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Textual/Cultural (Re)constructions

A Cultural Reconstruction: From Pathos to Comedy, Alfred, Lord Tennyson Reimagined in A.S. Byatt’s ‘The Conjugial Angel’ (1992) and Lynne Truss’ Tennyson’s Gift (1996)

Une reconstruction culturelle : du pathétique au comique, Alfred, Lord Tennyson réimaginé dans The Conjugial Angel de A. S. Byatt (1992) et Tennyson’s Gift (1996) de Lynne Truss
Isabelle Roblin


Par son titre même, Tennyson’s Gift, le roman de Lynne Truss désigne le poète en tant que point focal principal du texte. Mais il n‘est pas le seul. En effet, les reconstructions et interactions fictives d’un certain nombre de personnages réels à l’été 1864 sur l’île de Wight sont l’un des principaux ressorts comiques du roman. Les commentaires métatextuels du narrateur omniscient, mais qui appartient clairement au xxe siècle, contribuent également à l’amusement du lecteur aux dépens des célébrités victoriennes. Dans sa longue nouvelle « The Conjugial Angel » A. S. Byatt quant à elle réexamine les liens entre Tennyson et son ami décédé Arthur Hallam, à qui In Memoriam est dédié. L’un des personnages principaux est Emily, la sœur de Tennyson et fiancée de Hallam, qui réfléchit à la nature et à la signification de In Memoriam. Puis la focalisation interne se porte sur Tennyson lui-même, et le poète âgé est dépeint sans concession et d’une manière beaucoup moins amusante que dans Tennyson’s Gift.

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  • 1 For example, Stephanie Forward writes: ‘The reaction to Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, published in 1830, (...)
  • 2 Alfred Austin’s review, ‘Mr Tennyson’ in The Poetry of the Period (London: Richard Bentley, 1870) i (...)
  • 3 Some of these so-called ‘Alfie’ poems were even recorded by the BBC in 1956.
  • 4 For a detailed analysis of the fluctuations of Tennyson’s literary criticism in the 20th century, s (...)
  • 5 A. S. Byatt herself explains the spelling of ‘conjugial’: ‘Swedenborg believed that angels were com (...)
  • 6 I am using Richard Nordquist’s definition of enargia in his Glossary of Key Terms, last accessed at (...)

1Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), appointed Poet Laureate in 1850, raised to peerage in 1884, is generally considered as the chief representative of the Victorian age in poetry. Lionised by his numerous devotees, praised by Queen Victoria herself, his work was widely read and revered, but even during his lifetime his ascendancy among Victorian poets began to be questioned and he always had his fair share of detractors among his contemporaries.1 Swinburne for one called him ‘Alfred Lawn Tennyson’ (Russel 102). Alfred Austin, who was to succeed him as Poet Laureate in 1896, was equally dismissive and declared in 1870 that not only was Tennyson definitely not a great poet but probably he was ‘not even at the head of the poets of the third rank, among whom he must ultimately take his place.2 After his death, Tennyson’ poetry fell out of favour and his reputation steadily declined as his image as the greatest Victorian poet was deconstructed. He was lampooned by the new generation of Anglo-American poets: in 1934, Ezra Pound published ‘Alfred Venison’, a series of parodies of Tennyson in New English Weekly (Forward),3 and W. H. Auden claimed in 1947 that Tennyson was ‘undoubtedly the stupidest’ of any English poet (Russel 100). As for T. S. Eliot, he was apparently more lenient: ‘In a review of In Memoriam, Eliot claims that Tennyson is a great poet, but he bases his greatness on the poet’s magnificent use of sound, not on his intellectual sophistication or his sensuous apprehension of thought’ (Adams 42, note 11). In his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), W. B. Yeats linked the dramatic change in Tennyson’s status to the more general revolt against Victorianism, which he had come to represent. He was confined by his declining readership to his ‘stock role, as official poet of Englishness and the establishment’ (Russel 102), and ‘some found his style overly sentimental; others disliked its moralistic tone, or objected to jingoistic tendencies’ (Forward). His poems came to be seen as ‘mawkish and banal, pompous and orotund, offering little more than the mellifluous versifying of shallow or confused thoughts’ (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, volume 11, 1987). Since the 1980s however, his image is being diversely reconstructed4 with, in particular, the explosion of Neo-Victorian fiction, which finds in Tennyson, as in Dickens or Hardy, a ‘cultural celebrity worthy of reappraisal’ (Gutleben 93). Neo-Victorian fiction is here understood in its widest meaning, in the words of Laura Hadley, as ‘contemporary fiction that engages with the Victorian era, at either the level of plot, structure, or both’ (Hadley 4). I shall concentrate on two of these late 20th-century literary reconstructions of Tennyson or, rather, of ‘an “unofficial” Tennyson persona’ (Steveker 73). The first one is to be found in chapters 7, 8 and 10 of A. S. Byatt’s ‘The Conjugial Angel’,5 a novella published in 1992, the second part of the diptych Angels and Insects. Set in London is 1875, it first introduces the poet through the eyes of his sister Emily (chapter 7 and 8), and then depicts an older and rather decrepit Tennyson (chapter 10), who reminisces about his friendship with Arthur Hallam and comments his most famous poem, In Memoriam, published twenty-five years earlier. In that chapter, the recourse to pathos, one of Aristotle’s three “modes of persuasion” (with ethos and logos) to put “the audience into a certain frame of mind” (Aristotle 1356a) triggers off a positive emotional reaction in the reader towards Tennyson and counterbalances Emily’s resentment, in the preceding chapters, at her brother’s callousness. By depicting the old poet’s helplessness through the rhetorical figure of enargia, defined as ‘a visually powerful description that vividly recreates something or someone in words’,6 Byatt’s narrator elicits a feeling of pity and compassion in the reader. The other text is Tennyson’s Gift, a novel by Lynne Truss, first published in 1996, which deals through multiple focalization with Tennyson and his interaction with his wife and sons and ‘a picture-gallery of Victorian celebrities’ (Gutleben 30), such as Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the actress Ellen Terry or George Watts the painter, and ‘takes place at Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight, in the last week of July 1864’, as the reader is told before the beginning of the novel. It clearly belongs to the sub-genre of the comic novel, here understood, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, as ‘intended to elicit laughter or amusement, typically having a happy or conciliatory ending’. The ‘comic frame’—‘the methodic view of human antics as a comedy, albeit as a comedy always on the verge of the most disastrous tragedy’ (Burke iii)—adopted by the narrator allows for a narrative that is ‘neither wholly euphemistic, nor wholly debunking—hence it provides the charitable attitude towards people that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation, but at the same time maintains our shrewdness concerning the simplicities of “cashing in”’ (Burke 166). Through these two seemingly contradictory examples, I shall try and examine the agenda of the two writers and analyse the different techniques used in these neo-Victorian ‘celebrity biofictions’ (Kohlke 2013, 4) to produce both empathy and distancing effects and their role in the shaping of contemporary views of the Victorian Poet Laureate.

  • 7 This is how Lynne Truss herself describes her (real life) character on her web site www.lynnetruss. (...)
  • 8 Right from the start, the presence of this 20th-century narrator is made obvious in the text, as wh (...)

