Ripping the pig

Robert Bernard Martin

  • The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson: Vol. 1 1821-1850 edited by Cecil Lang and Edgar Shannon
    Oxford, 366 pp, £17.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 19 812569 0
  • Tennyson: ‘In Memoriam’ edited by Susan Shatto and Marion Shaw
    Oxford, 397 pp, £25.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 19 812747 2

Two months after Tennyson’s death Burne-Jones was reluctantly following the instructions of the poet’s widow and son in repainting the portrait of Tennyson as a young man which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Emily Tennyson had never liked the picture, perhaps in part because she also disliked Edward FitzGerald, who had originally commissioned it from Samuel Laurence. Earlier she had asked Watts to repaint it, but he refused, and during her husband’s lifetime she had not succeeded in finding another painter whom she trusted to touch it, so that it had hung unchanged for a long time on the walls of Farringford. We no longer know how much Burne-Jones altered the original, but apparently he softened the truculence of the expression and certainly he toned down the colours to make them gentler and more harmonious, just as the Tennysons were hurriedly changing the facts of his life and muting the background of the official biography of the Poet Laureate.

The result of the joint labours of Hallam and Emily Tennyson was the Memoir of the poet which became an enduring model of the Late Victorian official Life and Letters, according to Richard Altick’s history of literary biography: ‘as a work of biographical art, it is as monstrous and marmoreal as a tomb in Westminster Abbey.’ And even blander than the repainted Laurence portrait. Although, inevitably, there is a good bit of factual information peering through the altered texts of the documents in the Memoir, Tennyson’s ‘vanity, his atrabiliousness, his shaggy Lincolnshire abruptness ... were so rubbed down as to turn a wonderfully distinctive personality into an oppressively conventional one.’ Biography is not, perhaps, a very suitable form of home industry.

The inevitable reaction against a famous writer at his death combined with the reception of the Memoir to turn the greatest poet of the Victorian age into something of a period joke. Under the guise of rehabilitation Harold Nicolson’s biography threw a few more spadesful of earth on his grave, taking it for granted that interest in him would probably never be revived. How wrong Nicolson was is indicated by the flood of criticism and biography during the succeeding half-century, even more by the publication within the past two or three months of four major sources for the rediscovery of the true Tennyson: the letters of Arthur Hallam, the journal of Emily Tennyson; best of all, a scholarly edition and text of In Memoriam and the first of three projected volumes of Tennyson’s correspondence. The editing of the letters is a handsome collaboration by two well-known Victorian specialists: Shannon has been a Tennyson scholar for more than thirty-five years, most of which have been spent on the initial stages of this edition, while Lang some years ago produced an exemplary edition of Swinburne’s letters.

Tennyson said he ‘would as soon kill a pig as write a letter’, but until his marriage, when he pushed off most of his correspondence into his wife’s hands (later into those of his elder son), he was forced into writing occasionally; even so, his friends’ letters are full of anguish or anger that he was neglecting them. Some of his carelessness about keeping up with others came from simple laziness, since he had a full share of the indolence that infected the entire Tennyson family, but he was also deliberately husbanding his creative energy for writing poetry (‘composing’ comes nearer the mark, since even after a poem had been completed in his head, he was as reluctant to put it down on paper as he was to write a letter).

The title of this edition is slightly misleading, for it actually contains letters and associative documents by, to or about Tennyson. The editors say that fewer than two hundred and fifty of all the letters, fragments and squibs in this volume are by Tennyson himself, and by my count there are 173 written by others. Much of this additional material, which is most plentiful in the early part of the volume, comes from the wonderful Tennyson d’Eyncourt papers in the Lincolnshire Archives. There are few other poets whose personalities seem so immediately derivative from their family backgrounds, and the added letters here round out the scanty list from Tennyson himself. Besides their interest as Tennysoniana, they have a vivid quality of their own, and one’s initial disappointment at not seeing Tennyson plain disappears in the pleasure of reading about his family and milieu. It is a book to which general readers should be attracted as well as specialists.

Tennyson’s letters were not always so scarce. After his death his son, in preparation for the Memoir, recovered most of his surviving letters to friends. These were added to the voluminous correspondence that Emily Tennyson had hoarded, making a total of about 40,000 letters. Francis Palgrave and Henry Sidgwick helped Hallam sort them, throwing away whatever seemed to them unimportant or, more seriously, too revealing about Tennyson’s background of family illness, insanity and drunkenness, or what might in other ways blemish the image Hallam intended to promulgate. Most of these lost letters would perhaps only have fleshed out the picture of Tennyson we already have, but the two groups of letters most to be regretted are all those written to Arthur Hallam, and those to Emily Tennyson written before their marriage, of which only a few scraps survive. Our idea of Tennyson might be quite different had these two groups not been destroyed. Almost certainly the letters to Hallam would have scotched the tired rumours of homosexuality that still surface from time to time, chiefly fostered by Nicolson’s sly innuendoes: in the absence of documentation, perhaps it is natural to suspect the worst. The letters to Emily would have straightened out for ever the question of which of them broke off their engagement about 1840 and for what reasons.

Shannon and Lang are generous to the memory of Hallam Tennyson, justly recognising that, for all his faults, we should probably have even fewer records of his father if he had not been so acquisitive and retentive about the letters. Most of the defects in his book stem from the same source as its strengths: blind worship of his father.

