Tarantula’s Web: John Hayward, T. S. Eliot and their Circle,

John Smart, Michael Russell, 343pp, £19.95 (hardback)

How unpleasant to meet John Hayward. He was known throughout literary London as the spider who had venom in his bite, often more threatening to the female of the species than the male. In Oxford in 1997, Anne Ridler showed me her copy of Noctes Binanianae (1939), one of only twenty-five in a privately printed edition: a collection of scurrilous, bantering in-jokes written by Hayward, and by Ridler’s former directors at Faber and Faber – ‘Coot’, the balding chairman Geoffrey Faber; ‘Whale’, the gangling American Frank Morley; and ‘Old Possum’ himself, T. S. Eliot. When I enquired politely about ‘Tarantula,’ this mild and modest Anglican poet blinked upon the recollections of half a century: ‘John could be extremely rude.’ Natasha Spender, who visited Hayward and Eliot at their shared flat in Chelsea during the 1940s and 1950s, was more forthcoming about the nature of this rudeness. Hayward’s barrage of indecent ‘panty talk’ could apparently reduce young women to tears of humiliation.

On the other hand, Hayward was a pioneering editor, an imaginative anthologist, and a leading authority on rare books. Eliot respected his critical judgement, revising his later plays and, during WW2, successive drafts of Four Quartets in the light of his advice. Hayward’s catalogue for a 1947 exhibition of first editions of English poetry at the National Book League is still spoken of with admiration by collectors, dealers, scholars and librarians. In 1952 he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur and in 1953 he was created a CBE. Over the years, I have frequently returned to Hayward’s anthology of Eliot’s Selected Prose (1953) and his selection for The Penguin Book of English Verse (1956), exemplars of good taste and wide reading. From 1952 he was a bracing editor of The Book Collector, which upon his death in 1965 published a series of candid but affectionate reminiscences from friends. His achievements are all the more remarkable given the progressive paralysis of muscular dystrophy which confined him to a wheelchair in his twenties but which he brushed aside with dauntless courage.

John Smart’s Tarantula’s Web: John Hayward, T. S. Eliot and their Circle tackles an interesting subject with slightly uneven results. A retired schoolmaster, Smart is on familiar turf when it comes to Hayward’s schooldays. Yet the chapter on Gresham’s School, Holt, where Smart taught English, parades the platitudes of a prize-day speech. ‘The appointment of a new headmaster,’ we are told, presented Hayward’s Gresham’s with ‘the kind of shaping vision that great headmasters such as Thring of Uppingham and Sanderson of Oundle had given their schools.’ But there is little probing beneath the surface of the formative influences shaping dandyish, ambitious Hayward’s character as he rebelled against the suburban starchiness of his Victorian upper-middle-class parents (Doctor Hayward met his nurse wife as they patched up the thin-red-line during the Boer War). Diagnosis of Hayward’s lifelong medical condition must have had a devastating impact on the schoolboy’s outlook. Instead of pondering the dark shadows cast over his future, we have a depthless narrative: ‘Hayward’s letters home showed him to have been busy in a boyish way.’ The yawn-inducing sonorities of Thring of Uppingham and Sanderson of Oundle bring to mind W. H. Auden’s The Orators. Hayward, three years Auden’s senior at Gresham’s, reviewed The Orators discerningly in Eliot’s review, The Criterion. The seeds of Hayward’s sardonic wit were doubtless sown fidgeting in Chapel and Big School.

Hayward went up to Cambridge in 1923 as an exhibitioner at King’s College. The ethos of King’s, nurtured by Goldie Dickinson, Dadie Rylands and other Bloomsbury Group members, offered greater encouragement to aesthetes than to the Boat Club. At Cambridge, Hayward performed with gusto the bit-part of a madman in a Marlowe Society production of The Duchess of Malfi; he served as treasurer of the Heretics, a radical debating society; developed a friendship with the super-rich Kingsman Victor Rothschild; and, scouring the shelves of David’s in St Edward’s Passage, cultivated a passion for antiquarian books. In 1926, he was one of a handful of undergraduates selected to attend a weekly coffee-circle accompanying Eliot’s Clark Lectures on seventeenth-century poetry. According to William Empson, Hayward asked Eliot’s opinion of C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, only to be told by the editor of The Criterion (which published an extract from Swann’s Way) that he hadn’t read it. Precociously, Hayward completed his edition of the Earl of Rochester as a student, but his failure to graduate with a First, Smart suggests, effectively ended aspirations for the life of a don.

Hayward moved to London and assiduously embarked on a career as a man of letters. He wrote a great deal of higher journalism, reviewing regularly for the TLS, The Times, The Criterion, The Spectator and The Observer, as well as penning a chatty column for the New York Sun. Hayward’s Collected Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1926) boldly rescued this poet’s provocative yet poignant obscenities from Victorian prudishness. Although it inspired Graham Greene’s critical biography of Rochester, it did not establish an authoritative text or canon and was received, in Smart’s words, as a ‘damp squib’. Nonesuch Press editions of Donne (1929) and Swift (1934) were more durable: the text of Donne was less notable for the poetry (which followed Grierson’s edition of 1912) than for printing in their entirety several of Donne’s sermons; the edition of Swift alerted editors to corruptions that had crept into the text of Gulliver’s Travels, but modern scholarship has left Hayward’s recension behind. If Hayward’s reputation as an editor has faded, his reputation as a critic has disappeared. Smart repeatedly refers to the nasty spats between Hayward and F. R. Leavis without answering the complaint voiced in Scrutiny: namely, Hayward’s standing as a critic rested on his connections in ‘metropolitan literary society’ not the acumen of his literary analysis. Smart does not demonstrate that any of Hayward’s prolific writings are indispensable reading today.

Leavis certainly envied Hayward’s closeness to Eliot. Hayward’s bed-sit at 22 Bina Gardens, near Eliot’s place of worship on Gloucester Road in Kensington, became a fixture in London’s literary parties throughout the 1930s, where Hayward held court as a snobbish and caustic confrere of the sort of aristocrats and intellectuals who put Wyndham Lewis’s teeth on edge. He combined the role of recipient of sexual secrets with spreader of salacious gossip. Smart is reluctant to admit just how treacherously two-faced Hayward could be. Ottoline Morrell, Edith Sitwell, Rosamond Lehmann, Kathleen Raine, Graham Greene, William Empson and Stephen Spender were among those who risked sharing intimate details. Most uncharacteristically, Eliot confided to Hayward the closely guarded secrets of his marital distress, confessing that he had never slept with a woman he loved, or to whom he was physically attracted. Smart underlines the torments Hayward suffered from love unrequited. There is a chilling matter-of-factness about Empson’s laconic verdict on Hayward’s youthful passion for a lover Elaine Finlay: ‘It could not go on for ever; she married someone else’. Such assumptions were, of course, commonplaces of the day. Virginia Woolf noted in her diary, with habitual lack of chariaty, the unnerving sight of Hayward’s ‘great thick soft red lip: frozen green eyes; and angular attitudes like a monkey on a string.’ At one of Woolf’s soirées, disabled Hayward’s unpardonable faux pas was not to speak ill of mutual friends but to take a tumble onto the carpet. He was not invited again.

Psycho-biography rears up in Tarantula’s Web to explain not only why jilted John turned confidant and bitter malicious raconteur of other’s misfortunes, but also to function as the key in the roman à clef of his writing career. ‘All the figures Hayward wrote about in the early 1930s’ Smart contends, ‘– Saint Évremond, Charles II, Disraeli and, finally Swift – were, as he saw them, aliens in their own worlds.’ He concludes: ‘How they coped was the theme of all these works. It was a theme that had a clear resonance with his own wheelchair-bound life: each of his subjects had to develop strategies to make good in a hostile and difficult world – and, ominously, they all ended their days as lonely, isolated old men.’ The differences between the particular personal circumstances of this motley crew are profound: as unlike one another as from Hayward’s situation. Smart presses similarities with Swift too hard, partly because he is intent on seeing the group that assembled at Bina Gardens to drink gin and exchange ribald verses as a coterie exhibiting an Augustan satirical wit and conversational brilliance.

