Saturday, January 28, 2012

Julia Margaret Cameron: Victorian Pioneer: 1815-1879

Julia Margaret Cameron by her son Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, 1870

The portrait above is the last photograph taken by Cameron’ s son. It shows his mother aged fifty nine, a well established professional with grown children of her own, an English matron. She is swathed in Indian shawls, a substantial figure who fills the frame. Her hair is graying and uncurled. Her hands are capable and almost rough around the knuckles. Her expression is firm not cold but not warm and yielding either. The portrait emerges from a deep black background, without any details to reveal time or place except for the Indian shawls. This portrait reveals a woman who had stood her ground against the photographic establishment for the past ten years and garnered the celebrities of her age to sit still for her. Cameron had changed, of course, but so had the times.

 ‘Yes, the history of the human face is a book we don’t tire of, if we can get its grand truths, & learn them by heart. The life has so much to do with the individual character of each face influencing form as well as expression so much. It is so refreshing to meet one who has not had enthusiasm trodden out but in whose soul love, reverence, and trust survive the dust of this 19th Century life of hurry, worry, crush and crowd.’ (Unpublished letter from Cameron to Samuel G. Ward, June 16, 1869, Houghton Library, Harvard University)


Who would have ever guessed that the first known portrait of Julia Margaret Pattle would be a French Romantic painting? Jean Francois Garneray, a student of the neoclassicist Jacques Louis David painted it around 1818. The painting shows an elegant bourgeois family. The mother reclines graciously on a bench, while her four eldest girls lean against her. As the third eldest, Julia Margaret is probably the small child at the far left of the canvas, with her arms full of flowers. The females are all dressed alike, in Regency gowns with puffed sleeves and flounces around the hems. Flowers are everywhere: large bouquets frame the family group and blossoms seem to spill out onto the girls’ arms and laps. The composition centers on the female group of mother and daughters, emphasized by the pale masses of their dresses and the poses and flowers that unite them as they lean into each other. The father, on the other hand, stands behind the bench in dark clothes, facing in the opposite direction. Julia Margaret’s parents, Adeline de l’Etang and James Pattle, were born and married in the Indian colonies, though each of them was educated at least partly in Europe, as was the custom among colonial families. Together they founded a clan that would be determinedly English by the end of the century, and that would pride itself on its birthright of beauty and privilege. The beauty was already apparent in this early portrait. She was born on June 11, 1815 in Calcutta, then the capital of the British government in India. James was an eccentric Englishman and a high ranking employee of the British East India Company, a private, for profit institution that governed the British colony and dominated trade in India from the late seventeenth century until the mid 19th Century. Adeline was a beautiful daughter of French émigrés. She had been born and raised in the French colony of Pondicherry, south of Madras on the eastern coast of India.

 Adeline’s father and Julia Margaret’s grandfather, the Chevalier Antoine de l’Etang, came from a long established noble family. At age thirteen he had been made a page to the young Marie Antoinette at the court of Versailles and later a member of King Louis XVI’s Carde du Corps. He was suddenly exiled from Versailles to serve in a cavalry regiment in Pondicherry some time in the 1780s. In 1788 the Chevalier married Therese Joseph Blin de Grincourt and Therese became Julia Margaret’s grandmother. The Chevalier spent his long career in India in the service of the British East India Company. There in Calcutta they raised three daughters who all went on to marry Englishmen. Within two generations the family was “English”, more importantly, part of an elite class of British civil servants who lived like aristocrats in a colonized land. Julia Margaret seems to have always considered herself English, but she probably did not set foot in England until she was a young woman. She grew up speaking English, French, and Hindi, which was used to talk to servants even in the Bengali region of India. She later learned German well enough to publish translations from that language.

 Between 1812 and 1829, Julia Margaret’s mother Adeline bore ten children of whom seven girls survived to adulthood. Having a large family coincided with Adeline Pattle’s trips to and from Europe to visit her husband who was always travelling when work took him away.

