Emily Sarah Sellwood Tennyson, Lady Tennyson (9 July 1813 - 10 August 1896) By Kimberly Eve
“You ask me to tell you something of my life before marriage. It would be hard indeed not to do anything you ask of me if within my power. To say the truth this particular thing you want is somewhat painful” Emily Tennyson, a note from her journals, written in 1869
Emily Sarah Sellwood was born on 9 July 1813 in a house in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England where her father worked as an attorney. Being baptized the day she was born, some would say, left her with a fragility that plagued her tiny frame most of her adult life. She grew up in a Christian household and she was described as having a calmness to her that was more than mere passivity. A trait that would serve her well later in life as a wife to the pre-eminent British Poet Laureate!
Emily Sellwood’s childhood home, Horncastle
Emily Sellwood’s earliest memory of her father, Henry Sellwood, was of him looking at her ‘with sad eyes’ after her mother’s death on 30 September 1816. Emily Sellwood was three years old. He carried Emily in his arms to the funeral in the church across the lane, around the corner from their home. She asked what they were doing ‘and in all this had no idea of death’, though she had been held up to see her mother in her coffin, ‘crowned with roses’ and beautiful. They were the last roses of summer. All through her life Emily would have a particular sympathy with the motherless, knowing what it meant.
All of Emily’s earliest memories were painful. She was in the home where she had been born and spent a lot of time looking out of the window. She remembered her mother ‘passing the window in a crimson velvet pelisse’ and then they were together in the house, and her mother was lying on a sofa, with a white shawl around her. Apparently, lying on sofas was something that women did. Four months later, after this early memory of Emily’s, her mother died of typhus fever at age twenty eight.
During this time, Emily’s grandparents owned a house named Pibworth located on over six hundred acres of woods and farmland near the village of Aldworth in Berkshire. In Emily’s recollections printed in a 1911 volume of Tennyson and his Friends she says,
‘I remember that in Berkshire we often used to wander up to a tower among our woods, where a gaunt old lady lived called Black Jane, who told our fortunes. We had our private theatricals too, like other children. Our dramatic performances were frequent and our plays inexhaustible for we drew on Miss Edgeworth’s tales. I was always fond of music and used to sing duets with my soldier-cousin Richard Sellwood”.
Earliest Portrait of Alfred Tennyson by Samuel Laurence
In 1822 a nine year old Emily Sellwood ran to her window at the sound of a carriage drawing up to the door of the house. Upon looking out, she saw a thirteen year old boy waiting for his father while speaking to hers. The boy was Alfred Tennyson. She remembered him clearly. ‘The house had no front garden, just an area and railings. He was pale in those days but with the same very refined features. Features that were full of strength and spirituality and tenderness. A remarkable boy’ she said.
Although the Sellwood Family and the Tennyson Family grew up in nearby villages, Emily and Alfred led very different lives and rarely saw each other until meeting again in 1836. They maintained a friendship until they were married on 13 June 1850 and were only separated when Alfred traveled on literary business. Emily kept house and managed his writing tasks becoming a secretary for him; she wrote and set music to his poems, together they both wrote and answered his mail and correspondence. Theirs was a true marriage in every sense of the word. Together they shared a lifetime of joys, sorrows, illness, births, deaths, highs and lows. They both were involved in the raising of their sons Hallam and Lionel which was unheard of during The Victorian Era.
On 25 November 1853 The Tennyson’s moved into Farringford, their home on The Isle of Wight. Emily remembers, ‘Alfred will be reading to her and then be drawn down to the bay by the loud voice of the sea. She would enjoy what she could see with her own eyes and so many other things with his, when he comes back from his walk’.
Farringford on The Isle of Wight
Emily gave birth to second son Lionel Tennyson on 16 March 1854 at around nine o’clock. Tennyson was observing the night sky, ‘Mars was culminating in the Lion,’ he wrote in one of the birth announcement letters. Emily wrote in her diary: ‘This afterwards determined us to give our baby the name of Lionel. The child was a strong and stout young fellow, another fine lusty boy’.
Two days later in a letter to Mrs. Cameron, Tennyson described oldest son Hallam’s first encounters with his newborn brother, ‘He kissed him very reverently, then began to bleat in imitation of his cries; and once looking at him he began to weep, Heaven knows why: children are such mysterious things. I don’t think the younger one will turn out such a noble child as Hallam but who can tell’.
The Tennyson Family was now complete. They found their home and Tennyson revised an old poem, ‘The Miller’s Daughter’, rewriting the following lines:
The woven arms, seem but to be
Weak symbols of the settled bliss,
The comfort, I have found in thee:
But that God bless thee, dear – who wrought
Two spirits to one equal mind –
With blessings beyond hope or thought,
With blessings which no words can find.
A Portrait of Emily Tennyson by G.F. Watts, 1862
Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife by Ann Thwaite, Published by Faber and Faber Limited, Great Britain, 1996
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