Lively fragments: In the light of an exhibition marking the centenary of Tennyson's death, Eric Griffiths reflects on the glamour of literary curios

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The Independent Culture
HALLAM TENNYSON, in his Memoir, described his father's death thus: 'He was quite restful, holding my wife's hand, and, as he was passing away, I spoke over his own prayer, 'God accept him] Christ receive him]' ' He does not mention that, with her other hand, Audrey was taking notes on the scene, detailing rate and depth of breathing to the precise minute and recording Hallam's pious quotation.

Her notebook is one of the first and most interesting items in the exhibition at Lincoln's Usher Hall marking the centenary of the poet's death. Hallam had asked her to jot down these memoranda and used them to compose his own published account. In the woodcut of Tennyson's death-bed (also at the Usher Gallery), Audrey's hands are still less busy - they rest on the counterpane and her head is sunk on them, oblivious of everything but the present agony of grief.

Facts like this do not prove that the Victorians manipulatively idealised their home-lives (any more than Mallarme showed unconcern when he sat by his eight-year- old son Anatole in his last illness and with stern persistence wrote it all out). Audrey's notes reveal that Hallam toned down Tennyson's last moments as often as he touched them up. After he had said 'God accept him] . .' she adds, 'both nurses fell on their knees in prayer'. That opportunity for sentimental edification was declined; there are no ministering angels with uplifted eyes in Hallam's version of events.

People take notes when they can't trust their memories, especially when, as with Tennyson's son and daughter-in-law, they feel that something valuable is being entrusted to those memories. Nineteenth-century England had fewer, more cumbersome techniques of remembrance than we have now, though Tennyson was a favourite subject of one of the first great photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron, and one of the earliest recorded voices. Our ease of instant replay makes us suspect the selectiveness of Victorian memorials, forgetting what trouble they had to preserve anything.

They were just beginning to learn how to mass-produce commemoration. The language itself shows this; the OED records 'souvenir' in its current sense only from 1900. Postcards, for instance, were introduced in 1894. So, there is something wonky about the title of JS English's The Postcard World of Tennyson, for Tennyson died two years before he could have bought a postcard which claimed to show the very brook which chattered, chattered as it flowed. Tennyson's was rather a world which felt that the private singularity of places and people was being lost in a torrent of mechanical replication. As the poet complained to Mrs Cameron: 'I can't be anonymous by reason of your confounded photographs.'

Paradoxically, then, while the means of perpetuation multiplied, what they were designed to fix shrank into a shadow of the former self. Take the case of autograph-hunting, whch had developed into a craze by the 1840s. What the hunter wants, presumably, is real communication from his prey; to own some of the individual's handwriting demonstrates personal contact, however fragmentary, with one's idol. An autograph given on demand, though, is not genuinely 'handwriting'; it is scarcely even a true signature.

Tennyson capitalised on the mere tokenism of autographs when he at last replied in writing to one hunter who had long pestered him in vain: 'Ask me no more - A Tennyson'. Difficult to show that off triumphantly in your album, but you could't complain: you had in a sense got what you were asking for.

Dismayed and vexed by invasions of privacy, the Victorians still remained avid of further revelations. Arnold thought the Romantics 'did not know enough', but then lamented that he knew too much when details of Shelley's life became public; Froude was execrated for releasing Carlyle's reminiscences of his wife; Browning's son had acted like a viper in the bosom of the family by publishing his parents' letters.

As it happens, Browning wrote the best poem about literary curios and about how charged with fascination detritus from a writer's life may seem. When he was young, he revered Shelley and was amazed one day to hear someone casually mention meeting his hero. In 'Memorabilia' Browning mixes prosaic fact and the verse-forms of a fairy- tale to convey how the detail comes across simultaneously as trite and striking. There is an arch tone of mock-impressionability - 'he spoke to you and you replied to him? Well I never]' - and also an unfeigned wonder, a slight envy - 'You spoke to Shelley? Well, I myself never did.' It does not matter what they said, for 'memorabilia' do not need to be memorable. That is why, as here, they are often laughable to those not impressed by the figures they concern, why people are scandalised by the prices they can fetch. The same small fact or object may be both merely 'a moulted feather' and signally 'an eagle- feather'. This occurs even when famous artists are not involved. An incident stands out from the level stretch of life before and after, and we cannot always say why it does so; a patch of moor is radiant amidst 'the blank miles round about'. Such trivia can fairly be treasured, as Browning suggests when he puts the feather not inside his coat but 'inside my breast', taking it to heart.

