A Blupete Biography Page

"Rackets and Tea"
The Life and Writings
of William Hazlitt (1778-1830).
[TOC -- Hazlitt's Page]


Chapter Ten
"From Painting To Writing -- 1805-6"

In 1805, Trevithick adapted the Watt engine to a vehicle and the locomotive came into being. By the middle of the century a network of railways had spread all over Europe. (Watt, in fact, described the steam locomotive in his patent dated 1784.) In the June 15th, 1805, edition of the Morning Post (London), one reads: "The shop of Lardner and Co., the corner of the Albany, Piccadilly, is illuminated every evening with Carbonated Hydrogen Gas, obtained from the decomposition of Coals. It produces a much more brilliant light than either oil or tallow, and proves, in a striking manner, the advantages to be derived from so valuable an application."1 The old method of igniting a fire continued. It was cumbrous and required that the person starting a fire to have a "tinder-box" containing tinder, flint and steel; another quarter of a century was to pass before one could avail themselves of the convenience of striking a match -- as we know today -- and instantly have fire.2

As of August, 1805, Napoleon was still intent on invading England. What was needed was some protection for his troop transports. Napoleon's navy, however, could never quite get it together. Daily, Napoleon gazed at the horizon of the channel looking for his fleet. All he needed was to be in charge of the Channel for but enough time to get his landing craft over. It is reported3 that Napoleon was to brag, "Let us be masters of the channel for six hours and we are masters of the world." But, France, and, for that matter no other enemy of hers, was ever able to go through England's "wooden walls." Time was running out and Napoleon knew that he was soon to be pressed at his northeastern borders by a mass of soldiers from Russia and Austria; he made the decision suddenly and shifted his forces away from the channel so to meet the threat of the "Third Coalition."4 On October 21st, 1805, Nelson, at Trafalgar, annihilated both the French and Spanish navies and the danger of any invasion of England rolled away like a dream. As wonderful as the British victory at Trafalgar was, Napoleon continued to meet and defeat all comers on the European continent. In December of 1805 the Battle of Austerlitz took place (Austerlitz is a place located in modern day Czechoslovakia). Napoleon decisively defeated the armies of Russia and Austria, each with its emperor at its head.

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By October of 1804, Hazlitt was in London living with his brother at 109 Russell Street. It was in London where Hazlitt painted the picture of Charles Lamb, a picture which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. It was in the same year that Hazlitt painted a picture of his father.5 Presumably as a thank you, in March of 1805, Lamb sent off to Hazlitt, by "the Wem coach," a package containing "a book and a rare print" in care of the Bull and Mouth Inn, Wem, Shropshire.6 One might imagine, too, that Lamb was putting the choices before Hazlitt in concrete form. Lamb had sat for Hazlitt for long periods of time during which, I imagine, they discussed how Hazlitt might best satisfy his desire, maybe need, to be a painter of portraits. The choices were either to put paints on canvas, or words on paper. Hazlitt, as we know, chose the latter course. A number of years later Hazlitt was to touch upon the struggle that he was then having with these choices.
" 'I also am a painter!' It was an idle thought, a boy's conceit; but it did not make me less happy at the time. I used regularly to set my work in the chair to look at it through the long evenings; and many a time did I return to take leave of it before I could go to bed at night. I remember sending it with a throbbing heart to the Exhibition, and seeing it hung up there by the side of one of the Honourable Mr. Skeffington (now Sir George). There was nothing in common between them, but that they were the portraits of two very good-natured men. I think, but am not sure, that I finished this portrait [his father] (or another afterwards) on the same day that the news of the battle of Austerlitz came ..." (Table Talk, "On The Pleasure Of Painting.")
In 1805, William Hazlitt turned to being an author. Hazlitt's first published piece, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action came out in 1805. In it he argued "in favour of the natural disinterestedness of the human mind."7 It was printed in 1805 by Joseph Johnson8; it is now a scarce publication. Hazlitt's first published essay was some years in the making and was inspired by the works of David Hartley (1705-57) and of Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715-71). Hartley was a medical practitioner, to use the words of Chambers, "of considerable eminence." In 1749 he wrote Observations on Man wherein he expressed the theory that the mental process was analogous to the propagation of sound, viz. one idea spreads or is associated with other ideas, I imagine because of past experiences of associating like ideas. As for Helvetius: he was one of the Encyclopaedists. He endeavoured to prove that sensation is the source of all intellectual activity.

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[Next: Chapter Eleven -- "Hazlitt Marries -- 1808."]
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Notes:

1 John Ashton's The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 5th ed., 1906) at p. 206-8.

2 In 1805, a Frenchman by the name of Chancel invented an apparatus which "consisted of a bottle containing asbestos, which was saturated with strong sulphuric acid, and flame was produced by bringing this into contact with matches, coated at the ends with sulphur, and tipped with a mixture of chlorate of potash and sugar." (Ashton, op. cit., at p.208.) It was a man from Stockton-on-Tees, John Walker (1781-1859), a chemist, who, in 1827, invented the friction match; they were called "Congreves," alluding to the Congreve rocket, invented by its namesake in 1808. "Congreves" were later to be named Lucifers, and, eventually, matches. By the mid 19th century, matches were in broad use; it was thought that the penny box of Lucifers was a triumph of science.

3 Green, History of the English People, vol. X, p. 216.

4 "On the 11th of April 1804, a treaty was concluded at St. Petersburg. Five hundred thousand men were to be arrayed against France. Great Britain was to contribute ships and men and money. On the 9th of August, Austria signified her adherence. This was the Third Coalition." [Lord Rosebery, Pitt (London: MacMillan, 1891) at p. 191.

5 Though some distance away, Hazlitt, it would appear, made a number of trips (not easy in those days) up from London to spend time with his family. We know that in December of 1805, he spent Christmas at Wem with his family.

6 The Life, Letters and Writings of Charles Lamb by Percy Fitzgerald (London: Gibbings, 1897), Vol. II, p. 259.

7 Chambers Biographical Dictionary.

8 On January 15th, 1806, Lamb wrote Hazlitt, "Godwin went to Johnson's yesterday about your business." Lamb writes again, February 19th: "Godwin has just been here on his way from Johnson's. Johnson has had a fire in his house ... he craves one more month before he gives you an answer." (Fitzgerald's Lamb, Vol. II, p. 257.) The reproduction of these letters does not show where these letters were sent, the evidence would indicate at the home of Hazlitt's family, Wem. The person referred to, I think, was Joseph Johnson who was a publisher; and, it seems, published certain of Godwin's works. Hazlitt, like all new writers who wish to have their works published, needed help, which help, it would appear, in 1806, with Lamb's intersession, was being sought from Godwin -- certainly Hazlitt at this point had yet to make a name for himself as a writer.

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Peter Landry