Lisa Gee on William Hayley
I sit and watch my host, writer and journalist, Lisa Gee whiz around her bright, spacious kitchen – presently in a bit of disarray due to its owner’s hectic working schedule (and the fact that she is congenitally messy) – as she prepares lunch, making it seem effortless in the process, and tells me about the perilous circumstances of William Hayley’s early life. Hayley, the minor 18th century English poet, amateur doctor and arts patron, lost his father and his brother as an infant and escaped death himself several times before the age of 13. He has now been largely forgotten. There are two reasons for this Lisa says as we talk over lunch in her open plan dining room, filled with books, wall-art and knickknacks. Above the mahogany piano hang two paintings by Czech artist Ales Lamr and several postcards from the RCA Secret exhibition. Two varicoloured longhair cats – Alejandro and Kooky – saunter in and out of the room while we natter. “[William] Blake’s biographers were really horrible about him,” Lisa says indignantly, “and Blake became such a towering figure that Hayley got completely written out of literary history.” Hayley thought Blake a genius and tried to kick-start his career. It was, in fact, upon Hayley’s insistence that Blake moved to West Sussex in 1800, where he spent almost three years. “Hayley looked after him,” Lisa explains, “found a cottage for him and took him under his wing, which at first Blake was delighted with but in time Hayley drove him absolutely nuts”. Why was Blake so frustrated by Hayley, I wonder. “Because Hayley was very nice and kind but very interfering and would tell Blake what to write and what to draw,” my host sighs, “Blake had nothing and Hayley tried to help him but not in a way that suited Blake. His vision was fierce, internal and elemental and he was un-biddable, really.” It is at this point that Lisa’s husband Laurie, a soft-spoken fair haired man who joins us for lunch, suggests the whole scenario sounds “a bit like Andrew Lloyd Webber trying to get Johnny Rotten to write musicals,” which we all agree seems like a very fitting analogy.
While enjoying Lisa’s very tasty take on kedgeree we can hear her daughter Dora upstairs clearing out her bedroom, for a Halloween party I later learn. “She’s getting rid of all her books,” Laurie cries, loud enough for Dora to heed the grumble, which the precocious 12 year-old dismisses swiftly and unceremoniously. The family dynamic is relaxed and fun and makes one at ease almost instantly. “Hayley saved Blake’s life, probably, too,” Lisa returns to the topic at hand, “he certainly paid part of the bail for him for sedition – an offense punishable by death in those days.” He also hired a lawyer and stood as a character witness for Blake, who had allegedly said “some rude things about soldiers and the king during a brawl with a drunken soldier”. He was tried and acquitted of the charge as a result of Hayley’s efforts. Hayley’s generosity and goodwill also extended to other troubled luminaries, including English poet and hymnodist William Cowper and painter George Romney. “Hayley was a great admirer of Cowper, who was a far better poet,“ Lisa tells me, “and Hayley did what he usually did with people he admired, which was to write them a long letter of introduction with an accompanying sonnet and invite them to stay with him at Eartham [country estate].” This was not uncommon in the 18th century, Lisa says, and it’s how Hayley made a lot of his friends. But it was his friendship with Cowper, who was “a fabulous poet” but one afflicted with severe mental health issues that was particularly important and dear to Hayley. “The two men adored each other and were great friends” Lisa pauses for a second, “but my feeling is that Hayley may have been bisexual – that’s pure speculation because at the time there was a big fashion for passionate male friendship so it could have just been that.”
