Letters and Lives of the Tennyson Women

By | May 24, 2023

Guest post by Marion Sherwood

The Tennyson women were Alfred Tennyson’s forebears – the poet’s paternal grandmother, Mary Tennyson (1753-1825), her daughters Elizabeth Russell (1776-1865) and Mary Bourne (1777-1864), and her daughter-in-law Frances Tennyson, later Tennyson d’Eyncourt (1787-1878). The women were an inseparable and influential part of the poet’s early life until he left Lincolnshire for Cambridge aged eighteen.

The women were prolific and engaging correspondents and their letters, preserved in archives in Lincoln and for the most part unpublished, cast a unique light on the Tennyson family’s interrelationships and the times in which they lived.

By presenting the women in their own words, this book – the first full-length study of the four women – brings the Tennyson women to the wider public they deserve and corrects the misjudgements of generations of Tennyson biographers.

The book includes extensive and annotated extracts from the women’s letters, linked by narrative passages providing context and continuity. Illuminating case studies span six decades, from Mary Turner and George Tennyson’s marriage in 1775 to George’s death in 1835. Brief afterwords provide new insight into the women’s final years.

Mary’s letters record the details of the family’s daily domestic lives. They also reflect the progress of her long, eventually happy marriage, as the self-absorbed young bride becomes a woman whose maturity and faith allow her to acknowledge her family as ‘my treasure on earth’. When Mary died, sixteen-year-old Alfred wrote an elegy for ‘Grandmamma Tennyson’. The poem, her children’s grief and George’s awareness of his ‘great & irreparable loss’ counter the claim that by 1801 Mary ‘had ceased to count for very much in the family’.

Elizabeth was Mary and George’s much-loved elder daughter. Married to the wealthy Matthew Russell, she became the poet’s favourite aunt. Biographers refer to the ‘charm’ which is clearly apparent in her later letters, but Elizabeth’s wit had a sharp edge and her recurring depression was an inherited element of the Tennyson ‘black blood’. When Matthew died, Elizabeth began a Chancery Court case to challenge his executors, family members who included her brother Charles. Despite the litigation, of which biographers appear unaware, Elizabeth remained close to Charles. Her support for Alfred and their mutual affection lasted until her death.

Mary was the Tennysons’ less-favoured younger daughter. After her marriage, Mary and John Bourne’s Dalby Hall became ‘the second home of their childhood’ for Alfred and his Somersby siblings. Despite the evidence of letters, biographers have continued to caricature Mary as ‘a crazy Calvinist’. Her mother’s letters refute the view that she was a difficult child; young Mary’s own words reflect her sociability and wit. Her later letters reveal Mary to be a compassionate woman of profound faith, with a love of language and a biblical turn of phrase biographers may have misunderstood.

Frances, née Hutton, married Mary and George’s favourite son, Charles. Biographers dismiss Frances as ‘without any great intelligence’, but letters reveal her growing confidence and ability to manage a large and wealthy political household. Frances was a Tennyson woman by marriage, not birth, able to view family relationships in a new light. She retained her impartial perspective; when her father-in-law died, she defended Alfred’s attitude to George’s contentious will and the perceived disinheritance of the Somersby Tennysons.

By reading the Tennyson women’s own words we too may see the family’s interrelationships in a new light and more truly understand the women who were an inseparable and influential part of Alfred Tennyson’s early life.

References:

Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, By His Son, 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1897)

Charles Tennyson and Hope Dyson, The Tennysons: Background to Genius (London: Macmillan, 1974)

Jack Kolb, ed., The Letters of Arthur Henry Hallam (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1981)

Robert Bernard Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, 2nd edn (London: Faber & Faber, 1983)

Peter Levi, Tennyson (New York: Scribner, 1993)

John Batchelor, Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find (London: Chatto & Windus, 2012)


Cover of Letters and Lives of the Tennyson Women

Marion Sherwood, author of Letters and Lives of the Tennyson Women, is an independent scholar based in the UK. She completed a PhD on Tennyson with the Open University in 2011 and is the author of Tennyson and the Fabrication of Englishness. She has also published articles in the Tennyson Research Bulletin and is a member of the Tennyson Society Executive Committee.

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