Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The end of the "intellectual machine"

The three fan letters Cowper received didn't cure his mental health problems. "The experiment for the restoration of his Mind," Hayley wrote, "did not certainly succeed to the extent of my Wishes, & my Expectations."

However, in Hayley's opinion, there was "great reason to believe, that the unexpected Letters, which He actually received, made a beneficial Impression on his Spirits; & gave a wonderful activity to his Mind, even while it seemed to be involved in impenetrable Gloom."

Around this time, after months of inactivity, Cowper resumed work on his long-neglected translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This could, of course,  have been coincidence, but Hayley attributed it firmly to his own intervention:

the Revival & Improvement of [Cowper's] Homer, while his Spirits appeared for unfit for such a Task, may be regarded as one of the most marvellous Facts, that can be discovered in the History of the human Mind.

Cowper continued to work and when, on 31 January 1800, Hayley received a letter from Johnny Johnson, enclosing a short, newly translated passage from the Iliad, in Cowper's handwriting, he was ecstatic.

[I]t appeared to me as a blessed omen of his being entirely Himself again - The Emotions of my Heart upon that Idea immediately gave rise to the following …

Blest be the Characters so Kindly trac’d
In that dear Hand which I have longed to view
Pledge of Affection old and Kindness new
From the reviving Bard supremely graced
With all the Gifts of Fancy and of Taste
That can Endear the Mind! and given to Few
The rarer richer Gift, a Heart as true
As e’er the Arms of Amity embraced.

Ecstatic Tears I on the Paper shed
That speaks, my Cowper! of thy mental Health
And of thy Friendship, soothing as the Dove!
So weeps the Nymph, who, when long Storms are past
Welcomes from the Sea her Bosom’s rescued Wealth
To Life to Joy to Glory and to Love
It's hardly great poetry. But the last three lines are interesting. They seem, like a magic mirro,r to reflect a happy ending onto the final stanza of Cowper's last, original poem, "The Cast-away" (written March 1799 and first published in Hayley's biography of his friend):

No voice divine the storm allay'd,
   No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
   We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulphs than he.
This is somewhat uncanny, as it's almost certain that Hayley didn't see the poem until January 1801.
A couple of weeks after Hayley received the letter that so fed his optimism, Cowper fell ill. A couple of months later, he was dead.

Monday, 26 May 2014

The "Intellectual Machine" cranks into action

After a lot of nagging by Hayley and the judicious application of Lady Hesketh's schmoozing skills, William Cowper started receiving letters of the type promised in "the Vision".

The first, written 9 August 1797, came from William Wilberforce.

When he caught sight of the letter, Cowper said "The outside tells me, I shall be taken away by Force, & the inside will tell me the Time when”. He did, however, read the letter with what the Reverend Johnny Johnson - Cowper's cousin and carer – described as "unusual Attention".

The second - hustled by Lady Hesketh - came from the Bishop of London late in September. It was an enthusiastic fan letter, detailing the religious enjoyment with which the Bishop read and re-read Cowper's poems.

Cowper's response?

“Never was such a Letter written, never was such a Letter read to a Man so overwhelmed with Despair, as I am — It was written in Derision – I know, & I am sure of it.”

Johnson challenged this: Cowper shouldn't say such a thing of a man as good as the Bishop of London!

“I should say so", Cowper replied, "of an archangel, were it possible for an archangel to send me such a Letter, in such Circumstances.”

Friday, 23 May 2014

"a large & Complicated intellectual Machine, which I have invented"

"My keen sensations in perusing these heartpiercing Lines have been a painful Prelude to the following Ecstatic Vision", wrote William Hayley, in a letter to William Cowper, sent four days after he received Cowper's devastating note.

— I beheld the Throne of God, whose Splendor, tho in Excess, did not strike me blind, but left me power to discern,  on the steps of it, two kneeling angelic Forms.

A kind Seraph seemed to whisper to me, that these heavenly Petitioners were your lovely Mother, & my own; both enjoyed fervent Supplications for your Restoration to mental Serenity, & Comfort.— I sprang eagerly forward to enquire your Destiny of your Mother.—Turning towards me, with a look of Seraphic Benignity, she smiled upon me, & said: “Warmest of earthly Friends! Moderate the anxiety of thy Zeal, lest it distract they declining Faculties! & know, as a Reward for thy Kindness, that my Son shall be restored to Himself, & to Friendship.

