Alethea Hayter

Alethea Hayter books include Mrs Browning: A Poet’s Work and its Setting and A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846.

Burnished and braced

Alethea Hayter, 12 July 1990

‘Relaxation is my bane, Lady Morpeth. All my habits and tastes lean that way and in consequence I am going to wage war upon them all. I dread a languid yellow old age, hot, perfumed and dawdling, and I prefer our Julia’s course, active, smart, burnished and braced.’ This selection of letters to an adored sister concentrates on the ‘active, smart, burnished and braced’ aspect of an ambivalent personality and pattern of life. It presents Harriet Cavendish (or Hah-yet Candish as it was then pronounced) only as a wife. For her upbringing among the splendours of the Devonshire ménage, and for her widowhood, Betty Askwith’s Piety and Wit is needed as a complement to this sparkling collection of letters, which is confined to Lady Granville’s brilliant social life as Ambassadress in Paris and as guest in the greatest English country houses.


Alethea Hayter, 14 September 1989

In a spirited attempt to forestall criticism, Margaret Doody warns her readers that they may ‘feel horrified at what they they regard as a changeling-substitution of a mad Gothic feminist for the cheerful little Augustan chatterbox’ which is the conventional picture of Fanny Burney. Stimulated to anger by past biographers who see Fanny Burney as sunny and shallow, ‘dear little Burney’, who class her with, but below, Jane Austen, who are interested only in Evelina and the Journals, Professor Doody sets out to present an altogether different version. ‘Burney’, or ‘Frances’, as she alternately and rather confusingly calls her subject, was a different kind of writer from Jane Austen, more like Dickens or even Hardy. She should be judged on all her works, and more on the plays and later novels than on Evelina and the Journals. Violence, anxiety, grotesque farce and brutal jokes pervade her works. ‘The search for identity, egoism, embarrassment, self-destruction, emotional blackmail’ are listed as the subjects that interested her most; ‘drift, inconsequentiality and anti-climax’ as her constructive principles. Revolt against the pattern of female submission laid down in the contemporary courtesy manuals, and an ardent advocacy of self-dependence, are detected as master themes in all the novels and plays.

Reader, I married you

Alethea Hayter, 30 March 1989

‘Your letters began by being first to my intellect, before they were first to my heart,’ Elizabeth Barrett told Browning when they had been corresponding for over a year and had acknowledged their love. When she first got the fan letter from a fellow poet, six years younger and much less celebrated than she was, she took it for the opening of another correspondence such as she had had in the past with other men of letters – with Hugh Stuart Boyd on prosody, with Richard Hengist Horne on contemporary literature, with Benjamin Robert Haydon on the artist’s vocation. Browning in this first letter told her that he loved her poetry with its ‘fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought’. She saw this as another inauguration, with a fellow writer whose work she greatly admired, of a dialogue of professional ‘shop’, all by correspondence, just as she liked best in her invalid seclusion in which she could on paper be bold and honest ‘en bon camarade’ with male correspondents whom she was never to meet face to face. She sent Browning a gratified answer, asking him for critical comments on her poetry.’

Reticulation: Wordsworth at Sea

Frank Kermode, 6 February 2003

There has of late been a vogue for what is sometimes called ‘micro-history’: the historian chooses some anecdote, some occurrence remote from the mainstream of historical writing, and...

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The Chop

John Bayley, 27 January 1994

Neither Genghiz Khan nor Stalin was physically brave. Both led from the rear, keeping well out of the way of any rough stuff that might be going on. The habit of directing matters through a staff...

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Into the Gulf

Rosemary Hill, 17 December 1992

No one ever failed more completely to be the hero of his own life than the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, for whom heroism was an obsession. He used his own head as a model for Christ, Solomon,...

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A Favourite of the Laws

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 13 June 1991

In Of the Rights of Persons, the first volume of his celebrated Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69), William Black stone concluded his account of how the law makes a husband and wife...

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