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.