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.

Ann Thwaite has in her own oblique way the novelist’s touch. Power schemes of this sort seldom come off, and this one had tragic consequences, bringing its own nemesis. Pure Compton-Burnett in fact. Lionel developed a fever – nothing to worry about, but it got worse. Abscesses on the liver, operations, much pain, heroically borne. Death finally, in the Red Sea on the voyage home. On his last morning Lionel began to sing ‘Our blest Redeemer ere he breathed his – last farewell’. Bending over him, Eleanor supplied the word he wanted – ‘tender’ – and he kept repeating it. No doubt he had always missed it in his wife, though never in his mother, but perhaps the married pair were not uneasy together at that moment? All this is known from the copious diary letters Victorians endlessly exchanged – almost the equivalent, again, of a private novel, and one in which one’s own side of the question could be suitably slanted, subtly and artlessly presented. For others on the ship had said, and presumably written too, that Eleanor had spent whole nights of the voyage dancing in the ballroom while her husband lay dying.

She was left with three sons, the youngest of whom seemed to have inherited the Tennysonian ‘black blood’ and was confined later in an asylum. Her stricken in-laws did their best for her – Emily was kinder than ever. But the still flirty girl managed to meet and to marry the adroit Augustine Birrell, later Secretary of State for Ireland and an indefatigable turner-out of occasional light essays –‘Birrelling’, it came to be called. Emily, as usual, loved and welcomed, but Alfred was deeply suspicious. ‘Why do you want to force an entry into my family?’ he asked his prospective son-in-law, saying aloud what he was thinking, as apparently he often did. Birrell remained unabashed, and was soon accepted with warmth. No doubt he became a good listener to recitations of Maud. Eleanor’s new marriage was a happy one and she had more children.

Hallam meanwhile, Lionel’s elder brother, was an even more extreme case of the home-loving child. And this is where the reader’s natural eagerness to sniff out and to detect a Compton-Burnett situation (or a Virginia Woolf one – see her skit ‘Freshwater’) begins to feel a decided bafflement. For Emily really does seem to have been the perfect mother as well as wife: friendly, accessible and confiding, treating her sons more as extra husbands, both to look after and to rely on, than as children who would have to separate themselves and go out into the world. Her power was great; but was it not also wholly benevolent? True, Lionel caused anxieties – there had been a mild homosexual scandal at Eton – but she was neither shocked nor too ‘sensible’, and they remained as intimate as ever. There seems to have been something benevolent even in the ailment, probably physical rather than psychosomatic, which caused Emily later on to take to her bed for much of the time, like Florence Nightingale, but in this case it was as if her two boys, as well as her husband, were tacitly but warmly invited to come to bed with her. Hallam became her helpmate and confidant to such an extent that he even returned from Cambridge for a term or two to devote himself to his parents’ welfare. Nobody thought it odd. And it was to him, not to his father, that Emily poured out her difficulties with Alfred’s younger brother Horatio, a man of naturally vile temper, who was living in one of their cottages near Freshwater, and berating the wonderful governess Emily had found for his children.

One of the results of Ann Thwaite’s detailed method is to reveal how well, none the less, they all seemed to get on together – the huge families, the intricately related clans – and how few skeletons there really were in the cupboards. It is we who like to put them there, in our more alienated age, out of a kind of resentment at the Victorians’ natural capacity for exuberant togetherness. What about Hallam’s eventual wife, Audrey Boyle? Well-known to them as she was, must she not have found it a strain to be swallowed whole by the Tennyson establishment, an extra daughter in the house, who happened to be married to the eldest son and heir? Not a bit: it seems to have come as quite a relief to her, although it took her some time to produce children of her own. She fitted as snugly in Emily’s bosom as did everyone else.

Of course Emily was resented by some. Edward FitzGerald, the poet of Omar Khayyam, clearly could not stand her, but he was probably jealous of her relation with her husband, and he was a little envious of Tennyson, too, shrewd critic as he was of any occasional hollowness in the ‘Tennysonian effect’. Edward Lear, on the other hand, adored her, and she loved him warmly in return and championed him against detractors. Virginia Woolf’s hostility to the Tennyson set-up was not just the automatic Bloomsbury malice and amusement at the patriarchs and matriarchs before them: she equated the poet with her own father, and saw Emily as the victim of marriage, like her own mother, who could be said to have died of it. But domestically speaking, Leslie Stephen was a snivelling and self-pitying bore and tyrant; and Ann Thwaite shows without trying, though with admirable clarity, that Tennyson was nothing of the kind. On the contrary, his wife’s goodness, it could be said, was only made possible by his own. They were soul-mates who knew exactly how to support and comfort one another. Anti-Victorian reaction preferred to use them as Aunt Sallies to prove the opposite: poets normally as perceptive as Wilfred Owen (‘Tennyson was a great child: so should I have been but for Beaumont-Hamel’) and Philip Larkin took for granted the legend of the pampered and querulous baby with the august title.