 The Pattle girls had an unconventional upbringing, even by colonial standards. It was the custom of British families in India to send their children back to the mother country for their early life and education. The climate of India was thought to be unhealthy for small children, and it was considered a parent’s clear duty to send them away. So it was not surprising when the time came for the Pattles to send their daughters abroad for their educations to France instead of England. So off they went to their grandmother’s home located at 1 Place St. Louis in Versailles between the ages of three and six. There they were educated to be a young lady by their grandmother, Therese de l’Etang whose husband the Chevalier was away in India until his death in 1840. The Pattle children became accustomed to their mother, Adeline Pattle ferrying her daughters back and forth between their two homes in Paris, Versailles, and Calcutta during the 1810s and 1820s. The fact that these separations were standard colonial practice did not make them any easier to withstand. Later, when Julia Margaret became Julia Margaret Cameron, a colonial matron herself, she too sent her children to England for their health and education.

 Photographs are famously useful for transcending distances between people and alleviating the strains of separation. Photographs make the absent present, and that may have held a powerful psychic appeal for Julia Margaret. She first took up photography as her children left home, and she eventually left England, and her photographic career, to be reunited with her family in Ceylon. She gave important photographic albums of her work and other family portraits to her sisters Maria and Virginia. Julia Margaret’s life was defined by great distances and separations from loved ones. Her upbringing in France may have brought her close to her grandmother and sisters, but it created a distance from her father and mother, her aunts and her uncles. That distance mattered: Julia Margaret was arguably never as close to anyone as she was to the sisters with whom she spent most of her childhood. And she spent the rest of her life trying to manage the separations that inevitably occurred between herself and her husband, her sisters, her closest friends, and her children.

 For instance, Cameron’s later photographs of children also emphasize an infantile unity between pairs. In photographs like The Double Star, Cameron places two children in very close proximity and fills the large glass plate with their almost interlocking heads.


The filmy cloud around them frames them in a halo or an amniotic web that insists they are both single and double. Surprisingly, Cameron’s Madonna and Child series of photographs seem less enchanted with the transcendent bond between mother and child than found in this sample photograph:


The sibling bond between young children may surpass even maternal or divine love in Cameron’s symbolism. Portraits of mothers and children seem framed by the pain of an inevitable separation to come; portraits of siblings seem to hold no threat of any parting. This would be in keeping with the emotional realities of Julia Margaret’s early life.

 Emily Tennyson said of her dear friend Julia Margaret Cameron, We are not likely to find one to take her place so loving and strong in her woman’s way and so child-like in her faith’.

SOURCE From Life Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography by Victoria C. Olsen, 2003, Palgrave Macmillan Publishing

 Please feel free to leave any questions or comments,

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Ode to a Fellow New Yorker: Edith Wharton January 24, 1862 - August 11, 1937

Edith Wharton at her writing desk in New York City in the 1930s

January is my birthday month that I share with my mother and grandfather. I am a native New Yorker who understands the ‘attitude’ of a New Yorker. Some would say, ‘brash, harsh or unfriendly’. This is not the case at all. You see New Yorkers are city folk who are always in a hurry trying to get to work, out with friends, dates, and back home again. We live in a thriving and overpopulated city where there is beauty and peacefulness it just depends on where you look! So, I strongly identify with female writers who happen to be New Yorkers with attitude or directness in writing. For instance, Dorothy Parker (who was born in my neighborhood) and Edith Wharton of course!

