While reading Tennyson’s letters I was struck by the number he had written to Queen Victoria. I had heard that she was supposed to have slept with a copy of In Memoriam under her pillow after Prince Albert died, but I had no notion of the almost friendly nature of the relationship between the poet and the Queen.
I decided to do some research into their relationship and discovered a delightful book called Dear and Honoured Lady: The Correspondence of Queen Victoria and Alfred Tennyson. This book is based on their letters and also includes passages from Emily’s diary and letters from others in the Royal household about or to Tennyson.
Early in her reign Queen Victoria had little interest in poetry. Prince Albert, however, did. He was a great admirer of Tennyson and especially of In Memoriam. Though the Queen took little interest in choosing a poet laureate following Wordsworth’s death in April 1850, the Prince pushed for the appointment of Tennyson.
Tennyson was surprised when he was offered the post in November 1850. According to Dear and Honoured Lady, ‘the night before he received the letter from Windsor Castle’ he, coincidentally, ‘dreamed that the Prince came and kissed him on the cheek’ (p. 27).
This new appointment and the success of In Memoriam dramatically changed Tennyson’s life. He could no longer be a mostly private man. As he gained fame, he gained not only the attention of the Queen and Prince Albert, but also that of his fans.
Tennyson had fans in the way modern celebrities do today. Of course he wasn’t chased about by paparazzi, but people did want to talk to him, get his autograph, and look at how he lived. To try to regain some privacy the Tennyson’s moved to Farringford. They rented the house in 1853 and bought it in 1856. At first Tennyson worried he wouldn’t be able to manage the twenty-acre estate, but he was taken by the house, its seclusion, and the view of Freshwater Bay from the drawing room window.
The seclusion, alas, was not perfect. Some of his more intrepid fans found him out and were willing to undertake the journey to and across the Isle of Wight. The trek from the ferry port to Farringford would have been rather more laborious in the days before the automobile. A few of the less well-mannered fans, on reaching Farringford, went so far as to press their noses against the windows and peer in at the family.
However, one admirer who made the journey across the island was most welcome. According to an excerpt from Emily’s diary, on 13 May 1856, while the family were in the process of unpacking following some interior redecoration, Prince Albert arrived for a visit. While staying at Osborne, he was suddenly taken with the idea of visiting Tennyson and making his acquaintance.
The prince, too, was taken with the beauty of Farringford. He picked a bunch of Cowslips to give to the Queen and on leaving he said, ‘“It is such a pretty place that I shall certainly bring the Queen to see it”’ (Dear and Honoured Lady, p. 42). Though orders were sent on 17 May 1856 announcing that the Queen would visit, stormy weather interrupted her plans. Tennyson was not to meet her personally until 13 April 1862.
In my next couple of blogs I will look at how Tennyson’s relationship developed with the Queen and at passages from In Memoriam. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your impressions of the grounds at Farringford and which parts of In Memoriam you like best. You can read the poem on online-literature.com and use the search function to quickly find any phrases you happen to remember. Please log in and leave your comments below.