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!
 UK hardcover

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Queen Victoria's favourite poet, commanded a wider readership than any other of his time. His ascendancy was neither the triumph of pure genius nor an accident of history:he skilfully crafted his own career and his relationships with his audience. Fame and recognition came, lavishly and in abundance, but the hunger for more never left him. Like many successful Victorians, he was a provincial determined to make good in the capital while retaining his regional strengths. One of eleven children, he remained close to his extended family and never lost his Lincolnshire accent.Resolving never to be anything except 'a poet', he wore his hair long, smoked incessantly and sported a cloak and wide-brimmed Spanish hat.

Tennyson ranged widely in his poetry, turning his interests in geology, evolution and Arthurian legend into verse, but much of his work relates to his personal life. The tragic loss of Arthur Hallam, a brilliant friend and fellow Apostle at Cambridge, fed into some of his most successful and best-known poems. It took Tennyson seventeen years to complete his great elegy for Hallam, In Memoriam, a work which established his fame and secured his appointment as Poet Laureate. 

The poet who wrote The Lady of Shalott and The Charge of the Light Brigade has become a permanent part of our culture. This enjoyable and thoughtful new biography shows him as a Romantic as well as a Victorian, exploring both the poems and Tennyson's attempts at play writing, as well as the pressures of his age and the personal relationships that made the man. 

“John Batchelor's biography should stand, in years to come, as the most advisable entry point into this most inscrutable of poets.” (The Spectator)
“This is a perceptive biography, admirably identifying the social origins of Tennyson’s spiritual torments.” (The Sunday TImes (London))

“This is a biography for everybody interested in poetry. Any evening devoted to Tennyson would express the whole wonderful, vivid world of the English language.” (Antonia Fraser)

“John Batchelor’s book is acute in its examination of Tennyson’s character and his importance for Victorian culture.” (The Times Literary Supplement)  

 John Batchelor
 John Batchelor is Emeritus Professor from Newcastle University. Formerly Joseph Cowen Professor of English Literature at Newcastle, he was also a visiting Professor of the University of Lancaster and previously a Fellow of New College Oxford. His books include biographies of John Ruskin, monographs on the work of Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells, and a study of the Edwardian novel. His book Lady Trevelyan and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is a lively biography of Pauline Trevelyan, who established a salon of the arts at Wallington, Northumberland. John Batchelor was until recently an editor (English and American literature) of the literary periodical Modern Language Review and general editor of the Yearbook of English Studies.

Thank you, Mr. Batchelor for your generosity and time answering my questions and agreeing to let me interview you in this way. It is a distinct honor to welcome John Batchelor to Kimberly Eve Musings of a Writer.  I hope you all enjoy reading this interview covering his latest biography on 'Tennyson: to strive, to seek, to find' and a bit on John Ruskin and Lady Trevelyan as well! 

  1. Was there an aspect of Tennyson’s life that you found most difficult to research and write about?
There were two things which were particularly problematic.  I had to work into the period and into the Tennyson family several generations back in order to have a sense to my own satisfaction of quite why the household of George Clayton Tennyson, the poet’s clergyman father, was as dysfunctional and messed up as it clearly was.  I think part of the answer is that Tennyson’s father was an exception. Previous generations of Tennysons had been hard working and upwardly mobile local Lincolnshire people with absolute confidence in wealth and property. Tennyson’s grandfather lived by the standards of these people and was bewildered by his oldest son (Tennyson’s father) who was a questioning, rebellious, brilliant young man.  Grandfather Tennyson simply could not understand his son so he effectively disinherited him, with  tragic consequences (George  Clayton Tennyson died of drink while Tennyson was still an undergraduate at Cambridge).  

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?

I like to go back to primary sources, and in the case of Tennyson there is a great deal of archive material to consult.  There are important collections of Tennyson papers in Harvard and Yale, and in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge; but the greatest wealth of papers is in two archives in Lincoln; the county archives and, especially,  the Tennyson Research Centre, which is a lovely place in which to work. I also spent a good amount of time visiting the places connected with Tennyson and his family in Lincolnshire. I like to have a firm view of the story, the chronology and the personality of the central figure before getting into it properly. Jacques in As You Like It speaks of the seven ages of man; to me there are nine  (I am not quite sure why)!  Each of my biographies so far has started as nine separate section headings with  detailed notes and a narrative of some 8 to 10 thousands words; these then become  the foundation on which I can build.  

'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. Watts
 The US hardcover edition comes out this December available at Amazon

Author website at Newcastle University, John Batchelor 


Maggie Peters said…
Kimberly, I have learned so much about Alfred Lord Tennyson from reading your articles. What a fascinating interview. I will definitely buy Tennyson's biography when it comes out in December. Thanks for a great interview.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Maggie,
What a lovely compliment. I'm so glad you enjoyed the interview. I hope you enjoy the book and thanks so much for commenting.
Hermes said…
Fascinating, really a good perspective, learnt a lot
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hermes, so glad you enjoyed the interview. Thanks so much for commenting.