Inside Story

Slicing the tide

English writer Alethea Hayter pioneered a new way of framing history

Marian Quartly Books 16 May 2023 1825 words

“Oh God, bless us all through the evils of this day”: Benjamin Haydon’s London, as depicted in Punch or May Day (1829). Tate Gallery/Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

When the editor of Inside Story asked me to review Faber’s reprint of Alethea Hayter’s book A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 — a book that “shifted the way I looked at history,” according to one reviewer — I happily agreed. I was drawn to the task partly because I have myself recently tried reconstructing London life in the 1840s for a family history, but mostly by a longstanding interest in historical “slicing.”

Almost fifty years ago, in 1977, the historian Ken Inglis proposed that the history profession should mark the bicentenary of the arrival of the first convict ship in Sydney Cove in 1788 by publishing a series of multi-authored volumes spanning Australia’s 200 years. Most significantly, he suggested that four of these should be “slice” volumes, each telling the history of a single year: 1788, 1838, 1888 and 1938. They would recreate past lives and understandings at a particular point in time, without historical hindsight and imposed interpretation.

His plan was not well received by the profession. Historian Graeme Davison remembers the slice idea being described as “idiosyncratic, antiquarian, monopolistic and, worst of all, anti-historical.” After the publication of the volumes in 1987, reviewers argued that the slices were not “real history.” Kinder critics like Janet McCalman acknowledged that slicing produced vivid recreations of past lives, but found it “frustrating that we do not know how these lives turned out.” Historian Jill Roe wrote that “I’ve met some interesting people” but in the end historians should “get on with making sense of our history.”

I am not a disinterested reporter here. Alan Atkinson and I organised “the push from the bush” — a group of historians from disparate disciplines, professional and non-professional — to write the 1838 slice volume. It seemed to me at the time, and it is far more evident now, that any attempt at “making sense” of Australian history was more complex and contradictory than our critics allowed.

In 2023 it is even clearer that the big questions that used to drive historians have failed us, and we are the wiser for that realisation. The acknowledgement of many voices as makers of our history has enriched our understanding even as it unsettled our certainties. And slicing hasn’t gone away: Google Scholar tells us that the bicentennial slice volumes have been regularly cited across the years, and are still useful to young scholars. This is not something one can say for most histories published in 1987.

The reprint of Hayter’s A Sultry Month is timely for another reason, too. Slicing literary history is in the news, at least in literary circles. The administrators of the annual Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction, the equivalent of fiction’s Booker Prize, have just celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with a Winner of Winners Award chosen from the past twenty-five years’ prize-holders. The uber winner is James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, described by the judges as “an ingenious fusion of history, politics, and literary criticism.” The judges claimed a particular significance for Shapiro’s book as a creative work of narrative non-fiction, telling stories that are true in an age of fake news.

A Sultry Month might equally be described as “an ingenious fusion of history, politics, and literary criticism.” But the understanding it presents of historical truth is more complicated than the Baillie Gifford judges’ equation of “non-fiction” with “true stories.”

Hayter’s book was hailed as extraordinary and pioneering when it was first published in 1965; it still deserves these descriptors today. She begins with an impressive claim for the historical truth of her story in terms of her sources:

Nothing in this book is invented. Every incident, every sentence of dialogue, every gesture, the food, the flowers, the furniture, all are taken from the contemporary letters, diaries and reminiscences of the men and women concerned, nearly all of them professional writers with formidable memories and highly trained descriptive skills.

From these sources Hayter presents, as she says, “a set of authors… as a conversation piece of equals, existing in relationship to each other at a particular moment, encapsulated with one dramatic event in an overheated political and physical climate.”

The overheated physical climate is the heatwave that enveloped England in June 1846 — “the hottest summer month that anyone could remember.” The overheated political climate centres on the repeal in mid June of the Corn Laws that had protected English wheat growers for decades. The heroes of this story are Sir Robert Peel, under vicious attack in the Commons for betraying the landed interests at the heart of the Conservative Party, and Peel’s loyal lieutenant in the House of Lords, the old Duke of Wellington.

In Hayter’s story the two men function as the reluctant agents of change, condemned by the older generation and applauded by the young. She tells how the historian Thomas Carlyle sent a copy of his biography of Cromwell to Peel with a note hailing “the great veracity” Peel had carried off in parliament, “a strenuous, courageous and needful thing.” For Carlyle the deed was “true” because it was on the side of history.

Thomas Carlyle is a central figure in the “set of authors” whose conversation Hayter follows across this heated month. The parties hosted by Carlyle and his wife Jane bring together most of the subjects of this group biography: Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and others forgotten today but esteemed by their peers.

