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William Hayley has been dead for nearly 200 years
He wasn’t a very good poet.
You’ve probably never heard of him.
It’s not much of a pitch, is it?
So why should you help me write his biography?
Because it’s a great story and a story that deserves to be told: a rollicking, tragi-comic costume-drama of passionate friendships, impetuous proposals, literature of variable quality, death and madness, that features a cast of leading eighteenth century artists, writers and other notables.
William Cowper, William Blake and William Pitt all feature at various points in William Hayley’s extraordinary life, as do George Romney, Emma, Lady Hamilton, John Flaxman, Anna Seward, Joseph Wright of Derby and Amelia Opie. Not to mention two wives, a semi-literate French governess, an electric shock machine, an accidental stabbing, a best-selling self-help book in rhyming couplets, A Philosophical, Historical and Moral Essay on Old Maids, early deaths, astonishing recoveries, personal tragedy and all the ups and downs of professional triumph and humiliation.
What makes it different from a standard literary biography?
Hayleyworld isn’t only the eventful life story of a once-influential and now all-but forgotten individual. It’s about the world he lived in. It will explore the Culture of Sensibility: a society in which men hugged dramatically, wept like cartoon characters and writers used too many exclamation marks. It’s about fame and its aftermath, medicine and mental health, relations between men and women, artists and writers, parents and children. It’s about how we decide which works of literature are worth reading and which people are worth remembering; about how we value ourselves and each other.
Alongside the contemporary images you’d expect to find in a biography like this, it’ll feature a handful of stunning original illustrations by multi-award-winning costume and set designer Katrina Lindsay, whose work includes a 2008 Tony for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Damon Albarn's Dr Dee, the West End Cabaret and costumes for Terry Gilliam’s Faust at ENO.
How long will it take?
About a year to research and write. I’ll be visiting the British Library in Euston, The Bodleian in Oxford, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Yale and Princeton in the US, as well as visiting Hayley's haunts and will post regular updates. To do this I need your help and patronage.
So please join me on my journey and in my shed as I time-travel back to the eighteenth century and meet William Hayley, his family and, of course, his many friends…
‘The effusion of blood was so great, and the wound appeared so wide, that his mother sent instantly for a surgeon,’ wrote William Hayley of the occasion when he accidentally stabbed himself in the chest whilst entertaining his nursemaid by acting out a scene from Othello. He was lucky. The penknife he’d snatched up to enhance his performance hit a rib and the injury wasn’t as bad as it looked. It was, in fact, the least dangerous (and most comic) of the four narrow escapes that punctuated his childhood. The first occurred when he was put out to a wet nurse who turned out to be, in his words ‘so deficient in the vital treasure … that her charge was nearly starved to death, before the source of his decline was discovered.’ Hayley describes it as ‘a fraud not uncommon among venal nurses’ and Dr William Buchan, in his influential Domestic Medicine (1769), explains, flatly, how ‘the misconduct of nurses often proves fatal to children’. Not only did some amongst them underfeed their charges, they’d also supplement their meagre diets with life-threatening quantities of opiates and spirits.
I’m the author of Friends: Why Men & Women are From the Same Planet (Bloomsbury 2004) and Stage Mum (Hutchinson 2008, Arrow 2009) and the editor of Bricks Without Mortar: the selected poems of Hartley Coleridge (Picador, 2000). I’ve been obsessed with William Hayley since the mid-1990s, when I started an MA in Literature and Politics 1776-1832 and one of my tutors described him as ‘a man who went round looking after mad poets and artists’.
I write about books and digital literature for the Independent on Sunday, make video podcasts for a National Health Service agency, am working on a feature for BBC Radio 3 and co-writing a musical. I live in Harlesden, north-west London with my twelve-year-old daughter, two cats and more mess than is really healthy.
By Lisa Gee
This book needs
425 more pledges.
All supporters get their name printed in every edition of the book. All levels include the e-book and immediate access to the author's shed. Supporters of books that don't reach their target receive a FULL refund.
e-book edition, access to Lisa’s shed and your name in the back of the book.
1st edition hardback
e-book edition, access to the Lisa's shed and your name in the back of the book.
Signed 1st edition hardback; e-book edition, access to the author's shed and your name in the back of the book
A signed copy but you also get to dedicate one of Hayley’s copious exclamation marks to a person or institution worthy of recognition (William Hayley loved exclamation marks). The dedication will appear as a footnote in the book’s text (limited to 20).
A signed copy plus a framed print of an illustration from the book by award-winning set designer Katrina Lindsay.
A signed copy plus you and a friend can meet Lisa in West Sussex to visit Hayley-related sites in Felpham and Eartham, Includes lunch at the historic Fox Inn (where Blake was arrested for treason in 1803)
A signed copy plus an early edition of one of Hayley’ two most successful books: The Triumph of Temper (1803, illustrated with Blake engravings); and Old Maids (1793). Availability strictly limited.
A signed copy plus a framed, original illustration from the book by award-winning set designer Katrina Lindsay.