I have read two biographies on Edith Wharton where there are some similarities: she was an only child born to elderly parents who went to church on Sunday and when her family townhouse became too overcrowded with guests, she would escape to her upstairs bedroom where she was ‘compelled’ to write stories that were inside her and just had to come out; luckily for her readers! A fellow aquarian who was very close to her father and grandfather.  So, this is dedicated to my grandfather who gave me my love for history, who took me to all the best museums in New York City including some favorite haunts such as: an eight year old me holding my grandpa’s hand as we stand in the library room at The Morgan Library (maybe he knew something I didn’t), The Birthplace Museum of Theodore Roosevelt (a ten year old me asking a guard if the house was haunted and smiling at the discovery of the teddy bear being named after Teddy Roosevelt) and Fraunces Tavern Museum (a shared admiration for George Washington).  Happy Birthday Pop I hope you are looking down and smiling as you read this…

So this will not be a biographical overview of a female author born in the nineteenth century who was the first woman to receive The Pulitzer Prize. This article will be the highlights and memories of a little girl named Edith Jones who grew up in Manhattan who happened to write one of my most favored stories about a central character named Lily Bart whom I can identify with in ‘The House of Mirth’.

For a little girl named Edith Jones, one family member who stood out was her grandfather, Frederick William Rhinelander, because he loved to read. When he died in 1836 at the age of forty, however, his fortune was well depleted and Edith’s mother, Lucretia, and her brothers and sisters grew up in a kind of genteel poverty at the family place near Hell Gate on the East River. When Lucretia married George Frederic Jones, her fortunes improved:  He graduated from Columbia University yet never felt the need to work. His daughter, Edith, later suggested that her mother’s extravagance and her father’s fixed income led to difficult periods.

Edith Jones grew up in a Manhattan neighborhood near Washington Square at Eighth Street, Gramercy Park in the East Twenties, and Madison Square Park at Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue (the building still survives and is now a Starbucks…seriously!).  When Edith was born in 1862 in the house at 14 West twenty-third street, her brother Freddy was sixteen and Harry was eleven. During her childhood, they were often away at school; she was raised as an only child of elderly parents, with a large, socially prominent collection of cousins, aunts and uncles.

 childhood home of Edith Wharton, 14 W. 23rd Street, NYC

Their house was a four and a half story brownstone in the Italianate style. It had a low stoop of four steps that led up to double doors crowned by a massive pediment. Beyond the vestibule, which was probably “painted in Pompeian red, and frescoed with a frieze of stenciled lotus leaves”, were her father’s library, the conservatory, and the billiard room.

Upstairs on the second floor were the dining room and the drawing room, “a full blown specimen of Second Empire decoration, the creation of the fashionable French upholsterer, Marcotte.”  The floor length arched windows were “hung with three layers of curtain: sash curtains through which no eye from the street could possibly penetrate and next to these draperies of lace or embroidered tulle, richly beruffled and looped back under the velvet or damask hangings which were drawn in the evening.” In the drawing room were huge pieces of Dutch marquetry furniture and a table of “Louis Philippe buhl with ornate brass hands at the angles.” The table held a Mary Magdelene “minutely reproduced on copper,” and in the dining room a Domenichino “darkened the walls.”

Edith’s room was on the upper floor: there she could amuse herself by scribbling her stories and poems on the brown wrapping paper she had saved. She also stared out her window at the goings on at the Fifth Avenue Hotel (no longer there) across the street.

During the years Edith lived in New York with her parents, from 1872 to 1880, this enormous hotel was the center of the city’s social, business, and political life.  Visiting dignitaries stayed there: the Prince of Wales in 1860 and later Prince Napoleon.  Years later, Wharton’s short novel, ‘New Year’s Day’ opens with a couple being discovered in their affair as they escape the Fifth Avenue Hotel when a fire starts there. They are observed by “proper” New Yorkers, who, gathered for a family New Year’s party, watch the fire from the windows of a house on Twenty Third Street.

Edith’s memories of her mother Lucretia are of constant competition and power struggles. Unable to share the child’s “secret life of the imagination,” Lucretia was the insensitive enemy of the reading and solitude that nourished it. Mother and daughter struggled over trying to make Edith “like other children”.  Lucretia would invite them over to play, only to have Edith disappear because she wanted to be alone to “make up” stories:

“I used to struggle on as long as I could against my perilous obsession, and then, when the ‘pull’ became too strong, I would politely ask my unsuspecting companions to excuse me.”

