Sunday, 1 June 2014

Eliza Hayley's letters

According to William Hayley, his first wife, Eliza, was a poor, "pitiable" thing. The "fluctuation" of her "spirits was rapid to an alarming degree" and she suffered from "marvellous mental infelicities".  Whilst her early letters give a hint of this – scarcely a paragraph goes by without a mention of her spirits, ailments minor or major (her own and other people's: one letter is almost exclusively devoted to the effects and treatment of thread worms) and the time she's been spending with local doctors – they're also lively, opinionated and, in places, deliciously acid.

While William is away, a friend "presses" Eliza "exceedingly" to come for dinner, but she decides to decline because Mrs Bull, who's staying with them "absolutely makes me sick". Although, on the upside, "she has been very ill & low with a sore throat so I hope she is less talkative…"

The next letter describes how she and Sally Steele (the daughter, I think, of William Hayley's godfather) have, after a major falling out, now returned their relationship to a civil footing. Eliza "heartily rejoiced at having ended a very unpleasant affair (that has given me infinite vexation) entirely to my satisfaction." One problem with this quarrel was that it looked like William's close friend John Thornton was about to propose to Sally.

Eliza addresses this issue head on. She doesn't think it's right for Thornton "to sacrifice his Happiness to a private Pique" of hers and seeks to assure him that, whilst she and Sally could never be bosom buddies, "I dare say we shall like each other as much as is necessary."

She's slightly more vehement - and no less acerbic - on the matter in a subsequent letter. "I absolutely wish," she writes, for  Thornton "to marry Sally (if he means to marry at all) that he may not add an other such to our acquaintance."

Eliza by George Romney