Thursday 22 October 2015

Book Review: The Looking Glass House

I am in the very pleasant position of having a bevy of books on my desk to review, so I ought to crack on with it before my own is out!  Today, I bring you a familiar tale from an unfamiliar viewpoint…


The Looking Glass House has a very unique selling point to recommend it. The author, Vanessa Tait, is the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, and she presents us with the story of Lewis Carroll’s friendship and then desertion by the Liddell family, but from the viewpoint of the governess, Mary Prickett.
Mary Prickett (unknown photographer)
If you have been following the fashions in Carroll-interpretation then you will be familiar with the notion that instead of desiring the formidable girl-queen Alice, it was actually the ever-present Miss Prickett that Carroll was paying court to, but with most things to do with the ever elusive Reverend Charles Dodgson, nothing is clear-cut.  In Tait’s story, she presents us with a governess, surely one of the loneliest jobs in Victorian England, in a city full of riches, all of which are denied her.  Into her life comes the gentle, unusual bachelor, Dodgson, who deplores the rough physicalities of life, who captures the pure wonder of beauty and who also captures Miss Prickett’s eye.  What could possibly go wrong?
The Liddell sisters, Edith, Ina and Alice (1858) Lewis Carroll
The book itself is beautifully presented.  I am a sucker for book design and the positive/negative silhouettes and references to Wonderland on the cover are nicely judged. The characters of Wonderland are sneaked in to the cover and the text both obviously and surreptitiously, such as with touches like the ‘Fat-Ten-U’ medicine that Mary considers to plump her figure.
Alice as the Beggar Maid awaiting her King Cophetua (1858) Lewis Carroll
The character of Alice is probably one thing that will draw readers to the book.  What exactly was going on there?  And will we ever know? The problem I have with the whole Dodgson and Alice affair is that is almost impossible to look at it in an unbiased manner now as so much information and presumption has happened in the last 150 years.  I suspect the advent of the internet, not to mention photoshop has not helped matters one little bit, causing things like this to happen…

Take this photograph of Lewis Carroll...
Add this photograph, presumably a father and daughter
And together with the 'Alice' from the Sisters picture above,
Hey presto, call Project Yew Tree....
Whenever I discuss Alice Liddell with people, perfectly intelligent, rational people, you will get at least one person who will throw up their hands and declare Dodgson was a paedophile.  It is a very easy step to take given his desire to ‘collect’ little girls in photographs, some of which are utterly unpalatable to our modern eyes.  The thing I found refreshing about Tait’s book is that this whole situation is not only handled within the narrative without our modern assumption, and also the facts, such as we know them, are covered in a postscript at the end, covering the author’s family history.  You would think Tait would attempt to portray her family in the most favourable light but it seems an honest telling of a little girl’s caprice, a mother’s folly and a man at odds with society, getting things wrong.  Re-reading Alice in Wonderland as an adult (which I periodically do) it is actually tempting to see Dodgson as Alice, seeing society as nonsensical and dangerous, full of terror and humour and unfathomable mysteries which could get him into trouble.
Grace Weld as Red Riding Hood (1857) Lewis Carroll
The image is referenced in the novel
I really enjoyed The Looking Glass House and have no hesitation to recommend it to you.  Even though to most of us, the outcome is already known, by using Mary Prickett, Tait allows us to see everything, all the familiar stories, from a different viewpoint.  Like fictional Alice, Mary seems to struggle to negotiate the fantastical society where you could equally meet a queen as a dead swan and have to automatically know how to react to each.  I found her handling of the everso-easy-to-judge Dodgson to be both sympathetic yet honest and Alice, who is easy to be typecast as either a victim or a monster, is shown for what she is, just a little girl. Add to your Christmas list or sneak onto your Kindle, either way, this is pleasurable reading for a Victorianist at Christmas.

The Look Glass House is available to buy now from Amazon UK (here), to preorder USA (here) or at a bookshop near you...

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Man-Damsel in Distress!

Although not as instantly remembered as Ophelia or The Lady of Shalott, surely one of the most familiar Victorian paintings with Pre-Raphaelite leanings has to be this one...

Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) John William Waterhouse
Gorgeous greens and blues with just that dash of red denoting danger and heavens! all those pearly skinned nymphs, dragging poor old Hylas off for a life of watery pleasure.  What a way to go. I hadn't really given the subject much thought, other than deciding which of the nymphs I fancied being (centre back, faffing with my hair) and until recently I hadn't seen (or looked for) any other renderings of the subject.  After a little digging, there are loads of them making me glance suspiciously at my gentleman readers and wonder if there is something about the idea of being carried off by a party of naked lovelies that people find appealing.  I can't imagine what that would be...

Hylas and Nymphs, 3rd century Roman Gaul
Right back to the time of Astrix we go (don't tell me that wasn't all entirely based on fact, thank you) and here we have an early depiction of our handsome hero being accosted by some women at a watering hole.  I'm not entirely sure about the health and safety ramifications of water-collecting with a spear while in the nude.  It also answers the question 'Is that your spear or are you just pleased to see us?' Sorry, it's his spear.  Anyway, in Greek myth, the beautiful Hylas was a very good friend of Heracles, after Heracles killed his Dad.  Or was his Dad, it's all a little unclear and it all depends if you listen to Ovid.  Anyway, the upshot was that Heracles and Hylas had a thing going on and Heracles took him off on the Argo, but Hylas was kidnapped by nymphs at the spring of Pegae.  No matter where the distraught Heracles looked he could not find Hylas who found he didn't mind being loved forever by a bunch of nymphs.  I'm not sure what the moral of the story is - boys prefer hanging out with women than looking for golden sheep?  If you are fishing and a bunch of women offer to show you their tackle, don't lean over too far?

Hylas and the Nymphs (1630) Francesco Ferini
The thing I love about the various Hylas pictures is the different facial expressions he has been blessed with, not to mention the enthusiasm that the nymphs are employing in order to abduct him.  Some Hylas are going easier than others, I think you'll agree.  This seventeenth century Hylas looks bemused but not exactly unwilling.  I get an air of 'I've just had this coat dry-cleaned, you know!' about him and there definitely is a bit of rough stuff going on amongst the nymphs.  Look at the two on the front right: one is definitely giving the other a clout.  Come on ladies, plenty of Hylas to go round...

Young Hylas and the Water Nymphs William Etty
Etty gives us the full story, with Heracles looking out for his friend on one side and the girls rather barrelling the young man into the water on the other.  They are beautifully lit, with the water shimmering and the nymphs all snowy and lovely, I'm surprised Heracles can't see them.  He's bound to hear the splash...

Nymphs Rescuing Hylas Joshua Cristall
Oh, 'rescuing' is it? Hello Heracles, I was just having a swim and these lovely young ladies 'rescued' me and are in no way towing me off to their water-y pleasure palace.  They seem to have a fairly firm grip on him and there is some proper teamwork going on.  Well done nymphs, if we all work together we can abduct a pretty young man and no-one is any the wiser.  He could try shouting for help...

Hylas and the Nymphs Bertel Thorvaldsen

Here we have a mid-relief plaque of Hylas, fleeing from one nymph into the arms of another.  I notice the nymph he is fleeing is the only one who has bothered to get dressed that morning.  Typical.

Hylas surprised by the Naiads (1837) John Gibson
Honestly, some of the Hylas look rather too stupid to escape from a paperbag, let alone some determined nymphs.  This rather sheep-eyed pretty-boy is well on his way to a water-y end, or several water-y ends.  I'm so sorry.  Moving on.

Hylas abducted by Dryope at the Spring of Pegae (1933) Henry Pegram
This is a wonderful piece of sculpture, in St John's Lodge garden, Regent's Park, London.  It has definite overtones of Burne-Jones' The Depths of the Sea and she is very much mermaid rather than water-nymph.  I always find mermaids to have a rather more fatal air about them and Hylas looks rightly terrified as she yanks him down to the depths.  Eep!

Hylas and the Nymphs Edouard Theophile Blanchard
Apologies for the black and white, I sadly couldn't find this in colour but I think we can imagine some lovely pastel-ness as our hero is dragged off by the naked ladies.  He is definitely leaning over too far.  I'm sure I saw a public information film in the 1970s warning about this sort of thing...

Hylas and the Nymphs Henrietta Rae
Rivalling Waterhouse in terms of gorgeousness, Henrietta Rae gives us a similar scene, with flower-decked lovelies appearing among the water-lilies in order to apprehend the object of their desire.  He seems to have just noticed the one who was sneaking up behind him (which you definitely need legs to do, mermaids take note).  He has the manner of a chap that has become a tad uneasy about the amount of flattery he is getting - 'Yes, I am handsome, yes I know, how kind of you to notice, oh, hello, I didn't see you behind me...' *Splash*

Hylas and the Naiad John William Waterhouse
Now, if this girl-gang business makes you uncomfortable, here is Hylas being abducted by one very game Naiad.  It seems a far fairer fight, does it.  Maybe she's just after his leopard-print wrap...

