Tarantula’s Web: John Hayward, T.S. Eliot and their Circle by John Smart (Michael Russell Ltd,)

John Smart will be familiar to many teachers of English Literature as the author of two volumes in the C.U.P. ‘Cambridge Contexts in Literature’ series: Twentieth Century British Drama (2001) and Modernism and After (2008). His new book, Tarantula’s Web, is at once narrower and more wide-ranging in its scope. It is the first full-length biography of that charismatic, important, but now rather overshadowed man of letters, John Hayward (1905–1965), who was until his death a dominant and controversial figure in the world of British books and writers. It is at the same time a study of the complicated and easily misunderstood friendship between Hayward and T.S. Eliot; and beyond that, it offers a fascinating and authoritative overview of literary England – specifically literary London – from the Thirties to the Sixties.

Even if Hayward had never met Eliot, he would still have been a significant figure. In the Queen’s Coronation Honours List (1953) he was awarded a CBE for services as ‘broadcaster, editor and critic’. He had already become a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur that same year. Such rewards usually come to writers at the end of their careers —  ‘gifts reserved for age’ (as Eliot puts it in Little Gidding) designed ‘To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort’. Yet Hayward was only forty-eight.

He had begun young and was always in a hurry. As a child, he was diagnosed with incipient muscular dystrophy, and no one could predict how rapidly this irreversible condition would paralyse him and then kill him. While still at school (at Gresham’s, in Norfolk, where his younger contemporaries included W.H. Auden, whose first published poems owed their appearance in the school magazine to Hayward) he set out to create a literary career for himself. By the time he left, he was already precociously moving in two apparently contradictory directions, which would characterize his entire future career. On the one hand he leaned strongly towards the avant-garde, with a particular enthusiasm for Edith Sitwell and her circle; on the other he had become fascinated by the world of antiquarian bibliography, especially of the seventeenth and centuries. Astonishingly, before he had even gone up to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1923, he had been commissioned by the Nonesuch Press to edit an edition of the works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a task he completed while still an undergraduate.

John Smart reminds us that this was a risky commission: Rochester was ‘notorious for his rakish life and obscene poetry’ and, even in the 1920s, publishing such poetry unexpurgated might have led to prosecution. It didn’t, but the fact that Hayward himself had suggested the book to the publisher showed bravado, an empathy with Rochester and an appetite pour épater le bourgeois that would become part of the Hayward persona. His Nonesuch editions of John Donne and Jonathan Swift, coming shortly afterwards, established him as one of the leading textual and critical scholars of his generation, even though the second-class degree with which he left Cambridge had put paid to his chances of a conventional academic career.

As a student at King’s he had been notorious for his dandyish appearance and his love of fast cars, and notable for his formidable intelligence and his love of acting: he was a friend of Dadie Rylands, through whom he quickly became intimate with many of the Bloomsbury Group. In some respects he was Cambridge’s equivalent of Oxford’s Brian Howard, the model for the aesthete Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Waugh met the young Hayward met by chance and thought him ‘charming and incredibly learned’.

Actually, there is someone else in Brideshead who shows some of the characteristics of the slightly older, post-Cambridge, Hayward. Mr Samgrass of All Souls is the confidential friend of Lady Marchmain and makes himself entirely at ease in the libraries of the stately homes of England. John Hayward, similarly, became the confidential friend of ladies of a certain age and class, starting with Ottoline Morrell and Edith Sitwell, and came to know the libraries of stately homes as intimately perhaps than anyone else in England. His knowledge of these collections - the Sitwells’ at Renishaw, Lord Rothschild’s at Rushbrooke Hall for instance - was the more valuable since this was also precisely the time in which so many such libraries were being broken up and sold, the books often disappearing to American universities. The emphasis was shifting. John Smart quotes from one of Hayward’s ‘Letters from London’, a fortnightly newspaper column he wrote during the Thirties for readers of the New York Sun:

The present state of bibliophily in England is best observed in the small, intensely personal and covetable collections of men like Michael Sadleir, Richard Jennings and Geoffrey Keynes whose love of literature, scholarship and pure bibliography is apparent in every book they possess.

