Wayside Faces

IN passing along the road of the life or the writings of a genius, I have often been distracted by a chance acquaintance with a countenance more shadowed and retired, looking out at me from a wayside window on the great man’s fame. Often I cannot remain on the road. The wayside figure irresistibly invites me in to her hospitality, and I knock at the door, and enter into the hallway of her tale of many mansions, her history real or imaginary.

To such a place I have lately been distracted from the essays of Hazlitt and of Lamb, by the frank, light, and easygoing nature of their common acquaintance, afterwards Hazlitt’s wife, Sarah Stodart — a young woman pathetically desirous of more life and fuller, pathetically eager to see the sights of the universe. The daughter of an army officer and the recipient, in correspondence, of Mary Lamb’s confidences on the subject of her passion for sprigged muslin, she appears almost in the character of a dissipation for the sister of Elia.

Mary Lamb loves her, and her ‘merry face’ and her warm heart. She regards with mixed emotions her surprising frankness, which at once frightens and fascinates both the Lambs. At the same time she expresses an unhesitating disapproval of Miss Stodart’s conduct: her volatility; her outspoken determination to marry, without any marked particularity as to whom she selects, or rather whom she chooses to pursue: and her bold rebellions against her brother, whom she considers hard and formal, and her sister-in-law, from whom Mary Lamb begs her not to conceal her various matrimonial engagements.

‘As much as possible make a friend of your sister-in-law. You know I was not struck with her at first sight, but upon your account I have watched and marked her very attentively; and while she was eating a bit of cold mutton in our kitchen, we had a serious conversation . From the frankness of her manner I am convinced she is a person I could make a friend of: why should not you?’

It is all like a judicious story of Miss Edgeworth’s about some injudicious heroine, except that Sarah Stodart is always somewhat coarser and blunter, never really as nice, as even the most misguided of Miss Edgeworth’s young women. According to your inclination, you may regard her as like Flossy in The Divine Fire, an unscrupulous and greedy Beaver, with her determination, whoever her husband may be, to have her small property at Winterslow settled on herself and her future children; or you may regard her as like Ann of Man and Superman — a magnificent force devoid of petty pride in over-coming all obstacles to accomplish a noble ambition. But, unless a person whose vision is fixed on the detail of extremely etiquettish standards, or else a person whose sight in matters of courtship is blurred in the grand haze of a contemplation like Whitman’s over

the garden, the world new-ascending,

you will probably feel very much like Mary Lamb about her friend’s rapidly successive betrothals and affairs with somebody named ‘William,’ who shoots partridges; with Mr. Turner; and then with ‘William’ again; and then with Mr. White; and then with a second William. You will feel at once a disaffection with her behavior, and also a liking for something large and honest in her. You will be sorry for her, and touched by her; and it will be with a start of something like dismay that you will find in this second William the presence of Hazlitt, the Solitary Thinker, whom she married when he was about thirty.

It is a fact not often commented on that a husband is a gateway to many things other than motherhood, or the romance of a peculiar devotion. Indeed, one observes often that a husband is unreasonably expected to supply an access to virtually everything in the world, and to many aspects of creation on which his nature, through no fault of his own, has absolutely no outlook. Something of this kind seems to have happened in the Hazlitts’ marriage. Perhaps, as a husband, Hazlitt was rather a wall than a gateway. He was an affectionate father; and in all his and his wife’s difficulties, their separation and Scotch divorce, they each kept, and kept for the other, the devotion of their son.

Idle to assume an air of refinement for Sarah Stodart Hazlitt. As well realize that she, as well as her husband, had qualities which were thoroughly low, and qualities truly magnificent. But if she is coarse and light, she is never little or stuffy; and you understand why, with all her faults, Elia and his sister would have liked to have her live with them. Perhaps, indeed, the faultless are not the most desirable persons to live with; and she possessed a valuable talent. She understood how to go through whatever hatefulnesses life might fling upon her; and her intent of happiness, without depredations upon others, still smiles at us from her window on the way of Hazlitt’s fame, with a random charm undimmed by a hundred years.