Magazine article The Spectator

Secrets That Remain Unyielded

Magazine article The Spectator

Secrets That Remain Unyielded

Article excerpt

THE WRECK OF THE ABERGAVENNY by Alethea Hayter Macmillan, L14.99, pp. 240, ISBN 0333989171

Ever since 1965 Alethea Hayter has been placing a very sharp compass-point upon particular 19th-century writers or groups of writers, describing a circle and subjecting the space inside it to the mercies of her gimlet eye. In A Sultry Month, her acclaimed second book about the June of 1864 in a sweltering London, packed with drama and genius, she is said to have invented 'a new form of biography': the scholarly, non-fiction narrative, 'a form so new,' said Anthony Burgess at the time, `that it lacks a name'. Since then there have been all manner of new forms of biography, and experiments continue; but Alethea Hayter's approach still seems the most engaging and unselfconscious. She is blue-stocking meticulous, but writes with friendly fluid ease, as if she has known all the characters personally.

After A Sultry Month came her classic, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, still the authoritative work on the use of 19th-century narcotics. There followed A Voyage in Vain (1973), Coleridge's agonising, opium-haunted journey to Malta in 1804. Now, nearly 30 years on, comes The Wreck of the Abergavenny, the great Indiaman that sank in sight of land off Weymouth Bay in 1805 as it set off in convoy for China. The captain was John Wordsworth, the rather mysterious younger brother of the poet. From the moment she went down, the loss of the 'Abergany', as she was called, has been remembered as one of Britain's greatest maritime disasters. Reports of the massed `English Army' of Napoleon gathered for invasion just across the Channel moved off the front pages. The loss of life was huge - at first thought to be 400 - and the value of the lost cargo, which included 200,000-worth of silver which was to be handed over in Calcutta as payment for opium to be resold in China, was astronomical. Treasures, by now only small and touching - a toothbrush, a lady's ring, a pair of cuff-links engraved J.W. - are still being brought up to the surface today from The Shambles where the great ship foundered and her remains have rested.

This time it is not opium that has led Hayter to her subject. Nor is it the connection to the luckier voyage of Coleridge who was a great friend of John - the year before. But she is, as before, more taken up with the effect of random circumstance - fate, weather - on the poetic imagination. She sees the loss of John as the turning point in William Wordsworth's development as poet and man, and the spark of his great philosophical poem The Prelude. She broods, as Wordsworth did, on the purpose of catastrophe and grief and concludes, as Wordsworth did, that they are regenerated as Art. `No catastrophe, no Art', she quotes (rather surprisingly) from Julian Barnes.

At the same time the book is a portrait of the captain, the enigmatic odd-man-out in the Wordsworth family, poor John', the school 'dunce', the miserably shy and silent orphaned child who was taken from the excellent Hawkshead School at 15 without demur, handed the sailor's leg of mutton and bottle of rum and entered into the service of the East India Company where there were already one or two Wordsworth relations. He returned home seldom and nervously, though always very happily. Once, between ships, he spent eight idyllic months at Dove Cottage with brother and sister and Coleridge, and with Mary Hutchinson who was to marry William and with whom, Hayter has quite decidedly established, he was passionately in love. …

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