If you had asked me when I thought the notion of media-fuelled celebrity had started I would have felt fairly confident in saying the 20th century, but apparently not. Newspapers have been raising up people to celebrity status as long as they have existed it seems and the Victorian period was a flourishing era for this, due to the advances of photographic techniques. Instead of gazing adoringly at an engraving of your hero you could gaze upon their photograph, their actual proper face, accurately captured in the latest technology. Now you know what they look like, you know what they are like due to the media coverage of them, they become your friend. Well, in your mind anyway.
This is possibly why I thought it was a good idea to go to the Isle of Wight to find Tennyson.
|Alfred, Lord Tennyson
or 'Tenny' as I like to call him. I bet he'd like it too.
I'm sure his book is splendid, but it's no Idylls of the Kings
Tennyson was exactly the opposite. He hated the celebrity element of his work. Sensitive and shy, he cringed away from the idolisation, possibly fearing how very human he was and not wanting any part of the private to become public property. His poem 'To --- After Reading a Life and Letters' was written in response to the publication of Keats' Love Letters, a terrible intrusion in Tennyson's opinion. Quite what he would have made of the tabloids these days, I dread to think but he sums up the attitude of many here: '"Proclaim the faults he would not show; / Break lock and seal; betray the trust; / Keep nothing sacred; 'tis but just / The many-headed beast should know."' In a very modern refrain, he complained 'most things said about me in the papers are lies, lies, lies.' He should be glad mobile phones had not been invented yet...
The family moved to Farringford House in Freshwater in November 1853, away from the crowds, the sightseers and among his friends and invited guests. This lasted until 1860s when the crowds found him again and made their way to Farringford, causing contemporary guidebooks to remind tourists that Tennyson had the right to privacy and lurking in shrubbery really wasn't on.
So, modern sightseer, out of the shrubbery immediately! If you were to board the Red Funnel Ferry, what can be discovered of Tennyson today?
|Isle of Wight
Freshwater is on the west of the island
Home to Julia Margaret Cameron, female pioneer of artistic photography in the mid-nineteenth century, she was Tennyson's neighbour and friend. A proponent of 'celebrity portraiture' (although I'm guessing she was aiming for something more artistic than mere likeness), she caught the dreamy, artistic images of the circle who congregated at Freshwater.
|Alfred Lord Tennyson (1866)
|Tennyson and his sons Hallam and Lionel (c.1862)
|Tennyson, 'The Dirty Monk' (1865)
In the footsteps of other groupies, I went next to Farringford but I promise I did not lurk in the shrubbery. These days it is an impressive array of self catering cottages, a golf course and restaurant. The actual house looks like this...
It is quite obviously not open to the public, but the most charming ladies on the reception told me that the extensive works that were taking place would result in a museum being open in 2016, as well as some rooms in the house you could actually stay in. Underneath the mass of scaffolding, it is possible to see the majestic house waiting to be uncovered...
|Main entrance to the house
|Side of the main building
With still no sign of Tennyson, I took myself off to All Saints Church, Freshwater, the Tennyson's local church which has a memorial as well as the Tennyson tomb...
Inside the church, entering not under the clock but round to the right, you can see some beautiful Pre-Raphaelite windows, including this rather familiar chap...
|Knock, Knock. Who's there? Jesus!
If the next line is 'Jesus who?', you're in trouble.
It is indescribably beautiful.
Tearing myself away from Ellen Terry, I went into the graveyard - I had another reason for being in the churchyard which I shall tell you about tomorrow in my 400th post, but today I will limit myself to this tomb...
By the Tennyson family tomb, I met a very old man who asked me if I knew who was buried there. I said yes, Lord Tennyson's wife. 'A very great lady,' he replied and I wondered if he had actually known her as he did seem old enough...
It struck me as a rather sad thing that although it's wonderful to celebrate the greatness of Tennyson by honouring him with a burial in Westminster Abbey, I'm sure he would have preferred to spend eternity with Emily in the peaceful corner of the Wight, overlooking the sea.
Onward, ever onward, and my feet took me to the place I was sure I would encounter Tennyson. He loved to walk upon the Downs overlooking Freshwater, and so I drove up to the National Lust carpark and consulted the handy map. It assured me of the short walk up to the Tennyson monument and so I set off in an entirely unsuitable dress and jangle-y sandals.
Half way along this chalk path, travelling ever upwards, I paused to enjoy the beautiful view. Far more suitably dressed walkers passed me but ever confident that I had read the map in the carpark correctly, I climbed ever higher and further along the path, a steep bank at my left, white with chalk. Surely I would encounter the poet at any moment?
I reached a gate and was slightly puzzled to have no sight of the monument ahead of me at which point a man appeared beside me, heading from my left and so I turned round and looked at the now revealed hill which had been rising from the cut bank of chalk...
|Guess what that tiny line on the horizon is...
|Reader, I managed to remain reasonably dignified
even if I had to have a bit of a sit-down on the handily-placed benches
I thought about what it meant to be a celebrity and yet strive for the solitude of your own existence free from the pressure to be your externally-created persona. Tennyson seemed driven to connect with his readers in such a spiritual way but strive to avoid them physically, and it must have been a strain to balance these two situations. People loved him because he was so very good at what he did and wanted to express the amount he moved them by seeing this man, this genius in the flesh. For a writer, to be confronted by people who feel an actual relationship with you because they know your work must be bemusing, flattering, terrifying and everything in between. The price of fame seems to be a continual struggle to reconcile within the poet, whose legions of fans had the media, transport and income to pursue the man who expressed their inner sorrows, fears, wishes, desires in his work. His genius made him a part of them in a way that is startling modern, but to the masses of nineteenth century literature groupies must have seemed exciting, new and legitimate.
I found the short, direct footpath down from the monument that delivered me in a few short moments to my car (damn, blast, etc) and departed the Downs feeling both cheery for having the cobwebs blown away and sad for Tennyson that he could not keep his hard-earned peace.
Back at the ferry, footsore and with a car-full of leaflets, postcards and Waitrose chocolate minirolls, I departed the island for the mainland once more. It seems a pertinent lesson in life that if we truly love what a 'celebrity' provides us with, be it painting, writing, music or the suchlike, the greatest display of our love and gratitude should be to leave them well alone personally. No man is his job, not least after the media has got hold of them, and just because you love the words the poet writes, he does not necessarily write them only for you.
Thank you Tennyson, I have a number of your books, turns out you do not owe me anything else.
Mind you, if you ever fancy a Waitrose Chocolate Miniroll, I'm your woman.