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The Legibility of Liber Amoris

  • James Treadwell

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  • James Treadwell
    McGill University

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Every revolution needs its ancien régime, including the bloodless uprisings that periodically ripple through the academy. In the world of Romantic studies (or Romantic-period studies, as they have since become), the now orthodox methodologies and strategies broadly defined as Historicism set themselves the task of exposing, and so overturning, something that came to be known (following Jerome McGann) as 'the Romantic ideology'. The subsequent story of this insurgency—at least in the Anglo-American academy—is pretty well known, and need not be rehearsed again. Historicity has become the guarantee against reproducing Romantic ideologies; and this is based on polarised conceptions of the nature of literary artifacts, or at least of their ontology. According to the revolutionaries, the ancien régime—as ancient as Kant—held that texts existed in some distinctly aesthetic space, and therefore (in McGann's memorable formulation) 'that poetry, or even consciousness, can set one free of the ruins of history and culture'. [1] History was to thwart such suspiciously transcendentalised conceptions by the density of its texture, the intricacy of its causal relations, the specificity of its account of what goes into the production and circulation of literary matter. It situates literature as one among many interwoven strands of cultural discourse: hence the currency of monographs about Romantic economics, Romantic medicine, Romantic geography, Romantic law.

The borders between texts and their environments have thus become points of peculiarly intense critical interest. Here, where the abstract formalities of textual interpretation meet the verifiable matter of historical scholarship, the critical reorientations demanded by historicist approaches become most visible. The attack on Romantic ideology appears almost as an attempt to drag literary artifacts over the border from aesthetics into (usually) politics. A case in point might be Nicholas Roe's reading of Keats's 'Autumn' ode as a poem about Peterloo. [2] History locates the poem in the autumn of 1819; historicism does the rest, making that location not an accident of chronology but an actual siting of the text within that time and place, insisting that it is embedded in its environment rather than merely floating along on top of it, encased in its Kantian bubble. [3] The critical act is almost an 'outing' of the text, moving it into the public domain and simultaneously making public (or making explicit) its secret ties to this wider contextual world.

Such a thumbnail account oversimplifies the interesting complexities that have been discovered around the border between aesthetics and history over the past two decades or so. One of the most fruitful results of the historicist revolution has been the suggestion that many Romantic-period writers and texts themselves anxiously straddle the opposed spheres, debating their own commitment to or critique of the Romantic ideology as intensively as their modern critics. My aim here is to consider the case of Hazlitt's Liber Amoris and its readers, as an instance of a literary artifact caught oddly in the process of emerging into the public sphere while apparently also trying to withdraw into the secrecy of aesthetic space. I do not intend to supply a full reading of the book—to encase it, that is, in an interpretation that might fix its notoriously unstable place. What seems to be at issue instead is the degree to which Liber Amoris's own agitated recrossings of the border between history and textuality are reproduced by its readers, and what light this might shed on the idea that history is the antidote to Romantic ideologies of literature. A fairly casual mid-century description of the book captures the alternatives under debate: 'something between a work of art and a case history'. [4] Between aesthetics and the actual, between art and history: this is the border to which historicism has critically drawn attention. The ambiguous state of Hazlitt's self-exposing narrative might thus reflect valuably on the choices it forces readers to make.

Liber Amoris has often provoked commentators into language that problematically polarises literature and history. The sheer oddness of the book—or, more accurately, of the fact of its publication—seems most easily accounted for in such terms. So Jonathan Wordsworth writes in his introduction to the Woodstock facsimile edition that here 'life and art are in abnormally close relation', while Jonathan Gross recognises the temptation to read this narrative as 'an event in [Hazlitt's] life which seems to have no place in his literary career'. [5] This pattern of antithetical reference to 'life and art' goes back to the book's earliest reviewers. The Blackwood's review, for example, clearly sees what is at stake when it asserts 'this work is not a novel, but a history'. [6] Literariness offers Liber Amoris a safe haven, a way of reading which would allow it to be aestheticised and so made sense of; but the book itself seems intent on expelling itself from this haven into the domain of history, where it speaks all too explicitly (and inexplicably) of the real circumstances under which it was written. Thus Henry Crabb Robinson recognised the book's literary kinship with the two most obvious parallels, Goethe's Werther and Rousseau's Julie, only to note that Hazlitt's narrative of overwrought erotic passion seems not literary but embarrassingly personal: 'such a story as this is nauseous and revolting'. [7] There have always been commentators who never hesitated to opt for the terminology of ethics over aesthetics. Twentieth-century judgments include, among other terms, 'disgusting', 'silly', a 'tragic piece of futility'; some nineteenth-century ones are predictably more virulent: 'this wretched compound of folly and nauseous sensuality', 'mixed filth and utter despicableness', 'beastly trash'. [8]

