Alethea Hayter

Author of 'Opium and the Romantic Imagination' who set out to invent 'a new sub-genre of biography'
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The Independent Online

Alethea Hayter, writer: born Cairo 7 November 1911; editorial staff, Country Life 1933-38; Postal Censorship 1939-45; staff, British Council 1945-71, Representative and Cultural Attaché, Belgium and Luxembourg 1967-71; FRSL 1963; OBE 1970; died London 10 January 2006.

To produce a book in one's nineties is a far from usual feat. If that book is in no way inferior to anything that the author has previously written, then the feat is truly remarkable. Reviewers were, without exception, enthusiastic about just such a work, Alethea Hayter's The Wreck of the Abergavenny (2002). This is the story of how, in 1805, one of the largest of the East India Company's ships was holed and sank in Weymouth Bay, with the loss of 260 of its 400 or so passengers, along with its captain, John Wordsworth, younger brother of the poet William. Hayter's description of the circumstances of the tragedy is masterly; no less so is the account of its impact on John Wordsworth's family and the whole Wordsworth circle.

Unusually late in life, in 1962 at the age of 50, Hayter achieved her first literary success, Mrs Browning: a poet's work and its setting. She was disappointed that the book, meticulously researched and elegantly written, did not revive any marked interest in a poet whom she so much admired; but she could enjoy the satisfaction of having produced the best of all critical studies of her subject.

It had often been rumoured that, before this first publication under her own name, she had produced some not all that successful novels under a pseudonym. When I taxed her with this, she told me firmly that she did not know what I was talking about. A few months later, I noticed that at the bottom of a bookcase in her Athens flat there was a block of books, two or three copies of each, authored by a "J.C. Fennessy". Not long after, I happened to ask her who was the subject of a portrait in her drawing room. When I received the answer "Oh, that's one of my Fennessy ancestors", I took this to be confirmation of my surmise that she and Fennessy were one and the same person. A subsequent reading of one of Fennessy's five novels, The Sonnet in the Bottle (1951), did not encourage me to pursue "his" works further.

In 1965 Hayter had another success with A Sultry Month: scenes of London literary life in 1846, in which she sought to achieve what she called "an interlocked conversation piece . . . a new sub-genre of biography". The month in question is August, full of tumultuous events for a number of well-known characters, the chief of whom is the painter Benjamin Haydon, portrayed with a mixture of amusement at his absurdities and compassion for the disappointments and disasters that drove him to suicide before the month was over. "I saw my chapters like a series of unfolding loops," she said, "all curving back to one central point."

Its successor, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968), was the most financially successful of Hayter's books - no doubt, in part at least, because of its title. In the aftermath of its publication she was dismayed to receive a number of letters from mostly youthful readers who asked for details about her experiments with drugs and provided accounts of their own experiences with them. Since throughout her life she was a woman of unassailable rectitude, I doubt if she had ever taken even a puff of a joint.

In the years that followed she produced Horatio's Version (1972), a cunning exegesis of the true story of Hamlet; A Voyage in Vain (1973), a vivid account of Coleridge's 1804 journey to Malta; and a study of Charlotte M. Yonge, to whose novels she was devoted (Charlotte Yonge, 1996). She also brought her dedicated scholarship to the editing of some volumes of diaries and letters and to the reviewing of books for such publications as the London Review of Books, the TLS and the Spectator.

Hayter came of a family with a history of distinguished public service. From that family she and her brother William (later to become Sir William Hayter, British ambassador to the Soviet Union and Warden of New College, Oxford) undoubtedly derived their unflagging sense of duty and social responsibility. Her father, another Sir William Hayter, had been legal adviser to the Egyptian Government. As a result, it was in Cairo that Hayter was born and spent a childhood that she once described to me as "idyllic".

After five years at Downe House School, she progressed as a Senior Scholar to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and then, having obtained a BA in Modern History, joined the staff of Country Life - serving as fashion editor and, often, model. ("The clothes never fitted, you know," she told The Independent on Sunday, "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.")

During the years of the Second World War she worked in Postal Censorship in Gibraltar, Bermuda, Trinidad and London - an experience about which she adamantly refused ever to be drawn. In 1945 she joined the British Council, and remained with it, an increasingly valued and influential officer, until 1971. Her final posting was as Representative and Cultural Attaché, Belgium and Luxembourg (1967-71).

It was when she was serving in Greece that I became first a junior colleague and then a close friend. She was the Assistant Representative; the Representative was the art historian Roger Hinks, who had retired prematurely from the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum in the aftermath of a scandal over damage done to the Elgin Marbles by ill-judged cleaning. At that period the British Council had a department called "Aids and Displays". Hayter, self- effacing, conscientious and outstandingly efficient, was the perfect Aid. Hinks, with his disdain for the tedium of administration, his exhilarating wit, and his love of a social occasion, the grander the better, was the perfect Display. I feared that two people so totally unlike each other would eventually fall out. But, since they each admired the other for attributes that they thought lacking in themselves, they worked in total harmony and became devoted to each other.

I came fully to appreciate Hayter's sterling qualities when she, Maurice Bowra and I were involved in a motor accident on a journey back from Delphi to the capital. Our driver suffered serious injuries, and Bowra a broken collarbone. I was left bleeding profusely from my nose. Hayter at once took charge - calmly and efficiently flagging down a lorry, taking us to a small nearby clinic, supervising our first aid there, and then accompanying us in an ambulance to Athens. Two or three days later I visited Bowra at the embassy to see how he was faring. The ambassador, Sir Charles Peake, was there. "Alethea was wonderful," I said. Peake nodded: "It was women like that who won the war for us." "And made it such hell for everyone else," Bowra countered, with his characteristic reluctance to say anything good of anyone.

Alethea Hayter had a long retirement, during which she was constantly busy not merely with her writing but with her work on a number of committees. She was a governor of the Old Vic Theatre, 1972-82, of the Sadler's Wells Theatre, 1974-92, and of Downe House School, 1974-82. In 1962 she won the Royal Society of Literature W.H. Heinemann Award for Mrs Browning; in 1968 the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for Opium and the Romantic Imagination. She was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was appointed OBE in 1970.

Hayter retained her beauty and elegance into her nineties. Though physically frail, she amazed everyone with her mental robustness and agility up to only a few weeks before her death. Her tone of voice never changed - courteous, often coolly humorous, always authoritative. She was one of those people who not merely set the highest moral standards for themselves but also for those closest to her. However, when one fell below those standards, she was always indulgent to one's lapses. She never married but enjoyed the unfailing support not merely of a devoted family but also of many friends.

Her sister Priscilla ("Bill") Napier, three years her senior and herself an accomplished biographer and poet, was particularly close. When she died in 1998, Hayter bore what was clearly a devastating blow with her customary stoicism.

Francis King