But the all-Merciful & almighty ordains, that his Restoration shall be gradual; & that his Peace with Heaven shall be preceded by the following extraordinary Circumstances of signal Honour on Earth.— He shall receive Letters from Members of Parliament, from Judges, & from Bishops, to thank Him for the service that He has rendered to the Christian World by his devotional Poetry. These shall be followed by a Letter from the Prime Minister to the same effect; & this by Thanks expressed to Him on the same account, in the Hand of the King Himself.— Tell Him, when these Events take place, he may confide in his celestial Emancipation from despair, granted to the Prayer of his Mother; & He may rest satisfied with this assurance from Her, that his Peace is perfectly made with Heaven.—Hasten to impart these blessed Tidings to your fav’rite Friend! said the Maternal Spirit; & let your Thanksgiving to God be an Increase of reciprocal Kindness to each other!—

In classic direct marketing style, Hayley added a call-to-action PS:

if any of these Incidents speedily take place, which your angelic Mother announced to me in this Vision, as certain signs of your Recovery, I conjure you in her Name, my dear Cowper, to communicate them to me, with all the kind dispatch, that is due to the tender anxiety of sympathetic affection!— Heaven grant that I may hear from you again very soon!— adieu!
He then tried to kickstart his "large & Complicated intellectual Machine" by persuading politicians and church men to write to Cowper. He was careful, however, to keep his overall plot a secret: one he shared only with Cowper's relations/carers, the Reverend John Johnson and Lady Harriot Hesketh.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Imagine receiving this from your best friend…

“It was on Tuesday, the 20th of June 1797,” wrote William Hayley in the second of his unpublished Two Memorials of Hayley’s Endeavours to serve His Friend Cowper, “that after long lamenting the calamitous suspension of our Correspondence, I received in Sussex a Letter with the Post Mark of Dereham, containing the following Words, in the Hand-writing of Cowper, but with no signature.”

William Hayley Esqr
near Chichester

Ignorant of every thing but my own instant & impending Misery, I know neither what I do, when I write, nor can do otherwise than write, because I am bidden to do so. Perfect Despair, the most perfect, that ever possessed any Mind, has had Possession of mine, you know how long, and knowing that, will not need to be Told, who writes.

Hayley adored Cowper: his love for the older poet was "as strong as manly friendship can be" and so he was, unsurprisingly, deeply affected by this letter. “I believe," he wrote "it is hardly possible for Language to describe all the various Emotions, that this dark billet of my desponding Friend produced in my Heart.”

But he was also ever-hopeful and his “fervent affection for the dear Sufferer”, combined with “a Fancy naturally inclined to cherish the most sanguine Hopes of what it ardently wishes”, to inspire him to try something quite extraordinary to improve Cowper’s state of mind. It was, in his words, "a large & Complicated Intellectual Machine", and I’ll tell you all about it in my next post

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Third person, first person?

The New York Times asked Salman Rushdie why he wrote Joseph Anton, his account of life under the fatwa, in the third person. He responded that he felt using the first person hampered his progress.
Each time I tried [to write the book], it didn’t work and so I put it aside. And then I realized that one of the things I was really disliking was the first person, this endless “I,” things happening to “me,” and “I felt” and “I did” and “people said about me” and “I worried.” It was just absurdly narcissistic. So at a certain point I thought, “Let me just see what happens if I write it novelistically, in the third person.” And the moment I started doing it was like the kind of “open sesame” that gave me the book.

Meanwhile James Camp wrote, in The New York Observer, that the third person voice would be the first thing readers would notice. He remarked, pointedly, that it “is not a perspective often associated with self-awareness.”

While the author of Joseph Anton – a book that’s fascinating, thought-provoking and irritating in about equal measure – doesn’t always show himself to be the most dispassionate of self-observers, I don’t think this is either down to, or responsible for, his choice of the third person. 