Leaving her mother to cope with the “nice little girls,” Edith would rush to shut herself up in her mother’s bedroom, where she:

“poured out the accumulated floods of my pent-up eloquence. Oh, the exquisite relief of those moments of escape…the rapture of finding myself again in my own rich world of dreams!”

One could imagine the scoldings she received for such bad manners.

Edith and her father, George Frederick Jones, were very close. He lived through his eyes as his daughter later would. From an early age he took her to visit art galleries, walk in the gardens, and tour palaces and classical ruins. In his diary he notes during an 1848 trip that Pompeii was the most interesting place in Europe. He visited the Colosseum in the moonlight (as have I) and he traveled with the words of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold in his mind. He loved the things his daughter would later care for.

Edith’s last trip she made with her father was an important memory because he died in Cannes in the early spring of 1882 after being stricken by paralysis. Years later, she wrote,

“I am still haunted by the look in his dear blue eyes, which had followed me so tenderly for nineteen years, and now tried to convey the goodbye messages he could not speak.”

His not being able to say goodbye prompted her to write:

“I doubt if life holds a subtler anguish.”

With her father’s death, Edith lost the companion who had taught her to read, who had taken her to church, the theater, and had been with her in all the important places. She remembered all her life,

“the tall splendid father who was always so kind, and whose strong arms lifted one so high, and held one so safely.”
 me and my pop

SOURCE
Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life, An Illustrated Biography by Eleanor Dwight, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1994

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments,





Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Happy Birthday Anne Bronte 17 January 1820 – 28 May 1849

A sketch of Anne Bronte by her sister Charlotte Bronte, 1845



Anne Bronte was born the youngest member of the Bronte family on 17 January 1820 in Yorkshire, England in the village of Thornton, Bradford. Her father was the parish priest there. Though, in April 1820, the Bronte family moved seven miles away to a remote small town of Haworth. It was in the Haworth Parsonage where the Bronte family remained for the rest of their lives. It was Anne, Charlotte and Emily who would later make their parsonage infamous amongst generations throughout the world.

Anne was barely a year old when her mother, Maria Branwell, contracted what is now known as uterine cancer. She died 21 months later on 15 September 1821. When their father Patrick’s marriage attempt was unsuccessful, Maria’s sister, Elizabeth Branwell moved into the parsonage where she spent the rest of her life raising the Bronte children. Anne Bronte was educated at home where she studied mainly music and drawing. However, it would be the moors of Haworth that would be the inspiration for the Bronte children.

Between 1838/9 Anne Bronte was eighteen and nineteen years old. Teaching or being a governess in a private family were the few options available to educated women. So, in April 1839 governess Anne Bronte went to live with the Ingham family at Blake Hall near Mirfield. Apparently, the Ingham children disobeyed and tormented their governess. Anne had great difficulty attempting to keep them in line and trying to teach them their lessons. The Ingham’s criticized Anne for not disciplining them enough. Dissatisfied with her performance they let her go. When Anne returned home to Haworth she wrote Agnes Grey and the events at Blake Hall were written in perfect detail!

Anne Bronte continued working as a teacher and governess during this time through 1848. Her novel Agnes Grey was published in December 1847 and one year later her second novel, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ was published. It was sold out within six weeks and became a phenomenal success.

‘The Tenant of Wildefell Hall’ challenged existing social and legal structures. Anne’s heroine eventually leaves her husband to protect their young son. She supports herself and her son by painting, while living in hiding, fearful of discovery. This violates not only social conventions but also English law. A married woman in Victorian England had no independent legal existence separate from her husband. She could not own property, sue for divorce or maintain custody of her children. If she tried any of these things, her husband had the right to reclaim her. Even if she was able to live off her own earnings, she could be accused of stealing her husband’s property, since any income she made was legally his.