A recent article on Liber Amoris by Kurt M. Koenigsberger summarises and considers the options which appear to have been available to critics of Hazlitt's book. He observes that attempts to read the subject of the work—the figure of 'H.' and his story—tend 'to reinforce the distinction between biography and fiction'. [9] As in the case of the Blackwood's reviewer, these alternatives are systematically exclusive. If 'H.' is read as 'an autonomous aesthetic object' (Koenigsberger 286), then the book becomes an artifact of confessional literature, situated at a distance from the messy details of Hazlitt's embarrassing infatuation with Sarah Walker. Otherwise, he is identified with the historical circumstances of Hazlitt's abortive affair, and no literary act intervenes between the letters and notebooks Hazlitt wrote in spring 1822 under the influence of his erotic obsession and the printing of versions of those documents as Liber Amoris a year later. The choice seems to be: art or life? Acutely, Koenigsberger notices how the particular strangeness of this text is recorded 'within an interpretative economy characterized by a logic of the excluded middle' (ibid.) Critics seek the 'something between' literature and history, and yet find themselves forced into polarised alternatives which debar them from that hinterland.

This problem indicates that there might be something to be learned from considering Liber Amoris's readability, and how it has been read. Choices about the work tend to be explicit choices about critical method. Because of its unusual nature, it always seems to raise metacritical concerns; its challenging generic status, for example, provokes a rethinking of existing concepts of genre. [10] Its autobiographical-confessional form itself seems to pull readers towards either a pathological interpretation (Liber Amoris as a symptom of Hazlitt's character) or a reflexive one (Liber Amoris as a disquisition on the romantic character). The methodological stakes raised by these alternatives become apparent just by thinking about why the book goes on being read at all. The slender volume published by John Hunt in early May 1823 was certainly, as the Times's reviewer remarked, 'a curiosity of literature', but not a prominent event in it. [11] What prevented it from falling into the obscurity reserved for curiosities was the same thing that still preserves it in the canon: its authorship. Then as now, Hazlitt's public place in the world of letters was such that any text of his gained a degree of significance, no matter how bizarre its content or how uneven its formal literary qualities. The individual presence of the author is thus doubly woven into this text: firstly because of its exaggeratedly egotistical autobiographical form, and secondly because it is Hazlitt who makes Liber Amoris continue to be interesting to readers. Together, these factors imply a Romantic ideology of the text. The book seems inextricable from the identity of its author, legible only in relation to an individuated and expressive selfhood of the kind constructed most monumentally in The Prelude.

At the same time, though, the association of Liber Amoris with Hazlitt himself tends towards the conclusions reached by Crabb Robinson or the ranting columns of John Bull. Gross renews this biographical stance by asserting, 'it is clear that Liber Amoris is a pathological work, one that reveals a strain in Hazlitt's identity' (Gross 709). Whether by straightforward moral judgment or sophisticated psychosexual analysis, what ends up being read here is Hazlitt's own identity over and above the text, the latter being to some degree symptomatic of the former. Various formalisms and historicisms have of course been adopted to resist the identity-based interpretations the work seems to invite. Most notably, Marilyn Butler has argued that 'H.' represents an ironic counter-critique of the very constructions of autonomous and passionate subjectivity it appears to exemplify. [12] I will consider her position in more detail shortly.

