Tennyson and Charles Dickens crossed paths a number of times and while they respected one another’s work, they never really became friends. As Tennyson’s grandson writes in Arthur Tennyson: by His Grandson Charles Tennyson (1949), Tennyson and Dickens ‘met socially several times’ following ‘the publication of Tennyson’s two volumes in 1842’ (p. 213). In late 1845, Dickens was ‘greatly delighted when Alfred travelled two hundred miles to be present at the famous performance of Everyman in His Humour by “Boz’s” amateur company at the St. James’s Theatre, and in the spring the poet, with Count D’Orsay, acted as godfather to [Dickens’s] fourth son, portentously christened “Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson”’ (213).
Following the christening, Dickens invited Tennyson to ‘share a house with him and his family in Switzerland’, but Tennyson refused the offer ‘fearing that fundamental differences of temperament would make such a close association fatal to their friendship’ (213). Despite his reservations about having a close personal relationship with Dickens, Tennyson continued to follow his fellow writer’s work.
We now think of literature, particularly fiction, as something that we read silently to ourselves. This was often not the case in the nineteenth century. Whether one member of a family was reading aloud while the others worked, as depicted in the Meyrick household in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, or large crowds were gathered in public meeting halls to hear a professional reader, public readings were a common spectacle.
According to Malcolm Andrews in Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves: Dickens and the Public Readings, ‘Domestic readers […] would often have a strong sense of performance, even within such a private context, and would make an effort to project the text with some panache’ (p. 62). He describes ‘eyewitness accounts of Tennyson’s powerful, rhythmic readings, which might sometimes last for a couple of hours’ (p. 62). Such readings were typical of the time and ‘Dickens himself began as a domestic reader of this kind, excited to have the chance to read aloud his recent Christmas Book or the latest instalment of Dombey to family and friends’ (p. 62).
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol has long been a holiday fixture, whether in the form of Charles Dickens’s novella, or the many cinematic incarnations of the tale starring everyone from Mickey Mouse to Patrick Stewart. During the mid-nineteenth century the story was a year round favourite and Dickens often read from it in his public readings no matter what the time of year. For example, on 31 July 1857 Arthur and Emily Tennyson went to hear him read from A Christmas Carol in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.
While many sources report the Tennysons’ attendance at this reading (including, F. B. Pinion’s A Tennyson Chronology and both Charles Tennyson’s and Hallam Tennyson’s biographies of Alfred Tennyson), I have not been able to trace any accounts of their responses to the reading. However, their responses were almost certainly positive.
According to Malcolm Andrews, a newspaper reporter wrote that ‘“the difference between [Dickens’s] Christmas Carol as we read it by our firesides and his delivery of it from the platform last night, reminded us of the difference between a letter and a personal interview”’ (p. 68). Tennyson would surely have been similarly sensitive to this difference. He habitually read his poetry aloud to family and friends because he was acutely aware of the difference in the impact of hearing his intonation of the words versus reading them on the page.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my blogs as much as I have enjoyed writing them. Owing to other commitments I will no longer be writing so regularly, but I will still post occasional guest blogs. I wish you a happy holiday season and hope your new year is full of good cheer and good books.