‘The Tenant of Wildefell Hall’ is perhaps the most shocking of the Brontes’ novels. Anne Bronte’s depiction of alcoholism and debauchery was disturbing to the social mores of nineteenth century readers and Victorian England. Heaven forbid a female writer dares to present the truth in literature!

In the second edition of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, which appeared in August 1848, Anne clearly stated her intentions in writing it. Saying to critics who considered her portrayal of Huntingdon overly graphic and disturbing:

When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts–this whispering 'Peace, peace', when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.


Anne also criticized reviewers who speculated on the sex of the authors, and the appropriateness of their writing to their sex, in words that do little to reinforce the stereotype of Anne as being meek and gentle.

I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.


Anne Bronte lost two siblings, her brother Branwell and her sister Emily, in 1848. The Bronte siblings were in their twenties during this time. Greatly affected by their deaths’ and her grief Anne’s health quickly deteriorated. She caught influenza. In January 1849 she was diagnosed with consumption but wrote one final poem about the realization of being terminally ill. She wrote, ‘A dreadful darkness closes in’.

On Sunday, 27 May 1849, Anne asked Charlotte whether it would be easier for her if she return home to die instead of remaining at Scarborough. A doctor, consulted the next day, indicated that death was already close. Anne received the news quietly. She expressed her love and concern for Ellen and Charlotte, and seeing Charlotte's distress, whispered to her to "take courage". Conscious and calm, Anne died at about two o'clock in the afternoon, Monday, 28 May 1849. Anne Bronte was twenty nine years old.

Over the following few days, Charlotte made the decision to "lay the flower where it had fallen". Anne was buried not in Haworth with the rest of her family, but in Scarborough.

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments,

Friday, January 13, 2012

Celebrating the Coronation of Elizabeth Tudor on 15 January 1559


“My lords, the law of nature moves me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet, considering I am God's creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all ... to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel” Elizabeth Tudors words upon the accession to the throne, November 1558


January 15th 2012 marks the 453rd year of The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth I to the throne. To mark this occasion and those leading up to the day; I would like to take you back in time as it was written back in 1899 by Jacob Abbott in one of the earliest biographies of Elizabeth Tudor, ‘History of Queen Elizabeth’. An old hardcover book beautifully engraved which I found and bought in a second hand shop for five dollars!

The end of 1558 is drawing to a close, Princess Elizabeth’s half sister Queen Mary I of England has just passed away, an announcement by Parliament is made, Princess Elizabeth is located at Hatfield and told of the news that by the grace of God she is now Queen of England. Kneeling down, she exclaimed in Latin, “It is the Lord’s doing and it is wonderful in our eyes.”

The queen summoned her privy council to attend her, and in their presence appointed her chief secretary of state Sir William Cecil. He was a man of great learning and ability, and he remained in office under Elizabeth for forty years. He became her chief adviser and instrument, an able, faithful, and indefatigable servant and friend during almost the whole of her reign. He was at this time about forty years of age, Elizabeth was twenty five. She pronounced, in the hearing of the other members of council, the following charge:

“I give you this charge that you shall be of my privy council, and content yourself to take pains for me and my realm. This judgment I have of you, that you will not be corrupted with any gift; and that you will be faithful to the state; and that, without respect of my private will, you will give me that counsel that you think best; and that, if you shall know any thing necessary to be declared to me of secrecy you shall show it to myself only; and assure yourself I will not fail to keep taciturnity therein. And therefore herewith I charge you.”