Hayward portrait by Anthony Devas. Pencil Drawing, 25.5cm x 34.5cm, c.1939 Given to the college by Mrs T. S. Eliot, Nov 1966

©With permission from the Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge

Although John Haffenden describes Noctes Binanianae as ‘immensely entertaining’, Coot, Possum, Whale and Tarantula hardly held a candle to Swift’s Scriblerus Club. One wonders whether celebrants of a sonnet to Geoffrey Faber ending ‘Enchanted by the Broadway dialect, /And, masticating Wrigley’s pepsin gum, / Expectoratest in the loud spittoon’ aren’t rather easily entertained. Hayward’s creative criticisms of Eliot’s later poetry and verse drama are a more serious matter. Since Helen Gardner’s edition of The Composition of “Four Quartets” (1978), it has been possible to inspect the effects of Hayward’s suggestions on drafts of East Coker, The Dry Salvages and, above all, Little Gidding. Hayward’s corrections are those of a pedantic grammarian, but he also pursued a justly painstaking search for le mot juste: his improvement of the closing line of the sequence from ‘And the fire and the rose are the same’ to the decisive ‘And the fire and the rose are one’ is inspired. In private, Eliot was fulsome in his thanks: ‘I cannot find words to express a proper manifestation of my gratitude for your invaluable assistance.’ In the first UK collected edition of Four Quartets (1944), the public words Eliot found to acknowledge this help record ‘my obligation to friends for their criticism, and particularly to Mr John Hayward for improvements of phrase and construction.’

The best section of Smart’s study traces the daily life that Hayward and Eliot shared at Carlyle Mansions, just off Cheyne Walk, from 1946 until 1957. In a period when Eliot, Nobel laureate and OM, was courted by sycophants and hangers-on, Hayward was not afraid to point out weaknesses of construction, or lapses in English manners and idioms at play in Eliot’s stilted post-war verse dramas. There is no hagiography in Smart’s portrait of Eliot: a grand old man, dogmatic and quick to lose his temper when contradicted by his flatmate. Smart’s interpretation of these years, illustrated by ample quotations from correspondence in the Hayward Bequest, is the fullest and most convincing picture we have of Eliot and Hayward’s life together. After reading Smart’s lively account, one imagines a testy Eliot (he was nicknamed ‘Tsetse’ with reason) bumping Hayward’s wheelchair roughly up the entrance to Carlyle Mansions after an especially trying outing on the Embankment.

When Haffenden was assembling materials for a (later abandoned) life of Hayward, Empson recalled that Hayward ‘spoke with a perfection which was slightly thrilling to hear when you realised that he could not move his lips’ and that he ‘was wittier than Eliot and had more social observation, though of course his remarks would be less profound.’ Smart claims Hayward’s reputation as a wit has diminished due to the absence of a contemporary to play Boswell to his Johnson. Eliot, who had a good ear, did not feel inclined to record Hayward’s sayings for posterity, possibly because of the slanderous content of his table talk, but arguably because it rarely rose above the level of spiteful, however artfully crafted, sniping. On the evidence Smart quotes here, the throwaway shock value of Hayward’s comments was its chief claim to attention. The observation that Professor Helen Gardner’s ‘neat moustache was appropriate to her academic rank’ was calculated to set a male table on a roar, but the misogynistic abuse of his friend is wretched. So, too, are the sneers aimed at Valerie Fletcher, the secretary whom Eliot married and whose crime was not only to supplant Hayward as keeper of the archive but as a more agreeable bedtime companion. Smart dispels the rumours Hayward started about Eliot’s hasty departure from Carlyle Mansions in 1957 a day before his marriage: if Eliot behaved somewhat slyly towards Hayward, this was because of the difficulty of broaching the topic of his new-found happiness with a cynical sexist. In the last analysis, despite the respect Hayward elicited among his associates, there is no escaping the fact that he was not a very nice man. The most generous legacy of this childless bibliophile was the bequest of his papers to King’s, where an imperious, challenging, yet curiously vulnerable likeness of Hayward by Anthony Devas stares at unsuspecting undergraduates going about the college library.

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