If you are going to be laid low with the flu, the only redeeming feature may be that you can’t do much else. The body aches, the lungs wheeze, the vile liquid comes out of the sinus cavity. There are headaches, hot flashes and chills. The only thing I can bring myself to do is settle down with a book and a box of Kleenex.

“The Immortal Dinner” was recommended to me by an employee at Wentworth House, now a small museum in Hampstead dedicated to the brief relationship between John Keats and his fashion-obsessed eighteen year-old neighbour, Fanny Brawne. If any of my readers follow the films of Jane Campion, you will have seen its recreation as a set in the movie– “Bright Star.”


John Keats was one of the small group of individuals invited to the home of a young painter the evening of December 28, 1817. At that time, Keats was only 21, wholly ignorant of the charming Fanny. He was living with his brother in another house in Hampstead. He had not written any of the works for which he was to become famous, but his genius and dedication was evident to his friends and fans. Benjamin Robert Haydon counted himself among this small, select group.


John Keats

“In December Wordsworth was in town, and as Keats wished to know him, I made up a party to dinner of Charles Lamb, Wordsworth, Keats and Monkhouse, his friend; and a very pleasant party we had.” Benjamin Robert Haydon, “Autobiography”

“The Immortal Dinner,” the book by Penelope Hughes-Hallett, was given the title because it was called that by the host. Haydon comes across as a thoroughly exasperating artist, intense and charming, loyal and supportive, liable to take offence over trivialities and extort funds from his most impecunious friends, money he could never hope to repay. To his patrons he was worse, failing to accommodate their most reasonable requests. He was an impatient, quarrelsome snob, and his friends loved him.

Benjamin Robert Haydon, self portrait

Robert Haydon, self-portrait

He thought of himself as a genius, born to return British painting to the depiction of historical subjects. The dinner would be held in his large, new “painting room,” dominated by the unfinished canvas of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. Other guests included the wit and essayist, Charles Lamb, Tom Monkhouse, a popular giver of literary parties, and Joseph Ritchie, a young doctor and would-be explorer who would soon be off to explore the source of the Niger.

Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb

Despite Haydon’s copious notes, a dinner party, no matter how rich with literary and artistic luminaries, is not a natural subject for a book. Haydon did not record much of the evening’s sparkling conversation, only what struck him as amusing after the fact. Hughes-Hallett pulls the book together by inviting us into the world of London 1817, the world of Keats, Wordsworth, Lamb and Haydon. We find out where they lived, what they ate, drank, discussed, what gave them sleepless nights.

William Wordsworth by Robert Haydon

William Wordsworth by Robert Haydon

“On 28th December, the immortal dinner came off in my painting room, with Jerusalem towering up behind us as background. Wordsworth was on fine cue, and we had a glorious set-to — on Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and Virgil. Lamb got exceedingly merry and exquisitely witty…. He made a speech and voted me absent, and made them drink to my health.”


We witness the hothouse flowering of the Romantic poets, their passions and squabbles and the financial and psychological burdens they carried, as well as the battle over the direction of British art at the time of Constable, Gainsborough, and Turner. It was the era of the Regency. Napoleon was exiled to Elba and the English could visit Paris once more. It was a time of political turmoil, rabble rousers and riots. The arrival of the Elgin Marbles stunned the art world; the robbing of graves for dissection turned doctors into criminals. The author casts an illuminating light on the artists and scientists, art patrons and surgeons, explorers and actresses from the ballrooms to the terrifying corridors of Bedlam.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Coleridge

Sir George Beaumont, art patron

Sir George Beaumont, art patron

“By this time the other visitors began to drop in, and a Mr. Ritchie, who is going to penetrate into the interior of Africa. I introduced him to Wordsworth as such, and the conversation got into a new train. After some time Lamb, who had seemingly paid no attention to anyone, suddenly opened his eyes and said, alluding to the dangers of penetrating into the interior of Africa, ‘and pray, who is the gentleman we are going to lose?”

The portrayal of the evening’s progress is intense and thrilling nearly two hundred years later. Only Wordsworth would live to a ripe old age. We can thank Hughes-Hallett for bringing them all back to life in this vivid evocation of one memorable evening, 1817.