As readers, we are probably a good deal happier over the appearance of the present letters than Tennyson would have been. He once told Julia Cameron that ‘he believed that every crime and every vice in the world were connected with the passion for autographs and anecdotes and records, – that the desiring anecdotes and acquaintance with the lives of great men was treating them like pigs to be ripped open for the public; that he knew he himself should be ripped open like a pig; that he thanked God Almighty with his whole heart and soul that he knew nothing, and that the world knew nothing, of Shakespeare but his writings; and that he thanked God Almighty that he knew nothing of Jane Austen, and that there were no letters preserved either of Shakespeare’s or of Jane Austen’s, that they had not been ripped open like pigs.’ The reappearance of the porky metaphor may indicate a family habit of speech, since Edwin Tennyson d’Eyncourt wrote of his cousin: ‘What a hog that Alfred is, and what can you expect from a pig but a grunt.’

Tennyson was 12 when he wrote the first letter in this volume, which closes with his great year, 1850, when he married Emily Sellwood, published In Memoriam and took Wordsworth’s place as Poet Laureate. I have seen nearly all the letters in the original and have read most of the editors’ annotation (but not the introduction) in typescript; though I frequently disagree with them over the interpretation of a fact, their readings are impeccable and their opinions always carefully considered. The most appealing Tennyson letters are those written to his contemporaries when he was a young man, particularly those to Brookfield, James Spedding, FitzGerald and Monckton Milnes; many of the others serve primarily to keep the records of his movements straight. Even when one understands the editors’ goal of completeness, it is hard to swallow the publication of a note to Patmore of which the entire message reads: ‘Say, Friday.’ The letters are preceded by a long and well-organised introduction which contains a great deal of information necessary for understanding the background of the correspondence, although its style may be too jokey for many tastes.

Since it is perhaps insoluble, it may be unfair to complain that the problem of reproducing the text seems unsolved. Regularising makes easier reading, but literal reproduction preserves more of the flavour of the original, even if it risks pedantry. The editors’ approach has been to normalise the text; punctuation has been adjusted, abbreviations expanded, superior numbers and letters lowered. Their version of a single sentence in a letter from Tennyson’s young sister Cecilia runs: ‘The night before they went we had some wild fun. We sat up till one o’clock, Alfred amusing us all the time by taking different c[h]aracters. He made us laugh so much you should have heard him – would have amused you so.’ Certainly, it’s easy to read, but somewhere all the careless high spirits of the original have evaporated: ‘The night before they went we had some wild fun we sat up till one o’clock Alfred amusing us all the time by taking different caracters, he made us laugh so much you should have heard him would have amused you so.’ Consistency is probably too much prized in academic editions: it ought to be possible to vary editorial practice to fit individual letters, since the sense and spirit of the original are surely more important than the style adopted by editors.

One of the occupational hazards of working closely with manuscripts is the danger of assuming that only the written word has any validity in establishing the past, that it has no real existence unless it is mentioned in the documents at hand. The editors don’t always avoid conclusions that they would probably reject as nonsensical in others. For example, they write with italicised emphasis, ‘Of Tennyson’s sexual life we know nothing,’ which is nearly true if we keep our noses buried within the covers of this volume. But there are other kinds of evidence. We know that Emily and Alfred Tennyson had two sons and that a third was still-born. In the history of Tennyson’s sexuality, that fact surely merits at least three sentences, if not paragraphs. We know, too, that they did not marry until he was nearly 41 and Emily 37, that during most of the marriage they occupied separate bedrooms, that they habitually retired at different hours, and that she suffered from a severe back ailment that made normal physical movement impossible for her, so that she was confined to a couch for most of the second half of their marriage. The general lack of eroticism in his poetry is remarkable even for a Victorian writer; Tennyson himself said that he wanted never to write a word that an Eton schoolboy could not read aloud to his sister. A curious statement, but it is borne out by the reading of his works. All this is part of our knowledge of his sex life, even if it might not stand as evidence in a court of law. For more direct testimony, we have Tennyson’s own statement to Laura Gurney indicating that he had no sexual experience before his marriage. Does all this amount to ‘nothing’? On the contrary, it seems to me that we know more about his sexual life than about that of most of his contemporaries, even though it is mentioned only peripherally in the letters.

Through the latter part of this volume we sense the inexorable advance of fame as Tennyson responds to invitations from Samuel Rogers or brusquely replies to inquiries from publishers about his private life, becomes a minor social lion as well as the subject of London literary gossip, and by the end of the volume is worrying about the cost of court dress for being presented to the Queen as Poet Laureate. The majority of the letters and documents, however, help to fill in that prolonged and obscure young manhood that we must be aware of in order to understand the curt older man he was to become, for until he was nearly 40 he was uncertain of himself, worried about his health and his future, embarrassed by his own gaucherie, and constantly told by relatives and acquaintances that he ought to give up the profitless pursuit of poetry and take on a real job that would contribute to the advance of his century and his country. Perhaps most necessary in understanding Tennyson are the affectionate letters he wrote when he could bring himself to sit down with pen in hand, since they demonstrate the aspect of his personality that seldom shows up in his later correspondence, when he too often asked Emily to maintain touch with his friends and family, occasionally signing a letter that she had drafted, more frequently leaving it all to her.

A full edition of In Memoriam is also welcome. Since Tennyson spent most of the years between 1833 and 1850 in tinkering with the poem, and then kept on changing it after its first publication, until nearly forty years had elapsed, it is no wonder that the history of its composition and the ordering of the numerous manuscripts has been a muddle until the publication of this edition. The study of the manuscripts, the history of the growth of the poem and a fully annotated and collated text are all included in this long-needed book.