Meet The Tennyson Sisters of Somersby-The Ladies of Lincolnshire

I have always wanted to write something about Alfred Tennyson's sisters. Included in various biographies of Poet Laureate, Tennyson, you will find various stories about his relationship with his brothers, their parents, their life growing up, their marriages, etc., with a few mentions of the sisters. My aim is to introduce you to all four sisters, providing as much history of their lives as I can find, with perhaps a poem or two thrown in for added measure. So, grab a coffee, get comfy and let's meet The Somersby Sisters of the Tennyson clan...

Mary Ker nee Tennyson

Mary Ker nee Tennyson 1810-1844

Compared to the Tennyson brothers, it seems that the sisters were less psychologically complex if not a bit more interesting. Mary was the finest woman and the most beloved of them all, ‘the spiritual sun of the family,’ Emily called her. She had strange psychic dreams, some would call it dejavu, and was deeply interested in mesmerism and spiritualism just like several of her brothers including Alfred. She was the first of the family to embrace the mystical doctrines of a theologian called Swedenborg. Even though she was permanently lame after a fall in childhood, she was always considered to have beautiful features and a sweet expression. 

Mrs. Tennyson, their mother soon realized that her brood was growing apart and growing up. Once her husband, George Clayton Tennyson, passed away in 1831, her boys Frederick, Arthur, and Septimus left England for Italy, she decided to take her daughters, Mary and Matilda to Cheltenham, where Mary was to meet the man who would become her husband. Alan Ker, was a barrister who had not practiced at the Bar since 1848 and had no settled employment. They married on 7th July 1851 and emigrated to Jamaica.  In 1853 he was acting Attorney General of Antigua, from 1854 to 1856 Chief Justice of Nevis; after that he was appointed Chief Justice of Dominica, then became judge of the Supreme Court of Jamaica. He worked in the Judicial Service of the West Indies for over thirty years. It was Mary that seemed to struggle. It was the climate that oppressed her and she never seemed to fit in with the local society. She was devoted to her husband soon realized that he was truly more devoted to his career which during a long thirty year period, she lived in England with their only son, Walter while Barrister Ker remained in hot and humid Jamaica. He only granted himself two holidays during fourteen years and they were separated thirteen years out of his thirty one year career. Mary Ker nee Tennyson obviously raised her son right. He  grew up to be a scholar and barrister. Like his father he never practiced seriously and edited law books, including the classic Benjamin on Sales; he translated a volume each of Cicero and Martial for the Loeb Library. Alan Ker retired in 1884 due to ill health and died at Kingston, Jamaica on the 20th of March 1885. 

Even though, Mary was as her husband said, ‘entirely free of everything uncharitable, harsh, severe and unforgiving’ she seemed to lead a wandering life after her marriage.  For instance, Mary wrote verses as a little girl and a young woman, but none of this survives, and she didn’t start writing again until age fifty when her son asked her to write a verse story for Evenings at Home which was a play that they could act at home with his two young boys.  

Once she started writing she wrote regularly and luckily for us one of her manuscript books survives and is now part of the Tennyson Collection at Usher Gallery in Lincoln, England. Her notebook contains more than sixty compositions, mainly sonnets. Her verse seems to be very heartfelt. They are dedicated mainly to her brother Frederick. There are some sonnets of consolation addressed to brother Horatio on the death of Charlotte, and to husband and wife Edmund and Cecilia Lushington nee Tennyson on the loss of their only son who died at the age of just thirteen years old; though, we don’t know the exact cause. Mary wrote about her days married to Alan Ker living in the tropics as she called it, ‘toiling through the hot days mid apish chatter of the black and brown  and lying awake at night while the whizz the whir and the metallic ring of the mosquito, weary the breathless hours until the morn.’ You can feel her bitterness in her personal life come through with an edge of frustration as well. She wrote her final poem, ‘A Farewell’ to her husband. Sadly, she died in England at the end of April 1884 while he was still living in Jamaica.
Good and noble thou and I are parted
Ever patient of Life’s wear and fret,
Thou the tender, true and single hearted,
Take this tribute to my deep regret.

By no fault of mine or thine this sorrow
Like a dark November wraps me round,
Whence shall I the words of comfort borrow,
Where no comfort in myself is found?

Thrice across the broad Atlantic sailing,
Far away upon the billow borne,
I, thy lonely lot and mine bewailing,
Have the cypress or the willow worn.

Cease my rebel heart thy sad complaining,
Tho’ the way to thee be dark and dim,
It may be that thro’ this rugged training
Was the way to make thee lean on Him.

