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"It is only necessary," Mr. Birrell writes, to compare the Macbeth
of the Characters with the criticism of Mr. Kean's Macbeth that appeared in the Champion of November 13, 1814; the Othello of the Characters with the criticism of Mr. Kean's Othello that appeared in the Examiner of July 24, 1814, and January 7, 1816; the Coriolanus of the Characters with the criticism of Mr. Kemble's Coriolanus that appeared in the Examiner of December 15, 1816; and to do the same with the Hamlet and Midsummer Night's Dream of the Characters with the Chronicle of March 14, 1814, and the Examiner of January 21, 1816, to see clearly that but for the newspapers and Kean, Hazlitt would never have written his Characters."
Having thus been able to use, not to his reader's disadvantage, some of his old materials, Hazlitt was probably very well satisfied when on taking his manuscript to the printer of the Examiner, C. H. Reynell, he received an offer of £100 for the entire copyright. Reynell employed Hunter of St. Paul's Churchyard and C. & J. Ollier of Welbeck Street to sell the book for him, and it must have been published about the beginning of July, since the first of three advertisements in the Times was published on the eighth of that month. In October new advertisements appeared in the Times, probably for the sake of quoting from the Edinburgh Review :—1
"This is a very pleasing book, and we do not hesitate to say a book of very considerable originality and genius. What we chiefly look for in such a work is a fine sense of the beauties of the author, and an eloquent exposition of them, and all this and more may be found in the volume before us."
No doubt this very just criticism helped the sale of the book, but as it was natural in those days for the Edinburgh to praise Hazlitt as one of its contributors, so it was natural for the Quarterly to hold him up to ridicule, and in the number for January, 1818, Gifford executed his task 1 The criticism appeared in the 'August' number, but this appears to have been very late in coming out.
with his accustomed skill. Whately's essay in Shakesperean criticism as written by 'a gentleman of the name of Mason';1 he had used a few phrases (logical diagrams,' 'caught in the web of,' etc.) once oftener than Mr. Gifford thought right; he had said in one place, it is we who are Hamlet'; and in another, 'the interest in Hamlet is more remote and reflex'; he had misquoted a passage and bungled an allusion. For these sins (and sins they are, though they leave the merits of the book untouched), as well as for the weightier one of being the work of William Hazlitt, who was neither a Tory nor a Churchman, the Characters were dismissed as beneath contempt. In A Letter to William Gifford, Esq. (1819), Hazlitt subsequently taught the eminent critic that it was safer to leave his books alone. But in his own mind a myth grew up which has been dutifully accepted by all his biographers. He informed his friends that Taylor and Hessey told him subsequently that the booksellers "had sold nearly two editions in about three months, but after the Quarterly review of them came out, they never sold another copy," or, with some variations.
Hazlitt had alluded to Thomas
"My book sold well-the first edition had gone off in six weeks— till that review came out. I had just prepared a second edition, but then the Quarterly told the public that I was a fool and a dunce; and more, that I was an evil-disposed person; and the public, supposing Gifford to know best, confessed it had been a great ass to be pleased where it ought not to be, and the sale completely stopped " (Memoirs of William Hazlitt, by W. C. Hazlitt, vol. I., p. 228 sq.). A firm belief that good books, though they may not find a very large public ready for them, are never killed by a
1 There was some excuse for this blunder, since Whately's Remarks on some of the characters of Shakespeare were at first published anonymously, and George Mason resembled him in writing both on poetry and on gardening.
hostile review, prompted the present writer to examine this legend with the aid of contemporary advertisements, and the facts show that Hazlitt's imagination had run away with him. with him. As we have seen, the first edition was published early in July, three months later the publishers were trying to help it by fresh advertisements; Gifford's review appeared in January, 1818, and it was not until some four months after this, i.e. early in May, that the second edition was brought out, simultaneously with the issue of the Lectures on the English Poets. As the book was published at half a guinea, it had not done badly to reach a second edition in ten months; but its original success was far less rapid than Hazlitt imagined, and Gifford's attack probably did no great harm. The second edition was published for Reynell by Taylor and Hessey, and as the last revised by Hazlitt has been followed in this reprint.
The Lectures on the English Poets, delivered at the Surrey Institution, which appeared simultaneously with the second edition of the Characters, were also published by Taylor and Hessey and at the same price, half a guinea. Hazlitt had procured an introduction to the Secretary of the Institution from a member of the Committee, and according to his grandson (Memoirs, I. 235) began his interview by remarking that he had not written any part of the proposed lectures, but had thought of them, and suggested that a portion of the proposed fee might be paid in advance. Despite this not very promising opening the proposal was accepted and the lectures given, early in 1818, to the rather motley audiences which lectures on winter evenings in the Blackfriars Road could attract. According to Talfourd (Literary Remains, I. cxxvi.):
"They consisted chiefly of dissenters, who agreed with him in his hatred.
of Lord Castlereagh, but who loved no plays'; of Quakers, who approved him as the opponent of slavery and capital punishment, but who heard no music'; of citizens, devoted to the main chance, who had a hankering after 'the improvement of the mind,' but to whom his favourite doctrine of its natural disinterestedness was a riddle; of a few enemies, who came to sneer; and a few friends, who were eager to learn and to admire. . . . When he read a well-known extract from Cowper, comparing a poor cottager with Voltaire, and had pronounced the line 'a truth the brilliant Frenchman never knew,' they broke out into a joyous shout of self-gratulation that they were so much wiser than a wicked Frenchman. When he passed by Mrs. Hannah More with observing that she had written a great deal which he had never read' a voice gave expression to the general commiseration and surprise by calling out, More pity for you.'"
The lectures were reviewed, or rather epitomised, by Mr. P. G. Patmore in articles in Blackwood's Magazine for February, March, and April. In the Times for March 23rd, 1818, there is an advertisement beginning "This evening at the Crown and Anchor Tavern Mr. Hazlitt will commence a course of lectures on English Poets," so that it would seem that the lectures were repeated before a different audience, a fact which I have not found mentioned elsewhere. As two lectures were to be given at the Crown and Anchor each week, the course would have finished in the latter half of April, and the lectures were published in book form within about a fortnight of the delivery of the last of them. They enjoyed just the same amount of immediate success as the Characters, reaching a second edition in 1819, after which no reprint was called for during the author's life. The text, therefore, of this edition follows that of 1819.
ALFRED W. POLLARD.