2To start with, both works devote a large number of pages to two notable Victorian fads: phrenology in Tennyson’s Gift, interestingly defined in the Chambers English Dictionary as ‘a would-be science of mental faculties supposed to be located in various parts of the skull and investigable by feeling the bumps on the outside of the head’ and spiritualist séances, complete with mediums and spirits in ‘The Conjugial Angel’ which is, after all, a highbrow ‘ghost story’ (Adams 27, emphasis in the text). The way they are treated is however quite different and symptomatic of the widely divergent aims of the authors. In Tennyson’s Gift, ‘the rather splendid American phrenologist Lorenzo Niles Fowler and his precocious daughter Jessie’7 provide comic and entertaining moments and, like the other characters, are never taken seriously by the 20th-century narrative voice8 who distinguishes itself ‘from its historical subject matter, mainly to create the distance indispensable to the birth of the comic’ (Gutleben 31). An example of this technique can be found early in the novel, when the narrator, who had earlier called phrenology a ‘highly dodgy profession’ (20), comments on the fact that Lorenzo often manages to get what he wants for free through his ‘flattering talk’: ‘Tell people they have abnormally large Amativeness (sexuality by a fancier name) and they are well disposed to phrenology—and phrenologists—for ever after. It’s just something they happen to enjoy hearing’ (Truss 20). By contrast, the whole setting of Byatt’s novella is woefully serious and realistic: as Susan Poznar notes, ‘the séances themselves, dramatic and convincing scenes that also demonstrate Byatt’s understanding of high-Victorian culture, display her mimetic powers’ (178). The third-person narrator seems to accept unreservedly the veracity of the medium Sophy Sheeky’s visions as well as the presence of Arthur Hallam’s spirit. As Ann Marie Adams notes, ‘no critic who discusses the novella suggests that the figure of Hallam does not visit [Sophy] in chapter nine. Logically, the same credulity should be applied to the appearance of Tennyson in chapter ten’ (42, note 5). Indeed, Sophy creates a spiritual link to the aged—but still living—Tennyson: ‘clasped in Hallam’s earthly embrace, Sophy recites Keats’s poetry and seemingly opens a portal to the Victorian poet’s mind, a mind that serves as the narrative focus for almost the entirety of chapter ten’ (Adams 35). Thus, the reader accesses the poet’s mind as he reflects on the nature of his relationship with Arthur Hallam, which is for A. M. Adams ‘the central enigma of the novella’ (32), while quoting and re-reading his most famous poem, In Memoriam, composed after the untimely death of his friend in 1833 but published much later in 1850.

  • 9 ‘[T]he speaker [in In Memoriam] refers to himself as either widow or widower no less than five time (...)
  • 10 Tennyson’s attitude was typically Victorian, as Linda Hughes, in her critical review of Mary Jean C (...)

3So how exactly is Tennyson reconstructed in ‘The Conjugial Angel’? He is first seen in chapters seven and eight through the eyes of his sister Emily, who was Arthur Hallam’s fiancée but who, at the time when the novella is set (1875), had been married to Captain Jesse for over thirty years. As A. S. Byatt herself wrote, ‘The Conjugial Angel’ tells the ‘untold story of Emily, as compared to the often-told story of Arthur and Alfred in which Emily is a minor actress’ (Byatt 2001, 184–85). Even twenty-five years after the publication of In Memoriam the Emily in ‘The Conjugial Angel’ still resents the way she was almost totally excluded from her brother’s most famous poem and the fact that Alfred had ‘undone and denied’ her own grief (Byatt 1992, 229), going as far as considering himself as Arthur Hallam’s ‘widow’.9 Yet, Emily feels that her brother’s mourning does more than merely exclude her: ‘Byatt suggests that the poem reads Emily’s later decision to marry as an act of infidelity to the dead and that it reproaches her for it’ (Williamson 125). Considered as Arthur Hallam’s ‘relict’, as Victorian widows were called, even if she had never actually been married to him, by the Hallams and the Tennysons, she was indeed rescued from the ‘perpetual maidenhood’ (In Memoriam, Canto VI, 163) her brother’s poem had doomed her to by Captain Jesse’s marriage proposal. She is very aware of and hurt by what she sees as the unfairness of her brother’s disapproval10 whereas she feels she has done more than her duty to a man she had after all only known ‘for four years, of which she had spent no more than a few weeks in his company’ but ‘had mourned […] for nine years’ (Byatt 1992, 231, original emphasis). So ‘The Conjugial Angel’ is to a certain extent ‘revisionist and feminist’ (Byatt 2001, 184) in giving a voice to the silenced woman and exposing Tennyson’s callous treatment of his sister and his appropriation of her sorrow. As such, the novella is typically neo-Victorian since ‘Neo-Victorian literature lends a voice to the voiceless, speaks for the speechless’, as Christian Gutleben and Marie-Luise Kohlke among others remind their readers (19). Furthermore, both Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam are also clearly shown as conventional Victorian males, contemptuous of women’s intellectual capacities (for example they tell Emily: ‘I do not think women ought to trouble themselves much with theology’; ‘Women shouldn’t busy their pretty heads with all this theorizing’ [Byatt 1992, 218, 228]). Emily also questions the exact nature of the friendship between them, based as it was on the exclusion of women in general: remembering the days in ‘timeless Somersby, made by men, made for men’ (225) and ‘those two male backs, those two pairs of eagerly climbing legs, going up to the attic with the white beds’ (226), she wonders what exactly the two young men were up to in that attic room they shared. Emily ‘feels as if she had been expelled from a paradise where she never really belonged because the two young men created it for themselves, two Adams whose friendly union clearly has homoerotic undertones’ (Poznar 186).