‘Love of literature, scholarship and pure bibliography’ precisely defines Hayward’s own passion for books. He believed that the purpose of literature was to give enjoyment to the reader; and he believed that books, as physical objects, deserved to be created and treated with the greatest care authors and illustrators, printers, booksellers and readers could offer. At the end of the Second World War he organized an exhibition in Cambridge to mark the bicentenary of Jonathan Swift’s death, based on his own collection of Swift’s manuscripts and printed books. He himself believed his collection to be ‘unsurpassed by any library in this country or abroad’.

The exhibition was so highly praised that in 1947 he was invited by the National Book League to organize and curate a national exhibition of rare books celebrating five centuries of English poetry, starting with Caxton’s edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and concluding with first editions by Yeats, Eliot and Auden. King George VI lent volumes from the Royal Collection; Queen Mary visited the exhibition: 346 items, representing 250 poets. The catalogue, written by Hayward became (and remains) a classic of its kind. As Smart explains,

Using his encyclopaedic knowledge of private collections, Hayward had personally hunted down the copies he needed and had written to each lender, detailing what he wanted and discussing all the particulars of insurance, transport arrangements and so on. Owners had to be cajoled and reassured to part with the treasures of their libraries …. Hayward knew this would be his only chance to put together such a collection: many of the volumes on show were the last copies in private hands in Great Britain. The exhibition celebrated victory and the future, but also gave an elegiac look back at the world of the hushed private libraries of the great houses Hayward had loved to visit. It sounded the knell of aristocratic patronage and perhaps also the private collector. (pp. 203-5)

In the wake of this landmark exhibition, Hayward was frequently invited by the BBC to broadcast on literary topics and he became the chief literary adviser to the 1951 Festival of Britain. His reputation grew wider still when he edited the Penguin Book of English Verse (1953), which became the best-selling anthology of the post-war period, finally dislodging Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse (1901). It is probably through the Penguin anthology that many teachers came – and still come, even today – into direct contact with Hayward’s work.

Alongside his acclaimed work as curator and anthologist, Hayward was making two further and quite distinct contributions to bibliophily and bibliography. First, he was editing and writing for a new quarterly journal, The Book Collector, for which he always wrote an editor’s Commentary, discussing without fear or favour the world of books and the politics of the current London literary scene. Even today this journal proudly boasts that it prints ‘notoriously independent leading articles’ and in this it follows the tradition established by its founding editor. He was also overseeing the preparation of the catalogues of two large and important private collections: the Sterling Collection given to the Library of London University and the library of Lord Rothschild.

To Victor Rothschild Hayward owed much: their friendship had begun as undergraduates at Cambridge, through a shared enthusiasm for buying old books. At the outbreak of war, in 1939, Rothschild had rescued Hayward from London and the Blitz, installing him at his Cambridge home, Merton Hall, in the grounds of St. John’s College; here Hayward became effectively major-domo for the duration of the war. Though he considered this as ‘exile’, he knew that without his friend’s generosity he would not have survived on his own in London. It was a friendship to last a lifetime, and when in 1954 Cambridge University Press published the catalogue of the Rothschild Library, Lord Rothschild paid tribute to Hayward as the presiding genius who had ‘planned the catalogue and supervised it at every stage of its production.’

In terms of his scholarly activity in bibliography, these catalogues - the Sterling and the Rothschild - represent probably his most lasting achievement. Hayward had set new standards and established new principles for such work in the future. Had he done nothing else in his career, this would have been distinction enough. But so far this summary of John Hayward’s life as man of letters, extracted from John Smart’s fluent and fascinating biography, has told less than half the story and has left questions that need to be answered. Why had Hayward needed to be ‘rescued’ from London at the start of the war? Why did he consider his six years in Cambridge as ‘exile’?  He wrote to a friend, Catherine Walston, ‘Exile is a strange experience and now I have been rooted in it for more than six years. Somewhere in the middle of it I lost my youth. As I haven’t yet found my middle age I don’t know quite where I am.’ Sequestered so long in Merton Hall, what did he do there that was, arguably, the most significant contribution he ever made to English literature? Three short answers to these questions will introduce the second half of assessment of Hayward, seen through the lens of John Smart’s biography:

