Author Interview with John Batchelor discussing his biography Tennyson: To strive, to seek, to find!
When John Batchelor's latest biography, 'Tennyson: To strive, to seek, to find' came out in hardcover in the United Kingdom last year, I bought it immediately! I read it cover-to-cover and then reviewed it on Amazon UK. After exchanging emails he agreed to answer my questions!
The second problem was over his sexuality. After his death his family efficiently destroyed a great many of his papers relating to his early life (including any relating to Rosa Baring, his first love) so there is not much evidence. I thought about this historically and contextually; what was the behaviour of his close circle of young friends and contemporaries at Cambridge? These young men were a privileged elite, they lived with a sense of entitlement, the relaxed morals of the Regency were still in force. Tennyson was a self-indulgent personality in other ways (with drink, particularly); it is reasonable to suppose that he had casual experience with young women as his friends did. As for the possibility that his relationship with Arthur Hallam was homosexual; I think that if he did have such feelings for Arthur he did not understand them and certainly didn’t act on them.
2. What part of Tennyson’s life surprised you most and why?
I was surprised by the contradictoriness of so much of the story. He became a national figure and a Lord, but retained his Lincolnshire accent and with it a whole set of decidedly provincial attitudes. As a young man he supported an insurrection in Spain but later backed the brutal repression of a radical uprising in Jamaica. His personal treatment of women could be a bit patriarchal, but he thought deeply about women’s role in the world and wrote vividly about education and political equality for women. He was the best lyricist of his age yet devoted a surprising amount of time and energy to writing clunky historical dramas.
He was loving towards the dead, callous with the living: in memory of his friend Arthur Hallam (who died aged 22) he wrote his masterpiece, In Memoriam, which is intensely sensitive and passionate, yet loyal friends of his young manhood (like Edward Fitzgerald and James Spedding) found themselves distanced by him in later life.
3. After writing ‘To Strive To Seek To Find,’ did your perspective of Tennyson or opinion of him change at all?
Yes, a lot; indeed, almost entirely. I had thought of him as having what E.D.H.Johnson called the ‘alien vision’ of a Romantic genius in a materialist society. But as I explored the groups to which he belonged, the ambitions that he had, his resolute social climbing and the determination with which he turned himself into a national monument (with his Shakespearean-style history plays and his Arthurian narrative poems) I saw him differently. He was a Romantic, and retained his lyricism and his visionary gifts to the end; but his Romanticism was effectively tempered and geared to the taste and preferences of the age.
4. Having written biographies on John Ruskin and Lady Trevelyan, what made you choose Alfred Lord Tennyson? I find it very interesting that Tennyson knew both Ruskin and Trevelyan and you’ve written about all three of them!
I worked on Ruskin because I was deeply interested in the relationship between the arts and society, and the linked collision between religion and science, which engaged intelligent Victorians. Ruskin’s work brought art, architecture, religion and science together into a series of works which have a uniting impulse, which is to enable humans to live happily. This was a tormented man who believed in happiness for others but never found it in his own life. His writings stimulated the works of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and Tennyson in turn found in some of those paintings rich stimulus for his poetry. Additionally, Tennyson and Ruskin in their different ways invoked the past and the natural world to balance the vulgarity of industrial Britain. Lady Trevelyan was the most loyal and intelligent of Ruskin’s women disciples; she was expert in a number of exciting contemporary fields, including geology, and she loved the company of highly intelligent men. Newcastle university library, where I work, has an excellent archive of her papers, and she lived in Northumberland, 25 miles from Newcastle, in a great country house, Wallington, which she redesigned on broadly Pre-Raphaelite principles with help from Ruskin.
Historically, Tennyson was a giant of the age, a figure on the scale of Dickens and Darwin. Tennyson’s poetry had interested me ever since I was an undergraduate and I had always enjoyed giving courses of lectures on him for students, so in a way this book harvested all that I had thought about Tennyson over a long period. I was also able to feed into it the thinking about Victorian society that had been stimulated by the two previous biographies.
5. What are you currently working on?
I‘ve recently written an essay on Kipling’s poetry and I am planning a new critical biography of Kipling, stresses the writings and then exploring his work within the context of his life. This will involve travelling to India, where I have never been, and I look forward to it.
6. Could you talk a bit about your writing process and your research when writing a biography?
'Tennyson: To strive, to seek, to find' by John Batchelor is out now in UK and Europe available at Amazon UK
US hardcover. Cover portrait by G.F. WattsThe US hardcover edition comes out this December available at
Author website at Newcastle University, John Batchelor