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Alethea Hayter Dies: Examined Role Of Narcotics In Literary Creation

Historians in the News




Alethea Hayter, who died yesterday aged 94, was a critic and biographer who wrote mainly about literary society in 19th-century England; Julian Barnes called her "one of our finest non-academic literary historians'', and her study Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968) is considered a definitive account of the contribution made by narcotics to literary creation.

Opium in its medicinal form of laudanum was widely used as a pain-killer from the late 18th century onwards, but was particularly attractive to Romantic writers such as Coleridge, Keats and de Quincey because it seemed to provide a means whereby the dreamer could control his dreams, switching them on and off and having access to the marvellous at will.

In fact, what he experienced were waking dreams which, Alethea Hayter revealed, had a number of common themes, including the particular horror of limitless yet enclosed space which is to be found in Poe, de Quincey and, to a lesser extent, Coleridge.

In what she described as "one of the best attested examples of an opium interlude in the work of a non-addicted writer'', she described how, in 1819, Walter Scott was too ill to write The Bride of Lammermoor and had to dictate to his appalled assistants from his bed, with the help of huge doses of laudanum. When he recovered and read the finished narrative, he did not recollect one single incident, character or conversation it contained.

Another key text was The Moonstone. During its composition, she revealed, Wilkie Collins was in such pain from gout that only large doses of laudanum could relieve it. The Moonstone was dictated to its conclusion accompanied by Collins's screams; and when he saw the proofs, he, like Scott, did not recognise it as his own work.

The life of the opium addict, Alethea Hayter emphasised, was nevertheless a wretched one, and she concluded that if a writer was not naturally gifted, the drug would not make up for his deficiencies.

Alethea Catharine Hayter was born on November 7 1911 in Cairo, where her father was legal and sometime financial adviser to the Egyptian government in what was then a British protectorate. She spent her childhood in Cairo before being sent to Downe House, from where she won a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to read Modern History. Of her siblings, her brother William was to become Ambassador in Moscow and Warden of New College, Oxford; her sister Priscilla (Napier) was an acclaimed author and poet.

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