Upon the death of his wife, Mary, Alan Ker, wrote this heartbreaking letter to his son Walter:
Dear woman, never to see her again in this world! It is a sad, sad thought, and quite overwhelms me. She was a good, pious, amiable, and gentle woman, every way worthy to be her mother’s daughter. A sweeter and more generous nature never shed a benign influence wherever she went. It was an education to know her, so free was she from everything unkindly, everything uncharitable, harsh, severe, and unforgiving. How placable she was! How ready to let bygones be bygones! Malice or ill will my firm belief is she knew not the very meaning of….That sweet, generous face and bearing of hers, never to behold them any more in this world!....At every turn I see something that reminds me of her, recalling her warm interest in myself, and the pleasure she took in any little success that befell me. Oh! the pity of it. She used to sit in the garden chair so meekly, so quietly out on the terrace there, and listen with such sympathy to my narration of my days, visits to town, and what had occurred to me in the course of business or duty. She will never do so again in this life of ours…
Did ever woman keep her looks as she did? When I left England in 1873 she might have passed for forty. I never knew a woman with a finer physique. Did you ever observe what beautiful ears she had? A plaster should have been taken of them.
And so farewell to beautiful, pious, placable Mary, with her Swedenborgian sonnets about which Alfred liked to chaff her, her sufferings, of which one may be sure she never complained and the beautiful ears which one hopes she did not hide under the back drawn Madonna waves of her fine black hair. 

 miniature watercolour portrait of Mary Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson's sister, painted by Annie Dixon. The portrait is on ivory in a square frame, on the back of which are the remains of a sticker of Rowley, [Lond]on W8] and 'MARY TENNYSON BY MISS DICKSO[N]' (sic). Underneath the back board the watercolour has 'painted by Miss Dixon, 1850'. According to the Usher Gallery Tennyson Collection (1963), this miniature was shown in the Royal Academy in 1850. The portrait was given by Miss Dorothy Ker, grand-daughter of the sitter. Lincstothepast website.

Emilia (Emily) Jesse nee Tennyson, 1811-1887

Emilia by birth was called Emily by her loved ones. She said of herself, ‘The longer I live the less this rolling ball appears my home.’ She had none of her sister Mary’s sweetness or resignation. There was instead always a hint of the ‘tragedy queen’ about her.

Emily’s first love would be a close friend of her brother Alfred’s, Arthur Hallam, who in April 1830 spent three weeks at the Tennyson family home of Somersby in Lincolnshire. For Hallam it was love at first sight as he describes first seeing Emily, ‘I came to a wooded glen among wolds, where I saw a being more like Undine that I had ever thought to see.’
Between the years 1830-32, Hallam professed his love for Emily through letters they wrote to each other and in a few of his surviving poems.

Oh Emily, my life, my love, my rest,
Thy look is on me, and my soul is blest.
How strange it seems but a few weeks agone
I knew no glance of thine and thought of thee
Dim in the distance with no hope or fear
Why throbbest thou, my heart, why thickly breathest?
I ask no rich and splendid eloquence:
A few words of the warmest and the sweetest
Sure thou mayst yield without such coy pretence:
Open the chamber, where affection’s voice
For rare occasions is kept close and fine:
Bid it but say, “sweet Emily be mine,”
So for one boldness thou shalt aye rejoice,
Fain would I speak when the full music streams
Rise from her lips to linger on her face,
Or like a form, floating thro Rafaelle’s dreams,
Then fixed by him in everliving  grace,
She sits I’ th’ silent worship of mine eyes.
Courage, my heart: change thou for words thy sighs.

Hallam and Emily were engaged in 1832 without the blessing of Dr. Tennyson as Hallam was not yet 21 years old. Emily’s letters do not exactly match Hallam’s passion or tell of her true love for him. However, all became clear upon his sudden death of an aneurism on 15 September 1833 during a trip to Vienna with his father. His father left Arthur lying on the sofa reading then went out for a stroll. Hours later, upon his return Arthur was still on the sofa sleeping with his head tilted at a strange angle. He called out to him but his son did not respond. He thought he was sleeping but all attempts to wake him failed. Arthur Hallam was twenty one years old. That following October, just two weeks later, a letter was delivered addressed to Alfred with instructions to be opened my Mrs. Tennyson, his mother. His sister Matilda gave Alfred the letter. He read it and immediately left the dining room. He asked Emily to follow him. Alfred told her the news and caught her in his arms when she fainted.  Emily set her feelings to paper,

Renew my heart in heavenly love,
Take all my sin away,
That I may be his bride above
For an eternal day
Oh fatal journey to the South
Which cost my Arthur’s life,
A little time would but have passed
Ere I’d been made his wife.