The difficulty in dealing with the book derives from its position at an unstable boundary between public and private spheres. It brings them into a conjunction so incongruous that it verges on the inexplicable. Why should this intensely private narrative of desire, jealousy and despair be committed to print, especially when it portrays the first person in an obviously unflattering light? Rousseau at least cloaks his confessions in an extended apologia, though even that was not enough to prevent most English readers tarring the sexually explicit episodes of his autobiography with the same brush later applied to Liber Amoris. Wollstonecraft's impassioned Letters shape themselves for the public partly as travel documents, and partly in the popular language of sentimental romance. De Quincey's indulgences are introduced by the disingenuous claim that his narrative is for the benefit of the medical fraternity. Wordsworth, meanwhile, preserved the decorous silence of manuscript. It is very difficult to detect any such recognition of a public audience containing or contextualising the publication of Hazlitt's narrative. Privacy and publicity clash strangely again in the matter of the book's weak pretence of anonymity. The brief 'Advertisement' introducing the published text looks like an attempt to rescue propriety by making the contents fictional, or novelistic, or at least someone else's story. However, the disguise is so thin as to be as good as transparent, and the text that follows is full of incriminating details; and anyway, Hazlitt had already spread his story by word of mouth all over London. Liber Amoris insistently draws attention to the anomalies of its interplay between author, text, and contexts, resisting readers' attempts to understand it as either self-expression or literary fiction.

For Koenigsberger, the subject of Liber Amoris is precisely the self that moves across the border between the private and public domains; the self that seeks for self-possession but also circulates in public as a 'character' or reputation. In his reading, the book's unwarranted exposure is not the embarrassingly frank revelation of private events in a publication, but rather the exposure of the permeability of this border. The story of Liber Amoris, he argues, enacts the revelation that 'the self is individually sovereign only by a fiction and realizes its existence substantially in its social circulation' (Koenigsberger 303). Again, the alternatives boil down to an opposition between a fictive private state—the state of literature under a Romantic ideology, according to polemical historicism—and an actual public sphere. Koenigsberger attempts very subtly to allow these alternatives to overlap, rather then merely being bewildered by the idea of 'something between'. He reads a collusion between the economy of private self-definition and the suicidal exposure of the self to damaging public circulation: the former draws necessarily on the latter, so that selfhood is only possessed through a wilfully destructive 'negation of his self-discontinuity' (Koenigsberger 307). How might this powerful conception of the danger of the public-private border be appropriated to the problem of Liber Amoris's mere legibility? If the transition from the aesthetic to the social spheres both promulgates and annihilates the subject of the book, how does this complicate a methodological faith that the same movement—from art to life—reveals the truth about false subjects?

These are significant questions about Hazlitt's text, because its generic oddness (which derives from the fact of its publicity, its availability to readers) is reproduced internally by its formal and thematic concern with readership. Rhapsodising in the field of the internal, it nevertheless places this language of expressive inwardness—'my heart has found a tongue' [13]—in a series of dialogic encounters with readers. Part one transcribes dialogues between 'H.' and his beloved 'S.', and then reproduces his letters to her. Part two consists of letters to and from 'C. P—' as well as some further correspondence with 'S.' (or 'S.L.'). Part three is a continuous first-person narrative, but it too takes the form of textual address to a reader, presenting itself as a long letter to 'J.S.K'. If the heart finds a tongue in the text of Hazlitt's book, then, it also finds a series of ears (or reading eyes). The rhetoric of the private self is apparently characterised by its desire to transmit itself to others.

