London: June/July 1846, an exceptionally hot few weeks. A small group of literati swelters but pursues a punishing social round – the Carlyles, Richard Monckton Milnes, Mrs Jameson, Samuel Rogers, Macready, John Forster, Thomas Talfourd. And Robert Browning, who is secretly engaged to Elizabeth Barrett and reporting daily to her by letter as they yearn for their next meeting and plan their marriage and elopement. Benjamin Haydon, the painter – manic, visionary, obsessed with his own genius – dumps some paintings and his journals on Elizabeth Barrett for safe-keeping, buys a pistol and commits suicide.
Alethea Hayter’s clever, innovative book of 1965 turned a searchlight on a time, a place, a circle of people; it has surely inspired the subsequent fashion for group biographies, most brilliantly exemplified by Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men. Hayter’s book is short, succinct, intensely focused and cunningly structured. She moves forward day by day, homing in on each member of the cast – what they looked like, how they sounded: Elizabeth Barrett with her two thick curtains of dark ringlets and ‘the taut face of an Egyptian cat goddess’; Carlyle’s conversation – ‘a flood, a war-chant, a cavalry charge of splendid sentences’. All these people were leading social and literary figures of the time, a coterie who wined and dined almost daily – ‘breakfasts’ of six or eight, three hours of competitive wit and gossip.
Some of the names are almost forgotten now: Samuel Rogers, banker, poet and art collector, of such repulsively cadaverous appearance that Jane Carlyle declared ‘he should have been buried long ago’; Mrs Jameson – Irish writer of guide books to art collections, sought-after guest and loyal friend to Elizabeth Barrett. And Haydon himself, at the heart of the book, is hardly a household name today, best known for his portrait of Wordsworth on Helvellyn, now in the National Portrait Gallery.
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