The wind is whipping around me as I write this at Farringford, the home of Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Isle of Wight. Branches creak ominously and the whooshing air seems almost like the expressive voice of a companion - now gusting, now gentle. Even during calm, the wind is constantly blowing melodies through the leaves. From the house, you can hear the crashing surf (the sea is about 600 yards away as the crow flies) and the star gazing is amazing. The pins of light seem to pop out of the black sky above the house's warmly-lit neo-Gothic windows.
Being here brings Tennyson's poetry alive for me in a new way. I've particularly had lines running through my head from The Lover's Tale, a poem heavily revised and first published while Tennyson was living at Farringford in 1879:
Tennyson presented Mary Gladstone with a pre-publication copy of this poem when she visited in June 1879 (private collection). The daughter of Prime Minister Gladstone marked a line down much of the passage just quoted, in the same manner that her father marked passages to notice. It is tempting to think that the lines reminded her of her visit. Her diary entries from those June days when she wandered with Tennyson's eldest son, Hallam, sounds a bit like the laureate's poetic lines:
When I walked along the white chalk cliffs of Tennyson Down, the weather was just as changeable: sunshine, a rainbow, rain bordering on sleet, wind so strong that a bird remained suspended in space as it flew into the wind, and then back to sunshine. No wonder Tennyson spent all his time wandering this gorgeous land, composing poems about wind and waves. I'd never go inside, either, if I lived here! And suddenly I understand why Tennyson wore that long cloak - such clothing is needed against the wind and sudden squalls.
Being here also helps me to envision what Mary Gladstone experienced after a quick 20-minute crossing from the New Forest to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. I want to include some more from Mary's diary here, for although this Prime Minister's daughter was well-known at the time, Mary Gladstone does not usually feature in histories of Farringford or the nearby Freshwater Bay community. Mary was also important to the family in her own right. As I discuss elsewhere, Hallam Tennyson proposed marriage to Mary during this visit (she did not accept).
Mary was met on the pier by Hallam, then:
The shyness was natural enough - Mary and her chaperone, Maggie, were visiting Britain's Poet Laureate, after all. The visit was intimate, with just the two women and the three Tennysons (Alfred; his wife, Emily; and their son, Hallam). As Mary told her brother, Henry Neville (Harry), in anticipation of the week-long visit, "We think most alarming but advisable as we shd remember it all our lives." (May 1879, GG 848).
After a cup of tea “in a room very bleak inside with large empty table, + sofa ungracefully placed, but with big pointed windows all framed in green benches + lovely view between”, Mary went for a walk with “father + son all over the garden, in + out being shown all the pet walks + views, “maidens croft” a great field buttercups daisies + bluebells deliciously knocking ag. ones feet.” Upstairs in the house were “funny old Chinese pictures” (4 June, Diary) and she described her bedroom as “Trees grow right up to my window + it is framed in ivy. a p.f. [pianoforte] + a B.J. [Edward Burne-Jones] photo, but a feather bed.” (5 June, Diary). What a luxury for this musical lady to have a piano in the room!
After a by-then old-fashioned progressive dinner (moving to four different rooms, one for each course), the day ended with backgammon. On other evenings, as was more standard in Victorian England, Mary played the piano and Tennyson recited his poetry.
The next day, after breakfast, they walked up:
Henry James is not often compared to Tennyson, and yet here is Mary Gladstone reading James's psychologically realist novella Daisy Miller (1878) in juxtaposition to striding through the gorse with Tennyson, hearing his poetic exclamations, and writing poetically herself, with a generous sprinkling of adjectives.
Such diary passages help to bring the past and the house alive. How marvelous to experience literature as such a living presence: reading is the activity of repose, Tennyson's poetic inspirations inform Mary's experience of natural beauty, and his recitations are part of the post-dinner social entertainment. In 2017, we will be able to step even more concretely back in time when Farringford opens to the public as a museum. I, for one, can't wait!
Weliver, Phyllis. “The Tennysons at Home: Farringford.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. December 17, 2015. Web log post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/12/10/mary-gladstone-visits-the-tennysons-at-farringford).
Weliver, P. (2015, Dec 17). The Tennysons at Home: Farringford. Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/12/10/mary-gladstone-visits-the-tennysons-at-farringford