Hylas and the Nymphs Bert Barelds
To bring you up to date, here is a beautiful photographic rendering of Waterhouse's original.  It does make a pleasant change to see a hapless man being carried off by mythical beings after the countless female victims in legends.  I think it is clear why the myth holds a continual fascination for artists, a little wish-fulfilment possibly and it all ends well enough, as these things go.  Apart for poor Heracles that is.  So, I think the lessons we can take away from this are that mythical beings, male or female are not to be trusted. 

Also, if you are pretty in ancient Greece, you shouldn't be left on your own.  If a pretty young woman says she's got something to show you in a river, feel free to have a closer look but you only have yourself to blame, you saucepots...

Saturday 17 October 2015

Film Review: Crimson Peak

In the second film review of my week, after Suffragette on Monday, we have Crimson Peak, a gothic rollercoaster, filled with blood, betrayal and extraordinarily beautiful people...

From the possessed imaginings of Guillermo del Toro comes a Victorian extravaganza worthy of the title 'Sensational' .  Del Toro, the man behind such wonderful films as The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy as well as producing The Orphanage, Mama and Kung Fu Panda 2 (all terrifying in their own way), is no stranger to terror and the grotesque as well as having a very special talent for the subtleties of horror.

Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing being tucked in by her mum...
The plot involves Edith Cushing (surely a nod to Peter Cushing), a serious young woman who wishes to be a writer of ghost stories.  Sorry, not ghost stories, but stories that have ghosts in them.  She herself is no stranger to spirits as from time to time she is visited by her mother who passes on a warning: 'Beware of Crimson Peak'.  All this is meaningless until she falls in love with the very dashing Sir Thomas Sharpe and is whisked off back to his home Allerdale Hall in Cumberland to live with him and his extremely disconcerting sister.  Turns out however, they are  not the only people there...

'Was that a bump?' 'I don't know but I'm using it as an excuse for a cuddle...'
Right, where to start? Well, this is a marvellously Victorian film - from the ghosts, to the family secrets, crumbling family estates and innocent heroine, this bears all the hallmarks of sensational literature. Saying that, you may well know what the secret is long before it is unveiled as anyone who has read Lady Audley's Secret or the suchlike will spot it a mile off but that doesn't matter as the shocks and gore gallop along at a jolly pace.  Mia Wasikowska (known for her Alice in Disney's recent reimagining of Alice in Wonderland as well as the brilliant Stoker) is gloriously ethereal, floating around in white dresses with puff sleeves so translucent they look like wings with the light streaming through them.  Tom Hiddleston is pale and beautiful as Sir Thomas, striving to pursue his childhood dreams of engineering a machine to lift the blood red ore from the grounds of his home.  The fly in their otherwise tranquil ointment is the presence of Sir Thomas' very disturbing sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) who I'm sure is overjoyed to welcome Thomas' new bride...

Jessica Chastain as Lucille, dressed in blood red...
The costumes are glorious and Allerdale Hall, also known as Crimson Peak, is gloriously dilapidated. From the blood red ore seeping from the ground staining the snow to the massive hole in the roof letting in the snow, it's a rotting ruin but I have to say I had a properly English response to the first sight of Allerdale.  I stayed in a B&B in Leeds that was far worse than that.

Allerdale Hall in Cumberland.  Rated 2nd worst B&B by Trip Advisor.
 Things I didn't like are far outweighed by the stuff I loved but are worth mentioning.  It is a film very much for an American audience.  The placing of Allerdale in 'Cumberland' made us raise an eyebrow: although quite rightly still a region in the late 19th century it is more likely to be recognised as a sausage or a terrier and felt a bit like calling a place 'Wessex' to me.  The fact that the hall is crumbling yet still has a functional lift made me laugh especially as our heroine, while fleeing untold terrors ran straight for the lift rather than taking the stairs. Also the degenerate, crumbling English people (personified by Allerdale) as opposed to the righteously upstanding and good Americans (as seen by the Cushings lovely home and the muscular Charlie Hunnam (who is secretly British, shhh, tell no-one) also made me snigger.  It's good to know we can always be the glamorous baddies...

