A Sultry Month

Alethea Hayter


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7 July 2022
ISBN: 9780571372294
288 pages

From the publisher

Wine and dine with Victorian London’s literati in a heatwave in one of the first ever group biographies, introduced by Francesca Wade (author of Square Haunting).

Though she loved the heat she could do nothing but lie on the sofa and drink lemonade and read Monte Cristo …

‘Never bettered.’ Guardian
‘Brilliant.’ Julian Barnes
‘Wholly original.’ Craig Brown
‘A pathfinder.’ Richard Holmes
‘Extraordinary.’ Penelope Lively

June 1846. As London swelters in a heatwave – sunstroke strikes, meat rots, ice is coveted – a glamorous coterie of writers and artists spend their summer wining, dining and opining.

With the ringletted ‘face of an Egyptian cat goddess’, Elizabeth Barrett is courted by her secret fiancé, the poet Robert Browning, who plots their elopement to Italy; Keats roams Hampstead Heath; Wordsworth visits the zoo; Dickens is intrigued by Tom Thumb; the Carlyles host parties for a visiting German novelist and suffer a marital crisis. But when the visionary painter Benjamin Robert Haydon commits suicide, they find their entwined lives spiralling around the tragedy . . .

One of the first-ever group biographies, Alethea Hayter’s glorious A Sultry Month is a lively mosaic of archival riches inspired by the collages of the Pop Artists. A groundbreaking feat of creative non-fiction in 1965, her portrait of Victorian London’s literati is just as vivid, witty and enticing today.

‘Elegant Hayter more or less invented the biographical form which is a close study of a brief period in the life of an individual or a group . . . A rigorous scholar [with] an artist’s eye.’ A. S. Byatt

‘Hayter’s clever, innovative book turned a searchlight on a time, a place, a circle of people; it has surely inspired the subsequent fashion for group biographies.’ Penelope Lively

‘Nothing I’ve ever read has flung me so immediately into those streets, that weather, that period. Hayter never forgets that people want stories, that lives are stories.’ Margaret Forster

‘Hayter could take a tiny chip of life [and] find within it the seeds of a whole existence.’ Richard Holmes

‘A pioneer . . . Beautifully written vignettes . . . Immaculate scholarship and intense readability.’ Jonathan Bate

‘Outstanding . . . A small masterpiece.’ Anthony Burgess

‘A brilliant recreation of London literary life in 1846, which is highly original in its form and narrative cross-cutting.’ Julian Barnes