I suspect it’s more accurate – and consistent with Rushdie’s professed reasons for choosing the perspective – to say that the third person is not a perspective often associated with self-exposure. It’s helpful in evading the confessional, and useful to self-aware memoirists and autobiographers who wish to avoid revealing themselves in their work.

Almost two hundred years before Rushdie, William Hayley – having published biographies of Milton, his friends William Cowper and George Romney, and a memoir of his son, Thomas Alphonso Hayley – wrote his own life in the third person. Somewhat lazily edited by Cowper’s relative/carer Rev. John Johnson, it’s a long book, generally honest and egalitarian to the extent that its publisher complained that Hayley seemed to think that “unknown personages connected with him merely by family ties or juvenile affection” and “his literary career and his intercourse with persons of talent and celebrity” would be of “equal interest” to his readers.*

One of my first steps towards creating the zoeography app was to take around 440 shortish extracts from Hayley’s memoir, and ‘translate’ them into the first person. Finicky and – as I’m sure you can imagine – time-intensive, it still proved a fascinating exercise. There is, I suspect, no better way to explore what’s gained and lost by writing about oneself as ‘he’ or ‘she’ rather than ‘I’.

High on the list of benefits has to be status delineation. Hayley often dubs himself “the poet”, as in “The poet of Eartham having finished his life of Milton, in the autumn, took it with him, when he set forth on his second visit to Cowper.” And “The tender gloom which the sudden loss of this memorable man (so long endeared to the poet) had thrown over his mind, prepared him to sympathize in the recent domestic affliction of his noble friend, Lord Egremont”. Using the third person enables Hayley to position himself within his profession and within society much more easily than he could have done using the first person. It’s a significant advantage for someone as concerned with controlling his image, and with posterity, as Hayley was.

But the downside is the loss of intimacy. We may be better placed to perceive the writer’s position within his networks but, there’s a corresponding distancing and dilution of his/her emotions and experiences. Which makes it a slightly odd choice for one of Sensibility's leading votaries.

I’ll be thinking and writing about this more as my research and development progress, and would be interested to read any comments…

* quote from an unpublished letter from Henry Colburn to Rev Johnson.

Friday, 16 May 2014

William Hayley & William Blake

Most people who've heard of William Hayley have done so because of his connection with William Blake.

It was Hayley who persuaded Blake to quit London for Felpham in Sussex in 1800 in order to illustrate Hayley's life of Cowper. Blake visited and found a cottage to rent in July, and he and his wife Catherine made the move in September.

At first the two Williams were delighted with each other. Blake wrote:

Away to sweet Felpham, for heaven is there:
The ladder of Angels descends through the air,
On the turret its spiral does softly descend,
Through the village it winds, at my cot it does end.

The bread of sweet thought and the wine of delight
Feed the village of Felpham by day and by night;
And at his own door the bless'd Hermit does stand,
Dispensing, unceasing to all the wide land.

Blake didn't think of Hayley as "the bless'd Hermit" for long and the relationship between the two men deteriorated over the three years Blake lived in Sussex. It's not surprising: the two men were fundamentally incompatible; Blake's fiery visions were beyond the ken of his well-meaning but interfering employer, who was at the time, in the throes of grief following the deaths of both his best friend Cowper and his son, Thomas Alphonso (of whom, more later).

It's easy to imagine what drove Blake to write his notorious epigrams on Hayley (it's also easy to imagine him carving the letters into the page in frustration):

Of Hayley’s Birth
Of Hayley’s birth this was the happy lot:
His mother on his father him begot.

 On Hayley
To forgive enemies Hayley does pretend,
Who never in his life forgave a friend,
And when he could not act upon my wife
Hired a villain to bereave my life.

 To Hayley
Thy friendship oft has made my heart to ache:
Do be my enemy—for friendship’s sake.
On Hayley’s Friendship
When Hayley finds out what you cannot do,
That is the very thing he’ll set you to;
If you break not your neck, ‘tis not his fault;
But pecks of poison are not pecks of salt.
On Hayley the Pickthank
I write the rascal thanks, till he and I
With thanks amd compliments are quite drawn dry.

