BOOKS / Small lives . . . but perfectly formed: Alethea Hayter tells Jenny Uglow about her inspiration to write a new type of biography

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The Independent Culture
IF HOSE-PIPE bans bother you, consider this: no rain in Kent for six weeks; midday temperatures of 105 to 116 Fahrenheit; boatmen on the Thames die of sunstroke; farm labourers collapse in the fields; epidemics are feared in Hull and Leeds; heath-fires blaze across Britain. That isn't a prophecy of global warming, but June 1846, the setting of Alethea Hayter's recently reissued A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846. 'Oh, it is so hot,' sighs Elisabeth Barrett Browning, 'it is cauldron-heat, not fire-heat.' She can do nothing but lie on the sofa, drink lemonade and read Monte Cristo.

A reprint of a 1965 book, long unavailable, would not normally cause a stir, but writers love Alethea Hayter, and A Sultry Month is surprisingly in tune with the current search for non-linear ways of writing about the past. A forthcoming issue of Granta will ask if, in an age of mammoth biographies, we have lost the art of the miniature. A Sultry Month can be seen as presaging not only a flurry of group biographies but also the New Historicism, charting the interlinking of culture, politics and belief in a single deep wedge of time. Yet while those approaches follow the principle of 'only connect', Hayter's dictum is different - 'only select'.

Her book covers just four and a half weeks, from Thursday 10 June to Monday 13 July. While battles rage over the Corn Laws in a stifling House of Commons, the London literati (Carlyles, Browning, Dickens et al) attend parties for the one-eyed German novelist Grafin Hahn-

Hahn; but then a darker centre is provided by the suicide of the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Spiralling outwards from Haydon's despairing, grandiose reflections, each short chapter curves around a character or theme, a kaleidoscope of mid-19th century thought: on art, on 'Satanic beauty', on sexuality, on faith.

On first publication Anthony Burgess called the book 'moving and original . . . a form which is so new as to lack a name'. The form is something which came to Hayter almost intuitively: 'In the middle of the night I suddenly saw how it could be done. I leapt out of bed and tore all the reference books off the shelves - by morning it was worked out'. By making Haydon's death the core, she could be reflective as well as immediate: 'I saw my chapters like a series of unfolding loops, all curving back to one central point.'

A S Byatt, Francis Wyndham and Susannah Clapp were among those who badgered publishers to reprint this small classic. 'The whole concept is brilliant,' Clapp says, 'the group and the moment, with the city itself as a breathing, real presence.' 'Nothing I've ever read', Margaret Forster says, 'has flung me so immediately into those streets, that weather, that period. She never forgets that people want stories, that lives are stories.' Richard Holmes finds the same qualities in another of Hayter's books, A Voyage in Vain: Coleridge's Journey to Malta in 1804, which he read in 1980, before beginning his own biography of the poet: 'It was a pathfinder book for me: I was particularly impressed by the way she could take a tiny chip of life - say Coleridge gazing up at the sails - and find within it the seeds of a whole existence.'

Alethea Hayter, 81 this year, was in her fifties when A Sultry Month was originally published. Her first book, on the then neglected Elizabeth Barrett Browning, had appeared only three years earlier. She had been held back from writing, she explains, by a packed life as a journalist and then by war work (discreetly unspecified) in Gibraltar, the West Indies and London. After that came a career with the British Council.

The journalism was at Country Life in the 1930s, where Alethea was fashion editor: 'I loved it. Although, had they needed a fly-fishing editor, I'd have done that just as readily.' She modelled, as well as wrote (she is still bonily beautiful, with a penchant for crimson stockings) and was endlessly amused by the fiction of fashion photography: 'The clothes never fitted, you know, so there one would be, gazing serenely skywards in a wedding-gown, with clothes-pegs all up the back - or in full tweeds and brogues on what appeared an illimitable grouse moor but was of course a back-projection with some dried-up lumps of heather on the floor.'

She had been born in Cairo, the third child of Sir William Hayter, Legal Advisor to the Egyptian government. Photographs in A Late Beginner, a memoir by her sister Priscilla Napier, show the two small girls, with their brother William (later Ambassador to Moscow), sitting on their front doorstep, wearing 'ludicrous' white muslin dresses, sashes and hair-bows, as if for a Hampshire garden party. A Sultry Month was written on the Ile St Louis, looking over the Seine; as she pored over books from the London Library, Paris rocked to the 'plastiquage', the right-wing bombings that accompanied withdrawal from Algeria.

Despite her OBE and establishment credentials - a Governor of the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature - Hayter has evaded conformity. In another of her acclaimed books, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, a doctor's definition of a likely addict as someone who 'fails to identify with normal adult goals such as financial independence, stable employment and the establishment of his own home and family' prompts her to comment that such a list 'may not seem to us to comprehend the Whole Aim of Man'. She delights in obscure writers, 'none the less engaging for being slightly mad', and pounces joyfully on the absurd.

Trivialities, she believes, are always the key to a wider picture: small things count. Reminiscing about Leonard Rossiter's one-man show based on Benjamin Haydon's diaries, she could fault him on only one point: when he prayed, he fell to his knees with a wine-glass in his hand. 'Now Haydon would never have done that. Yes, he drank. But drinking was one thing, praying quite another: he wouldn't have combined the two.' Like many people Rossiter had failed to understand the complexity of Victorian belief. Feelings have forms and fashions. 'Take 'the Manly Tear',' she muses, 'When I was young it was simply assumed that men didn't weep, so they didn't, not even on the stage.' What, not even in King Lear? 'Well, there was a certain amount of wringing of hands, but no actual boo-hooing - I suppose it was a sort of Kiplingesque thing, lasting 30 or 40 years. Now, of course, they can boo-hoo all over the place again.'

'Ah, the throw-away line', says Michael Holroyd, 'the most difficult kind of writing.' 'Isn't she a bit - whimsical?' ask academics. 'Not at all,' responds A S Byatt. 'She's a rigorous scholar but she has an artist's eye. She distinguishes the pattern in the flood.'

Alethea Hayter's credo is perhaps best stated in Horatio's Version, her jeu d'esprit on Hamlet: 'Shakespearean scholars have forbidden us to guess at the number of Lady Macbeth's children,' she says, but for most of us that doctrine is impossible. It is no use telling us that characters have no existence outside the text: 'they exist in our imaginations; and what goes on there . . . is free.'

'A Sultry Month' is published by Robin Clark at pounds 6.95.