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.

Ralph Rader’s Maud: The Biographical Genesis (1963) began by acknowledging the ‘curiosity aroused in me by Tennyson’s Maud and Locksley Hall, ostensibly dramatic poems which were strangely flawed, I always felt, by some hidden emotional connection with the poet’s own life. What was it?’ It was, Rader discovered, the steamy psycho-sexual drama of Tennyson’s premarital affair with Rosa Baring. This brought to crisis point his ‘refusal to accept the animal basis of life’ and ‘created in him deeply repressed psychic conflicts’. De-repression over the years produced his late-conceived poetic masterpieces. Rader’s book introduced fragments of genuinely new material while arguing for a volcanic adult sexuality in Tennyson who was, like Blake or Ginsberg, a poet for the wild Sixties.

A provocative spin was given to the debate by Robert Bernard Martin in his Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (1980). Martin traced the Tennysonian gloom back to the fear of stigmatising illness. Young Alfred’s formative years, according to this biography, were haunted by ‘the dark counterpoint of constant, brooding concern about one disease: epilepsy’. This fear persisted through his early manhood. Finally, after a long series of hydropathic sessions, Tennyson was reassured in 1848, at the age of 40, that there was after all no epileptic taint. The way was open to marriage (postponed for over a decade) and the sedate laureate years.

Martin’s key to the origins of Tennysonian gloom has found favour in the age of Aids. The ‘fear of epilepsy’ thesis is prominent in the Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985) entry on the poet. The objection, which a number of reviewers made, is that there is no evidence of a kind that would convince even the least sceptical judge – medical or literary-critical – that Tennyson was actually epileptic. Martin’s aggressively conjectural mode of argument is evident from the following passage:

Any detailed records of Tennyson’s health between 1839 and 1850 have disappeared, so that we can only speculate about what ailed him so badly during those years ... His recurrent breakdowns were connected with the inherent melancholia and neuroticism of his family, the Tennysonian ‘black blood’, but beyond that it seems clear that his worries sprang from the epilepsy from which his father, his Uncle Charles, and his cousin George all suffered, and to which two or more of his brothers may have been prey.

If the records have disappeared, nothing can be medically ‘clear’. And the ‘may have been prey’ is a typically feeble clincher. Martin would have us believe that when Tennyson conferred with his physician over gout (the poet was a port drinker on a heroic scale) it was code for epilepsy. As the absence of medical evidence makes the medical history clear, so the fact that the word ‘epilepsy’ was never mentioned indicates just how frightened and obsessed the poet must have been by the disease. There is, of course, a simpler explanation.

Martin’s case rests essentially on two ambiguous passages in the Memoir and on a much-quoted letter of 1874. Hallam Tennyson tells us that during Alfred’s infancy ‘three times after convulsions he was thought to be dead.’ But Hallam surely did not think these were fits, evidence of some stigmatic condition that he himself might have inherited. In the letter (his letters are not usually informative) Tennyson records that, as a boy, he induced in himself trance-like states by silently repeating his name over and over. But many poetically inclined youths do this to themselves (Wordsworth, for instance). Unpoetic youths do it with lager. It seems highly unlikely that what Tennyson describes (to a complete stranger, without any vestige of reticence or shame) was the petit mal, dread of whose grand sequel blighted his life.

Michael Thorn opens with a deferential salutation to ‘Professor Martin’s magisterial biography’. This is, however, decoy fire. What follows is a prolonged undermining of The Unquiet Heart (often without naming the author or his book). Thorn has many bones to pick with his predecessor, among which the epilepsy thesis is the largest. Thorn pooh-poohs the idea that the adolescent trances were in any way epileptic. He plausibly suggests that Alfred’s father and Uncle Charles were drunks rather than epileptics. There is more than one kind of falling-down sickness. Thorn deduces some very persuasive counter-evidence from Tennyson’s mid-life devotion to hydropathy – more particularly, the Priessnitz system. This system, as Thorn triumphantly points out, ‘refused to treat epileptics’. Sometimes, one has to conclude, gout is gout.