But when it really mattered, William Hayley was there for Blake. When Blake was tried for sedition (the death penalty applied in the event of conviction), William Hayley organised and funded his defence. And Blake felt some remorse about some of the things he'd written about Hayley "Burn," he instructed his foremost patron, Thomas Butts, "what I have peevishly written about about any friend."

Hayley continued to commission occasional work from Blake for a few years after Blake returned to London but, within a few years, their correspondence petered out.

For a more complete (& slightly whimsical) exploration of the relationship between the two men, see - a thing I made for if:book UK's Songs of Imagination & Digitisation a few years back.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

William Hayley & William Cowper's pension - part 5

Hayley was crushed by the news of Cowper's illness. He was also furious with the Prime Minister. "I was persuaded," he wrote, "that the animation which the patronage of Mr Pitt might have afforded to his declining Spirit, would have preserved the unhappy Sufferer from this miserable depression."

He decided to write, once more, to Pitt. And he didn't mince his words.

It is not often that a Hermit can be deceived by a Prime Minister; yet I am an Example, that such an extraordinary Incident may happen; for in Truth, my dear Sir, I most credulously confided in yr kind Promise of writing to me soon, concerning your liberal Intentions in favor of my admirable Friend Cowper —alas! instead if hearing form you such Tidings, as I hoped would make him happy, I have just heard from another Quarter that He is recently sunk into that gloomy Wretchedness, a half frantic despondency, from which I was sanguine enough to expect, that yr just Esteem & Beneficence might preserve him.

Now perhaps even yr Kindness may hardly give him a gleam of Satisfaction — your Enemies (a great man can not live without Enemies) affirm, that you have little Feeling: this opinion I have long rejected from my disposition to cherish an enthusiastic regard for you: but the rejected opinion I am now unwillingly putting to the Test —You must have little Feeling indeed, if this Intelligence does not make you lament, as I do most cordially, that an unfortunate delay in providing for a Man of a marvellous Genius, may have conduced to plunge him in the Worst of human Calamity.

How far it is probable that yr Favor might have preserved him from this Evil, or may be likely to restore him from it, perhaps my Lord Spencer may be able from fuller Information to judge better than I can at present: he is a Neighbour & a Friend to the great afflicted Poet, yet if I remember right, not personally acquainted with Him: & his Ldship has kindly promised me (should opportunity arise) to recall to your Remembrance what I said to you in Cowper’s Behalf. Ld Spencer enters (as you kindly did when you allowed me the Honor of conversing with you) into the cruel singularity of Cowper’s situation, & I am confident that you both sympathize in thinking that our Sovereign’s munificence could not be more worthily exerted, than towards this wonderful Man, whether it shall please Heaven to bless him with a restoration of his rare mental Endowments, or still to afflict him with a melancholy alienation of Mind.

I will not utterly relinquish the hope, that you may yet be able to serve him: afflicting as the delay has proved, I am inclined to impute it to such difficulties & Obstructions, as Men, even of excellent Hearts & high Stations too frequently find in their endeavours to befriend the Unfortunate.

I write in the frank & proud Sorrow of a wounded Spirit, but with a cordial & affectionate wish, that Heaven may bless you with unthwarted Power to do Good, & with Virtue sufficient to exert it —

I retain a lasting sense of the very engaging Kindness, with which you allowed me to pour forth my Heart to you on this interesting subject, & I am most sincerely my dr Sir

yr very grateful tho afflicted Servant


Feb 27 1794

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

William Hayley & William Cowper's pension - part 4

When Thurlow went silent, Hayley didn't give up on securing Cowper a pension. He took advice from several friends and decided to do what historian Edward Gibbon (of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fame) suggested and approach the Prime Minister, William Pitt, directly, asking for a meeting.

Pitt responded immediately, inviting the self-styled hermit in for a chat.

Hayley was so anxious beforehand that on his friend George Romney's advice he knocked back a glass of port (he rarely drank alcohol) which, rather than steadying his nerves, gave him a headache.

But Pitt was very welcoming, and responded so positively to Hayley's petition on behalf of Cowper, that Hayley became a tad over-emotional and ended up grabbing the PM's hand and kissing it "in a Transport of that sensibility which has made me too often the dupe of my own Heart."