In a basic sense, this is the problem of unrequited passion: an attempt to reproduce inward feelings in the reciprocal feelings of the other. It is, however, a desire that structures 'H.'s relationship to all his readers, not just 'S.'; and it also shapes the publication of Liber Amoris, which makes Hazlitt's passionate rhetoric available as a literary document. In all these relationships, the effort of the writer would appear to be straightforwardly romantic (or Romantic). That is, inward passion tries to make the external world conform with it. The lover romantically wants 'S.' to be as he imagines her (hence the subtitle, 'The New Pygmalion'); the writer correspondingly wishes to invoke the Romantic ideology whereby life is made subservient to art, drawing the reader or listener into his extravagantly rhetorical and impassioned interpretation of the abortive affair. The dialogic other is usually represented as a resistance to be overcome by the force of this erotic-literary desire. 'S.' is obdurately dull, evasive or silent, while echoes of the other readers' sceptically pragmatic attitude resound in 'H.'s addresses to them—'I grant all you say about my self-tormenting folly', he writes to 'C. P—', before adding his counterclaim: 'but has it been without cause?' (325). Liber Amoris persistently refers to 'S.' in terms of pictures, visions, images (even when speaking of her body—'her image never quitted my side', 352), restlessly attempting to replace the problematic blankness of her actual existence with the lover's fantasies. She herself accuses him of this: 'You sit and fancy things out of your own head, and then lay them to my charge' (304). 'H.' is happy to agree. The value of the experience, he claims, lies in the degree to which it exists primarily in his own head. He defines the perfection of love as when the 'heart has as it were filled up the moulds of the imagination': 'Perfect love reposes on the object of its choice, like the halcyon on the wave, and the air of heaven is around it' (338). Hazlitt's book apparently invites its readers to construe the relation between passion and actuality in the same way; a radiant, ethereal rhetoric pouring itself onto and around the narrative events. The reader would seem to be positioned as an audience for 'H.'s performance. When he is declaring himself to 'S.', or recounting his passion to 'C. P—' or 'J. S. K', or addressing his text to the reading public, he is giving the audience access to his richly romantic-Romantic privacy. '[S]peak', he urges himself, 'find bleeding words to express thy thoughts' (328); that impulse to expression results in the text.

Yet the relationship with the reader is far from being one-way traffic. The rhetoric of passion, interiority and imagination not only communicates itself in the dialogic moment, but actually constructs itself (or finds itself) there. [14] At moments when the book records fragments of what appear to be 'purely' private text, addressed to no one, the language of the self breaks down into virtual incoherence. After transcribing a letter to 'S.' towards the end of part one, the book inserts a strange passage in which it intuits the absence of a reader and follows immediately with a groping sense of self-loss:

[To this letter I have received no answer, not a line. The rolling years of eternity will never fill up that blank. Where shall I be? What am I? Or where have I been?] [15]


Later, in part two, the sequence of letters is interrupted by 'A Thought' which similarly bears witness to an unresolvable alienation of the first-person voice from itself: 'I am not mad, but my heart is so…' (328). Without the explicit presence of an audience, the narrator's voice seems to disappear in its own rhetoric. The address to readers of various kinds is the condition for a language that keeps moving back and forward between its narration of 'actual' experience—the events and settings of the story—and its interiorised rhapsodies. Without this oscillation, language seems to be trying to conjure the private self out of thin air, speaking of nothing (and consequently implying that the speaker too is not really there). The private sphere in Liber Amoris cannot really be understood as 'H.'s given state, communicated to readers through self-expression. 'H.' unfolds his internal world in a series of reversions prompted by his interlocutors. In conversation with 'S.', it is her static and noncommittal answers that generate his effusive rhetoric of passion. 'Indeed I am thy creature' (295), he tells her; the echo of Frankenstein suggests how his account of himself depends on his audience being creator as well as reader. The expression of his love regularly turns out to be prompted by his encounter with her: 'Do not look so—do not talk so—unless you would drive me mad. I could worship you at this moment' (298). Without the 'moment' of dialogue, the text is unable to locate 'H.'s heightened inwardness at all.

The letters to his two correspondents continue the pattern. Punctuated by exclamation points, dashes, oaths, ejaculations, interjections, they continuously revert to the language of the self and its passions as a kind of reaction to the process of narration. 'By Heaven! I doat on her' (320); 'Oh no! believe it, I love her as I do my own soul' (325); 'I must break off here; for the hysterica passio comes upon me' (334); these are the letters' typical grammar and tone. 'H.' can find the textual form of what is presumed to be inside him, the 'bleeding words' of the heart's language, thanks to the implied presence of an addressee. Even in the third part, when the fiction of correspondence is quite flimsy and the text basically takes the form of continuous retrospective narration, the fact that this narration is delivered to a reader signals its author's impassioned state. Only on the rare occasions when 'J. S. K.' is directly addressed does the text become expressive of the presumed intensity of 'H.'s inner state: 'Pity me, my friend, for the shame of this recital! Pity me for the pain of having ever had to make it!' (360). Likewise, at the tragicomically seedy conclusion of the romance, it is the implied reader who provides the occasion for 'H.'s self-diagnosis: 'I am no more lifted now to Heaven, and then plunged in the abyss…' (373). Liber Amoris is always speaking its passion to someone. The language of private experience, that is, knows itself and forms itself through the act of publication.