first, he was by 1939 so disabled by muscular dystrophy (he had been largely confined to a wheelchair since leaving Cambridge) that he could not manage on his own in London – he was living in an inconvenient flat in Kensington - and certainly could not have coped during the Blitz;

second, he had during the Thirties established himself at the centre of a wide circle of writers, artists, scholars and collectors, and an inner circle of close companions who not only helped him to get around but also located him at the heart of literary London; with the outbreak of war and the dispersing of these circles, Hayward was simply stranded;

third, he took it on himself to keep this intricate network of friends  in touch with each other by means of messages, letters and journalism. Above all, through a remarkable correspondence he acted as literary adviser – editor, critic, midwife – to T.S. Eliot during the difficult composing of Four Quartets.

Hayward claimed never to have heard of Eliot before he left Gresham’s. This seems unlikely since The Waste Land had been published in 1922, his last year at the school, and the literary avant-garde was already his special subject. (And so it would remain: writing after the Second World War, he identified the malaise of mid-twentieth century letters as being precisely that there was no avant-garde in post-war London - no more Bloomsbury, no longer even any Fitzrovia.) However, while an undergraduate he met Eliot at Cambridge and made a sufficiently strong impression that, after graduating, Eliot invited him to review for his influential journal The Criterion.

Eliot admired the young Hayward’s writing and scholarship; Hayward for his part was pleased to have gained a toe-hold in literary London. Eliot offered him lunch at Faber’s, introducing him to his fellow directors, Geoffrey Faber and Frank Morley. He invited him, too, to tea with his wife, Vivienne. On Hayward’s part, this was friendship tinged with hero-worship for a poet who was already playing the role of distinguished man of letters. There was perhaps something of the mutual admiration society about their friendship. John Smart notes that when, in 1929, Hayward was the first to congratulate Eliot on his essay on Dante, Eliot was ‘delighted and reassured’ by Hayward’s enthusiasm. His reply letter was signed ‘Ever gratefully’. Thus began a regular correspondence in which Eliot sought Hayward’s opinion on work published or in progress: ‘It is,’ wrote Eliot, always a pleasure to send you the little things I write because your acknowledgements are so particularly satisfying.’ Smart remarks with just a hint of irony, ‘He had found his ideal reader.’

From this point on, and thanks largely to Eliot, Hayward’s London life took off in earnest. He lived mainly by journalism, and supplemented his income by marking A level scripts for Cambridge each summer. He was not well off; indeed he never owned a house of his own. By 1933, as John Smart points out, ‘his reviews were successful and paid the rent, but he had not aspired to be a mere reviewer’. After receiving a letter of encouragement from Ottoline Morrell (now in her sixties, no longer a muse but a mother figure) he replied:

Your encouragement lasted only a few hours: I dreamed placidly of writing works of incomparable splendour; and then – I remembered that I was only a squalid journalist, with nothing very much to say. (p. 89)

Such self-doubt was uncharacteristic, or perhaps it was masked by his increasingly sharp pen and malicious wit. Still, the widening circle of his acquaintance at that time started to read like a literary Who’s Who. Peter Quennell, William Empson, Cyril Connolly, Rupert Hart-Davis, Auden, Spender, Graham Greene – academics, literary journalists and reviewers, publishers, writers: these were the people who now came within his orbit, joining friends of longer standing like the Sitwells. He had always been sociable and flirtatious – he was prone to short affairs and long attachments, describing himself as the ‘least homosexual man in London’. He did, however, lose friends as well as make them: as his disability got rapidly worse, from the early Thirties onwards, so he became increasingly known for his venemous tongue, scabrous humour and love of scandalous gossip. He had a certain arrogance about him: neither was tact his strong point. He sometimes used his journalist’s licence not wisely but too well.  He caused a quarrel and a rift with Edith Sitwell and her brothers that took years to heal.  On the other hand, there were times when he tried to mend fences. F.R. Leavis, who disliked everything Hayward stood for, especially his perceived London élitism and cliquishness, was a fierce opponent; Hayward, for his part, thought Leavis’s approach to literature bigoted and pleasure-denying. (No-one could have accused Hayward of being a puritan.) However, after Leavis had attacked him in Scrutiny, Hayward invited him to debate their differences in a public meeting at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Leavis accepted, and the event must have been worth witnessing; but there was no meeting of minds.

