A Sultry Month changed how I viewed history. It is well that it has been reissued

·3-min read

Hurrah. Faber has reissued one of the most illuminating and insufficiently praised books of the last 60 years. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, first published in 1965, marked a new way of writing biography: a study of several linked lives, considered in close focus over a period of a few weeks. It shifted the way I looked at history.

In June 1846, the temperatures soared in London. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were plotting their elopement; Robert Peel resigned as prime minister; Jane and Thomas Carlyle were suffering from constipation and from each other; William Macready was playing King Lear at the Princess theatre. And an almost forgotten painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, cut his throat. There were plenty of bigwigs around, but Hayter’s collage gives characters the importance they had at the time, not the fame they later achieved. Haydon was then a looming figure; full of a sense of his own destiny, perpetually in debt, bemused when crowds passed by his one-man exhibition to goggle at “Tom Thumb the midget”, put on display in Piccadilly by the circus proprietor Barnum.

I was bowled over when I first read the book more than 30 years ago: it was out of print and it went around a group of my friends as if it were samizdat. I fired off a fan letter to the author and became fascinated by her life, her demeanour, her penetration. Aquiline, apparently fearless, exact and exacting, she lived in what she described as “a rather louche part of London” (Stockwell), had worked as “a demi-semi-spook” and was the sister of William Hayter, a former ambassador to Moscow. Independent thinking was a mark of what might have seemed cut out to be an establishment family. Her niece Teresa called her own autobiography Hayter of the Bourgeoisie.

Paean to a bossy woman

Carmen Callil, who died last week, also helped to change the way we – that’s to say, human beings, some of whom are men – think and read. Not only through her work at Virago: she also kept people on their toes about everyday misogynies. Soon after she was appointed to run Chatto & Windus, she Sellotaped to her office door a newspaper cutting about a friend’s latest job triumph. The headline ran: “BBC appoints bossy woman.”

She would probably have cottoned on more quickly than I did to the dodgy arrangements at the Evening Standard where for some years I was one of the judges for the paper’s theatre awards. In those days, when the majority of theatre critics were men, Georgina Brown, of the Mail on Sunday, and I were quite pleased with the bottle of champagne we were given in lieu of a fee. Until we discovered by chance that all the male judges were given a case. We got it put right, but not retrospectively. So I reckon they still owe us.

Waiting in the wings

The Theatre Royal Margate.
The Theatre Royal Margate. Photograph: Wirestock, Inc./Alamy

Meandering through Margate the other day, I was jolted to come across the closed-down Theatre Royal – in the square near where John Keats stayed and around the corner from the pub where Eric Morecambe had his wedding breakfast. It was the second oldest working theatre in Britain (Bristol Old Vic gets the crown): Sarah Siddons appeared on its stage in the 1790s, as did Dorothea Jordan, mother of 10 children to the Duke of Clarence, later William IV; the design genius and monster Edward Gordon Craig trained in its drama school.

Owned by Thanet council, the tempting-looking theatre is awaiting refurbishment and a new operator. Here’s a chance for an ingenious organisation to expand Margate’s artistic activities. The number of art galleries – some about the size of one painting – is impressive. Let’s add some performance. And give residents some much needed work.

• Susannah Clapp is the theatre critic of the Observer