  • 11 See the chapter ‘Sex and crinolines: a combination aimed at seduction’ in Christian Gutleben’s Nost (...)

4Issues of sexuality and sexual identity are often addressed in neo-Victorian fiction, and giving or inventing juicy details about Victorian characters or authors’ sex lives is one of its acknowledged specificities. One of the most striking examples of this trend is undoubtedly D. M. Thomas’s 2000 novel Charlotte. The Final Journey of Jane Eyre, where the reader is told everything about Mr. Rochester’s impotence and Jane’s sexual (mis)adventures. Suggesting that Tennyson, this epitome of Victorian morality, was having a homosexual relation with Arthur Hallam, at a time when homosexuality was a crime, and re-reading In Memoriam in that light, would thus be quite in keeping with the desecrating vision of the Victorians that seems to be a staple of neo-Victorian fiction11. However, this is not at all A. S. Byatt’s perspective in the Tennyson chapters, for several reasons.

  • 12 Quoted in Sarah Rose Cole, ‘The Recovery of Friendship: Male Love and Developmental Narrative in Te (...)

5First, throughout her writing career, A. S. Byatt has always been a great admirer of the Victorians, and mocking or debunking them has never been an option for her, whether it be in her critical essays or in her fiction. Possession, her most famous Booker Prize novel, published two years before Angels and Insects, clearly celebrates Victorian creativity over contemporary sterility (Gutleben 2001, 78). Moreover, explaining how she came to write ‘The Conjugial Angel’, she even says, albeit in a parenthesis: ‘(Indeed I only came to be interested in Emily because In Memoriam is a very great poem, and I did not want to forget that)’ (Byatt 2001, 186). Then, the shock value of this would-be revelation is considerably weakened by the fact that even at the time of the publication of In Memoriam, the possible homosexual overtones of the poem had already been hinted at and an anonymous Times reviewer had even accused Tennyson of misplaced ‘amatory tenderness’ and his poem of being a ‘strange manner of address to a man’12. In chapter 10 of ‘The Conjugial Angel’, through interior monologue, the nature of Tennyson’s friendship with Hallam is addressed and ‘just as Emily is given the voice that In Memoriam seemingly denies her, so Tennyson is given the chance to respond to the charges of improprieties his contemporaries and latter-day critics would levy against him’ (Adams 31) and ‘to interpret his own poem’ (Adams 41, note 4). The Tennyson character of the short-story is certainly not stupid nor is he ‘an innocent old creature’; on the contrary, he is ‘a child of an altogether less innocent time’ (Byatt 1992, 259) and he is indeed well aware of the charge of homoeroticism directed at his poem: ‘[h]e knew very well what Arthur’s father feared and suspected’ and ‘[h]e knew the fruitless fire they flew around, without burning their wings, without being shrivelled, and he knew too the terrible misconstruction to which his exact exposition of the full extent of his pain and longing in Arthur’s poems had laid him open’ (258, 257). In her article ‘The Recovery of Friendship: Male Love and Developmental Narrative in Tennyson’s In Memoriam’, Mary Jean Corbett has, I think, persuasively argued against homosexual readings of In Memoriam by explaining its imagery in the terms and context of the Victorian concepts of marriage and kinship. This is reinforced within Byatt’s short-story by the Swedenborgian philosophy and theology which are discussed at length within the text by the different characters and the narrator. Moreover, I agree with Ann Mary Adams when she writes that in fact in chapter 10 of ‘The Conjugial Angel’, ‘Tennyson encodes not his latent homosexuality but his latent homophobia’ (42, note 12). The ‘interest in beautiful boys’ shown by his and Arthur’s Cambridge contemporary Richard Monckton Milnes, who had also propositioned Arthur himself (Byatt 1992, 260–61) is explicitly considered among the ‘things he abominated. Things Arthur abominated’ (259). While acknowledging the ambiguity of referring to himself as ‘Arthur’s widow’, he is also clearly distressed that a reviewer could have thought that In Memoriam had been written by a woman, not understanding ‘that was only in the spiritual sense in which his soul, his anima, was bereaved’ (258, 259). Thus, Tennyson’s image as reconstructed by Byatt contradicts in that respect the usual deconstruction of 19th-century authors and characters by other no-Victorian novelists.