Dr Johnson told Boswell that the best data for a biographer are minutiae: 'Sir, there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great knowledge of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.' How right he was is shown by how measurably poorer our sense of Johnson would be had Boswell not bothered to record all those 'Sirs'. Of course some literary fact-grubbing has been ruthless, betraying the collector as a 'publishing scoundrel' in the denunciatory words of Henry James's tale of memorabilia-mania, The Aspen Papers. But Proust's letters while he wrote the great novel prove that he was, at least, a fact-butterfly with a thirst for inside information, and even Tennyson, that confidential poet, lined In Memoriam with unforgotten eagle-feathers from the private life of his dead friend, Hallam.

You wouldn't guess from In Memoriam that Hallam was a smoker but in the centenary exhibition there is a sketch by another member of the intimate Tennyson circle, James Spedding, which shows him wielding what looks like a cigar. Perhaps a lost manuscript will come to light, a missing stanza along the lines of: 'And, faintly as a distant star,/Flushed through the mist of summer dawn,/Returns a sight I chiefly mourn:/The vanished rose of thy cigar.' It seems unlikely.

But then so much seems unlikely about artists if we insist on having them resemble their works. Who would have thought Beckett an enthusiast for sports-cars from the tempo of his plays? Yet he was. As Beckett himself wrote, there is a 'mysterious element of inattention that colours our most commonplace experiences'; half the time we don't notice what we're doing. This element is all the more mysterious in an artist's life outside work, for the work is particularly the focus of an artist's attention, or rather, it is his way of paying attention. Memorabilia are odd fossils from the unattended life.

This is why they are often most telling when they differ from what we might initially have expected. In Lincoln, you can see Tennyson's dog-whistle. It is a greenish-grey ammonite from a world of trudges and petting which has disappeared. On reflection, there is something apt to this poet and his keen fondness for messages from beyond in this little thing which sends out calls too high for the human ear and which yet are answered.

Or there is his pocket-microscope. He must have acquired this after 1855, for in that year he wrote to Dr Mann that he had been examining 'two little embryo snakes with bolting eyes and beating hearts. I laid them on a piece of white paper. Their hearts or blood-vessels beat for at least two hours after extraction . . . I was so sorry not to have you and your miscroscope here.'

Precise detail always risks sounding ludicrous because petty (for example, if I point that item 145 of this exhibit cannot have been addressed to Alfred Lord Tennyson, as both catalogue and display-case claim it was). The alternative is fraudulent grandiosity, the sort of thing to be found in a current brochure advertising 'The Tennyson Experience', an October weekend in Skegness: 'People come to Skegness on holiday for many reasons, but not often to honour a great poet.' Well, they wouldn't, partly because Tennyson holidayed not in Skegness but at Mablethorpe.

Everybody who had experience of Tennyson is now dead, though it remains possible to experience Tennyson. This is done principally by frequenting his poems. After that, you dwell amid the memorabilia, the left-overs, which arrange themselves around his work like iron filings round a magnet. The dull facts are beautified by his attentive presence, facts such as that the last words of Audrey Tennyson's notes on his death are 'We rose and left him in the moonlit room'. Tennyson himself might have been proud of the euphony of those 10 syllables. It is as if, even as she turned from his corpse, he still had not stopped speaking, though now he spoke through her.

'Tennyson' is at Usher Gallery, Lincoln, until 13 September.

Robert Browning's 'Memorabilia'

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,

And did he stop and speak to you

And did you speak to him again?

How strange it seems and new]

But you were living before that,

And also you are living after;

And the memory I started at -

My starting moves your laughter.

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own

And a certain use in the world no doubt,

Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone

'Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather

And there I put inside my breast

A moulted feather, an eagle feather]

Well, I forget the rest.

(Photograph omitted)