Alfred and Emily Tennyson viewed the tranquility and intimacy of their remote island home as the perfect place to raise their two sons. Hallam was just over a year old and Emily was expecting again when the family moved to Farringford; Lionel was born in Emily’s bedroom in March 1854, while Tennyson waited watching the stars below (in what is now the School Room). As the boys grew up, the rambling structure of the house made it ideal for youthful adventures. Childhood friend Edith Nicholl Ellison recounted how on a rainy day:
“[We would] rush up the stairs, to turn loose the spirit of fun in the endless mazes of that upper floor. Such a house as that was for ‘I Spy!’ and other thrilling games! All nooks and corners and queer little gable rooms and great big ones leading one out of the other – you never could tell when or where you were safe – The enemy came bouncing out just when you least expected him, and then what a breathless chase there was up and down steps and around sharp corners!”
(A Child's Recollections of Tennyson by Edith Nicholl Ellison. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1906)
Ellison is keen to assure us, though, that the boisterous play did not disturb the poet “in his far-off study” separated by many “winding passages”!
In fact, unusually for a middle class 19th-century family, Tennyson was an openly affectionate and active father who enjoyed spending time with his sons. He joined in games of football and ‘battledore and shuttlecock’ (an early form of badminton), helped build and destroy forts, entertained for hours by blowing bubbles, read to them, and took them flower-picking and fossil-hunting. The extensive grounds and stunning scenery of Freshwater Bay helped Tennyson to educate the boys in natural history as much as Classics and English literature. The whole family loved to garden; Hallam later recalled:
“After lessons we used to walk with our father and mother in the garden…we planted primroses and ferns on the banks, or we made bonfires, or cut down trees, or sawed up wood, or gathered leaves for the leaf heap, or dug in the little plots of ground set apart for our special use.”
(Hallam Tennyson, ‘Memoir’, Lionel Tennyson, 1891)
Hallam and Lionel were taught at Farringford by their parents and later a series of tutors until they left for boarding school on the mainland in 1865, aged twelve and eleven. Enthusiastic and exuberant personalities, they proved difficult to tame at home. One tutor complained that “they want a deal of disciplining and require to be much urged to keeping regular time for working”(F.H. Atkinson, quoted in Ann Thwaite, Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife. London: Faber and Faber, 1996). Lionel particularly enjoyed playing Emily’s piano at all hours! Emily was aware of indulging the boys, but wrote in her defence: “I do not think anyone who has not had children can quite realize how much more painful it is to inflict even the simplest punishment on a child than it can be for the child to bear it”(quoted in ibid).
The dominant impression we are left with from Emily’s Journal, family letters and friends’ accounts is one of a close and affectionate family relishing the privacy of life in this sheltered home. Emily often wrote of her supreme contentment on the rare occasions when they were not entertaining visitors, and she could savour the company of her husband and sons. In 1858, for example, she observed: “It is a happy time for me with our little boys on each side of me on the sofa…reading to them nursery tales or nursery rhymes before our own evening reading. If it were not faithless I should be afraid of so much happiness as I have”(Journal, 14th April 1858). A frail and often immobile woman, Emily noted when the trio would nurse her and even carry her to the Down in a chair on a sunny day. In 1866 she wrote: “The boys [are] wonderfully tender & thoughtful, so different from what one often hears of boys”(Journal, 13th December 1866). When they left for school, she described the house as “dreary without them”(Letter, 2nd December 1865).
There were, however, difficulties in the marrying of domestic and professional roles at Farringford. Emily worked tirelessly as Alfred’s secretary and amanuensis, often advising him on composition as well as answering thousands of letters on his behalf over two decades. Several acquaintances noted Alfred’s penchant for port, with Edward Lear in particular being severely critical of the poet’s abrupt and insensitive manner, especially when drunk. Lear remarked of Emily: “I believe no other woman in all this world could live with him for a month”(quoted in Thwaite, 1996). Lear felt Tennyson was sometimes dismissive of his sons and unappreciative of Emily’s relentless labour on his behalf to maintain both the home and his public status. Ultimately, Emily did find the dual tasks overwhelming, and had what can be described as a mental and physical breakdown in 1874, after which she stopped working as Alfred’s secretary. Support came, though, in the form of oldest son Hallam, who abandoned his university studies to return to Farringford and assume Emily’s role. He would go on to marry and raise his own family here, giving his three sons the same grounding in animal and plant life that he had received as a child gamboling in the gardens and fields with his parents.
Despite building the summer home of Aldworth in 1869, Emily always looked back on the early years at Farringford with the greatest sense of pleasure and fulfilment. She wrote that “Farringford was pre-eminently home, the happiest days of our lives having been spent there” and that “This is the old beloved home to me, the dearest spot on earth”(quoted in Thwaite, 1996). It is a sentiment echoed by visitors to the house, one concluding that:
“…with all [its] charms, Aldworth can never awaken in the breast of the admirers of our great Bard, those emotions which the sight of the home of his earlier fame, and his constant abode for so many years, cannot fail to arouse. Thus Farringford will always be surrounded by a halo as the true home of Tennyson.”
(‘A Few Words on the Homes of Tennyson’, Primitaie [essays by members of Alexandra College]. Dublin: Hodges, Foster and Co., 1871)