Emily remained very close to the Hallam Family. In fact they invited her to a dinner party  in 1834 where she met a Navy shipman by the name of Captain Richard Jesse. Compared to Arthur Hallam Jesse seemed a poor love match, according to Arthur’s cousin Jane Elton. Emily herself wrote, ‘is actually going to be married and to whom after such a man as Arthur Hallam…to a boy in the Navy, supposed to be a Midshipman.’  Since the death of Arthur Hallam, Emily Tennyson received an allowance of 300 pounds a year left to her as instructed by Hallam upon his death with the stipend that she never marry. His father Henry Hallam carried out his son’s wishes against his own will partly out of guilt over his mistreatment of her while they were courting. Whatever the case may be, Emily Tennyson and Richard Jesse were married on January 24, 1842. Emily’s brother Alfred Tennyson gave the bride away accompanied by their sisters. The groom was described as being, ‘very handsome with a pale good humored face, talking fast and a little flurried.’ Emily was described as being, ‘oddly dressed with hair in long ringlets hanging down her back, looking elf-life.’  Emily and Richard’s marriage seems to have been a happy one. They had two children, Eustace, the youngest, became the father of poetess Fryn Tennyson Jesse and eldest son she named Arthur Hallam Jesse born ten years after the death of her fiancé, Arthur Hallam. One wonders how her husband Richard Jesse felt about her choice of name for their son. As a matter of fact, the story goes that years later a photograph was taken of Emily Jesse at Clifton where she and Hallam would have honeymooned; a shadowy figure of a man strangely resembling Arthur can be seen hovering behind her. She believed this man to be Arthur.

The Jesse’s lived mostly at Margate; travelling occasionally to Italy in 1851 and twenty years later to Paris, France. She remained for the rest of her days living with her husband in Margate, England. She became a convert to Swedenborg’s Church of the New Jerusalem which gave her great consolation in her later years. Her name was long remembered with great affection by villagers at Somersby. She loved her husband, animals, she always seemed to travel with her dog and a raven. She had a good sense of humor which came out when she stayed at her brother Alfred’s homes Farringford or Aldworth; they loved to exchange outrageous jokes and puns with her nephews.  In fact, during the 1870s she met Blanche Warre Cornish, a conversationalist and cousin of William Thackeray, who described the meeting,

‘It was one Easter holidays. The Tennysons’ carriage met me at the Yarmouth pier; in it I found Miss Thackeray and a lady with her dog in her lap who was staying at Farringford. As we drove off through the lanes a personal conversation, which had been interrupted by my arrival, was resumed. The elder lady had a deep, serious voice, and she attracted me at once by her fine blue expressive eyes, which still gave forth light, though set in a deep-lined face. She had a well-cut profile, dark bandeaux of hair fell with delicate curves on each side of her brown face; they were streaked with grey. She had once been Arthur Hallam’s fiancée, Emily Tennyson. To everything Annie Thackeray was saying in her gentle reflective way about life and its contradictions she replied with a strong Lincolnshire accent, ‘I know that; I have felt that.’ She added in a deep melodious tone, just like Horatio Tennyson’s, ‘I have felt everything; I know everything. I don’t want any new emotion. I know what it is to feel like a stoan’ (London Mercury, December 1921)

Emily Jesse nee Tennyson lived to be seventy-five, much beloved and respected by her brothers and sisters as her brother Frederick wrote upon her death in 1887:

Farewell, dear sister, thou and I
Will meet no more beneath the sky:
But in the high world where thou art
Mind speaks to Mind, and Heart to Heart,
Not in faint wavering tones, but heard
As twin sweet notes that sound accord.
Thy dwelling in the Angel sphere
Looks forth on a sublimer whole,
Where all that thou dost see and hear
Is in true concord with thy soul—
A great harp of unnumbered strings
Answering to one voice that sings:
Where thousand blisses spring and fade
Swiftly, as in diviner dream,
And inward motions are portrayed
In outward shows that move with them:
After the midnight and dark river
No more to be o’erpast for ever.
Behold the lover of thy youth,
That spirit strong as Love and Truth,
Many a long year gone before,
Awaits thee on the sunny shore:
In that high world of endless wonder
Nor Space, nor Time can hold asunder
Twin souls—as Space and Time have done—
Whom kindest instincts orb in One.

Two more Tennyson sisters remain: Matilda and Cecilia. I will write up their brief biographies in my next post. I hope you will return for more.

