Memories of Lord and Lady Tennyson by Bram Stoker
Henry Irving and Bram Stoker leaving the Lyceum Theatre
by the private entrance, The Irving Society
Bram Stoker known for writing the gothic novel Dracula adored the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He could recite any poem by heart at any given moment. Bram Stoker was about to meet his master through the form of Henry Irving. Henry Irving was acting royalty in England during the nineteenth-century and acting at London’s Lyceum Theatre (which he owned) when their friendship began. Irving acted and performed on the Lyceum stage and Stoker became acting manager then business manager of the Lyceum Theatre; a post which he held for twenty seven years.They remained fast friends until Irving’s death in 1905.
I was reading Bram Stoker’s vivid memories of his meetings with Lord and Lady Tennyson which developed into a short yet quite meaningful friendship. So, I hope you don’t mind if I share a few of Bram Stoker’s memories here with you. They are quite interesting reading while shedding some light on the later years of Alfred Tennyson’s life until his death on 6 October 1892.
It was my good fortune to meet Tennyson personally soon after my coming to live in London. On the night of March 20, 1879, he being then in London for a short stay, he came to the Lyceum to see Hamlet. It was the sixty-ninth night of the run. James Knowles was with him and introduced me. After the third act they both came round to Irving’s dressing-room. In the course of our conversation when I saw him again at the end of the play he said to me: “I did not think Irving could have improved his Hamlet of five years ago; but now he has improved it five degrees, and those five degrees have lifted it to heaven!” I remember also another thing he said: “I am seventy, and yet I don’t feel old-I wonder how it is!” I quoted as a reason his own lines from the Golden Year:
“Unto him that works, and feels he works,
The same grand year is ever at the doors.”
He seemed mightily pleased and said: “Good!”
After this meeting I had a good many opportunities of seeing Tennyson again. Whenever he made a trip for a few days to London it was usually my good fortune to meet him and Lady Tennyson My wife and I lunched with them; and their sons, Hallam and Lionel, spent Sunday evenings in our house in Cheyne Walk. Meeting with Tennyson and his family has given us many many happy hours in our lives, and I had the pleasure of being the guest of the great poet both at Farringford and Aldworth. I am proud to be able to call the present Lord Tennyson my friend. My wife and I were lunching with the Tennysons during their stay in London when the first copy arrived from Hubert Herkomer now Von Herkomer R.A., of his fine portrait etching of the Poet Laureate. It is an excellent portrait; but there is a look in the eye which did not altogether please the subject.”
(You can read more about Von Herkomer in my previous article), Hubert Herkomer
Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate by Sir Hubert Von Herkomer R.A., 1879 (w/c on paper)
“In the autumn of 1890, in response to a kindly invitation, Irving visited Aldworth, the lovely home which Tennyson made for himself under the brow of Blackdown. It was nine years since the two men had had opportunity for a real talk. Sunday, October 19, was fixed for the visit. I was invited to lunch also, and needless to say I looked forward to the visit, for it was to be the first opportunity I should have of seeing Tennyson in his own home.
On the Sunday morning Irving and I made an early start, leaving Victoria Station by the train at 8:45 and arriving at Haslemere a little after half-past ten. Blackdown is just under mountain height one thousand feet.
Hallam met us at the door. When we entered the wide hall, one of the noticeable things was quite a number of the picturesque wide-brimmed felt hats which Tennyson always wore. I could not but notice them.
After a short visit to Lady Tennyson in the drawing-room we were brought upstairs to Tennyson’s study, a great room over the drawing-room, with mullioned windows facing south and west. We entered from behind a great eight-fold screen some seven or eight feet high. In the room were many tall bookcases. The mullioned windows let in a flood of light. Tennyson was sitting at a table in the western window writing in a book of copybook size with black cover. His writing was very firm. He had on a black skull-cap. As we entered he held up his hand saying:
“Just one minute if you don’t mind. I am almost finished!”