Arrangements were completed for Elizabeth’s journey to London, to take possession of the castles and palaces which pertain there to the English sovereigns. She was followed on this journey by a train of about a thousand attendants, all nobles or personages of high rank, both gentlemen and ladies. She went first to a palace called the Charter House, near London, where she stopped until preparations could be made for her formal and public entrance into the Tower; not, as before, through the Traitors’ Gate, a prisoner, but openly, through the grand entrance, in the midst of acclamations as the proud and applauded sovereign of the mighty realm whose capital the ancient fortress was stationed to defend. The streets through which the gorgeous procession was to pass were spread with fine, smooth gravel; bands of musicians were stationed at intervals, and decorated arches, and banners, and flags, with countless devices of loyalty and welcome, and waving handkerchiefs, greeted her all the way. Heralds and other great officers, magnificently dressed and mounted on horses richly caparisoned, rode before her, announcing her approach, with trumpets and proclamations; while she followed in the train, mounted upon a beautiful horse, the object of universal homage. Thus Elizabeth entered the Tower; and inasmuch as forgetting her friends is a fault with which she can not justly be charged, we may hope, at least, that one of the first acts which she performed, after getting established in the royal apartments, was to send for and reward the kind hearted child who had been reprimanded for bringing her the flowers.

The coronation, when the time arrived for it, was very splendid. The queen went in state in a sumptuous chariot, preceded by trumpeters and heralds in armor, and accompanied by a long train of noblemen, barons, and gentlemen, and also of ladies, all most richly dressed in crimson velvet, the trappings of the horses being of the same material. The people of London thronged all the streets through which she was to pass, and made the air resound with shouts and acclamations. There were triumphal arches erected here and there on the way, with a great variety of odd and quaint devices, and a child stationed upon each, who explained the devices to Elizabeth as she passed, in English verse, written for the occasion. One of those pageants was entitled, “The Sea of Worthy Governance.” There was a throne, supported by figures which represented the cardinal virtues, such as Piety, Wisdom, Temperance, Industry, Truth, and beneath their feet were the opposite vices, Superstition, Ignorance, Intemperance, Idleness, and Falsehood: these the virtues were trampling upon. On the throne was a representation of Elizabeth. At one place were eight personages dressed to represent the eight beatitudes pronounced by our Savior in his Sermon on the Mount—the meek, the merciful, etc. Each of these qualities was ingeniously ascribed to Elizabeth.

In another place, an ancient figure, representing Time, came out of a cave which had been artificially constructed with great ingenuity, leading his daughter, whose name was Truth. Truth had an English Bible in her hands, which she presented to Elizabeth as she passed. This had a great deal of meaning; for the Catholic government of Mary had discouraged the circulation of the Scriptures in the vernacular tongue. When the procession arrived in the middle of the city, some officers of the city government approached the queen’s chariot, and delivered to her a present of a very large and heavy purse filled with gold. The queen had to employ both hands in lifting it in. It contained an amount equal in value to two or three thousand dollars.

The queen was very affable and gracious to all the people on the way. Poor women would come up to her carriage and offer her flowers, which she would very condescendingly accept. Several times she stopped her carriage when she saw that any one wished to speak with her or had something to offer. A branch of rosemary was given to the queen by a poor woman in Fleet Street; the queen put it up conspicuously in the carriage, where it remained all the way, watched by ten thousand eyes, till it got to Westminster.

The coronation took place at Westminster on the following day. The crown was placed upon the young maiden’s head in the midst of a great throng of ladies and gentlemen, who were all superbly dressed, as acclamations and shouts of “Long live the Queen!” could be heard.

During the ceremonies, Elizabeth placed a wedding ring upon her finger with great formality, to denote that she considered the occasion as the celebration of her espousal to the realm of England; she was that day a bride, and should never have, she said, any other husband.
She kept this, the only wedding ring she ever wore, upon her finger, without once removing it, for more than forty years.