Even the title was not quite what it seemed, as Ann Thwaite’s close detective work is able to show. Tennyson did not want it, and there is no doubt that in his ‘dirty old monk’ persona he genuinely shrank away from the idea with horror. But both he and Emily saw how valuable it would be for Hallam, who showed no real sign of being able to hold down any job other than loving them, and looking after them. But after their death, Parliament and public works came to him with effortless ease in the wake of the peerage, and the glamour it then conferred. Both parents would have done anything for him, and accepting the title was, as it turned out, the best thing they could have done. It is odd to remember that their lifestyle when newly married had been almost a hippy one, though with all the Victorian advantages of class and some money. They had wandered about all over England, ostensibly looking for somewhere to live, but really, it seems, because they liked being wanderers together.

Emily and her sister Louisa, brought up in Lincolnshire and daughters of the local solicitor Henry Sellwood, had not only known the proliferating Tennyson family since childhood, but seem to have decided which one to bag, as it were, well in advance. Louisa plumped for Charles, Alfred’s immediate elder brother, a sweet man and himself no mean poet, who proposed to join the Church, like his clever, embittered, alcoholic father. He also had his father’s taste for opium, and being married to Louisa seems to have done the habit no good at all. She sounds as difficult to live with as Emily was easy; and it is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Alfred had got hold of the wrong sister. But like many poets he had a sleepwalker’s sureness in such matters, and he knew which one he wanted, although both he and Emily took a long time to make up their minds, no doubt partly because the example of Charles and Louisa before them was hardly a reassuring one. Emily had definite worries, too, about the black blood, and her own intended’s well-known fits of gloom and depression.

Did she affect or influence the great man’s poetry in any way? An interesting question. Poetically he was wholly Tennysonian before they married, carried on the crest of the wave by the enormous financial and critical success of In Memoriam. But it may be that her closeness, in every sense, enhanced the doubleness which is an invisible and often incongruous presence in later poems, as if a ‘correct’ persona were sometimes being needled into word magic by an incorrect and unregenerate one. This is perhaps a symptom of a more general and imponderable Victorian capability which we have lost, or consciously abandoned: the ability to be at once pious and anarchic, believing and non-believing, priggish and cynical. In Tennyson’s poetry it can take subtle and effective forms, as in the lines he wrote after Lionel’s death, in his old In Memoriam stanza.

Not there to bid my boy farewell,
When that within the coffin fell,
Fell – and flashed into the Red Sea,

Beneath a hard Arabian moon
And alien stars. To question, why
The sons before the fathers die,
Not mine! and I may meet him soon.

The contrast in tones could not be more effective, or seemingly inadvertent. Who but Tennyson would have found the word ‘hard’ for a tropical moon, and it is exactly the right word, expressing the whole horror, for him, of an unmeaning extinction. ‘That within the coffin’ is no longer ‘my boy’. Defamiliarisation is complete in the equally startling word ‘flashed’ – the moon’s glitter on a brass coffin inscription (the burial was at nine o’clock in the evening of the day Lionel died). But the sudden change of mind or heart is equally startling, and as abrupt as the exclamation mark. The voice heard in ‘and I may meet him soon’ is both touchingly and comically hopeful. There is nothing merely pious in the hope, and yet it seems utterly separated from the facts of the case, as starkly set out in the preceding lines.

One wonders what Emily thought of it. But she would have taken it to her heart anyway, as she did its author and his son. Hers was not a critical mind. The Tennysonian mode of inconsequentiality – an abrupt transition from doubt to faith or from realism to the poetical – was none the less something for which her influence and her presence may have become partly responsible. Unexpectedly, the later poetry is often more spontaneous, more capable of surprising the reader, than is Tennyson’s earlier verse. Edward FitzGerald had remarked to Frederick, Alfred’s long-lived, embittered and often critical eldest brother, that In Memoriam had struck him as something ‘evolved by a poetical machine of the highest order’. Gerard Manley Hopkins would say much the same thing in calling the Tennysonian language all too predictably ‘Parnassian’. But the married Tennyson, if one can agree that there is such a thing in his verse, is not Parnassian but surprisingly human. The late poem ‘Vastness’ displays that quality, and so does ‘June Bracken and Heather’, published after the poet’s death and dedicated to his wife.

I thought to myself I would offer this book to you,
This, and my love together.
To you that are seventy-seven,
With a faith as clear as the heights of the June-blue heaven,

And a fancy as summer-new
As the green of the bracken amid the gloom of the heather.