Ghosts.  Properly scary, drippy, terrifying ghosts...
Saying all that, there is much to absolutely adore here.  The ghosts are not wafting spooks but clawing, murmuring decaying bodies that are scary in the shadows and terrifying in plain sight.  Everything is stained red from the ground and it curls off the ghosts like smoke which is very effective.  Our blonde heroine in her white nightie and candle scurrying around the haunted house is pure gothic and delicious and the repeated motif of red and white, ore on the snow, blood on a handkerchief was wonderful.

Tom Hiddleston.  I'm not saying anything else.
A few words on why it is a '15' rated film - there are no punches pulled on the violence and it is very graphic in a couple of scenes. As I said the ghosts are decaying after some brutal deaths and that is not pretty.  Also, there is some animal cruelty, not seen but still I am aware that many of my friends are very sensitive to that.  I did find it interesting that the death of the animal was very muted as opposed to the death of one of the characters which was very graphic indeed.  It seems we are fine with seeing what happens when a person's face strikes a nice Victorian washstand repeatedly but we draw the line at squashing a Papillon.  Also, not that this will deter many of my readership, you see Tom Hiddleston's bottom.  When I saw it, a lady in the front row gave a happy squeal at that point. And rightly so. Moving on.

Charlie Hunnam and Mia Wasikowska being solidly American
(As only a Brit and an Aussie can be...)
On the whole, I found little in the plot of Crimson Peak that surprised me yet it is a magnificent black forest gateaux of a film with unbelievably beautiful dresses, scenery chewing baddies and heroic quantities of violence.  There is never a dull moment as the ground bleeds, the bath tub holds unpleasant surprises and ghosts enjoy a nice game of fetch.  See it with someone you feel comfortable holding hands with and brace yourselves.

And also keep a shovel handy.  You'll thank me.

Crimson Peak is on general release now.

Monday 12 October 2015

Film Review: Suffragette

Unless you have been avoiding all forms of media this week, you will have heard that the new film about the suffragettes is on general release today.  Probably you have heard less about the movie and more about this:

The 'S' word out of context is problematic it seems...
and probably quite a bit about the lack of this:

Indian suffragettes on the Women's Coronation Procession 1911
But for what it's worth, here is my film review...

Suffragette follows Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a young mother who goes from bystander to a central figure in the early 20th century struggle for women's suffrage.  By 1912-13 when the film is set, the suffrage movement had been peacefully campaigning for almost half a century to no avail and so direct action via civil disobedience was called for.  In return, the women faced violence, abandonment and the horror of prison. Maud is a fictional character, but hers is a story told with compassion and reality.

Votes for Women!
 It is not only the politics of suffrage that is explored; all aspects of an Edwardian woman's world is shown, exploring themes of helplessness. Maud's apparently happy home is shaken by her actions whilst at the other end of the social spectrum a government minister's wife has as little power over her life as the women from the factory.

Top: Emmeline Pankhurst played by Meryl Streep
Bottom: Edith Ellyn (Edith New) played by Helena Bonham Carter
Despite heavily trailering Meryl Streep's presence in the film, her role is very much blink-and-you'll-miss-her, but the influence of Pankhurst is ever-present.  It is the actions of ordinary women like Maud that is the focus, together with the struggle of people like Edith New, a chemist who wanted to be a doctor.  By concentrating on the effect political action had on the lives of working-class women, the film avoids the stereotype that suffragettes were women with time and money on their hands.

Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, factory girl turned Derby attendee
The story seems slow at times, but this contrasts strongly with moments of horror such as the force-feeding scenes (as unpleasant as you would imagine) and the final scenes at the 1913 Derby.  The terror and frustration, together with the anger of the women make it unbelievable to think this was England just over a century ago and makes you grateful for how far we have come.

Suffragettes from Mary Poppins
This might not be the film that tells the whole story of women's suffrage but it is an important film, showing how easy it is to be drawn into a conflict in a state when your gender makes you the enemy.  It seems rather contemporary to see people radicalised not by the movement but by their treatment by the state, and this is certainly true of Maud.  This is not an easy film to watch at times, putting to bed any notion that suffragettes were Mary Poppin-style ladies who wore sashes and were very jolly.  This is gritty, unfair and terrifying, leading to a crushing finale that will scare you even if you know what's coming.  Just in case we were feeling too smug for how far we have come there is a list at the end of the film of when the other countries got women's suffrage and those that have yet to get it.