When he had done he threw down his pen and rising quickly came towards us with open handed welcome.
I went with Hallam to his own study, leaving Irving alone with Tennyson. Half an hour later we joined them and we all went out for a walk. In the garden Tennyson pointed out to us some blue flowering pea which had been reared from seed. He stooped a little as he walked; he was then eighty-two, but seemed strong and was very cheerful sometimes even merry.
Alfred Tennyson's wolf hound, Katerina
With us came his great Russian wolfhound which seemed devoted to him. We walked through the grounds and woods for some three miles altogether, Hallam and Irving walking in front. As I walked with Tennyson we had much conversation, every word of which comes back to me. I was so fond of him and admired him so much that I could not, I think, forget if I tried anything which he said. Amongst other things he mentioned a little incident at Farringford, when in his own grounds an effusive lady, a stranger, said at rather than to him, of course alluding to the berries of the wild rose, then in profusion:
“What beautiful hips!”
“I am so glad you admire ‘em, ma’am!” he had answered, and he laughed heartily at the memory. I mention this as an instance of his love of humour. He had intense enjoyment of it.
“When we go in I want to read you something which I have just finished; but you must not say anything about it yet!”
“All right!” I said, “of course I shall not. But why, may I ask, do you wish it so?”
“Well, you see,” he said, “I have to be careful. If it is known that I am writing on a particular subject I get a dozen poems on it the next day. And then when mine comes out they say I palgiarised them!”
That talk was full of very interesting memories. This stanza of In Memoriam had always been a favourite of mine, and when I told him so, he said:
“Repeat it!” I did so, again feeling as if I were being weighed up. When I had finished:
“He told it not; or something seal’d
The lips of that Evangelist:”
He turned to me and said:
“Do you know that when that was published they said I was scoffing. But” here both face and voice grew very very grave “I did not mean to scoff!”
When I told him of my wonder as to how any sane person could have taken such an idea from such a faithful, tender, understanding poem he went on to speak of faith and the need of faith. But his finishing sentence I shall never forget. Indeed had I forgotten for the time I should have remembered it from what he said the last interview I had with him just before his death:
“You know I don’t believe in an eternal hell, with an All merciful God. I believe in the All merciful God! It would be better otherwise that men should believe they are only ephemera!”
When we returned to the house we lunched, Lady Tennyson and Mrs. Hallam Tennyson having joined us. Then we went up again to the study, and Tennyson, taking from the table the book in which he had been writing, read us the last written poem, The Churchwarden and the Curate. He read it in the Lincolnshire dialect, which is much simpler when heard than read. The broadness of the vowels and their rustic prolongation, rather than drawl, adds force and also humour. I shall never forget the intense effect of the last lines of the tenth stanza. The shrewd worldly wisdom which was plain sincerity of understanding without cynicism.
The Church-Warden And The Curate
By Alfred Lord Tennyson
Eh? good daay! good daay! thaw it beant not mooch of a daay, Nasty, casselty weather! an mea Haafe down wi my haay!
How be the farm gittin on? noaways. Gittin on ideead! Why, tonups was Haafe on em fingers an toas, an the mare brokken-kneead, An pigs didnt sell at fall, an wa lost wer Haldeny cow, An it beats ma to knaw wot she died on, but wools looking oop ony how.
An soa theyve maade tha a parson, an thoull git along, niver fear, Fur I bean chuch-warden mysen i the parish fur fifteen year. Wellsin ther bea chuch-wardens, ther mun be parsons an all, An if tone stick alongside tuther the chuch weant happen a fall.
Fur I wur a Baptis wonst, an agean the toithe an the raate, Till I fun that it warnt not the gaainist waay to the narra Gaate. An I cant abear em, I cant, fur a lot on em coomd ta-year I wur down wi the rheumatis thento my pond to wesh thessens theere Sa I sticks like the ivin as long as I lives to the owd chuch now, Fur they weshd their sins i my pond, an I doubts they poisond the cow.
Ay, an ya seed the Bishop. They says at he coomd fra nowt Burn i traade. Sa I warrants e niver said haafe wot e thowt, But e creeapt an e crawld along, till e feeald e could howd is oan, Then e married a great Yerls darter, an sits o the Bishops throan.
Now Ill gie the a bit o my mind an tha weant be taakin offence, Fur thou be a big scholard now wi a hoonderd haacre o sense But sich an obstropulous ladnaay, naayfur I minds tha sa well, Thad niver not hopple thy tongue, an the tongues sit afire o Hell, As I says to my missis to-daay, when she hurld a plaate at the cat An anoother agean my noase. Ya was niver sa bad as that.
But I minds when i Howlaby beck won daay ya was ticklin o trout, An keeaper e seed ya an roond, an e beald to ya Lad coom hout An ya stood oop naakt i the beck, an ya telld im to knaw his awn plaace An ye calld im a clown, ya did, an ya thrawd the fish i is faace, An e tornd as red as a stag-tuckeys wattles, but theer an then I coambd im down, fur I promised yad niver not do it agean.
An I cotchd tha wonst i my garden, when thou was a height-year-howd, An I fun thy pockets as full o my pippins as iver theyd owd, (16) An thou was as pearky as owt, an tha maade me as mad as mad, But I says to the keeap em, an welcome fur thou was the Parsons lad.
An Parson e ears on it all, an then taakes kindly to me, An then I wur chose Chuch-warden an coomd to the top o the tree, Fur Quolotys hall my friends, an they maakes ma a help to the poor, When I gits the plaate fuller o Soondays nor ony chuch-warden afoor, Fur if iver thy feythered riled me I kep mysen meeak as a lamb, An saw by the Graace o the Lord, Mr. Harry, I ham wot I ham.
But Parson e will speak out, saw, now e be sixty-seven, Hell niver swap Owlby an Scratby fur owt but the Kingdom o Heaven: An thouII be is Curate ere, but, if iver tha means to git igher, The mun tackle the sins o the Wold, an not the faults o the Squire. An I reckons thall light of a livin some-wheers i the Wowd or the Fen, If tha cottons down to thy betters, an keeaps thysen to thysen. But niver not speak plaain out, if tha wants to git forrards a bit, But creeap along the hedge-bottoms, an thoull be a Bishop yit.
Naay, but tha mun speak hout to the Baptises here i the town, Fur moast on em talks agean tithe, an Id like the to preach em down, Fur theyve bin a-preachin mea down, they heve, an I haates em now, Fur they leaved their nasty sins i my pond, an it poisond the cow.
Emily, Hallam and Alfred at Aldworth by Henry Cameron, late 1889.
On September 25, 1892, my wife and I spent the day with Lord and Lady Tennyson at Aldworth. We were to have gone a week earlier, but as Tennyson was not well the visit was postponed.
We sat while Lady Tennyson, who was in the drawing room on a sofa away from the light. She had long been an invalid. She was perhaps the most sweet and saintly woman I ever met, and had a wonderful memory.
Once again Tennyson seemed troubled about the press, and was bitter against certain newspaper prying. He could not get free from it. It had been found out during his illness that the beggar man who came daily for the broken meat was getting ten shillings a week from a local reporter to come and tell him the gossip of the kitchen. Turning to me he said:
“Don’t let them know how ill I am, or they’ll have me buried before twenty four hours!”
Then after a while he added:
“Can’t they all let me alone. What did they want digging up the graves of my father and mother and my grandfather and grandmother. I sometimes wish I had never written a line!”
“Ah, don’t say that! Don’t think it! You have given delight to too many millions, and your words have done too much good for you to wish to take them back. And the good and the pleasure are to go on for all the future.” After a moment’s thought he said very softly:
“Well, perhaps you’re right! But can’t they leave me alone!”