SOURCE
Jacob Abbott, History of Queen Elizabeth. New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1899

Monday, January 2, 2012

Alfred Tennyson, The Lincolnshire Lad

                                    Portrait of Alfred Tennyson painted by George Frederic Watts

The lone gray fields at night: When from the dry, dark wold the summer airs blow cool
               On the oat-grass, and the sword-grass, and the bulrush in the pool


Alfred Tennyson was born on a summer’s day on the 6th of August in the year 1809. He was born in the home of his father’s rectory in the village of Somersby in Lincolnshire, England. Alfred Tennyson grew up surrounded by uplands, wolds and gray downs of chalk dotted by sheep. In 1898, the population of Somersby totaled forty people and the nearest train station was a good seven miles away. He would remain surrounded by downs for most his life living near the seaside where his soul was peaceful and his muses spoke to him best.

                                           Somersby Rectory the birthplace of Alfred Tennyson

Author, Edgar J. Cuthbert describes the rectory as being quaint and rambling with its medieval looking dining hall built by Dr. George Clayton Tennyson, Alfred’s father, with its long pointed stained glass windows suggestive more of a chapel than a modern dining room. The front of the house was separated from the road only by a narrow drive, but at the back the lawn sloped down to an old fashioned garden. Alfred Tennyson reminisced of his childhood home in his nature poem, ‘Ode to Memory’ printed in 1830, ‘The seven elms, the poplars four, That stand beside my father’s door’. Arthur Hallam stated in 1832, ‘Fifty years hence people will make pilgrimages to this spot’.

Dr. George Tennyson was a man of great physical strength and stature; accomplished in the fine arts especially music and language with a fine imagination. His parishioners nicknamed him ‘The Stern Doctor’ even though his temperament verged on melancholia and gloominess. Perhaps, that’s where his son Alfred got it from!

Alfred Tennyson’s mother, Elizabeth Fytch, was a reverend’s daughter who grew up in Louth. She was remembered by parishioners and family members as being sweet, gentle and kind hearted. Traits she most definitely passed down to her poet laureate son! At the time of her passing, Alfred was fifty six years old and said of his mother as he turned away from her grave, ‘She was the beautifullest thing that God Almighty ever made!’ An early poem ‘Isabel’ printed in 1830; Alfred Tennyson characterizes his mother in this way:

Eyes not down-dropt nor over-bright, but fed
With the clear-pointed flame of chastity,
Clear, without heat, undying, tended by
Pure vestal thoughts in the translucent fane
Of her still spirit; locks not wide-dispread,
Madonna-wise on either side her head;
Sweet lips whereon perpetually did reign
The summer calm of golden charity,
Were fixed shadows of thy fixed mood,
Revered Isabel, the crown and head,
The stately flower of female fortitude,
Of perfect wifehood and pure lowlihead.

When Mrs. Tennyson was almost eighty, one of her daughters, believing her mother to be too deaf to hear her remark, informed a small gathering of friends that twenty-four offers of marriage had been made to her mother. To the amusement of all present, Mrs. Tennyson at once corrected her, saying emphatically, ‘No, my dear; twenty-five!’

Alfred’s parents were married in 1805 and he was the fourth born to a family of twelve siblings; seven sons and five daughters. In fact, younger sister, Emilia Tennyson who married Alfred’s dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, joked once, ‘We Tennyson’s do not die!’ It was for Arthur Henry Hallam that Alfred wrote his epic tome, In Memoriam, upon his passing. A task that tore him up inside and almost split his soul apart if it weren’t for the love of his dear wife Emily Tennyson. It can be said that The Tennyson’s were a prolific clan; his two elder brothers Frederick and Charles also became poets.

Growing up in Somersby being cut off from the outer world and with few friends their own age, they created an ideal world of their own. A world where romance was king and the armored knights of old again went forth in search of daring deeds. A friend of The Tennyson’s, Mrs. Ritchie, recalls of the children, ‘They played great games, like Arthur’s knights: they were champions and warriors defending a stone-heap; or again, they would set up opposing camps with a king in the midst of each. The king was a willow-wand stuck into the ground, with an outer circle of immortals to defend him, of firmer, stiffer sticks. Then each party would come with stones hurling at each other’s king, and trying to overthrow him.’