  • 13 The play was clearly intended for a private audience and remained unpublished until 1976. It was st (...)

6Yet the physicality of the poet is not shunned in ‘The Conjugial Angel’. The aging Tennyson persona, with his ‘cold and goosefleshed legs’ (261), is very much ‘aware of his own body’ (261). He also reflects on the sexual aspect of his marriage to Emily, ‘the fleshy fact’, ‘the act of love’: ‘He thought he had acquitted himself well enough, he thought he had. […] To Emily’s taste, he was sure’ (260), even though he concedes that ‘there was more excitement in the space between his finger and Arthur’s’ (260). This explicit reference to the character’s sexuality, unthinkable in Victorian literature, firmly posits ‘The Conjugial Angel’ as a neo-Victorian piece. The Poet Laureate of ‘The Conjugial Angel’ appears, it is also true, as an old man who is unable to button up his night shirt and fears his ‘approaching annihilation’ (Byatt 1992, 261). However, I disagree with Marie-Luise Kohlke when she asserts that ‘Lynn Truss’ Tennyson’s Gift (1996) and A. S. Byatt’s novella “The Conjugial Angel” (in Angels and Insects, 1992), both re-imagining the man the Victorians lauded as their greatest living poet, achieve similar debunking effects through ridicule, satire, and travesty, variously constructing Tennyson as a pathetic, self-obsessed, and decrepit old man’ (Kohlke 2013, 10). Tennyson is neither ridiculed or satirized in Byatt’s novella, and far from being debunked and deconstructed, he is once again celebrated as a great poet and, through the use of pathos, which never turns into bathos, the reader is led to empathize with him. The situation in Tennyson’s Gift is on the other hand quite different. Unlike Byatt’s novella, it is indeed written in the comic mode, which is ‘a legitimate tool of deconstruction and/or parody’ (Kohlke 2014, 34) and consists mainly ‘in identifying and then exaggerating a certain number of mannerisms for each character’ (Gutleben 33). As such, it resembles an earlier text, Virginia Woolf’s Freshwater. A Comedy. This short three-act play, which is about the author’s great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron and her artist friends and neighbours on the Isle of Wight, was performed in 1935 at a theatrical Bloomsbury evening13: the dramatis personae is almost the same (the Camerons, the Wattses, the Tennysons and …. Queen Victoria, but no Lewis Carroll), and the general mood of levity, light-heartedness and slightly condescending fun poked at the eminent Victorians is also very similar.

7Many of the issues addressed in ‘The Conjugial Angel’ are also dealt with in Tennyson’s Gift, but with an entirely different intent. Tennyson’s apparently well-known lack of personal hygiene for example is alluded to at the beginning of chapter 10 of ‘The Conjugial Angel’ where the Tennyson persona wonders if he stinks (‘Perhaps he stank?’ [254]). It is mentioned many times in Tennyson’s Gift by different characters, including his own wife (also called Emily), who readily admits that ‘[t]ruly Alfred Tennyson was the dirtiest laureate that ever lived’, before adding: ‘[b]ut there was more to a man than a washed neck or clean fingernails That her lord was unacquainted with the soap and flannel did not make him a lesser poet or a lesser husband’ (12). Even photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who is hopelessly in love with Tennyson, remarks: ‘Yes, she decided, stewed apple was Alfred’s particular wonderful smell – if you didn’t count the tobacco smoke, the dog hair, and all the other unmentionable ones brought about by not washing’ (167).

