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.