In the Tennyson household however, it was books not athletics that became the favored amusements for the Tennyson children. Their strong imaginative powers that crept into their outdoor games found freer play during the winter afternoons and evenings, when the shrill winds were up and away, and the gusty poplars swayed and creaked in the garden. Leaving jousting behind, they became storytellers instead. Competitively amongst each other seeing who could tell the longest or best endless tale! Not surprisingly, Alfred’s tales were the most diffuse and unending! One story of his lasted for months, and was derisively nicknamed ‘The Old Horse’. Nevertheless, he was looked on as the most thrilling storyteller of the family. He would have been between the ages of five and seven during this time!

At the age of seven, Alfred was asked, ‘Will you go to sea or to school?’ and he at once replied, ‘To school.’ So during the Christmas term Dr. Tennyson took him into Louth, so his name could be entered into the books of Somersby village school in Holywell Glen. Alfred remained there four years. They must have been quiet, uneventful years since Alfred himself stated before his death, ‘How I did hate that school!’ His son Hallam also relates how his father remembered sitting on the stone steps of the school on a cold winter morning, crying bitterly on account of a cuffing he had received from a big lad because he was a new boy. On a happier note, Alfred also remembered walking in a procession of boys decked with ribbon on the occasion of the coronation of George IV and how an old woman had said that the boys made the prettiest part of the show.

One day, when Alfred was only five years old, a storm was sweeping through the rectory garden, and he ran from the house, spreading his arms to the wind, cried out: I hear a voice that’s speaking in the wind. Those words he later recalled were, ‘far, far away had always a strange charm for him’. As a teenager Alfred would also shout his lines in ‘the silent fields, leaping over the hedges in my excitement’.

One Sunday afternoon, before leaving for church, his brother Charles, the elder of the two by about a year put a slate into Alfred’s hands and told him to write a poem in praise of flowers. This he did in blank verse, after the manner of Thomson, who’s Seasons, was the only poem he knew at the time. On his return Charles scanned the lines with critical eye, and pronounced the verdict, ‘Yes, you can write.’ When ten or eleven, Pope’s Homer’s Iliad became his favorite and he wrote thousands of lines in the regular Popedian meter. At his grandfather’s desire he wrote a poem on his grandmother’s death; and the old man gave him half a guinea, remarking at the same time, ‘Here is half a guinea for you, the first you have ever earned by poetry, and, take my word for it, the last.’

When he was between thirteen and fourteen years of age Tennyson wrote an epic several thousand lines long, in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, full of battles, and dealing with sea and mountain scenery. His father was proud of it, and said he thought the author would yet be ‘one of the great in English literature’. Dr. Tennyson was right even though Alfred after reading the earliest poems of Shelley burned his epic.

From his mother, Alfred Tennyson inherited a passionate love for animal life and took pity on all wounded wings. One night, as Alfred leant from his attic window, he heard the hoot of an owl, and answered back to the bird. So natural was his ‘tu-whit tu-whoo’ that the owl flew into the room and fed out of his hand. It was readily tamed, and was kept as a pet for a long time until one day it was found drowned in a well. An echo of this incident may perhaps be found in the second of his songs entitled, ‘The Owl’.

The impressions of youth are always the strongest; the scenes of boyhood become part of our very selves; and certain it is that the flats and wolds of Lincolnshire forever dwelt in the memory of Alfred Tennyson, in that innermost unconscious memory that shapes and colors all our work. As Carlyle wrote to Emerson he described Tennyson best, ‘You may see in his verses that he is a native of moated granges and green, flat pastures, not of mountains and their torrents and storms’.

Source
Tennyson: the story of his life by Evan J. Cuthbertson, 1898

By Kimberly Eve

Thank you and Farewell

This will be my last and final blog post. Due to my work schedule and private life, I sadly must bring this blog to a close. It is no...