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In My Good Books

Hazlitt's Last Book

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published in The Guardian
24 September 2005

It is very hard for any reader to do justice to a writer like Hazlitt. Twenty-one volumes, the collected works run to. Who can hope to give them house-room? Who has the time to read them? Hazlitt's last book, first published in periodical form under the title "Boswell Redivivus," is called Conversations of James Northcote, Esq., R.A. Published in 1830, the year of Hazlitt's death, it is an account of several visits to the studio of a portrait painter renowned for his vitriolic conversation: "that walking thumb-bottle of aqua fortis," Peter Pindar called him.

Northcote himself, in a letter to Ruskin's father, claimed that the book had been published against his wishes, that he had done everything in his power to stop it, and that "Hazlitt, although a man of real abilities, yet had a desire to give pain to others, and has also frequently exaggerated that which I had said in confidence to him." But Northcote was a sly man and knew what was going on between him a Hazlitt. He gives an ambiguous consent early on. In the last of the twenty-two conversations he says to his Boswell, "I ought to cross myself like the Catholic, when I see you. You terrify me by repeating what I say."

Northcote was pleased to find that the elder Ruskin admired the resulting book, which Ruskin himself said "remains classical to this day, and is indeed the best piece of existing criticism founded on the principles of Sir Joshua's school." Like Reynolds, Northcote came from Devon. He left Plymouth in 1771 to seek his fortune in London, in due course entering Reynolds's studio and household as a pupil, and staying there for five years before striking out again on his own.

The publication, six decades later, of his conversations with Hazlitt was designed to evoke a remote era. That's what the expression Boswell Redivivus was intended to convey. At the time, and in a more recent book, doubt was cast on Northcote's active role in these conversations: the best bits were supposed to have been devised by Hazlitt and generously attributed to the old man. We can test the likelihood of this being true: another set of Northcote's conversations was recorded by another painter, James Ward, but not published until 1901. (Ruskin had wanted to edit these, but went mad before he could do so.) Northcote can be just as fascinating with the less interesting Ward as he is with Hazlitt.

Hazlitt is not a mimic, so we do not get Northcote's thick Devon accent, as we can hear it from another Devonian, B.R.Haydon. "Zo," says Northcote on meeting young Haydon in 1804, "you mayne tu bee a peinter, doo-ee? What zort of peinter?" "Historical painter, sir." "Heestorical peinter! Why yee'll starve with a bundle of straw under yeer head!" This prediction was not far off.

Still, though we might not get a sense of accent or dialect, Northcote's manner of speaking, his tartness (vitriol at this distance seems too strong a word) and his acuteness come across. Some charming stories get corrected. Dr Johnson is asked by another painter whether it was true that he had sat up all night to read Fanny Burney's Evelina. He replies: "I never read it through at all, though I don't wish this to be known." Reynolds had also pretended to have read Evelina at a sitting, and Northcote thinks it "affectation in them both, who were thorough-paced men of the world, and hackneyed in literature, to pretend to be so delighted with the performance of a girl, in which they could find neither instruction nor any great amusement, except from the partiality of friendship."

He goes on, referring to Johnson's famous biography of the self-destructive poet Richard Savage: "So Johnson cried up Savage, because they had slept on bulks when they were young; and lest he should be degraded into a vagabond by the association, had elevated the other into a genius." This "prevarication" of Johnson's, this "tampering with his own convictions" was inconsistent with the moralising tone he assumed on other occasions, "such as correcting Mrs Thrale for saying that a bird flew in at the door, instead of the window." Northcote is talking about the kind of myth-making writers go in for when exaggerating the merits of fellow-writers -- a familiar phenomenon today.

The honesty and straightforwardness that Northcote evinces, and that Hazlitt so clearly relishes, can be seen in his admission that there are some things "in respect to which I am in the same state that a blind man is as to colours. Homer is one of these. I am utterly in the dark about it. I can make nothing of his heroes or his Gods." But Jack-the-Giant-Killer "is the first book I ever read, and I cannot describe the pleasure it gives me even now. I cannot look into it without my eyes filling with tears… It is to me… the most heroic of performances."

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Conversations of James Northcote, Esq., R.A. by William Hazlitt, Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, London 1830.

Conversations of James Northcote R.A. with James Ward on Art and Artists edited and arranged from the manuscripts and notebooks of James Ward by Ernest Fletcher, Methuen, London 1901.

The edition of Hazlitt I used is the first. P.P.Howe's edition of the Complete Works is the 21 volume set referred to (1930-34).

David Bromwich is the critic who in his Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic (Oxford, 1983) says: "This fondness for Northcote is a delicate thing. When Hazlitt came to write his "Boswell Redivivus," he set up the fading society-painter as the Johnson of the piece. One of Hazlitt's friends, visiting the studio to hear them talk, was surprised to find Hazlitt saying all the good things: in the published Conversations of James Northcote, by William Hazlitt, these were usually refined into epigrams and then credited to Northcote." I suggest that this question might be looked into again.

Ruskin's remarks about Northcote may be found in Praeterita.

Calling Northcote a fading society-painter, as Bromwich does, is simply a casual piece of denigration. See, for instance, Northcote's portrait of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello.

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