Pitt promised to write to Hayley soon. Hayley waited, but in vain. So, as advised by a couple of other friends,  he wrote to Lord Spencer, asking him to prod Pitt's memory. Spencer promised to oblige at the next possible opportunity.

Then Hayley received news "of the darkest complexion". Cowper had sunk into a "deep & wretched despondency".

"I now too clearly perceived," he wrote, "that the horrible impending Mischief, which I had so anxiously laboured to avert from the Mind of my incomparable Friend, had fallen on him with all its weight, & perhaps so fallen, as to overwhelm his enchanting Faculties forever—"

Saturday, 10 May 2014

William Hayley & William Cowper's pension - part 3

Sadly the "animating" verse William Hayley sent to Lord Thurlow failed to have the anticipated effect.

"I was vain enough," Hayley later wrote "to expect a very gracious answer to this Epistle – judge then of my surprise & mortification in receiving no answer at all."

He was, he says,"half inclined to tell him, in a second Letter, how I felt this rudeness from a Man, who can be, whenever he pleases, most enchantingly polite. On reflection however, I thought it became me most not to write to him again, & I therefore vented my own ill-humour in the few following verses, which I sent to Carwardine, & told him that he might, if he had Courage sufficient, repeat them to his patron.

Why, wrapt in Clouds, no Sun pervades,
Sullen as Ajax in the shades,
  Why Thurlow art Thou mute?
When courtesy unstained by art
addresses to thy manly heart
  an amicable suit?

The Muse, Thou hear’st with dumb disdain
call’d thee from troubles dark & vain
  To scenes of sweet Relief,
That might thy rigid Brow unbend
and shew Thee in thy antient Friend
  of living Bards the Chief

Touched by thy silent disrespect,
Two Poets blame thy rude neglect
  with dignity serene;
We, tho aloof from public Jars, [?illeg]
We have thy Pride, but (thank our stars)
  Thy Pride without thy spleen

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

William Hayley & William Cowper's pension - part 2

“You must be aware," Thurlow responded,  "that it would require great delicacy to hint an Idea of this sort to the King”

Hayley wasn't so easily deflected. "My Lord," he said, "I am the most ignorant man alive in all matters that relate to the Court, but this I can say in answer to your objection, that such an application, as I have presumed to suggest, would be no difficult affair, if the King speaks of his own mental infirmity with the Frankness that Cowper does."

He went on to remind Thurlow of how, back in the days when he'd been a fellow student of Cowper's Thhurlow had encountered him "in a moment of his darkest Despondency", and "treated him on that calamitous occasion with all the Kindness, that a Friend can  exert.”

The Chancellor appeared convinced by Hayley's argument. Then, a few days after their meeting, he lost his job.

But Hayley's hope didn't die.

"I still persuaded myself, that as he had personal Intercourse with the royal Family, he would avail himself of some favorable opportunity to become, what I wished him to be, the architect of Cowper’s Fortune."

And, naturally, in order to animate Lord Thurlow to that end, Hayley sent him a poem:

Yes! now your hand, with decent Pride,
Relinquishes that seal unstained,
Which Bacon, Law’s less upright Guide!
With many a sordid spot prophaned;

Haply from [illegible word] pomp released,
You now, escaping thorny strife,
Have time to grace a Hermit’s Feast,
and honour sweet, sequestered Life:

Here nature reigns [illegible word] Souls elate;
Her tranquil smiles their scene endear;
And Fancy, Freedom, Friendship wait
To hail their Favourite Cowper here.

To dignify this dear Retreat
Would I could tempt you to descend,
and in our first of poets meet
Life’s richest Gift, an antient Friend!

When Talents & Virtue a Mortal endear,
  yet fail to preserve him from Fortune’s controul,
Who find her weak Captive in Want’s narrow sphere
  With adversity, Irons [?], that enter the soul.

