A Review of Tennyson's Gift by Lynne Truss

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harpercollins Pb (May 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007355270
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007355273

From the bestselling author of 'Eats Shoots & Leaves', an unexpectedly moving, luminously wise and brilliantly funny novel about a Victorian Poet Laureate. In July 1864, a corner of the Isle of Wight is buzzing with literary and artistic creativity. A morose Tennyson is reciting 'Maud' to empty sofas; the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron is white-washing the roses for visual effect and the mismatched couple, actress Ellen Terry and painter G. F. Watts, are thrown into the company of the remarkable Lorenzo Fowler, the American phrenologist, and his daughter Jessie. Enter mathematician Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), known to Jessie as the 'fiendish pedagogue', and Lynne Truss's wonderfully imaginative cocktail of Victorian seriousness and riotous farce begins to take flight.


Madness seems to be a recurrent theme in my novels. The greatest influence onTennyson’s Gift is not the poet laureate, or even his wonderfully enthusiastic neighbour, slaving night and day for Art, Mrs Cameron. It is the great Victorian children’s writer Lewis Carroll (real name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), who made a real visit to Freshwater in July 1864, and thus supplied a real date for the book’s entirely invented action. Tennyson’s Gift is about love, poetry, the beauty of girls with long hair, the questionable sagacity of men with beards, the language of flowers and the acquisition of famous heads; but it is mainly about the insane Carrollian egotism that accompanies energetic genius.
All the main characters are real people who were really regulars at Freshwater: the solemn painter G.F. Watts; the burgeoning young actress Ellen Terry; the two maids; the Tennyson boys; even the little girl Daisy. They can all be found in Mrs Cameron’s pictures from that year. The only imports to the scene are the rather splendid American phrenologist Lorenzo Niles Fowler and his precocious daughter Jessie, who cannot be placed historically at Freshwater in July 1864, but were touring England in the early 1860s, which was good enough for me.

It is rare for me to simply love 'an entire novel' and not want to stop reading midway through or give up altogether in frustration! You do not have to know all that much about Alfred Tennyson or any of the other literary cast of characters. All you need is an open mind and a sense of humor! This novel is pure fun to read and farce in the true sense of the word!
It seems that I am now mainly reading novels albeit fiction or nonfiction for research or analytical reasons that I rarely read just for the pureness of the mental escape. Novels like this one are ones that I linger over because I don't want them to end.
Author, Lynne Truss, is someone I am unfamiliar with so Tennyson's Gift was a wonderful foray into her wacky and witty world! If you find yourself smiling and bursting into throwing your head back with laughter while reading, I would say this is a good sign of things to come!

Does anyone remember the Disney movie Alice in Wonderland? Well, if you're of my generation you grew up watching the movie as a little girl then reading the book by Lewis Carroll whose real name was Reverend Charles Dodgson who was a mathematician as well.

Well, according to the author in this novel it is implied that Reverend Dodgson who while visiting his friends Alfred Tennyson and photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron found her staff outside her home, Dimbola Lodge, painting her red roses that were growing on the bushes white...Remember the scene in Alice in Wonderland where the queen's staff 'mistakenly' paint the red roses white and upon the discovery she shouts, "Off With Her Head"...Could Reverend Dodson have written that scene after Julia Margaret Cameron? Was Julia 'the queen' from Alice in Wonderland? Chapter One opens with...
" A blazing dusty July afternoon at Freshwater Bay; and up at Dimbola Lodge, with a glorious loud to-do, the household of Mrs. Julia Margaret Cameron is mostly out of doors, applying paint to the roses. They run around the garden in the sunshine, holding up skirts and aprons, and jostle on the paths. For reasons they dare not inquire, the red roses must be painted white. If anyone asked them to guess, they would probably say, 'Because it's Wednesday?'
'You're splashing me!'
'Look out!'
'We'll never get it done in time!'
'What if she comes and we're not finished?'
'It will be off with our heads!'
He pauses, tilts his head, and listens tot he commotion with a faraway, satisfied smile. If you knew him better, you would recognize this unattractive expression. It is the smirk of a clever dysfunctional thirty-two year old, middle aged before his time, whose own singular insights and private jokes are his constant reliable source of intellectual delight. 
'O-O-Off with our heads? he muses, and opens a small notebook produced with a parlour magician's flourish from an inside pocket.
'Off with our h---heads?' He makes a neat note with a tiny pencil. 