Having demolished the biographical opposition, Thorn goes on to offer his own, equally speculative keys to the Tennysonian secret. The first, with which he flirts rather half-heartedly, is the poet’s hitherto undetected incestuous fixation on his sister Emily, Arthur Hallam’s luckless betrothed: Emily is attracting a lot of interest recently; she is the central character in A.S. Byatt’s novella ‘The Conjugial Angel’. Thorn supports his incest discovery by extended analysis of the otherwise uninteresting ‘Lover’s Tale’. Thorn also suggests, without absolutely insisting on the point, that Alfred was a compulsive masturbator: hence the chronic fear of blindness, the spectacularly untidy dress and listlessness. It is important for Thorn that these symptoms – confirmed by witnesses and evident in sketches and photographs – originated in sexual hyper-activity. Martin’s Tennyson is, by contrast, asexual verging on eunuch – too feeble even for self-abuse. Martin specifically refuted Rader’s libidinous poet, wrestling with overpowering lust for Rosa Baring:

The depth of Tennyson’s sensual feelings for Rosa may have been as exaggerated in the telling as his sense of rejection by her. Surely no one who knows his poetry ever thought of it as unduly carnal or fleshly, and there is little reason to think that he was in immediate danger from that part of his nature. There is not the slightest evidence that he ever had any sexual experience with another person until his marriage at the age of 41.

As to that long-postponed union,

it was almost certainly not a passionate marriage. His choice of an invalid wife approaching middle age was no indication of overwhelming sexuality ... Certainly, within a short time after their marriage they habitually went to bed at different hours, and during much of their life together they occupied separate bedrooms. None of it conclusive evidence, but it does not suggest deep passion.

Michael Thorn denies that Tennyson was the ‘sexless being’ Martin portrays. There is, of course, no specific record of sexual activity because Hallam destroyed it, together with all other sensitive biographical remains (for Thorn, like Martin, the absence of evidence is the strongest evidence of all). There are, however, enough recorded trips to the Continent to suggest (to Thorn’s mind, at least) that Alfred did what other young Victorian males did when off the leash in Paris. Would an asexual Tennyson have made such close friends at Cambridge with Monckton Milnes (the avid connoisseur of pornography) or Thackeray (who probably contracted his lifelong venereal affliction at university)?

Thorn would also have us believe that Tennyson had livelier relations with his wife than Martin allows. He makes great play with a record, in Emily’s journal, of Alfred’s gallantly picking a rose for her one balmy June evening. Surely that night they did not retire to separate bedrooms? More daringly, and wholly unconvincingly, Thorn hazards that Tennyson may have had an extramarital affair with the legendarily unaphrodisiac photographer, Julia Cameron. His evidence for this, incredibly, is ‘vulgar speculation’ that he has chanced to pick up still circulating in pubs on the Isle of Wight. ‘Such gossip,’ he tells us, ‘because of its vulgarity, can be too easily swept aside.’ And, he adds, Julia’s ugliness was ‘perhaps unimportant for the myopic Tennyson’. What Poet Laureate, as his vulgar pub informants might ask, looks at the mantlepiece when he’s poking the fire?

Thorn’s other main speculative disagreement with Martin is on the question of Tennyson’s opium habit. Martin is adamant that this ‘libel’ is wholly unfounded. ‘The “canard” still surfaces occasionally,’ he dismissively adds, ‘but there is absolutely no evidence for it.’ That objection never put off a Tennyson biographer with a bee in his bonnet. Thorn has a lot of time for ‘the so-called “canard” about opium’. ‘It would be extraordinary if Tennyson never used opium,’ he maintains, ‘and there is good reason to suppose that, at certain periods of his life, he did resort to it.’ His clinching evidence is the assertion by F.D. Maurice that the ‘charge about opium’ was false: ‘I know no reason to think there was any foundation for it in past years ... I feel as convinced as I can be that he is entirely free from the sin now.’ Thorn finds this statement to be ‘ultimately equivocal about the past and present’ and its lack of ‘robustness’ is taken to be a clear indication that the poet was in fact using opium. Denial is confirmation; such is the logic of Tennyson biography.