Throughout the Thirties, however, when Hayward was living on his own in a small flat in Bina Gardens, South Kensington, he was sustained by a small, tightly-knit circle of friends. Perhaps more accurately, he and Eliot together were sustained by their friendship with Geoffrey Faber and Frank Morley. They met nearly every week, sharing a love of the absurd and a kind of secret code of nicknames and private jokes. Hayward became Tarantula, the malevolent spider at the centre of this web of shared acquaintances and friends. When Eliot published Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, he acknowledged the help of ‘the Man in White Spats’ - Hayward in another disguise. Disguise, indeed, was an important theme for Eliot himself at this time, for he was in hiding from his wife, Vivienne, from whom he had separated. He went to great lengths to avoid meeting her and to ensure she did not even know where he was.  At this time he was technically homeless, lodging temporarily in a Kensington clergy house.  Hayward invited him to come and share the flat in Bina Gardens. Both men had a common enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes, and no doubt what Hayward envisaged was an arrangement such as Holmes and Watson had shared at 221b Baker Street.  Eliot was touched by the offer, and only refused because he did not want to risk Vivienne’s discovering his address. Hayward renewed the offer more than once, but it was only after the war that Eliot accepted it.

John Smart’s examination of the Hayward-Eliot relationship is more nuanced and better balanced than previous accounts. Helen Gardner prefaces The Composition of Four Quartets (1978) with the admission that her book is ‘a kind of tribute’ to John Hayward, with whom she had shared ‘a close and affectionate friendship’; Lyndall Gordon, in T.S. Eliot: an Imperfect Life (1998) plays down what Hayward meant to Eliot. She describes him first as ‘an acolyte, hanging on Eliot’s lips’ who ‘seemed not to realize the Master’s inscrutable distance’. She says flatly that ‘there were limitations to Hayward’ and calls him ‘literal-minded’, though she is much more sympathetic when dealing with Eliot’s later treatment of his friend.

The chapters in Tarantula’s Web describing Hayward’s London life and his growing friendship with Eliot are both revealing and moving. In essence they form a joint biographical study of a distinctly odd couple. Smart is sensitive to the insecurities of each man, showing how Eliot tried to withdraw from public gaze, even as he became more and more visibly a ‘man of letters’, as he described himself. After 1936, indeed, with the publication of his Collected Poems and the unexpected success of Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion, he saw himself developing a new career in the theatre, his persona as a poet being now discarded with something like contempt:

Ridiculous the waste sad time

Stretching before and after.

These, the closing lines of ‘Burnt Norton’, had been literally Eliot’s last words on his career – and his life - up to 1935. However, the close but non-demanding male camaraderie he enjoyed with Faber, Morley and Hayward at Bina Gardens, helped to revive him and when, with the outbreak of war, the friends dispersed – Hayward to Cambridge, Morley home to America, and Eliot dividing his weeks  between London and deepest Surrey -  it was Tarantula who kept them all in touch by a steady flow of letters, communicating news and gossip: Hayward called these bulletins ‘Tarantula’s Special News-Service’. The most important of all these letters, perhaps, was one in February 1940 announcing that ‘Tom has now picked up his tablets again after all these months …. He now writes to say that he is making a little progress with a new poem in succession to ‘Burnt Norton’ – the second of four quattuors – provisionally entitled ‘East Coker’.

