The Vale of Health
PeterDavey ISBN 97807223 44460 price £9.95 320pp
Let us start with John Keats and in less than six degrees of separation, James Leigh Hunt appears. In fact he is at the centre of what turns out to be a delicate (and famous) spider’s web. At times Leigh Hunt seems to be the controller and supporter of all young writers in the early 1800s – John Keats, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Charles Lamb,Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, with an on-off friendship with Lord Byron.
It is a literary establishment which arises out of connections forged by Leigh Hunt and John Hunt as editors. Starting with John as editor of The Statesman, they brought out the weekly The Examiner in 1808.Their outspokenness led to various cases being brought against them, beginning with The King v Leigh and John Hunt in 1811. Prison terms for both brothers followed but Leigh Hunt still contributed articles to The Examiner. From hereon his life becomes full of high-flown gossip, with artists and literary figures flitting in and out of his various houses, especially in Hampstead’s Vale of Health
At other times, Leigh Hunt becomes the fugitive, the hunted victim, running to Italy, like his hero, to mend his health and escape from debt.
Peter Davey has nimbly followed all these travels and drawn the threads that link all these people who have become mainstays of English poetry, literature and journalism. This 320pp book is the third in his series A Poet in Love and Spellbound, researching John Keats and his circle. James Leigh Hunt deserves this detailed study, which takes us back convincingly to the problems and perils he faced. At times it reads more like a film script, with a large cast, than the biography of a staid writer’s ninteenth century career.This amount of research is amazing and shows the devotion to Peter Davey’s subject, which he manages to convey to us too.
Mostly unknown these days, it is surprising how much influence -and connections- Leigh Hunt had in the early nineteenth century. And where might we have we met Leigh Hunt? We all have a faint memory of :
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold
and we have a far more vivid memory of his Rondeau
Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.