Suffragette is emotionally-charged and educational in equal amounts and most importantly it makes you want to find out more about the subject.  If ever I have any apathy towards voting, I'll just remember the length of tubing with the funnel or Derby Day 1913. That'll do it.

Suffragette is on general release now.

Thursday 8 October 2015

A Poem for National Poetry Day 2015

Happy National Poetry Day, m'dears!  Actually, this happily coincides with my final tweaking of my new novel, out this winter.  It concerns a poet, Max Wainwright, and the sins of the past that haunt him. 

When I came to write We Are Villains All and its poetry, one of the first poems I started with was this one: False May.  I wanted to write something that would give you an idea about the character of the hero and the women in his life, his attitude to love and his expectations of happiness.  The question is whether or not he can ever trust his feelings...

Stages of Cruelty (1857) Ford Madox Brown

False May

When I was first to fall for May, I thought her like a bloom,
That ranged upon the apple tree and lasted all through June,
So steadfast was her love, I swore her heart was everlasting,
I did not heed the faint of sweet that marked my true love-fasting.

Oh how I loved you, estimable May, and never paused to wonder,
Your ways to steal from my love’s safe, my honesty to plunder,
I never felt your hand, sweet May, steal in and seize my heart,
But only to acquire just that, to take that single part.

Through my devotion, I was blind and never saw it all,
How you curate a mount of hearts collected on your wall.
I did not sense the death, my love, I suffered at your hand,
Without my heart, I stricken fell, but cared not what you planned.

But through it all, my lifeless eye could settle nowhere other,
For I believed that we remained beloved to each other,
I was her fool, I marked it not, although the bindings choke,
For my sweet May I would this day assume the self-same yoke.

And I have loved you, wondrous May, through all eternity,
‘Though it matter naught to you, ‘twas everything to me.
That I would die, beloved May, and never know of this,
That you were mine, my false, false May, and broke me on your kiss.

We Are Villains All will be out before Christmas and look out for some exerts from it in the next few weeks!

Tuesday 6 October 2015

The Passing of Alfred

Public grief.  It is such a tricky subject that I have started and restarted this post about seven times now. I think I find it most tricky as I don't really understand it. Until recently I thought it was a modern phenomenon to weep in public for strangers, save for monarchs, or those who could have been monarchs...

For example, this lady will be forever know as 'Woman grieving the death of Princess Diana'. Now I might be wrong but I'm guessing she didn't personally know Princess Diana, and was just one of thousands, possibly millions worldwide who felt personally devastated by the death of the Princess.  I'm not sure what it was like everywhere else in the world (and I would be fascinated to hear) but in Britain in the week following 31st August 1997 the media and the country seemed to plunge into a state ably modelled by the lady above. I have to admit I found it puzzling and I didn't understand it.  I think that is why I found the following so interesting...

From the Burnley Express and Advertiser, 8 October 1892
Today marks the anniversary of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's death in 1892.  By that point he had been laureate for over 40 years and was 83 years old.  Since 1869 he had split his time between Farringford on the Isle of Wight and Aldworth in West Sussex.  Aldworth had been built as his escape from the tourists who pestered him in Freshwater, but he returned to the Wight in the winter.  He was Queen Victoria's poet, he was revered by the nation and he was an old man.  When he passed away in the early hours of 6th October 1892 I imagined that the reporting of his passing would be dignified and restrained.  How wrong I was.

Alfred Tennyson, crossing the bar, rather literally...
I have studied the newspapers of October 1892 for the last few weeks, both national and local, in preparation for this post.  I didn't set out to delve in so deep but as you will see, the subject just kept giving.  On Wednesday 28th September Tennyson had complained of feeling unwell after being out for a drive on Black Down, near his home in West Sussex. On the Thursday he remained indoors and there were a few mentions of this in the papers but not really anything like what was to follow.  Sir Andrew Clark, President of the Clinical Society of London and Fellow of the Royal Society, was summoned, along with Dr George Roqué Dabbs, Tennyson's doctor from the Isle of Wight.  Dr Dabbs arrived on the Thursday and remained with the family.  Sir Andrew visited on the Friday but left again, returning the following week. A velvet rope was put across the drive to Aldworth to keep away visitors, with a basket left for messages.

