Ripping Yarns

John Sutherland

  • Tennyson by Michael Thorn
    Little, Brown, 566 pp, £18.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 316 90299 3
  • Tennyson by Peter Levi
    Macmillan, 370 pp, £20.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 333 52205 2

Victorian biography has recently come in clusters. In the last decade there have been four authoritative biographies of Trollope; two of Dickens; two of Wilkie Collins; three of Stevenson (one down, two to come); and – with the present centennial haul – three of Tennyson. Given the huge expenditure of scholarly energy modern biography demands it would be rational to redistribute some of it. One would like more studies such as Claire Tomalin’s of Ellen Ternan, or Rosemary Ashton’s of G.H. Lewes, which illumine by side-light. But just as publishers have found it pays to have five separate editions of Barchester Towers in print, but no Meredith or Lytton, so it pays to commission the same big familiar lives time and again.

Because of the duplication biographers are keener than ever to find fresh angles. Few have new evidence, everyone has a new line. What emerges is less a contest as to which life is genuinely authoritative than a running debate on the same well-chewed issues. With Tennyson, the debate focuses on his gloom. Why is so much of his work pervaded by paralysing (but not silencing) emotions – melancholy, guilt, world-weariness – all in excess of the facts as they appear? What was the dark Tennysonian secret?

Vex not thou the poet’s mind

For thou canst not fathom it

Tennyson declared, early in his career. He always loathed intrusion, whether by critics, friends or tourists. He wished that, like the Queen (his neighbour on the Isle of Wight), he could have a man with a loaded rifle at his gate. His son and grandson dutifully guarded his privacy with defensive biographies. Hallam Tennyson’s Memoir was accompanied by the wholesale destruction of three-quarters of the forty thousand letters he gathered. With them went all record of Tennyson’s inner life. The family bonfire behind him, Hallam felt safe to deny that there had ever been much of an inner life anyway. He conceded that Tennyson occasionally (mainly at Cambridge) felt ‘the melancholy of life’, but invariably he shook such megrims off and his characteristic ‘Johnsonian common sense’ broke through.

Reading the Memoir gives tantalisingly little enlightenment as to how such tortured works as Maud or In Memoriam came to be. But Hallam Tennyson is the source for almost all the illustrative anecdotes and biographical narrative which subsequent writers are obliged to use. There will always be, it seems, areas of impenetrable obscurity. ‘Of Tennyson’s sexual life we know nothing,’ the editors of the three slim volumes that make up the collected Letters frankly tell us. Editors may be happy to leave it at that, but unfamilial biographers are less inclined to do so. Speculation is made to fill the blanks which Hallam Tennyson has created for posterity.

Typically, the speculation shadows the spirit of the age. In 1904, influenced by Max Nordau’s theories of racial degeneration, A.C. Benson ascribed the pervasive Tennysonian gloom to a strain of ‘dark Southern blood’ tainting the predominantly Scandinavian stock of the family. In 1923, Harold Nicolson, persuaded by Strachey’s sardonic view of eminent Victorians, diagnosed Tennyson as a classic case of his age’s pompous timidity. ‘Tennyson was afraid of death, and sex, and God’ – particularly sex. Suppressed homosexuality (his ‘feminine’ sensibility) was daringly alluded to by one of the more active covert gays of his time. There was a major release of new material with the grandson Charles Tennyson’s 1949 Life. Now – in the age of the welfare state – the poet’s gloom was traced to his deprived childhood. Charles Tennyson depicted, for the first time, the gothic excesses of the Somersby rectory where young Alfred grew up: the alcoholism, madness and opium addiction. Under this family regime of ‘black-bloodedness’ (a term which Charles Tennyson popularised) ‘the boyish self-confidence disappeared and Alfred became subject to those moods of self-torment and remorse which are not uncommon in boys of sensitive nature.’ Happily in later life, the poet was able gradually ‘to free himself from the doubts and agonies of his adolescence’ and mature into a figurehead of Victorian normality.

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