A Fairy Tale King Holding Court
There is nothing like coming across the odd fact that fritzes in the mind like a sparkler on an inky summer evening. One of the strongest sizzles I’ve ever experienced took place when I was reading about a decorating project in Daisy Hay’s book Young Romantics. She’s exploring the world of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Byron, particularly their drive to proclaim their independence from oppression, which takes them into the tricky territory of political resistance. As I was following her narrative about an editor whose name I had never come across, his exuberance in creating fancy surroundings in his jail cell had me laughing aloud.
The essayist, critic, poet and editor of The Examiner was named Leigh Hunt. He was a close friend of the aforementioned literati of the day whose “influence expanded as first Byron and then Keats and Shelley gravitated towards him and, in the process, brought their own friends and relations into his orbit.” When Hunt is convicted of libeling the Prince Regent in 1813, he begins a two-year prison sentence at Surrey Gaol. Back then, white-collar criminals who had the means could pay rent to their jailers for better accommodations because the shrewd wardens ran their prisons like businesses. Mr. Ives, the governor of Surrey Gaol when Hunt was admitted, would have granted the newspaperman nicer rooms but he couldn’t afford them.
Hunt’s new daily soundtrack from his dank cell included the jangling of chains, rabid swearing and anguished laughter, all of which worked on his nerves while the damp environment worked on his body. When his health started failing, the prison’s board decided he should be moved so they granted him the use of two rooms in the old prison infirmary, telling him that his wife and children could come and live with him. This cheered him up immensely and he made quick work of renovating his digs.
Here comes the sizzle: “The tradesmen who traipsed in and out of the prison selling their wares to its unfortunate inmates were joined by a team of decorators, who set about transforming the infirmary into accommodations fit for a gentleman,” Hay writes. “Six weeks after the beginning of his sentence, Hunt was ready to receive visitors.” Approaching his rooms through the dark corridors of the prison, his friends entered to find a riot of color and comfort in a setting worthy of “a fairy-tale king holding court”!
As Hunt explains it: “I papered the walls with a trellis of roses; I had the ceiling coloured with clouds and sky; the barred windows were screened with Venetian blinds; and when my bookcases were set up with their busts, and flowers and a piano-forte made their appearance, perhaps there was not a handsomer room on that side of the water.”
Hay says his cell became a stopgap literary salon, and daily life included excellent wines and special dinners that he ordered so his friends’ treks through the dirty streets of Southwark would be worth the effort. When he wasn’t holding court, he was reading, writing or landscaping a garden he created on a small plot of ground outside his rooms! He laid down sod, and planted flowers and saplings to frame the greenspace where he played shuttlecock with his sportier pals. I can’t remember enjoying an anecdote from a fellow journalist’s life more than I did this one, though I know it’s insensitive of me to find humor in the story since Hunt was incarcerated at the time.
In all seriousness, honor should be paid him, as his refusal to gloss over injustices at that time contributed to the freedoms of the press that we have today. He was in jail because he was publishing articles that would be considered savvy reportage now, stories that included the Duke of York’s mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, selling military commissions; and an exposé on military flogging that equated the practices taking place then with the tactics Napoleon had employed.
Both Leigh and his brother John, who handled the printing of the paper, were imprisoned for these outspoken pieces. The men who convicted them assumed the publication would disappear once they were incarcerated but they were wrong. Their renown picked up steam thanks to the publicity they received, and the writers who frequented Hunt’s makeshift salon made certain The Examiner appeared every week during the two-year sentences the brothers served.
Hay makes the point that Hunt is lesser known than his pals because his best work was his most ephemeral: “unlike his more famous friends, he was not first and foremost a poet, but a campaigning journalist.” He did write poetry and was consumed by a play called The Descent of Liberty, which he worked on in prison. As was the case with much of his journalism, it emphasized freedoms for the common people and criticized the actions of the aristocracy. Using poetry as a vehicle for political protest was a natural inclination for the young romantics — just as Shelley did with Queen Mab, Hunt crafted poetic lines that contributed momentum to the movement that would change society. Sadly, the reforms took place too slowly for them to benefit from them.
Once released from prison, Hunt would undertake a number of decorating projects in his life, each of them aimed at transforming his small studies in the homes he inhabited into versions of the rooms he had revamped in the infirmary. Hay believes he was driven to imitate them because it was one of the few times in his adult life when he would have freedom from financial worries. Knowing his creditors didn’t have the power to reach him in jail, he spent monies he didn’t have while focusing on his creative writing.
He would never again achieve this level of ease because all the debts he owed before he was imprisoned, all the bills he racked up while incarcerated, and the arrears he accumulated afterwards would dog him mightily for the rest of his life. Though his lack of means would eventually make Byron and Shelley see him as a burden, he would contribute to their legacies and those of quite a few others whose work he printed. Hunt was actually in Italy planning a new publication with Shelley when the poet unexpectedly drowned in the Gulf of La Spezia.
One of the most idealized renderings of these writers is Louis Édouard Fournier’s The Funeral of Shelley. The painting — the image at the beginning of this piece — shows Edward John Trelawney, Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron (left to right) standing near Shelley’s funeral pyre. The painting is far from accurate: the day was sunny and stiflingly hot; most of the skin on Shelley’s face was gone; Hunt had decided to remain in the coach because the stench of burning flesh was too much for him; and Byron went out for a swim for the same reason.
Compositions like this helped to make legends of these rebels whose lives were intertwined during an era in which it seemed natural to decorate rooms in prison and to reshape politics with poetry. Their exploits resonate a bit more profoundly in this politically charged time we are navigating now.