Hayley was married twice. But like everything else in his life his romantic relationships were tortuous and very complicated. He first fell in love “proper 18th century style” with a girl called Fanny Page, who fainted in his arms during a thunderstorm. The couple corresponded secretly but the relationship didn’t materialise and on the rebound Hayley married his pupil Eliza Ball, whose mother had serious mental health problems and who was “very, very neurotic” herself. Eventually they separated because “Hayley liked peace and quiet and she couldn’t bear it”. He did, however, look after her for the rest of her life. He also had a son, Thomas Alphonso, allegedly by his nursemaid’s daughter. Thomas Alphonso was a boy of great promise, and was educated very early to a very high degree but died aged 20. Hayley’s second marriage was thought a folly of a middle age man, who married a woman almost 40 years his junior. The couple divorced three years later; very little is known about his second wife. “Undoubtedly, he had relationships with women, undoubtedly he was an outrageous flirt,” Lisa says still contemplating Hayley’s sexuality, “but his really passionate relationships were with men, and his real passion was Cowper and that’s what Hayley wanted to be remembered for but of course he isn’t. He’s mostly remembered for being slagged-off by Blake and Byron.” Certainly, Byron’s highly influential and unfortunately damning opinion of Hayley didn‘t help his popularity. Lisa reads out a stanza Byron wrote on Hayley, in English Bards and Scottish Reviewers, deeming his style “tame” and “feeble” and every one of his successive works more disastrous than the previous. Hayley really was a terrible poet and Lisa is the first to admit it but she is also quick to point out that Hayley was a very important figure in literary history and “should be remembered for his influence”. He dedicated his life to championing struggling artists and painters, including Blake, Cowper, Romney, John Flaxman and Edward Gibbon. He also published the first translation of Dante, wrote several seminal biographies (Cowper/John Milton) and a manual on how to attract and keep a husband. The Triumphs of Temper was very highly praised by Emma Hamilton who deemed it solely responsible for the success of her marriage to Lord Hamilton, Lisa smiles as she tells me.
Lisa’s enthusiasm for Hayley is infectious, which is why her biography of the man would make a brilliant read. Not only that, Hayley had a very interesting – lucky and unlucky – life and was for a while a celebrated public figure who at the height of his popularity was offered laureateship which he refused. He was also a very enigmatic man with a very different public and private persona. Due to the nature of his poetry, which was very much of its time and determined greatly by the Culture of Sensibility, Hayley was thought quite effete, “a powder puff of a man, ” as John Keats’ friend James Henry Leigh Hunt once described him. In reality, Lisa says, Hayley was recklessly intrepid. “One of the most interesting things about him was that he was an absolutely fearless horseman, “she tells me, “and he would ride really spirited horses. He would apparently always wear military spurs, he also had this problem with his hip, which was a bit lame, and for his eyes, which were very sensitive, he would always carry an umbrella. He used to be watched by his friends –Ms Harriet Poole of Lavant and sometime Blake – through a telescope, inevitably falling off his horse all over the South Downs.” To highlight this rather comical aspect of Hayley’s personality Lisa has made an animation. (See below). But there really was a dual image of him, which he himself no doubt propagated. “He was perceived as this very camp and feminine creature,” Lisa gesticulates farcically, “but he was actually very robust and fearless in real life, which is, I suspect, partly a result of having cheated death so many times in his youth.” The creation of different personas is a thing we associated with the internet age, Lisa suggests, but it must have been much easier back then because one had complete control of the image one projected. This is something she is keen to explore in her biography of Hayley, which is in the process of being crowd-funded through Unbound.
“I just think he was an extraordinary person,” Lisa says very frankly when I ask her why she‘s picked Hayley as her subject. She also tells me that she came upon him completely by chance while doing an MA in Literature and Politics (1776-1832) in the mid-1990s. “It was the second tutorial and we were doing this wonderful poem called Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart,” Lisa beams, “which Smart wrote while he was in Bedlam, but which wasn’t published until 1936. It prefigures a lot of Blake and Blake may have seen it because apparently his friend this guy Hayley had the manuscript… So I went and looked up Hayley and have been largely obsessed ever since. ” And it’s easy to see why; Hayley’s life is riveting. “All we know about are these big iconic figures, Byron, Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge” Lisa says, “but the 18th century, with its Culture of Sensibility and so on, was a great time of intellectual, cultural and emotional ferment. People and society were changing, women writers were emerging…It was a time of flux which produced all these compelling characters.” When I ask Lisa about herself she gets a little bit coy but is overcome with excitement again when she tells me about the feature she is currently working on for BBC Radio 3. She doesn’t want to give too much away, however, thus promptly returns to the subject of Hayley. “One of the things I really like about him is that he was incredibly self-aware,” she says, “he knew he wasn’t a great poet, he knew that he didn‘t spend enough time editing his work, he knew he was a bit of a dilettante and a bit flippant, he knew he‘d fallen out of fashion AND he just accepted it.” He certainly does sound interesting and it certainly does sound like a great story – the poetry, the famous friends, the manic equestrian pastime, the mad wife. “The drama is there, the comedy is there, the tragedy is there,” Lisa says resolutely, “he’s just a fascinating character and it‘s just a fantastic story and that‘s why I want to write it.” And I sincerely hope she does.
Unbound: Hayleyworld by Lisa Gee