One major player, Elizabeth Barrett, barely leaves her room in Wimpole Street during June; she is linked to the “set” by her relationship with Robert Browning. Across the month the young couple, the Barrett-Brownings, and the older couple, the Carlyles, move to moments of crisis. Jane Carlyle discovers a deep dissatisfaction with her marriage, to her husband’s astonishment. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning plan their secret marriage and elopement to Italy, only achieved in July and for this reader too briefly described — a casualty of slicing.

These well-known players draw and hold the readers’ interest, but the narrative is mostly driven by someone of whom few will have heard. The central figure in Hayter’s “one dramatic event” is the painter Benjamin Haydon, an artist of mediocre ability and huge ambition. Haydon knew, in Hayter’s words, that “he had been called by God to raise his country’s tastes” to an appreciation of “High Art” — “historical painting,” that is — “the only real art was huge pictures of the heroic actions of history.”

Haydon’s large canvasses were admired in his lifetime, though more for their motivating ideas than their artistry, and they didn’t sell. Other artists were chosen to paint the historical murals he had proposed for London’s public buildings. His lasting contribution to the visual arts was his campaign to popularise the Elgin Marbles, ensuring they remained in the British Museum — a more virtuous legacy in 1965 than it seems today.

Hayter opens A Sultry Month with the moment on 18 June when Benjamin Haydon left five pictures and three trunks of papers with his “friend by correspondence,” Elizabeth Barrett, to save them from seizure for debt. The narrative keeps Haydon in view across the next few days, alongside parties at the Carlyles’, debates in the Commons, and constant letters exchanged between Robert and Elizabeth. It follows the agitated entries in Haydon’s diary, looking back to the end of May when he wrote “Oh Lord! Carry me through the next and dangerous month” and cited a series of prayers asking for the strength to finish his paintings. On 20 June he wrote nothing in his diary but “Oh God, bless us all through the evils of this day.” On Sunday 21 June he wrote: “Slept horrible. Prayed in sorrow and got up in agitation.” On the morning of Monday 22 June he committed suicide. The cleansing storm of wind and rain that swept across the country that evening came too late for Haydon.

Hayter tells us that forty years earlier Haydon had written in his diary:

I knelt down and prayed to God to bless my career, to grant me energy to create a new era in art, and to rouse the people and patrons to a just estimate of the moral value of historical painting.

She suggests that for Haydon history was “a series of historical paintings of great events.” He believed he was the divinely chosen hero to create these paintings, making public and private history in the process. History, both public and private, failed Benjamin Haydon.

Back to historical truth. The stories Hayter tells are true in every detail, down to the slippery pool of Haydon’s blood on the floor of his studio, and the leaves exchanged by Robert and Elizabeth — brown autumnal leaves from him, green wild-rose leaves from her, carrying contradictory messages about the coming end of summer and the urgency of their elopement. Hayter can sustain this level of authenticity because, as she says, her actors/informants are “professional writers with formidable memories and highly trained descriptive skills.”

But not everything that they remember and record is true. Hayter notes that Haydon did not recognise the irony with which his wife described him as forever “feeding on his own thoughts.” Elizabeth Barrett was “a not quite objective witness” in ranking Robert Browning alongside Alfred Tennyson as a “modern poet,” since in 1846 Tennyson was already famous and Browning’s reputation was “confined to a few discerning critics.” In recreating the lives and understandings of her actors, Hayter intervenes in her own voice with a gentle flow of commentary and inference.

But Hayter doesn’t add a layer of interpretation to her account, doesn’t try to “make sense” of their history. Only in the political scenes does she suggest a reading that goes beyond the events she describes: the tension between older and younger generations lies in their responses to larger historical change. And even this is located firmly in the language of her actors. Old William Wordsworth wrote from Westmorland that the passage of the repeal of the Corn Laws presaged the beginning of a bloody revolution. Thomas Carlyle praised the repeal as “a strenuous, courageous and needful thing,” though he had grave doubts about the rise of a democracy without proper heroic leadership.

Back to slicing. In retrospect, Ken Inglis’s highest praise for slicing was that it had encouraged historians “to be more self-conscious about our prose than is general among academic authors.” This may seem one of the least of things, but it may be one of the greatest, especially when coupled with self-consciousness about the language of our sources. In Inglis’s own words:

I believe that sensitivity to the actor’s own vocabulary, idiom or rhetoric gives the historian a better chance of crossing that mysterious line between just chronicling past events and beginning to recreate past lives.

Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month triumphantly crosses that line. •

A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846
By Alethea Hayter | Faber | $29.99 | 256 pages