b. 1911 – d. 2006
Alethea Hayter wrote books of immaculate scholarship and intense readability. For a quarter of a century, she was also an excellent cultural ambassador with the British Council. Her first book, on the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, appeared in 1962, and the following decade saw the publication of her most important works: A Sultry Month (1965), Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968), Horatio’s Version (1972) and A Voyage in Vain (1973). What is striking about these books is not just their professionalism, but their originality.
Alethea Hayter remembered – by Jonathan Bate
Alethea Hayter was a pioneer of the now highly fashionable genre of ‘micro-biography’. Between the mid-1960s and the early years of the new century – an era dominated by ‘cradle to grave’ doorstopper literary biographies – she crafted a sequence of beautifully-written vignettes that began from a single moment and yet contrived to spiral out in such a way as to satisfy the reader’s sense of the whole life and the wider social world in which it was lived.
She was a late starter as a literary author. She and her sister Priscilla Napier, also a writer, were brought up in Cairo, where their father was a legal adviser to the Egyptian Government. They returned to England after his premature death and Alethea won a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in 1929. Like many other young ladies of the era, she read Modern History and graduated to a career at the gentler end of journalism. She was taken on as fashion editor for Country Life, but showed more interest in the books department. During the War she served abroad on behalf of the Postal Censorship section of the War Office and from the 1950s she worked in Europe for the British Council.
Her first book was an orthodox study of a then unfashionable writer, Mrs Browning: A Poet’s Work and Its Setting (1962). E.B.B.’s use of opium led Hayter to begin the research that culminated in her best-known book, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968), a wide-ranging study of the myth and reality surrounding the relationship between drug use and creativity in a range of nineteenth-century writers, most notably Coleridge, De Quincey and Baudelaire. Though Hayter was hardly at the heart of the late-Sixties counter-culture, it was a book that struck a chord with its time.
Prior to the opium book, she had published the first of her biographical studies focused on a single moment in cultural history: A Sultry Month (1965) began from the grisly suicide of the Romantic painter Benjamin Robert Haydon in June 1846. Thanks to Haydon’s diary and other published records, Hayter saw how closely knit the London literary and artistic world was at this time. This allowed her to paint a vivid portrait of cultural life in the metropolis during a single hot summer month at the height of the Victorian era.
The method was applied with even greater success to the events surrounding two sea voyages, an interest perhaps shaped by that childhood voyage from Cairo back to England: Coleridge’s journey to Malta in 1804, which was recorded in vivid detail in his notebooks (A Voyage in Vain, 1973), and The Wreck of the Abergavenny (2002), which took the life of the ship’s captain, John Wordsworth, and transformed the sensibility of his brother William. These two books are minor masterpieces of Romantic biography.
Alethea Hayter also edited several letter collections (e.g. of Edward Fitzgerald and James Russell Lowell), wrote short studies of Barrett Browning and Charlotte Yonge in the British Council ‘Writers and Their Work’ series, and undertook a memoir of Lavinia Mynors, based on her letters and diaries. And in Horatio’s Version (1972), she provided a strikingly original take on Hamlet. The book is a combination of two imaginary contexts for the events of the play: a commission of inquiry headed by Fortinbras and the private diary of Horatio. It is already clear that the best literary criticism of the early 21st Century will combine analysis and creative play in the exact manner of Horatio’s Version, just as it is clear that micro-biography is the future of literary life-writing. It is remarkable that Alethea Hayter anticipated both generic developments, from outside the formal academy and while doing sterling work as cultural ambassador via the British Council.