Sunday 1 June 2014

The Wight Weekend: Celebrity!

While reading the marvellous publication Tennyson's Celebrity Circle by Charlotte Boyce and Paraic Finnerty, I came across an excellent definition of what makes a celebrity: it's not only someone who is constantly in the public eye, but also upon whom we confer an identity.  You see them so often you feel you know them, and that is often the problem.  They are such a part of your life that why should you not assume that it goes both ways, why would they not mind you paying them the same compliment?  They are in our lives, we should go and be in theirs. Let's go and find them!  I bet they would love a chat...

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.
Okay, so maybe I was rather hampered by the fact that he'd been dead for over a century, but this did not slow me down as I boarded the delightfully expensive Isle of Wight Ferry and sailed across the silvery Solent to East Cowes in the footsteps of Tennyson.  I'm guessing he went to East Cowes, there is a Waitrose there and everything.  Tennyson fled to the Wight away from the crowds of adoring fans who would go to his house in Twickenham, desperate to meet their hero.  It's hard to imagine the level of fervent love he inspired, in our youth-obsessed, anti-intellectual society where overwhelmingly the only people who get that that level of attention are people like this...

Joey Essex
I'm sure his book is splendid, but it's no Idylls of the Kings
I felt very old in Waterstone's yesterday when I had to ask Miss Holman who Joey Essex was and whether his surname was really Essex (as he is a reality tv star in The Only Way is Essex, I am informed).  He has very white teeth and seems very pleasant.  Good luck to him.  He is very typical of today's 'celebrity' culture - people court media attention to further their careers to a point where it appears to an outsider that their career is the attention and the money it generates.  What does the lovely, smooth Mr Essex do to earn money and celebrity?  He just is Mr Essex, in all his well dressed, nicely groomed glory.

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
Once the Solent had been crossed, I pitched up at East Cowes and set off for Freshwater, first stop Dimbola Lodge...

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)
For 15 years between 1860 and 1875, Dimbola (named after one of the Cameron family's coffee plantations in Ceylon) was both Cameron's home and studio.  Mrs Cameron was famed for her generosity, high spirits and outgoing nature.  Tennyson's favourite picture she took of him was the one he entitled 'The Dirty Monk', showing him dishevalled, wind swept and clutching a book (presumably one of his).  At Dimbola Museum and Galleries, you are surrounded by her photographs, lining the walls, and it gives you the impression of a community that fostered the creative spirit in all, from Lord to Maid (more of that tomorrow).

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
Many thanks to the lovely ladies on reception for humouring me and giving me the leaflets and information.  I look forward to hearing more about the museum in the next couple of years!

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.
Overlooking a rather fine bust of Tennyson, which nestles in an arched alcove, is a stained glass window version of Light of the World by Holman Hunt, a visitor to Farringford.  The bust shows an appropriately wind-swept looking poet, as if caught striding over the downs, creating verse in his head as he looks out to sea.  Beside the bust is a plaque to his son Hallam and grandson Alfred, who died at Fleur le Martel in 1918.  While still in the church you have to marvel at the beautiful window designed by Watts, of Sir Galahad.  The figure is taken from his young bride, Ellen Terry...

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...
Some spirited words later, I had turned to walk towards the tiny spike on the hill which appeared to have some ants at its base.  My sandals jangled and my net petticoat rustled.  Two things became obvious to me.  Firstly, I cannot read maps for toffee and possibly should not be let out alone, even on a small island, and secondly, I dress inappropriately, a fact blazingly obvious to the walkers passing me in things like cagoules, boots and bags which contain compasses and Kendal Mint Cake.  Mmm, Kendal Mint Cake.

Reader, I managed to remain reasonably dignified
even if I had to have a bit of a sit-down on the handily-placed benches
It is remarkably moving to be up above Freshwater, looking down from the cliffs with circling crows calling and swirling above you.  Even with the steady stream of walkers, coming to visit the ornate cross that reaches up to the heavens, you feel remote and free, aware of the sea that surrounds the island and the solitude that it provides.

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.


  1. absolutely fabulous post. love the humor in this one. well done and thanks!

  2. Oh My! That was fun! Thanks for the visit and laughs!

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I always have a jolly time on the Wight and it was fun barrelling about, looking for Tennyson. The view from the monument was breath-taking and I thoroughly earned my chocolate mini-roll.

  4. Wonderful to read that and remember holidays on the isle now years ago. We visited Farringford on our 10th wedding anniversary (we've just had our 20th!) The hotel was open and you could visit the great man's study. It was amazing to stand there and think - this is where he would have first read the Time's account of the charge of the light brigade and where he wrote Maud! What annoyed me greatly was to see a photograph of Jeremy Clarkson on the wall! One of your comments in a different post comes to mind - the horror, the horror... Interestingly there's a little set of stairs which would have enabled Alfred to leave quickly undetected if he needed to. I remember having lunch in the Shallots restaurant (contemporary pop music blaring away). I am glad you did the lovely walk up to the monument. I remember looking down at the sea hitting the rocks and thinking that Tennyson would have stopped here and looked at those rocks and you know exactly the words in his mind: 'break, break, break, on thy cold gray stones, O sea. And would that I could utter the thoughts that arise in me.'

    Your comments about the celebrities and privacy is interesting. I am sure Tennyson secretly liked the adulation but that he needed the privacy and solitude especially on those walks over the downs when he would be composing his verse in his mind as he walked. Buying up all the land for his own private use was a bit extreme! It's nice that his son left it to the national trust for us all to enjoy. Anyway, thanks again for a wonderful blog, a treasure trove of delights!

  5. Sorry, I just thought of that story where the young Lewis Carroll who was a great celebrity hunter turned up announced (his friends had warned him against disturbing Tennyson but he insisted on the 'Englishman's right to make a call in the morning'. Tennyson was in the garden mowing the lawn (a strange thought in itself) but stopped what he was doing and invited him in for a cup of tea. Mrs T made the customary invitation to come back for dinner but after he had left Tennyson ran after him and asked him not to come back! All very awkward... It is strange to think of Lewis Carroll trying to get in with the Freshwater set, when now he is more famous than any of them!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx