Binding a genius with woolly strands

Lucy Hughes-Hallett reads the life of a woman of no substance

Emily Tennyson: The Poet's Wife by Ann Thwaite, Faber, pounds 25

In 1855 Emily Tennyson remarked to the sculptor Thomas Woolner, who had designed a medallion bearing her portrait, that she had better "take to poisoning" to ensure good sales for him. Serial killers were ever-popular but few people, she guessed, would wish to buy an image of a poet's wife. Equally few, I imagine, will want to read her biography.

Ann Thwaite presents no compelling reason why we should do so. A pity, because this is in many ways an admirable book. Thwaite writes elegantly and marshalls her enormous cast of Tennysons, hangers-on, friends, admirers, servants and correspondents with marvellous tact, ensuring that we get to know well those whom we need to know, and allowing others to fade discreetly away after making their contribution. She has a nice ironic wit which allows her to be simultaneously sceptical and affectionate in recording the variously wayward, pompous or venial goings-on of her subject's spouse, siblings, siblings-in-law and other relations and friends (never though of Emily herself: Emily is too good to require such treatment). Best of all she is able to write about love with a sympathetic energy that suffuses her book with emotional warmth. It is the story of a happy marriage (pace Edward Lear, who wrote that no one but his beloved friend Emily could have put up with Alfred Tennyson for more than a month.) It is also, most markedly and delightfully, the account of a mother's requited love for her children, a theme unaccountably rare in biography and about which Thwaite writes with tenderness and eloquence.

For all that, though, the book has a hollow centre. Emily, so fine, so gentle, so intelligent, so unassertive, remains shadowy. Thwaite is determined to rescue her reputation from those who have portrayed her either as an ineffectual invalid or as a conventional and excessively domestic woman who tamed and neutered Tennyson's genius, binding it, as Harold Nicolson put it, "with little worsted strands." Thwaite (a poet's wife herself) demonstrates how energetic and hard-working Emily really was, combining the roles (each of which would now be considered a stimulating and fulfilling one for a professional person of either sex) of a great author's tutor, not to mention doing the arduous job of being his wife (ie housekeeper, hostess, counsellor, lover, and apologiser to those he offended).

Her father, who had no sons, had given his daughters a boy's education. True, Emily, whose mysterious "ill-health" Thwaite guesses to have been caused by an unmentionable prolapse of the uterus, lay on a sofa, but while recumbent she wasn't doing anything fiddly with little bits of worsted, she was reading the works of Dante, Goethe and Virgil in the languages in which they were written. But though Thwaite demonstrates conclusively that there was more to Emily than has previously been allowed, she cannot build her up into a person worthy of the enormous amount of devoted attention Thwaite herself has given her, or even that Thwaite requires of her readers. For all her hard work and wide reading, Emily Tennyson is still the person of whose conversation Coventry Patmore could remember nothing except the words "Won't you stay to dinner?"

Her marriage to Tennyson was the great event of Emily's life; its long deferment her biographer's greatest diffculty. Thwaite quotes a letter from Alfred, one of the few to escape their son's censorship, written just before their correspondence was broken off for nearly ten years. It makes clear that Emily's later suggestion that lack of money kept them apart was misleading, probably deliberately so. "I fly thee for my good, perhaps for thine," he wrote. It seems he was as little capable of making up his mind to marry as he was of organising a holiday for himself. ("You will find him heavy to carry" wrote his friend William Brookfield to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was contemplating a jaunt to France with him.) It was Emily who first declared her love (he wrote thanking her for taking an initiative for which he would not have had the courage), and probably Emily who first proposed. But though Thwaite does surely all that could be done to make sense of their agonisingly protracted courtship, it remains obscure. With commendable honesty she admits "we know very little," but that doesn't prevent her writing rather a lot, padding out the poorly- documented years of Emily's unmarried life with information of mind-boggling triviality and irrelevance (for instance that in 1813 her father contributed three guineas towards the foundation of a village school.)

Emily once wrote fondly to Lear that his long silences allowed her to be as much at ease with him as with "my old friends, the empty room, or the sofa in the corner." It appears that her husband felt much the same way about her, composing freely while she sat across from the hearth from him, entirely undemanding. As Benjamin Jowett said, she had "hardly enough of self in her to keep herself alive." She certainly hasn't enough to keep alive this very long book. Repeatedly I found myself relieved by the entrance of some other person - Julia Margaret Cameron trailing across the lawn in her red and purple robes, Emily's sister, poor mad Louisa, scribbling cryptic notes of furious self-disgust in her journal, little Hallam solemnly and hilariously recording in his diary his father's tantrums in continental hotels - anything to vary the tranquil monotony of Emily's company. Thwaite shrewdly remarks of Emily's sister-in-law, Matilda Tennyson, "she was it seems a 'character' and characters can be difficult to live with". True, but a character is a biographer's first requirement.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone