Reading the bumps

Tennyson's Gift by Lynne Truss Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16
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Somewhat in the manner of Tom Stoppard's Travesties, this lyrical comedy by Lynne Truss is based on her discovery - or invention, it scarcely matters - of a chance confluence of celebrities. But, compared to Stoppard's convergence of global figures such as Lenin and James Joyce at the international crossroads of Zurich, Tennyson's Gift is a far more insular work. This is literally so, since the setting is the Isle of Wight at the zenith of Victoria's reign.

Aside from the great poet, ensconced in grubby splendour ("surely the dirtiest laureate that ever lived") on his island retreat, the cast includes the prissy and distinctly creepy Rev Dodgson (about to publish his first Alice book), the scrounging, otherworldly painter G.F Watts and his unlikely 16-year-old actress-wife Ellen Terry, and, finally, the wonderfully odd photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

Not that this gallimaufry are entirely pleased to find themselves in proximity during the broiling July of 1864. Dodgson, an incorrigible lioniser, is set on befriending the poet. Cameron, while suspicious of having a photographic rival on her patch, is determined to capture an image of the bard in suitably heroic pose. But Tennyson is equally resolved to remain in grumpy solitude, protected by his redoubtable wife Emily.

Into the midst of this famous stew plunges the American father-and-daughter team of phrenologists, Lorenzo and eight-year-old Jessie Fowler. Very much against his will, the author of Alice in Wonderland is lured on stage to have his bumps read by the distressingly precocious girl. Following her announcement to an entranced audience that the "Organ of Philoprogenitiveness [love of children] is considerably enlarged", the mathematician reacts alarmingly. Dodgson "reeled and writhed" before "some might say inevitably, he fainted in coils".

Truss scarcely puts a foot wrong for most of this wonderfully inventive jeu d'esprit - though Jessie's reference to her father's "Organ of Firmness" is a touch knowing, but very funny nonetheless. The slightly dreamy dialogue appears to owe a little to that master of the arch aside, Ronald Firbank. Much of the book's humour is based on the contradiction between the starchy highmindedness of Victorian art and its only-too-fallible practitioners. The sponging Watts devotes himself to morally uplifting work, with sombre, cryptic titles like "Fortitude overcome by Grace in the Absence of Hope". The domineering Cameron bullies fishermen into posing as King Caractacus by donning coal scuttles as helmets.

While hinting at deep and dangerous waters, the egregiously suspect figure of Dodgson is exploited for his comic ambiguity. As might be expected, surreal elements from the Alice books - from the painting of roses to the lobster quadrille - are recurring features.

Though the pace of the book turns a touch frenetic in the final stretch and its sunny mood darkens somewhat, the great Lynne has produced a comic concoction of considerable charm. She even provides a happy ending when the curmudgeonly poet at last consents to present "his amazing, famous, enormous head" before Cameron's lens. This epic of the Isle of Wight's literary apogee is virtually the perfect summer book. No deck-chair will be complete without it.