For anyone seeking more information on Alfred Tennyson's life in Lincolnshire, and or his childhood home of Somersby, I highly recommend this excellent website, Tennysons Birthplace


I enjoyed reading about the sisters so much. How interesting to read about them and discover they were such a close family. Love the photos and your research is always so good!
Pamela Britley said…
Loved it! So much fun to read about Tennyson's sisters. Thanks for sharing everything you learn about the poet.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Francine,
I am so glad you enjoyed my post. The more I learn about Alfred Tennyson and his family, the more I can't wait to share it with you all. I know aren't the photos great!
Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Pamela,
Thank you very much for taking the time to read my article and leave a comment. I love sharing what I learn and I'm just so happy when so many people love it too!
Evie Hodgson said…
l love it. Bringing it so alive for me. Looking forward to the other two sisters. One is in Freshwater.
Kimberly Eve said…
Oh thank you Evie what a wonderful compliment. Yes, Matilda and Cecilia next. I wonder if we're thinking of the same sister? We'll have to wait and see. Thank you so much for reading and commenting on my article.
Evie Hodgson said…
l went to visit my favourite graves today in All Saints, Freshwater to look for Mary Hilliers gang and came to the conclusion that Emily was in the tomb, but around 1915 two more graves were added either side of the tomb. identical in design. the one on the left of the family tomb is Matilda Tennyson. It says 'In loving memory of Matilda Tennyson - Born Sep 15 1816 - Died July 31 1915. The one on the right of the tomb, says 'In loving memory - of Emily Lady Tennyson wife of Alfred Lord Tennyson - Born July 9 1813 Married June 13 1850 - Died Aug 10 1896. l think Emily was moved into her own grave from the tomb when, Audrey Tennyson and Harold died and l think Hallam paid for the two graves then and had her moved to her own grave whilst as he planned to be buried in the tomb, joining his first wife and son, and brother. l must do more research to find out burial dates and plot numbers. read your blog again. Brings it so alive. Great. x
Kimberly Eve said…
I can't believe this. I just now finished writing part 2 of my sister's post about Matilda and Cecilia when I logged in now and read your comment above. I found the burial place of Cecilia because she was a Lushington in death and is buried with her husband and four children at St Mary the Virgin and All Saints Churchyard, Boxley, Maidstone Borough Kent, England. I added this bit in my article but I cannot find grave information on Matilda Tennyson (spinster) who died at Eastbourne in 1913 aged ninety-eight. It makes sense for perhaps Hallam Tennyson to have possibly had Matilda buried at All Saints Freshwater. He died in 1928, so timing wise, it is a possiblity?

No, Evie, Matilda died in 1913 and Cecilia before her four years earlier in 1909. I don't know about Lady Tennyson's grave but I can do some research as well and see what I find. Thank you so much for your comments and your passion my friend. x
WoofWoof said…
What a fascinating an interesting post. I can't remember when I enjoyed reading something so much! It is sad that Mary and her husband who obviously were greatly in love had to live apart. It is a pity that Alan could not have got a job back in England when he realised his wife could not cope with life in Jamaica. It sort of reminds me of the two poems Mariana and Mariana in the South where the woman is pining for the absent lover who will never come. Regarding Emily, have you read the interesting novella by AS Byatt about her later life in margate, involvement with spiritualists etc. It's a fascinating imagining of what her life must have been like. One thing that comes out is the way that she had to play the part of the tragic young "widow". (will continue...)
WoofWoof said…
It seems that Alfred was not really very happy that Emily went and married Jesse. It seems likely that he thought that she should have embraced her widowhood and spent the rest of her life mourning for Arthur (a bit like the way Alfred himself did). In some ways it is a bit strange - it's almost as though Alfred as his friend felt the loss more deeply than Emily his fiancee.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi WoofWoof,
So nice to see you here again. I agree with you about Mary missing her husband and Alan should have done more to return to her. However, he had to work to bring money in and support himself and his family no matter how far away he might have been. Romantically, they should have been together but realistically for the mid nineteenth-century he did what was expected of himself and put himself first! I completely agree about the Mariana connection as well. It wasn't in my research but I thought the same thing!

Yes, I definitely read the Byatt novella and love it so much. Emily Jesse was interesting. I believe she never truly got over Arthur which is evidenced by her naming her child after him. I think she chose not to be alone and settled for him. As for Tennyson well I think he was just partly protecting his sister and partly wanted her to acknowledge Arthur's loss more! Tennyson kept Arthur's memory alive all of his life and nobody will truly know exactly why. Thank you so much for commenting and reading. I hope you will be able to read part 2 about Matilda and Cecilia.