Where our great Victorian writers are concerned we live in an age of rolling biography and contradictory interpretation. I’ve read half a dozen lives of the poet since picking up, as a schoolboy, the Penguin paperback of Harold Nicolson’s Tennyson: Aspects of his Life, Character and Poetry, with its diagnosis of a crippling case of Victorian timidity: ‘Tennyson was afraid of death and sex and God.’ I got the point, and read In Memoriam with knowing condescension. Case settled.
But not for long. Since then there have been biographies which have focused, by way of explanation, on the ‘black blood’ running through the Tennyson family; the traumatic domestic regime imposed by the poet’s dipsomaniac clergyman father; morbid fear of epilepsy and/or venereal disease; addiction to opium and/or alcohol; psycho-sexual hysteria on being rejected by his true-love Rosa Baring; suppressed homosexuality; furtive homosexual practice; incestuous desire for his sister Emily; excessive masturbation. The list goes on, each producing a different Tennyson. It’s come to resemble something of a biographical freak show.
The wildly incompatible explanations of his life-long melancholy, intermittent decades-long paralyses and personal oddities would seem to bear out Tennyson’s defiant challenge to any would-be biographer:
Vex not thou the poet’s mind
For thou canst not fathom it
Privacy was his obsession. 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 principal requirement in any of the many houses he occupied was that they be impregnable to any droppers-by. Biographers he regarded as ‘ghouls’. Peter Levi, in his 1993 life of the poet, sees one overriding fear darkening Tennyson’s last decades: ‘He felt he would be ripped open like a pig by biographers.’
The poet’s son and grandson dutifully forestalled any such ripping with defensive biographies which erected more fences than they pulled down. Three-quarters of his 40,000 surviving letters were destroyed by the estate, loyal to his wishes. ‘Of Tennyson’s sexual life we know nothing,’ lament the editors of the three slim volumes that make up the collected Letters. One can only speculate about what went up in flames — and speculate the biographers certainly have.
The virtue of John Batchelor’s new life is its cool inspection of the known facts and its refusal to conjecture beyond them. He faithfully depicts the grotesque domestic world in which Alfred, one of a dozen children, was brought up, but sees him as a survivor, not a life-long casualty, of that Somersby madhouse. He was a confirmed hypochondriac, particularly in his addiction to hydrotherapy (essentially cold showers — that beloved Victorian remedy). But there was, as Batchelor presents it, no gross psychic disability, shameful disease or damaging dabbling with drink or drugs. It is difficult to make sense of his religious beliefs, and one should leave it at that.
On sex, Batchelor takes a similarly no-nonsense line. The ‘manly’ friendship with Arthur Hallam, which produced In Memoriam, was intense but in no way transgressive. The 41-year-old Tennyson who took the 37-year-old Emily Sellwood to the altar was probably not Galahad pure. But of his pre-marital sexual career we know nothing, and speculation is pointless and tasteless.
What Batchelor does is to staple the indisputable facts (patchy as they are) to a convincing thesis. Tennyson was extraordinarily precocious. Many of his best known lyrics (‘The Kraken’, ‘Mariana’, ‘The Lady of Shallot’) were composed in his teens and twenties. Historically this was the fag-end of the great Romantic era. There followed the long fallow period in his career — the lost decade. It was a period in the wilderness. Tennyson found himself ‘a romantic in an anti-romantic age’. In 1850, came the publication of In Memoriam, the appointment as poet laureate, and his marriage to the ever-patient Emily after the longest engagement in literary history.
This second Tennyson was ‘ruthlessly’ careerist. He became ‘a dramatic production of himself’ with the artfully composed ‘flowing hair, exuberant beard and moustache, myopic gaze, Spanish hat and cloak, magnificent speaking voice and distracted bardic manner’. It was an act. Beneath the costume and pose was the most ‘businesslike’ of authors. He worked his copyrights, cannily co-operating with his publisher in the production of runaway bestsellers, such as Enoch Arden, which outsold even the sensation novels whose narrative gimmicks it borrowed and versified. In these years Tennyson was, as Batchelor sees it, voraciously hungry ‘for money and status’. He rose to the top of the greasiest of literary poles to die a lord and one of the wealthier peers in the realm. Batchelor does not see this as ‘selling out’. It was, as the poet’s friend Darwin would have said, ‘adaptation’.
John Batchelor has written a biography which is commendably careful, highly readable and wholly sensible. It should stand, in years to come, as the most advisable entry point into this most inscrutable of poets.