  • 14 Adam Foulds discussed his novel The Quickening Maze with James Naughtie in the BBC Radio 4 programm (...)

8More importantly, Tennyson’s obsession with madness is also evoked in both works. In ‘The Conjugial Angel’, Emily thinks about their poor brother ‘Edward in his lunatic asylum’ (216), Alfred is despondent and remembers having ‘feared the family epilepsy in youth’ (265). Adam Foulds, whose 2009 novel The Quickening Maze also features a Tennyson who regularly visits his brother in the asylum he is incarcerated in (the other famous patient is the poet John Clare), stated in an interview that indeed ‘Tennyson had considered himself becoming an inmate at the asylum to get relief from the bouts of “English melancholy” or depression he suffered from. The Tennysons thought they were what we would now say were genetically predisposed to depression, what Alfred called “the black blood of the Tennysons”’.14 This obsessive fear of madness is repeatedly made fun of in the novel by different characters. Emily, for example, remarks: ‘All Alfred’s family are mad or morbid, or morbidly mad; isn’t that right, Alfred?
Barking, the lot of them, boomed her lord’ (45).

9This is also shown in the three totally unrelated questions Tennyson asks his wife every morning ‘as a matter of routine’, ‘to which is wife’s dutiful answers must always be the same’:

Did you check the boys for signs of madness, Emily?
Yes, dear. I did.
Is there an apple pie baked for my dinner?
Yes. Cook has seen to it.
Is anyone after my head?
No, dear, nobody. As I have told you before, Alfred, that’s all in your imagination (12–13).

10The situation becomes even more ridiculous and even absurd when the reader is told what the actual ‘checking the boys for signs of madness’ entails:

The daily checking for madness, for example, she conducted in the following fashion:
What day is it, Hallam?
Tuesday, Mother? he lisped.
Oh, Tuesday too, I’d say.
Does either of you happen to know the name of the Prime Minister?
No idea, they chorused.
Excellent, she said, and packed them off to play (160).

11Tennyson’s neurotic dread of transmitting his ‘black blood’ to his own sons is trivialised and ridiculed by including it as a leitmotif in the story. The phrase ‘the black blood of the Tennysons’ is indeed repeatedly used by Tennyson himself who, after having asked his wife the usual question: ‘Did you check the boys for signs of madness this morning Emily?’, continues his enquiry: ‘Any sign of black blood at all? Gloom, or anything?’ (45–46). It has become such a catch-phrase that the actress Ellen Terry can finish the poet’s sentence for him: ‘[C]an a phrenologizer detect signs of madness­—say, in the head of a young boy? Oh, we check Lionel and Hallam every day, we make a point of it. What with the, you know Black blood of the Tennysons?’ (114)

As the phrenologist Lorenzo Fowler explains to his daughter:

I have made an agreement with Mr Tennyson that I will check his sons for signs of madness […] The Tennysons are all mad, you see […].
What about their mother? Does she have to be mad, too, for the boys to have caught it?
She doesn’t have to be. Mr Tennyson says she has nothing to do with the black blood of the Tennyson (161).

12Tennyson’s obsession, however misguided, is nonetheless seen as a sign of his love for his sons, for as the narrator points out, ‘[n]othing touched him more deeply than the mental health of his sons’ (146).

