive state by “gnawing” at him. What this signifies is that the subject — his ego included — does not become free by, in a sense, “bottoming out.” The attachment to the object only embeds the loss that much more deeply into the already suffering ego. H.’s body becomes an entombed, sorrow-filled grounds for the absence of the object, the lost object, to proliferate, pushing the soul further into the quarry of the “leaden melancholy of the soul” (81, 145). What results is a subject so entrenched in the violent, sadistic disposition that, as H. exclaims, he becomes “dead to every thing but the sense of what I have lost” (72, 136). The world surrounding H. basically ceases to exist, insofar as he can only feel or be witness to that which makes present the absence of the “lost” object.

14This narrative therefore functions on several alternate levels. Beginning as simple tableaux of encounters between Sarah and H., the story quickly increases in veracity as the relationship between the two initial characters declines, becoming at once more morbidly absent and overdetermined. The catch for H. is when his object of affection — which she vehemently declines being from the start — ends any type of communication or interaction with him. When this occurs, the relationship between subject and object is fractured; melancholia ensues and with it the denigration of H.’s own self. According to Freud, this break signals the incorporation of the lost object by the cannibalistic ego. What ensues then is the compulsive, and seemingly neurotic letter writing that H. conducts as a way to work through his melancholia. The closer he seems to get to the imagined image of his lost object — whether it is the minimal insight from Patmore, or the reminders of her he comes across in his daily life — the further into decline his disposition seems to fall. Even in closing his letters — following an encounter with Sarah and another, which he at one point claims will remedy his sorrowful feelings towards her — he refers to himself as “melancholy, lonesome, and weaker than a child” (183, 247). What remains central to this discussion is that the “working through” that the melancholic attempts in a situation such as H.’s is that of a conflict between the ego and the object.

15During this conflict, as we have seen in Liber Amoris, the economy of the melancholy we observe never really reaches the Freudian level of transcending mania, in the sense that, we never reach an end to the so-called fury or mania, and the object never gets abandoned as “valueless” (Freud 257). This causes, therefore, a stalled “working through” of the process — a kind of circular melancholia, in which the expenditure level goes up and down through moments of mania and calm, never completely breaking out of the circle. Since he cannot fully detach his own ego from the object, H. remains in the ambivalent final stages of melancholia, and very much confined to what he muses time and time again: “eternal sorrow.”

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Albrecht, W.P. Hazlitt and the Creative Imagination. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1965.

De Quincey, Thomas. Essays on the Poets, Other English Writers. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1853.

Hazlitt, William. Liber Amoris: Or, The New Pygmalion [An Authentic Story of the Two Faces of Love]. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” In The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XIV. Trans. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1987, 243-58.

Gross, Jonathan. “Hazlitt’s Worshiping Practice in Liber Amoris.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 35 (Autumn 1995): 707-21.

Jack, Ian. English Literature 1815-1832. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Jones, Stanley. Hazlitt: A Life [From Winterslow to Frith Street]. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Morgan, Charles. “Introduction to the Liber Amoris.” in Liber Amoris and Dramatic Criticisms. London: Peter Nevill Limited, 1948, 7-28.

Ovid. “Pygmalion.” The Metamorphoses. Ed. and Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995, 335-8.

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Peter B. FORD, « Writing the “Love Letter” from the Lack: The Economy of Absence in Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 3, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 20 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Peter B. FORD

Michigan State University
Peter B. Ford is a graduate student at Michigan State University. His areas of interest include 18th and 19th century theories of the body, especially in relation to trends in science at the time. He is currently in the beginning stages of writing his dissertation on chemical subjectivity in the “long” 19th century.

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