The doctors, from the Graphic memorial supplement
Over the weekend, the poet existed on a strict diet of beef tea, brandy and milk as any solid food was deemed to be detrimental to his recovery and indeed, Tennyson seemed to rally on the Monday, but then his health began to fail.  He requested a copy of Shakespeare which he held in his hand even after he lost the strength to read from it.  Sir Andrew returned on the Tuesday and by Wednesday morning all hope was lost.  Shortly after midnight on Thursday morning, Tennyson gain enough strength to say goodbye to his wife, Emily before passing away at 1.30am.

The Death of Lord Tennyson (1892) Samuel Begg
How do I know so much detail about the death of a Victorian poet?  Because once the man died every tiny detail was spun into a legend complete with illustration and poetry.  The death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson became as great and epic as the Passing of Arthur and the newspapers could not dedicate enough column inches to every single detail.  Both of the physicians attending Tennyson gave their accounts to the press. Sir Andrew proclaimed the poet's passing as 'a gloriously beautiful death.  In all my experience I have never witnessed anything more glorious.'  Dr Dabbs was hardly more restrained in his language: 'Nothing could have been more stirring than the scene during the last few hours.  On the bed a figure of breathing marble, flooded and bathed in the light of the full moon...'  Much was made of the moonlight that streamed in through the window, leading to such illustrations as Samuel Begg's which was reproduced in  supplements to publications like Black and White and The Graphic.  Beside the great man, with his copy of Shakespeare in his hand, weeps Hallam and his wife Audrey (Emily is absent, interestingly) and the young Dr Dabbs looking stoically resigned.  The media drew a picture of a great man who just stopped like an unwound clock, drawing to a dignified and peaceful end.  The public death of Tennyson was not one of gout, bronchial and stomachic trouble exacerbated by influenza and old age, it was glorious end of a poem.

Memorial Requiem (1892) written by Hamilton Galt
As soon as his death was announced, speculation began on what sort of funeral would happen.  By 8th October, the papers were full of news that he would be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey in a grave adjoining that of Robert Browning who had died in 1889.  The media coverage of Browning's funeral had been quite restrained, reporting that Tennyson had attended but keeping the details quite sparse. There was no hope of that for Tennyson: there was speculation on the coffin, which had both an inner shell for the body made of elm and an outer oak case.  Tennyson had expressly requested that his body should be laid to rest in a heart of oak coffin, which held a plate inscribed with his name and birth and death dates.  His copy of Cymbeline that had been in his hand at death was buried with him, enclosed in a tin box, and on his head was his silk skull cap.

'Conveying the Remains from Aldworth to Haslemere Station on the way to London.'
from the Graphic memorial supplement, October 1892
It was reported that the velvet rope that had sealed the family away from the outside world was finally removed and the gates to Aldworth were opened once more to well-wishers, although the papers stated that the family were only seeing intimate friends.  Tennyson remained in Aldworth until Tuesday 11th when he began his progress to Westminster Abbey, ready for interment on Wednesday 12th.  It may as well have said that he was placed in a boat with handmaidens, floating off to Avalon.

Other than intimate friends and family, one thousand tickets were made available to gentlemen (note ladies not admitted!) to be guaranteed a seat at the funeral of Lord Tennyson.  Eleven thousand people applied.  The papers knew that this would be no ordinary funeral, despite the respectable reporting of such matters as the music and George Granville Bradley, Dean of Westminster, who would lead the service.  This rapidly became not a funeral about the establishment, but about the people who all, it seemed, loved Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The Coffin in St Faith's Chapel, from the Graphic memorial supplement, October 1892
Reading the descriptions of the funeral now I am struck by the uneasy balance I always feel in any reporting by the media of such public events.  There is a palpable tension in the press reporting on the grief of ordinary people and wanting to sneer at the lack of dignity afforded them in certain situations.  If 10,000 men had been disappointed in their application to attend Tennyson's funeral, then it can only be imagined how many of them, plus women, came to the Abbey on 12th October in order to claim one of the unticketed places.  Along with perfunctory descriptions of the Queen's floral tribute (laurel leaves tied with a white silk ribbon) or what dignitaries were in attendance, a lot of column inches was dedicated to the attempts to find a place in the Abbey.  Crowds, who had been waiting since 9am were finally allowed admittance around noon and poured in like a 'great human wave' (as the London Daily News reported it), streaming into the nave, aisle and transept, then up to the Triforium gallery to fill the seats not reserved for ticket holders.  Women in fashionable mourning clothes took to their heels and ran or else were swept along with the masses. Many hundreds more waited outside, straining to hear the organ music and the singing.  The papers reported that many of the people had brought flowers from the waysides to lay at the grave of their poet.  It was stated that if the intellect of the nation was not more strongly represented in the Abbey than at Browning's funeral, 'then the heart of the nation certainly was'.