Koenigsberger's thematic argument about the equation of self-possession with self-annihilation can therefore be transposed into a fundamental idea about the book's legibility. Exposing—publishing—the language of selfhood to readers is in this case at least the act through which the text simulates a (supposedly authentic) private voice. This is perhaps the root of the difficulty readers of Liber Amoris have in distinguishing 'art' and 'life', literature and history, the private and the public, and in determining the relation between them. We expect this to be a relation of priority: one conditions the other. A 'Romantic' reading of the pair might see the literary expression of inwardness as the motivating force; historicist interpretations usually insist that art is subject (not prior) to its circumstances, and so might argue that the language of selfhood is a response to certain conditions in the public sphere. However, Hazlitt's book makes all such decisions difficult. Because of the intricate way in which it is directed both inward (to self-expression) and outward (to reader-figures), it invites readers to consider whether the text they are encountering is a private or a public one. As it oscillates back and forwards across this border, it tempts critics to commit themselves to one direction or the other.

Choices between identity or interiority on the one hand and public contexts on the other have become highly-charged interpretative moments. McGann's 1983 books make these alternatives central to their corrective project, seeking to replace the figure of the author as the source of writing with a collaborative, contentious material environment of textual production. [16] This transition is particularly fraught in the case of Liber Amoris, as it is to some degree with all texts that can be described as autobiographies. The arena of history aggressively disputes the ideology of the expressive self. There is a marked discontinuity between 'H.'s private narrative and its actual circumstances; the difference between subjective and objective interpretations of the narrative is in fact the main thematic concern. The dichotomy is captured in the subtitle, 'The New Pygmalion'. Is Pygmalion a fantasist, withdrawing narcissistically into an infatuation with his own creation? Or is he a type of the Romantic artist, like Adam in Keats's letter, whose creative imagination turns into reality by the force of his desire? The former reading implies a historicist critique of Romantic self-sufficiency, while the latter tends towards the ancien régime's conclusions about materialist mirrors turning into Idealist lamps.

These questions hinge on our understanding of the relationship between Hazlitt and 'H.', author and narrative protagonist. The more distance opened between them, the more 'H.' becomes just a letter: a literary figure, that is, legible only as part of the world of letters and print. Correspondingly, Liber Amoris is in these readings a highly literary text. All biographical implications and judgments can be ignored. The rhetorical energy and intertextual allusiveness of the book of 'H.' become signals of its difference from unmediated autobiographical experience, pointing instead to its relation to other books. This relation can then be construed in larger literary-historical terms. A 1975 article by Robert Ready discovers careful formal structures in Liber Amoris, and, having thereby made it art rather than pathological symptom, converts its theme into the foundation of a Great Tradition: 'It is one of the first extended treatments in a line of modern writing on men who try to make women fit their illusions.' [17] (Note how he speaks of 'writing on men' rather than 'by men': 'H.' is very clearly not being identified as the author.) A more popular strategy recently is to interpret the book's literary relations in terms of parody, satire, or irony. So far from being the vehicle of authorial self-expression, 'H.' is in these readings a character whose story articulates the failings of Romantic ideologies of authorship. In James Mulvihill's 1990 article, 'H.' is an 'ironic self-portrait', using the story of Hazlitt's infatuation to point up the moral and aesthetic deficiencies of the age. [18] More specifically, Marilyn Butler has argued that H. is 'Hazlitt's Portrait of the Artist' (Butler 167), invoking contemporary models of authorial self-validation in a satirical spirit, and so revealing the merely literary character of the impassioned first-person narrator. Liber Amoris thus represents 'the satirical counterportrait' (Butler 168) to Rousseavian or De Quinceyan or Wordsworthian models of how self-expression presents itself in the literary public sphere.

By transforming the autobiographical narrative of Hazlitt's experiences in 1822 into the book of 'H.', these interpretations are in effect putting a set of quotation marks around the documentation which tells us that Hazlitt and 'H.' are the same person. This means that instead of simply being Hazlitt's self-expression in published notebooks and letters, Liber Amoris is in some sense about that self-expression. Such a reading appeals to material textuality as the salvation from Romantic ideology. The publication of personal documents detaches them from the subjectivity of their author, creating a new textual subject ('H.') whose relation to the reading public is mediated by literariness, or irony, or satire. So the vexed antagonism between private self and the public sphere is likewise enclosed in comforting quotation marks. Instead of being evidence of William Hazlitt's pathological urge to kiss and tell, Liber Amoris is a commentary on the autobiographical relation between author and text.

Liber Amoris, though, begs a question about the implied quotation marks that make this reading possible. Who put them there? Is it specialist academic readers, who are after all experts in putting quote marks around things? Is it Hazlitt himself, as almost all critics imply when arguing that the book has always been misread? (That is, they think Crabb Robinson and other biographical interpreters have missed Hazlitt's ironising signals.) Or is it, as Butler sensitively argues, an ambiguity within early nineteenth-century literary practice itself which makes possible this sense that self-expression isn't 'pure', but invites a satirical alternative? For the purposes of exploring historicist methodologies, we can discount the first two options fairly rapidly. If it is only the critics who reinvent Liber Amoris as a commentary on itself, then we're somewhere in the self-consciously playful domain of deconstruction. If, on the other hand, Hazlitt himself is presumed to have published the book with an inherent ironic purpose, then we're dealing with questions of intentionality. Not only are these certainly unsolvable—the evidence is sketchy and inconclusive—but they also bring us back to the author as the ultimate source of text; one kind of authoritative personal expressiveness simply replaces another. This leaves the third option, the thoroughly historicist argument that what now looks like Romantically expressive autobiography was in the 1820s ambiguous and contentious. Accurately understood, the historical context means that a performance like Liber Amoris would necessarily be contained within those invisible quotation marks. I quote from Butler's argument:

… in what we now know as the romantic period, writing directly about the self was still problematical. On the one hand, the reader seems to demand, and the writer to strive for, a new fullness of self-expression […] On the other hand […] any work that appears to have self-expression or self-validation as its goal is liable to set up an ethical backlash, a complaint that the individual is not autonomous, that society has claims, and that artists are as much bound by moral law as anyone else.

Butler 154

The turn to history is here used to point out a tension within literary practice which Romantic ideologies have disguised. This tension can then be read into the problematic duplicity of Hazlitt's text. Where it seemed to be inexplicable either as unmediated autobiography or as pure fiction, Butler's exemplary historicist method invites us to read Romantic expressiveness in tandem with a satirical backlash. The very intensity of Liber Amoris's representation of the self becomes the sign of its resistance to that Romantic aesthetic.

This subtle and powerful argument adopts the ambiguity of Hazlitt's book almost as a polemical weapon. Where (as I have argued) Liber Amoris discovers the language of interiority only in dialogue with its public, Butler finds that this discovery is predetermined by an ironising intent that very closely mirrors her own. She and Hazlitt are both exposing the fiction of privacy by placing it in its contemporary literary context. By crossing over from the language of selfhood to the world of readers, the text enables us to abandon Romantic presumptions about the priority of an individual expressive voice. Making Hazlitt into a satirist sets up an antagonistic relationship between literariness and history; an antagonism which can then be taken up by modern interpreters to support their methodological claims.