Thorn presents his book as plain man’s biography ‘intended for the general reader and library user’. There is no bibliography and very few notes. Thorn affects a kind of breeziness which general readers and library-users may find refreshing but which is guaranteed to infuriate academic specialists. ‘This is probably the first biography of Tennyson to refer to the television soap opera Neighbours,’ he informs us. I think he is right. Probably, too, he would admit that, while telling a good story, his biography offers little close reading of the poems. Peter Levi’s Tennyson is particularly strong in this department; ‘Poetry is what makes him mysterious,’ he tells us.

Levi’s long first section, ‘The Birth of the Poet’, is an illuminating investigation of Tennyson’s childhood reading, and its formative effect on his later art. The lifelong influence of early exposure to Thomson and Beattie is demonstrated (Levi has an expert ear for stylistic echo). Picking up a thread from the Memoir, Alfred’s early fascination with the Ovidian phrase desilientis aquae, Levi (in one of his many parts a Classical scholar) reconstructs the poet’s steeping in Latin poetry. This exercise is particularly instructive, as Levi politely points out, for modern readers wholly deprived of the Classics in their own education and only too willing to assume that the poets they admire were similarly deprived. In later sections of the biography there are illuminating discussions of Tennyson’s increasingly crotchety experiments in Classical metres: ‘he believed he knew the Classical length or sound value of every English word except possibly the word scissors.’

One of the engaging features of Levi’s Tennyson is the author’s sense of being old enough to have an almost personal connection with his subject: ‘Fifty years after the death of Lord Tennyson I was a child of nine: his death seemed long ago to me, but people of sixty or seventy had known him. Now the living tradition has died out, though not quite, since I got an unpublished limerick from Lord Briggs the other day.’ While Thorn gets his vulgar tales from the boozer, Levi gets his Tennysonian gossip from the high table at Worcester (with consummate gentlemanliness, Levi does not impoverish Lord Briggs’s conversational repertoire by divulging the limerick). ‘Even in my lifetime,’ Levi recalls, ‘it was considered a boy’s duty to produce possible suitors for his sisters.’ It might be thought by spiteful commentators that Levi rather overdoes the Old Moore and uses it to evade the more tedious biographical chores. ‘I delayed starting this book,’ he tells us, ‘and had already reached that bad stage of research when one can no longer remember what one’s notes are about, and no longer find one bit of paper among the many, so that in this biography of Tennyson there are bound to be more errors of detail than has been usual with me.’ In fact one can work out (from the ‘fifty years’ reference) that Levi is a quite un-Tiresian sixtyish – still in the prime of life by Tennyson standards and by no means excused the duty of getting his facts straight (not, I should add, that I have been able to catch him out).

Levi offers us the most cheerful Tennyson since the Memoir. What gloom there is he puts down to too much port and shag (the tobacco, that is), overwork and financial worry. There is no mention of opium. Epilepsy, or traumatic fear of the condition, Levi finds ‘extremely unlikely or impossible for medical reasons’. He is not even much persuaded by the ‘black-bloodedness’ argument: ‘Alfred grew up rather normally,’ he maintains. The Rosa Baring business is a ‘fantastic theory ... no evidence exists to support it: it is a conjecture based on other conjectures, and that is all.’ Where others have seen mystery Levi sees merely cobwebs to be swept away: ‘Alfred himself is not hard to read,’ he declares, ‘it is not his inner or his private life but only his public and ceremonial role that rings hollow.’ In later years, Levi concedes, Lord Tennyson was ridden with gloom, but on one score only – ‘He felt he would be ripped open like a pig by biographers.’ No such ripping here.