Our Boys

John Bayley

  • Emily Tennyson by Ann Thwaite
    Faber, 716 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 571 96554 7

Lionel Tennyson, the Poet Laureate’s second son, had what might be called an interesting marriage. Interesting from our point of view, however difficult from his own. Like everyone who married a Tennyson, Eleanor Locker had been in their circle since childhood. After her mother’s death her father married an American million-dollar heiress of unbending Quaker principles, and became Frederick Locker-Lampson, one of the arch little poets whose presence embarrasses the later pages of Q’s first attempt at an Oxford Book of English Verse. Eleanor sounds a jolly girl, unremittingly flirtatious before and after marriage, and a source of some anxiety to her august in-laws, and particularly to Emily, the Poet Laureate’s wife. Lively Lionel, who had romped with her since childhood, fell for the flirtiness as she grew up and wrote her a rather touching little poem.

Did you speak in love or earnest?
Did I feel a precious tear?
Was I dreaming? Did you like me?
Did you love me? Tell me, dear.

In his future father-in-law’s vein, but with a truer note of anxiety in it, for Lionel was in some respects a tragical figure, surfeited with parental love since the day he was born, and in consequence addictively and anxiously longing for more and more of it from everyone in the outside world. Eleanor’s charms did not have much to give, at least in comparison with those of his own mother, and he was always looking round elsewhere. In a letter to his little friend Margot Tennant, who would one day become Margot Asquith and an unconventional PM’s wife, he commented that it wasn’t so much that married people got tired of each other, ‘but often they become uneasy in each other’s presence’.

A wonderfully disturbing remark. It takes us straight out of Tennyson country into the land of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Or Elizabeth Bowen, or Elizabeth Taylor. Mutual marital embarrassment – how un-Victorian and un-Tennysonian – is one of the little things those novelists are so good at conveying. The most absorbing aspect of Ann Thwaite’s altogether fascinating study is not so much Emily Tennyson herself, effortlessly adoring and self-sacrificing wife of the great man, but the undercurrents and cross-currents revealed by the author’s use of minute factualities, and by the many relationships and side-stories she is so good at tracing. Her long books about those highly equivocal figures Edmund Gosse and A.A. Milne showed the unusual powers she possesses as a biographer. She eschews brilliance for the sake of the contingent but possibly significant detail: one would not wish any of her studies a word shorter.

Returning to Lionel for a moment, we find the poor boy languishing at the India Office on £245 p.a. Even the most famous married couple of their time had not been able to get him a better job. There was an allowance of course, probably from both sides. No one in this book is hard up, at a time when a little money went a long way; certainly not Tennyson himself, before or after marriage: his last inconsiderable collections of poetry for a while brought in more than twenty thousand a year. But though Emily could not get her darling son more suitable employment she did get Alfred to persuade the Viceroy to give Lionel and his wife a tour of India. It would remove them both for a time from temptation, give them new sights to see, perhaps make them more at ease with each other.

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