Perhaps, though, the legibility of Liber Amoris in its historical context reveals a less oppositional relation between the public and the private. Most contemporary readers appear to have been disgusted (as Crabb Robinson was) by Hazlitt's transgression of the conventional boundaries between the two: the frank representation of erotic obsession obviously challenged tacit notions of literary decorum by circulating personal experience among the reading public. Nevertheless, this particular form of transgression had by 1823 attained some kind of generic status; that is, there was a place (albeit still a contentious one) for the language of extreme privacy within the public sphere. An article 'On Auto-Biography' in the Edinburgh Magazine for June 1822, less than a year before publication of Liber Amoris, recognises a category of transgressive confessional literature; the representative exhibits are (as for most other commentators in the 1820s and 30s) Rousseau and Byron, whose works are defined as 'Poetical Confessions'. [19] If the indecorousness of self-expression (especially erotic self-expression) in this kind of writing apparently troubles the border between private and public discourse, this certainly does not make such books unreadable at face value. On the contrary, the author of this article maintains that the language of selfhood enters into a kind of contract with the public thanks to the mere fact of publication. 'A person writing memoirs of himself does nothing else … than make the public his confessor', s/he writes. [20] The choice of punishment or absolution rests with the reader; the confessing author is not per se to blame. This reviewer seems to identify a willing and rather unsurprising collusion between authorial self-expression (however shocking) and the reading public. The border between public and private spheres, between life and literature, is seen to be permeable. Moreover, while its permeability certainly raises doubts about whether it ought to be more effectively policed, there is nevertheless no indication that its two sides are mutually opposed. What does emerge from reviews of Liber Amoris in the weeklies and monthlies is a sense of the ambiguities and complexities within 'Romantic' constructions of expressive subjectivity.

Hostile reviewers were eager to exploit the book's apparent authenticity. Writing in Blackwood's, Lockhart expressed his delight in being presented with 'a veritable transcript of the feelings and doings of an individual living LIBERAL.' [21] This is a politicised pathology, in which moral degradation blends seamlessly with its public equivalent. The compulsive sensualist and egotist demonstrates his civil and religious incapacity as well: exactly the same pattern governed reactionary responses to the Confessions of Rousseau, who had been elevated into the secular pantheon of the revolutionary National Assembly. The interiority of the author is thus a politically contestable space, because Liber Amoris bears witness to the possible ways in which subjectivity impinges on the public sphere. The reviewer in the New European Magazine raises the possibility of reading the book as if it were merely novelistic, its hero a 'hopeless victim of sensibility and fatal love'; but, he goes on, this is 'all Fudge. The age of sentiment has long since past way [sic].' [22] Yet the social irresponsibility of the book is directly associated with Hazlitt himself. Autobiographical records of the inner life are not attacked per se: what fuels the reviewer's ire is the fact that this is 'the actual history of a man who sets himself up as a critic, a moralist, a judge of human nature…' [23]

The rare sympathetic comments appearing in 1823 seem to anticipate modern critical practice by maintaining some form of distinction between Hazlitt and 'H.' In doing so, however, they are never suggesting that the textual identity be read in relation to literary models, let alone as a satirical reflection on fashionable representations of authorship. They simply substitute 'H.'s anonymous but nevertheless authentic subjectivity for the politically loaded identity of an outspoken reformist writer; 'H.' is a disguise, not an alternative A number of recent critics have cited the reviewer in the Examiner as evidence that a non-biographical, philosophical reading of Liber Amoris was available in the 1820s. Apart from the fact that it was almost certainly written by a friend of Hazlitt, and therefore surely represents a deliberate attempt to head off what it correctly anticipates will be the general reaction, this review is actually deeply committed to what would now be called a 'Romantic' interpretation of the text. [24] Like the Blackwood's piece, it understands the narrative to be truthful; and, again like the hostile reviews, it uses the evidence of the book to characterise the mind of the author. The difference is that it goes along with the published Advertisement's pretence of anonymity. Instead of a pathology of liberalism written by a Tory, we get a pathology of imaginative subjectivity written by a liberal. Liber Amoris, he says, exemplifies 'how common-place matter of fact may be spiritualized by genius', [25] an eminently Wordsworthian or Coleridgean formulation that nevertheless proceeds from the same assumptions about author and text as are held by the reviewers in Blackwood's, or John Bull, or numerous other contemporary publications. The only real evidence that the text could be read without provoking personal judgments on its author comes from a short notice in the Edinburgh Literary Gazette of July 2nd 1823. Responding to the vituperative reviews of Hazlitt's work, this writer remarks 'it was argued, because the Book of Love was, in point of fact, the narrative of a part of the author's life, that ergo it merited contempt, ridicule, and abuse.' [26] S/he implies that literary judgments ought to be made without reference to the author's identity. However, the target of this objection is the partisan factionalism of periodical reviewing. When the reviewer writes that 'we do not mean to stand forth as champions of Mr Hazlitt, or of his book', it is clear that the autobiographical equivalence between the two is still in place. [27] The narrative is still seen as essentially private and expressive; what is being debated is the nature of the public response to it. The reviewer defends autobiographical publication in general against the particular and personal attacks that had been aimed at Hazlitt. This is not a flight from historicity, but an effort to establish proper ways of accommodating self-expression to the expectations of the literary public at large.

