The heat had begun in the very first days of the month. Already by 2nd June Browning was complaining that it was very warm, and warning Elizabeth Barrett to be careful of her health. By the 5th the temperature in her room was 80°, and though she loved the heat she could do nothing but lie on the sofa and drink lemonade and read Monte Cristo. … A week later it was still "too hot to laugh"; even the mornings burned and dazzled in white heat; it was so overcoming that even Flush was cross, and Miss Barrett had to take him out in the carriage at half-past seven in the evening to get a breath of coolness by the silvery water of the Serpentine in the dusk of Hyde Park.
It just happened that I was reading A Sultry Month during a recent heatwave in San Francisco, which was surely some kind of literary kismet and provided the appropriate background to give me a sense of how heat and discomfort would have permeated the events of the book. It's an unusual book for me, and indeed a rather unusual book, period. But a couple of years ago when I was first researching Alethea Hayter for my list, this innovative historical work caught my eye.
In Hayter's Guardian obit, Harriet Harvey-Wood said of it: "In its ingenuity and insight, it was an experiment in the art of biography that has seldom been equalled and never bettered." It's also completely perfect for fans of Thea Holme's The Carlyles at Home, reprinted by Persephone, which was (in an apparent flurry of interest in this time period and some of the same personalities) published in the same year. I didn't read the latter book until I happened across a cheap copy, probably at a library book sale, because I wasn't sure it would be my cup of tea, then I started reading and absolutely couldn't put it down. It's now one of my favorite Persephones.
Hayter's experiment works beautifully: she focuses on an entire group of literary and artistic figures, many of whom are at pivotal moments in their lives, and follows them through the interlinked events of an unusually hot month in London, from June 18 – July 13, 1846. Hayter had a few years before published her first full-length work of non-fiction, the acclaimed biography Mrs Browning: A Poet's Work and Its Setting (1962), so one can speculate that she had unearthed so much interesting material in studying, for example, the reactions of Elizabeth Barrett's friends and fellow writers and artists to her escape to Italy with Browning that she felt it simply couldn't go to waste.
Interestingly, though, the main "character" here is the painter and author Benjamin Robert Haydon—not exactly an iconic name in art history—but it works well, as Haydon was clearly a character in both senses of the word, and he had interactions with all the other main figures. He was a man with problems, but in 1846 he was particularly in crisis mode, buried under debt and overwhelmed with frustration at not being better appreciated as an artist. He organizes an exhibition of his own work, with the intention of bringing the acclaim he deserves, but it fails humiliatingly, in large part due to being mounted in the same building as P. T. Barnum's Tom Thumb, who garnered huge crowds to Haydon's sparse trickle. In a memorably (and hilariously) devastating letter, no lesser figure than Charles Dickens reported after Haydon's death on the exhibition and Haydon in general:
All his life he had utterly mistaken his vocation. No amount of sympathy with him, and sorrow for him in his manly pursuit of a wrong idea for many years—until, by dint of his perseverance and courage it almost began to seem a right one—ought to prevent one from saying that he most unquestionably was a very bad painter, and that his pictures could not be expected to sell or to succeed. I went to that very exhibition at the Egyptian Hall, of which he writes so touchingly in his Diary. And I assure you that when I saw his account of the number of visitors he had had in one of the papers, my amazement was—not that there were so few, but that there were so many. There was one picture, Nero entertaining himself with a Musical Performance while Rome was burning—quite marvellous in its badness. It was difficult to look at it with a composed and decent face.
Probably not how Haydon would have wanted to be remembered by Dickens.
In addition to Dickens, who makes a couple of cameo appearances, A Sultry Month features a wonderful supporting cast, including: Elizabeth Barrett, still living at home with her dominating father, but already secretly engaged to Robert Browning and plotting her escape; Thomas and Jane Carlyle, in the midst of one of the periodic rough spells in their marriage, and deeply involved in the others' dramas as well; Mary Russell Mitford, author of Our Village and other popular books of the time; entertaining lesser figures like the eccentric German novelist Grafin Hahn-Hahn (as Jane Carlyle puts it, "Countess Cock cock! What a name!"), actor William Macready, poet and art collector Samuel Rogers, and art historian Anna Jameson; and with other cameos from the likes of William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Also unfolding in that sweltering few weeks was a political drama that evokes today's Brexit turmoil—the proposed repeal of the Corn Laws. I had to Google them, but basically they were tariffs on imported grain, and, in the wake of the beginning of the Irish famine, it was believed that repealing them would help ease food prices for lower income families. There was fierce argument both in the government and in society, and the political turmoil ultimately led to, among other things, the resignation of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (though not before he successfully got the laws repealed). Here's Hayter's evocative description:
The House and the public were agog with expectation of the next night's debate. The political situation, like the weather, was in full heat wave. Sides were taken over the Corn Law question with a violence exceeding any normal political reaction. Fathers and sons quarrelled about it and did not speak to each other for years afterwards. Milnes' father was a Protectionist, and took an active part against his son in Yorkshire political activities. It was not only the old landowners like Robert Milnes who were dismayed; all the old men felt that their world was crumbling. "As to public affairs I cannot bear to think of them. Sir Robert Peel is infatuated; he is playing the part of that weak man, Necker, in the beginning of the French Revolution" wrote Wordsworth from Westmorland.
It's at least slightly reassuring (very slightly) to realize that such fierce divisions as we see today were not unknown a century and a half ago.
There are all sorts of interesting details in Hayer's book. Some of my favorites are the way she evokes details of London as it would have looked and felt at the time, as in this description of a walk Haydon takes:
Haydon walked on to the village of Hampstead through the burning heat. North of Regent's Park the way to Golders Hill was almost all through open fields, with a few scattered farms and large houses, such as Belsize House in its great park. West across the fields ran the new Birmingham Railway from Euston. This was the area, beginning to be devastated by the railway and its accompanying streets and warehouses, that Dickens was just about to start describing so vividly in Dombey and Son, the first words of which were written at Lausanne six days after this hot Sunday morning. The tentacles of Camden Town were stretching out along the railway into the fields, which were rutted with cart-wheel tracks and defaced with heaps of bricks and streaks of lime. Cow-houses, and summer-houses, and the foundations of new little streets of dwellings for the railway workers, were all jumbled together on the edge of the open country, and the jangling Sunday church bells and the roar and rattle of the trains jarred the baking dusty fields as Haydon walked on to Hampstead.
Amazingly for a book I'm writing about, it's not terribly difficult to get hold of a copy of A Sultry Month!