Say! is it not, Thurlow, an office divine
  With the firm hand of Friendship to cancel such Wrongs?
May the verses of Cowper proclaim it is thine,
  While Genius & Gratitude hallow his songs!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

William Hayley & William Cowper's pension - part I

William Hayley went to visit the poet William Cowper at his home in Weston for the first time in April 1792 and…

"I was grieved to the soul in hearing, that the Income of such a Man as Cowper arose partly by pitiful & precarious Contribution from Relations & Friends.– it immediately became the first wish of my Heart to procure for him a becoming Independance." [sic]
This became "the darling project" of Hayley's "sanguine Spirit", despite the fact that

"An austere Critic might here tell me, that it would have been more Prudent, & more fashionable to have rather regarded as my first object the Improvement of my own shrinking Finances, which were not, I must confess, at the time I speak of, nor are they at present in a very flourishing Condition."
Still, there was no austere critic to hand - or if there was, Hayley ignored him or her, and determined to lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Thurlow - an old friend of Cowper's from his law student days.

Beforehand, he persuaded another friend, Thomas Carwardine, who'd sent a copy of Cowper's poems to Thurlow's daughter Catherine to get Catherine to forward the book on to him. She did, and he then inserted the following encouraging verses:

To Miss Catherine Thurlow
with Cowper’s Poems.

Sweet Nymph! accept a Bard, for whom
Rich amaranths with Roses bloom
  To deck his moral Lyre;
Dear, doubly dear, must wit & Truth
Be deemed by you, from one whose youth
  Was social with your sire.
apart by different stars impelled
Their course, as Mortals, both have held
  To suffer, & to drudge:
But Genius kept them both in view,
and to the Heights of Honor drew
  The Poet, & the judge.

Ingenuous Girl! while here you see
How their fraternal Hearts agree
  In Energy & Truth
May you restore, & teach to blaze
With double Glory’s blended rays
  The Friendship of their youth!

Despite being both "overwhelmed with Business" and "splenetic", the Chancellor found a time slot for Hayley to plead Cowper's case.

And he did so, he tells us, in an extraordinary, unpublished document written in 1794, with "vehemence & intrepidity"

"I appealed to the Chancellor, if it would not singularly become the King to bestow his munificence on Cowper, not only as a proper Compliment to a Man of Genius & virtue … but as an act of personal thanksgiving & Gratitude towards Heaven, for having restored his Majesty from that mental Malady, by which this wonderful & most interesting poet has been periodically afflicted:—"

Monday, 5 May 2014

Introducing William Hayley

Although now – unless you’re a Blake aficionado or an 18th century specialist – you’re unlikely to have heard of William Hayley (1745-1820), in his time he was highly influential.

Alongside reams of poetry, a dozen or so unsuccessful plays, a slew of verse and prose essays (he was the first person to publish any of Dante’s work in English), and one novel, Hayley wrote one of the late eighteenth century’s bestselling self-help books: The Triumphs of Temper, advising young women on how to attract and keep a husband. It was written in rhyming couplets and modelled on Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.

Despite this success, his own marriages – he wed twice – were not happy. His first wife, who, in his memoirs he often describes as his “pitiable Eliza”, suffered from “marvellous mental infelicities”  which, in Hayley’s telling, led, ultimately, to their separation.

Little is known of his second marriage, except that it lasted under four years and ended with a case in the Doctors’ Commons. However, I’m in the process of trying to decipher a heavily redacted letter Hayley wrote to a friend in 1816 in which he describes himself as having been lured or tricked

into a calamitous marriage by a subtle plot between two beautiful sisters & a hypocritical Presbyterian all of whose artful machinations [illegible] I have lately discovered

More to follow when I’ve completed my detective work.

Hayley also functioned as an amateur doctor, treating the villagers around his home in Eartham, Sussex, where he was well loved, and was proud of never having killed anyone.

He also had a particular interest in the relationship between mental health issues and creativity, and took an active part in supporting, and attempting to cure, William Cowper, George Romney, Joseph Wright of Derby and Charlotte Smith amongst others (he also, on occasion, negotiated book deals for Smith).

Hayley coaxed William Blake to Sussex from London in 1800 and provided – as the antithetical element in Blake’s dialectical approach – inspiration for some of his prophetic poetry. It’s also likely that, in standing bail for Blake when he was tried for sedition in 1804, hiring a lawyer and speaking for him in court, he saved the visionary’s life. Sedition, after all, carried the death penalty.

