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.
Wordsworth admired Haydon’s work. Dickens did not: ‘most unquestionably was a very bad painter’. Haydon did portraits with reluctance; his life’s ambition was to concentrate on vast historical paintings – Napoleon Musing at St Helena, Nero at the Burning of Rome, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. It was a hopeless commitment; he was forever scrounging for commissions, begging for loans, and fending off the bailiffs. By 1846 he had been arrested for debt seven times and been in a debtors’ prison four times. His unfortunate family lived on a knife-edge; his suicide when arrest once again impended may even have been a bid to get them some kind of security: he left behind a will imploring that support be found for them. And that worked – Robert Peel, Prime Minister, himself stepped in with a handsome contribution, and a public subscription was set up. In a grim sense, his wife and children may have been better off without this obsessive, obstinate, though clearly in some way lovable, man.
Alethea Hayter’s extraordinary evocation of these people and these few weeks is scrupulous – nothing is invented: ‘Every incident, every sentence of dialogue, every gesture, the food, the flowers . . .’ she says, ‘all are taken from the contemporary letters, diaries and reminiscences of the men and women concerned.’ It is this authenticity that makes the book so compelling: you feel that you are there, stifling in Elizabeth Barrett’s cluttered Wimpole Street room, jolting in a diligence to Cheyne Row for tea with the acerbic Jane Carlyle.
Alethea Hayter (sister, incidentally, of Priscilla Napier, author of A Late Beginner, see SF No. 21) is shrewd and perceptive about character without being judgemental: poor Haydon, in a state of endless self-mortification, feeling that the world ignores him, distraught when his one-man show in Piccadilly is entirely eclipsed by the appearance in the same building of ‘General Tom Thumb, the midget’ (actually an 8-year-old boy thirty-one inches tall), exhibited by a circus proprietor. Midget attendance 12,000; Haydon exhibition attendance 133. She has fun with the Carlyles – their health obsessions, their turbulent marriage, his unfortunate weakness for society hostesses – but is also sympathetic towards this strange, clever couple who themselves so much reflect the climate of their time.
But most vividly of all, perhaps, she conjures up Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, desperately in love, their engagement kept a perilous secret lest her dictator of a father forbid Browning’s visits and scupper their planned elopement. Browning does the social circuit, reports to Elizabeth on the Gräfin Hahn-Hahn, who is being lionized and breakfasted right and left, but all the time he is focused only on his beloved, counting the days till he can see her, exasperated that he has to pretend detachment and indifference each time he hears her name mentioned.
The Brownings’ story has been much chronicled, but perhaps nowhere is it as sharply lit as here, over these few weeks, when they write to one another daily. Browning brings her flowers from his New Cross garden on the treasured weekly visits (roses in full bloom, Madonna lilies in bud). Elizabeth walks Flush, her spaniel, in the relative cool of the evening, thinking of Robert; he attends a river party for the Gräfin Hahn-Hahn, thinking of Elizabeth. They are tense with anxiety that their secret will leak out and Mr Barrett will spring into action; then, in September, Elizabeth creeps out of the house with her maid to St Marylebone church and marries Browning. A week later, they have gone to Italy.
The Gräfin Hahn-Hahn, a somewhat forgotten German novelist, was the visiting celebrity, for reasons that now seem obscure. Suffice it that everyone scrambled to entertain or meet her. Browning was underwhelmed, and had not read her anyway. Jane Carlyle, on the other hand, seemed to fancy her ‘dreamy novels’ and called her ‘a sort of German George Sand without the genius’ – actually a pretty backhanded compliment. Her novel Gräfin Faustina was evidently light reading that appealed even to high-minded women like Jane Carlyle and Mrs Jameson, but it does seem odd that she was so pursued, though her reputation dipped considerably when it was realized that the gentleman escort she had in tow was in fact her lover – a bridge too far for even relatively liberal-minded Victorian society.
The Gräfin serves, in fact, as a kind of curious satellite figure to the main players. Haydon never came across her at all, and would not have been interested, plunged as he was into this latest financial crisis, blasting off begging letters and trying desperately to fulfil a punishing work schedule – a painting called Alfred and the First British Jury, one for which he was unlikely to find a buyer anyway. His vast historical paintings had their deficiencies, not least his tendency to make everyone’s legs too short, a misjudgement due to his own poor eyesight. He was better at portraits, and must in the past have been quite a draughtsman. When young, Haydon had been close to Keats, and the copy of my old paperback edition of A Sultry Month features the fascinating page of drawings done one day by the two of them, presumably pushing the paper back and forth between them. ‘A vile caricature of B. R. Haydon by Mr Keats’ is scrawled across the sheet, the centrepiece of which is the face of a ravishingly handsome Grecian-faced youth, clearly by Haydon and presumably a corrective to the less flattering offering above it by Keats.
So Keats finds a mention – several, indeed. As do Dickens and Tennyson, also satellite figures in the sense that they do not step on to the stage during that crucial summer month when poor Haydon was driven to despair and the London social round was touched by tragedy, but they are in the wings. They knew everyone, their views are heard. This short book is compelling for its remarkable scope, the way in which it fields such a cast of characters, from the deeply familiar to those less well remembered such as Robert Monckton Milnes – poet, politician, man about town, nailed by Carlyle as ‘a most bland-smiling, semi-quizzical, affectionate, high-bred, italianized little man’, or Thomas Talfourd, barrister and playwright, amiable literary patron and critic, who steps
centre-stage at the end of the book when he is landed with being Haydon’s executor, and has to deal with an almighty fuss over Haydon’s letters and journals, which the painter had deposited with Elizabeth Barrett and appeared in his will to wish her to edit and publish. This was the last thing she wanted to have to do, and the last thing literary London wanted done, fearful of what indiscretions might lurk there.
I have read A Sultry Month many times, and on each rereading something different seizes the attention. This time, I think it was the evocation of detail – the daily weather bulletin, what the papers were saying, the background rumble of Parliament and the debate over the Corn Laws, what people wore and what their houses were like. Intense but unobtrusive scholarship lies behind this technique, and Alethea Hayter carries it off superbly, helped by her own humour and keen perception.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Penelope Lively 2010
About the contributor
Penelope Lively would love to have been able to write a book like A Sultry Month but has had to settle for fiction.