Between that announcement and the completion of ‘Little Gidding’, Hayward embarked on a frenzy of letter-writing which no doubt says as much about his frustrating incarceration in war-time Cambridge as about his eagerness to fulfil his self-appointed role as ‘creating critick’ [sic]. Readers of John Smart’s article ‘John Hayward and T.S. Eliot’ in Use of English (vol.63, no.1, Spring 2011) will have followed already the story of Hayward’s contribution to the creation of Four Quartets. Eliot made public this role in the Author’s Note prefacing the completed poem, first published in 1943:

I wish to acknowledge my obligations to friends for their criticism, and particularly to John Hayward for improvements of phrase and construction.

Hayward was, in Smart’s words, ‘absolutely thrilled’: he wrote to Eliot, ‘I am more pleased and touched by your note of acknowledgement than I can say. It is by far the biggest compliment I’ve ever had paid me and I am correspondingly delighted ….’ Twenty years later, when Eliot removed this acknowledgement from his expanded Collected Poems Hayward was devastated: this excision was, as Smart aptly says, ‘the unkindest cut of all’.

In 1946 Hayward was able to return to London, to a new flat in Chelsea, and now Eliot gratefully moved in with him. Vivienne was by this time confined to a mental home, and could no longer terrify her husband by the threat of ambushing him in public. In 1946, however, she unexpectedly died, leaving Hayward to break the news to Eliot, who was overwhelmed by grief and guilt. Hayward’s role at this time was to protect his friend as far as possible from the outside world, and in literal fact to become his gatekeeper and his guardian. In the Carlyle Mansions flat they shared, it was Hayward who dealt with all visitors, answered the phone and allowed Eliot the privacy he craved. They lived separate lives within the flat, and only met at at set times. So, despite Hayward’s being the one confined to a wheelchair and finding daily life more and more difficult, it was he who controlled the household and, increasingly, controlled Eliot. As this shift in the balance of their friendship and shared life occurred, there was a shift, too, in the way Hayward responded to the manuscripts of work in progress that Eliot continued to show him. No longer the deferential suggestions, or the tentative enquiries: now, increasingly, his tone was critical and more akin to a schoolmaster’s impatient correcting of a pupil’s inadequate homework. Though they lived together for eleven years, John Smart shows very clearly how tensions grew and their relationship started to fray. All the same, when the end came and Eliot walked out to marry his secretary Valerie Fletcher, it was sudden and – to Hayward – devastating:

‘I feel, after eleven years, as if Tom had suddenly died – at least to me, and I can only hope and pray he has done wisely and well and that he has found the happiness life has hitherto denied him.’

This sounds magnanimous, but when he discovered that for some time Eliot had been, as Smart puts it, ‘systematically and secretly’ removing clothes and possessions from the flat, this was too much: ‘Think of the treacherousness of a man taking all his shirts and all his ties, little by little.’

There is only Hayward’s own word for this, and even those well disposed towards him caution against taking everything he said as gospel. Smart concedes that ‘No doubt he touched up the colours of the story to suit his audience’, and Helen Gardner once admitted that ‘John was not averse to making a good story for us about what had happened.’ Nevertheless, from this time onwards, Hayward changed spiders. He abandoned his Tarantula persona and, until his death, referred to himself as ‘the Widow’. He did not attend Eliot’s wedding, nor his funeral in 1965; his own followed a few months afterwards.

Eliot’s ashes are buried at East Coker in Somerset, home of his 16th century ancestors. It used to please Hayward to tell Eliot that his ancestors too came from the west country, from the village of Beechingstoke in Wiltshire. Hayward’s funeral took place at St. Luke’s, Chelsea on 1st October. The church was packed: The Times reported the service and named 116 of the mourners.

The final pages of John Smart’s exemplary biography are genuinely moving as he brings together comments and memories from Hayward’s friends. The poet Kathleen Raine had loved and admired ‘that witty brilliant malicious tragic man who so heroically invented himself’; Graham Greene called him ‘a wonderful friend and a very courageous man’. But the epitaph Hayward himself had ordered for his gravestone, in Beechingstoke churchyard, was succinct and simple: ‘John Hayward – A Man of Letters’.

Adrian Barlow