Liber Amoris and its readers are equally involved in testing this uneasy juxtaposition. Various absolutist reactions are possible, from Crabb Robinson's petit-bourgeois revulsion, which implies that autobiography ought to be edited for consumption by the public, to Mulvihill's academic rescue operation, which comprehensively recasts the text of the self as a text of the times. What is at stake in such discriminations is the possibility, and the propriety, of reading selfhood at all. As the writer in the Edinburgh Literary Gazette remarks, once a text is identified as speaking in the voice of its author, 'ergo' it receives certain kinds of readings. Theories of Romantic ideology provide one example of this causality. They outline a stark choice, couched as a Bloomian agon between the reactionary blindness of a preceding generation of critics and responsible insight: either one turns to history, or one remains imprisoned within the false consciousness of the text's own fictions of subjectivity.

Is this choice so different from the options faced by Ready and other critics devoted to the idea of the literary text as an independent, self-sufficient aesthetic artifact? It is evident that for Ready, the alternatives are simple: either Liber Amoris is what John Bull says it is (although he would see no need for the prurient reaction), or it is a construct like a Romantic Ode, presenting significant patterns and shapes that reveal the possibilities of literary interpretation. He chooses between aesthetics and reality: only the former provides for a critically intelligible, legible text. A more recent generation of Anglo-American critics commits itself to the position that Ready's 'reality'—autobiographical reality, textual reference to the author's self-expression—is not in fact an alternative to aesthetics: the two are symmetrical pillars in the ideological facade. Seeking to escape this structure's illusion of transhistorical permanence, they set up an opposition between Romanticism (as both a literary practice and a concept of the text) and some other space where that unified, blindingly and falsely authoritative construction might be bypassed: somewhere 'at the limits of Romanticism'—the female body, perhaps, or the realm of history. [28] In each case, the road wisely not taken is figured as a hermeneutic trap, a method which disables proper reading. Ready needs formalism as an escape-route from pathological, personal interpretations; the critics of Romantic ideology need their chosen method to avoid being contained by the closed circle of Romanticism's self-representations.

Because of its strangely accidental endurance on the fringes of the canon, Liber Amoris will go on testing the difficult border between legible literature and inexplicably immediate autobiography. The critical moment of historicism responds to this difficulty by representing autobiography of this sort as an ideological imposition: take away the private subject and you take back the text. Yet the turn to history in this case suggests that Romantic first-person narratives are not necessarily blind to their fraught intersections with their contexts, their circumstances, with history. Reading Liber Amoris, we encounter an interiority translating itself into the public sphere; so its contemporaries appear to have thought, at least, and so the biographers and pathologists still assume. To redefine that interiority as an effect of ideology is to imply a relatively clear-cut antithesis between subjectivity and history, author and context, Hazlitt and 'H.' Yet, here and elsewhere, interiority occupies a place in both private and public spheres; histories of the self intersect with material histories, and the voice of passion establishes itself rhetorically (even grammatically) through its dialogic approach to its audience. The fact that Liber Amoris and its readers find this relation so painfully difficult ought to suggest that we shouldn't underestimate its possible complexity, either today or in 1823. Insofar as critiques of the Romantic ideology describe private space as the realm of ideology and public space as the realm of history, they draw a borderline that Romantic texts often refuse to acknowledge.