'A Nation's Homage to the Late Laureate: The Wreaths in the Jerusalem Chamber, Westminster Abbey'
from the Graphic memorial supplement, October 1892
It was noted that although it was an event of the establishment, the death of the Queen's poet being akin to a politician in many ways, there was not the show of uniform or presence of officialdom that other 'state' funerals had.  There was a small assemblage of soldiers from the home nations but most notably in terms of pathos was one old gentleman who was a corporal from the 10th Hussars, a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Wedgewood Commemorative Jug, c.1900
You would think that would be an end to the coverage, but the following day's papers reported how still more crowds of people 'most of them of the simpler class' (as charmingly reported by the Liverpool Mercury) flocked in to view the last resting place of the poet.  All of the many floral tributes covered the floor of Poets' Corner and a beautiful pall, worked in Keswick, had been laid over the stone. Not slow to take advantage of the commercial opportunity, commemorative issues of his poetry were released: by 14th October Macmillan and Co were already advertising a new miniature edition of Poetical and Dramatic Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, together with Anne Thackeray Ritchie's Records of Tennyson, Ruskin and Browning (available to download free here, should you fancy a copy). 
G F Watts working on the Tennyson memorial, begun in 1898

Unveiling of finished memorial outside Lincoln cathedral, 1905
Public acts of memorial continued with the unveiling of the giant statue of Tennyson outside Lincoln cathedral, together with other memorial busts and portraits. However, reflecting the mood of personal connection, many small items could be purchased, such as the Wedgewood jug and calendars emblazoned with the poet's likeness and verses.
In a memorial sermon, preached to his congregation in North Shields, the Reverend Vian-Williams was reported as saying that Tennyson was loved because he wore the 'white flower of a blameless life', exactly what Tennyson himself had said of the Prince Consort.  In the Reverend's own words Tennyson was 'white in thought, feeling and deed, white in lip and word' which is the feeling you get from the quite extraordinary news reporting of the time.  Looking at the moon-drenched image of the dying Tennyson, it is akin to a saint and from the reports in the papers you would think that they would hardly have been surprised had he risen again three days later.  The reporting of the 'simple' people who had gathered from all corners of the country with their wild flowers and unruly manners, seemed on some sort of pilgrimage of love and it is obvious that the media enjoyed the spectacle whilst not quite understanding what was happening even while they participated.  It all comes down to Tennyson himself.

My favourite portrait of Alfred Tennyson (1861) by James Mudd
What was it about Tennyson that made them fight to get into his memorial, to queue to see his tomb, travelling to just be at the Abbey on the day of his funeral?  Would having a blameless life be enough to bring you to him?  Possibly for some, but I think that the answer is deeper than that for most people and equally as opaque.  Why do we love certain celebrities as if they are family, because that is what it amounts to?  Why do certain people that we do not know beyond their work attach themselves to our souls?  I would offer that what we mourn when such a person dies is not the person themselves but the construct we build around their work.  Poets and writers create stories for us and we feel we know them through the act of storytelling.  Poetry has an immediacy and often, especially in the case of Tennyson, tells us about very visceral things - love, lust, death, war, betrayal.  He may have allegedly been white in word and deed in life, but in writing he was the corners of human experience, the deeper layers of what it is to feel alive.  Take a poem such as 'O Beauty, Passing Beauty', one of my favourites, and it is a description of the frustration in wanting another person so badly that you can barely think of the word 'kiss' in context of them without dissolving into a puddle of lust.  Tennyson understood and put it much better than that, and that is why he was, and still is, loved.
It is a mark of the strength of Tennyson's work that his death, and with it the silence of his work, could inspire such a tremendous swell of feeling.  The very heart of Britain filled Westminster Abbey at his passing and I am surprised yet again to see how very much the Victorian response resembles that of modern day. The past may be a different country but it seems when it comes to those we treasure, we appear to speak the same language.