 Have you ever wondered how to keep your poet laureate husband happy?
Here's what Emily Tennyson might have done...
At Farringford, Emily Tennyson sorted her husband's post. Thin and beady-eyed in her shiny black dress, she had the look of a blackbird picking through worms. She spotted immediately the handwriting of Tennyson's most insistent anonymous detractor and swiftly tucked it into her pocket.
Alfred was absurdly sensitive to criticism, and she had discovered that the secret of the quiet life was to let him believe what he wanted to believe -viz, that the world adored him without the faintest reservation or quibble. To this comfortable illusion of her husband's, in fact, she was steadily sacrificing her life. Emily had a large drawer of unopened letters in her bureau upstairs. She would never let Alfred know of their existence not while there was breath in her body, anyway.
She was pleased to reflect that she was well prepared for Alfred. As a matter of routine, he would ask three questions as he whirled dramatically through the door in his black cloak and sombrero, to which his wife's dutiful answers must always be the same.
'Did you check the boys for signs of madness, Emily?'
'Yes dear, I did.'
'Is there an apple pie baked for my dinner?'
'Yes. Cook has seen to it.'
'Is anyone after my head?'
'No, dear, nobody. As I have told you before, Alfred, that's all in your imagination.'

Ellen Terry, aged 17, photo by Julia Margaret Cameron
Portrait by Cameron of G.F. Watts, 1847

Lastly, one funny situation was a discussion between husband and wife G.F. Watts, painter (aged 47) and wife, actress Ellen Terry (aged 16)...that's right...During a dinner scene a conversation between the pair turned into a full blown argument. Watts, keeping calm, addresses Terry in a very direct tone saying, 'Stop being so dramatic'. Dramatic actress, Ellen Terry, loudly bellowing replies quoting Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to which Watts never losing a beat calmly tells her, 'My dear, if you continue with this, I shall have a headache'. I can just picture Watts sitting around his dinner table shoving food in his mouth while Ellen Terry does a scene from Shakespeare, exasperated by his calmness in full blown actress mode, standing before him draped in a lovely gown, too upset to eat! I just found it so funny and very realistic to human nature!

I find myself growing quite fond of Alfred Tennyson. Having read his works and his son's memoir and correspondence it paints a picture of a lovely, quiet, introspective, genius of a man who wants a simple life by the bay with his family. In closing is my favorite scene from Tennyson's Gift. It is Ellen Terry's view of the man after having a discussion with him while walking along the downs...
Alfred Tennyson photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron

Tennyson leaned into the wind. The thing about this man, she realized as she watched his cloak furl and crack behind him like a flag, was that he was rather like a cliff himself. His large white face looked down and shaped by centuries of rain and landslip; and all his life (even when it was quite unnecessary) he seemed to defy a gale, staunch on his stocky Lincolnshire legs, with his chest puffed out. Here was a man who would never discover a sheltered place in the world and then relax in it. Tennyson was a walking personification of the verb 'to buffet'. When Watts was cut up by a review, Ellen had observed that he would mend again by teatime. But Tennyson went all to tatters, and displayed his wounds perpetually, even to people who strenuously desired not to see them. Perhaps his Approbativeness needs looking at, thought Ellen. Tennyson's must be the size of a baby gnat.

Please feel free to leave any comments,


Robert Parry said…
Thank you for such a lovely review of a very entertaining book. Very evocative of the time and place in a strange sort of way.
Kimberly Eve said…
Yes, I agree. Very evocative indeed!
Thank you Robert for such lovely words. Tennyson's Gift takes its place on my bookshelf 'behind' yours!
Anonymous said…
Very interesting....sounds like a fun read! gigigirl
Kimberly Eve said…
Yes, it was loads of fun! Thanks for commenting, gigigirl!

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