For a combination of political and health reasons, in 1790 Hayley turned down Pitt’s offer of the poet laureateship. After his own, unpleasant experiences at school – he nearly died at Kingston Grammar and was bullied and beaten at Eton – he paid close personal attention to the education of his son Thomas Alphonso (whose mother was neither of Hayley’s wives), which was mostly undertaken at home in Eartham, West Sussex where he also tutored some of his friend and neighbour, Lord Egremont’s children.

He died aged 75 in 1820.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

A "zoeography"?

As well as building HayleyWorld itself, my PhD in Digital Writing by Practice requires me to write a 20,000-word "critical component". One chapter of this explores the theory and history of biography.

In one of the books I was reading for research purposes I found this:
Greek, unlike English, Latin, and many other languages, has not one, but two different words for life: bios, but also zoe. The latter denotes vital energy, either natural or physical or—in Christian authors—spiritual and divine, that is, the quality of being alive; as for bios, it means rather mode of life, manner of living, often what we name ‘conduct’ or ‘behaviour’.
(Sergei S Averintsev in Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography edited by Peter France and William St Clair.)
One of the most heated debates in biographical/life-writing theory concerns how much – if any – "novelistic" imagination can and should be applied in the making of texts that readers expect to be factual. As a non-fiction writer, my sympathies sit most comfortably at the "none or as little as possible" end of the spectrum.

I came across Averintsev's comment just as I'd started to feel a little uncomfortable describing what I was making as a "biography". Whilst all the information in it would be (as far as possible) factual and accurate, the conceit behind it – that the reader would "get to know" someone who'd been dead for almost 200 years as if they were getting to know him in real life – introduced an obvious element of fiction.

So, as it's going to be a new form of biography anyway, and because I can (after all, the word isn't being used for any other purpose), I've decided to call it a zoeography.

Something that is true to the energy, the particular individual qualities of the life it tells – in this case William Hayley's – but which includes an element of fictionalisation – in this case, in the manner of its telling.

So, what's new about it?

Although reading a book about someone can be an excellent way of getting to know about them, it’s not like getting to know them. The ways we impart and receive information during interpersonal contact are radically different from the ways we absorb stories from books. The order of information sharing, what is given and withheld at any particular moment, how much the sharer reveals about any particular event, what happened, how they feel, their degree of honesty, and so on, vary, depending on all kinds of factors, including why and how people meet, how much time they spend together, how much they like each other – and in which kind of way. If people were books, they would be a different book for each individual they formed a relationship with.

And that's how I want to make HayleyWorld. As a different experience for every reader, based on their individual interests and interactions with the app. This means that I need to break down each story/event in William Hayley's life into a "nugget" of information, write each significant nugget in tow or three ways, with varying levels of detail and emotional content, so that Hayley "tells you" the story in a way that's appropriate to how well you've got to know each other.

So, yes, readers will be asked to enter some information about themselves. Their journey through William Hayley's life and storyworld will be determined partly by their choices and partly by other triggers including chronological date, the amount of time they've spent in his company and what William Hayley "wants" to tell them about…

Making that work isn't going to be easy. There are certain aspects of the process – particularly ensuring that the various nuggets link up every which way into different, but equally satisfying, narratives – that will be exceptionally challenging

HayleyWorld will be built as an app for tablets and smartphones, using Padify, and – thanks to Michael Kowalski – with help from Contentment's team of developers.

Hello & welcome

… to Making HayleyWorld, which will feature
  • snippets from my research into William Hayley (1745-1820)
  • info on my progress transforming my research into a new kind of biography, or zoeography
  • related stuff
  • unrelated stuff when I'm distracted by other things I have – or want – to do.
Expect 18th century gossip, comedy, tragedy, marital discord, madness, dubious medical interventions and some mediocre poetry alongside the occasional disquisition on creative and technological choices and processes.

Hope you enjoy it - and please talk to me through Twitter or via my website.

Incidentally, you may also like William Hayley's tweets (I help him with those).