13Christian Gutleben observes that ‘the reader is made to laugh because the character himself not only confirms his characterization, but transforms it into caricature’ (31). This is also the case with other aspects of the Poet Laureate addressed in both works of fiction: his sensitivity to negative criticism and his self-quoting of his poems. Byatt’s Tennyson, in keeping with his characterization in the short-story, is utterly depressed by the criticism of his poems: ‘he had never—however great his success—got over his wincing despondency over harsh criticism’ (Byatt 1992, 258). This is taken up in Truss’ novel when, for example, the young and pretty actress Ellen Terry notes that when ‘cut up by a review’, ‘Tennyson went all to tatters, and displayed his wounds perpetually, even to people who strenuously desired not to see them’ (103). Once again, this extreme sensitivity is turned into comedy. For example, Lionel Tennyson, who had been forced to learn by heart his father’s poems and recite them at local children’s parties (and leave ‘the kiddies’ ‘blubbing and demoralized, and their parents in despair’, 206), is shown laughing with delight—and in secret—at ‘a parody of his father’s famous poem “The Two Voices”’ (‘not much read today’, as the 20th-century narrator points out [205]) sent to him by none other than Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll (205). The boy’s reaction is explained by the narrator: ‘It wasn’t that the parody was so very funny. It was that his father would be so very mad when he read it that he wouldn’t know which leg to hop on’ (206). And indeed, when Tennyson finds out about it he is described as ‘hopping on both legs at once’ (218). He has no illusion about his son, however: ‘He would not allow anyone else to see this monstrous thing; Lionel should certainly not keep it; the child would delight too much in learning the poem by rote’ (219).

14The bulk of the comic effect however rests on his wife Emily, who has made it her lifelong goal to intercept the negative reviews of the poet’s works before they reach him to keep him as happy as possible:

Alfred was absurdly sensitive to criticism, and she had discovered that the secret of the quiet life was to let him believe what he wanted to believe—viz, that the world adored him without the faintest reservation or quibble. To this comfortable illusion of her husband’s, in fact, she was steadily sacrificing her life (8).

15She goes to great lengths throughout the novel to do so and comedy soon turns into farce, the basic elements of which being ‘exaggerated physical action (often repeated), exaggeration of character and situation, absurd situations and improbable events’ (Cuddon 330). For example: ‘Punch had shockingly included a parody of Alfred’s In Memoriam, and Emily was so surprised by its appearance that she tore out the page at the breakfast table, panicked what to do next, then stuffed it into her mouth, chewed it, and swallowed it’ (11). Later, ‘pulling out all the stops on her ingenuity’, she even goes as far as burying a copy of the Westminster Review in a flower bed with a spoon and even vomiting in her husband’s hat where a copy of the same magazine had been left (165).

16The Tennyson characters in ‘The Conjugial Angel’, Freshwater and Tennyson’s Gift all share a passion for their own poetry and love to recite and analyse their poems, but the image they project is very different in the novella on the one hand, and in the comedy and the novel on the other. The Tennyson in Byatt’s story is aware of his own limitations: ‘he was not clever, like Arthur. He couldn’t write out an argument to save his life, he couldn’t build up a theory or defend a position’ (263), ‘he was no theologian’ (264). What he is extremely good at is poetry. Throughout chapter 10, Tennyson comments on the composition of In Memoriam. While ‘demonstrat[ing] great sensibility to the ethical implication of his long lyric’ (Adams 28), for ‘perhaps he was in some wrong way using his beloved to subserve his own gain, his own fame, or more subtly, making something fantastically beautiful out of the horror of Arthur’s dissolution’ (Byatt 1992, 268), he is inordinately proud of his poem: ‘that was a wonderful line’ (267), ‘he was proud of the good phrase ‘matter-moulded forms of speech’ (267),’his poem was beautiful and alive and true, like an angel’ (268), ‘the world was a terrible lump of which his poem was a shining simulacrum. The world burst and slid and expanded into shapelessness of which his poem was a formally delightful image’ (269). What could be construed as ‘self-satisfaction and self-centredness’ (Gutleben 94) is totally justified for Byatt: her own admiration for the long poem has already been mentioned, and within the short-story itself, for his sister Emily, despite her wounded resentment, In Memoriam is indeed ‘Alfred’s masterpiece and Arthur’s monument’, which she ‘admired and idolised, the Lord knew, as much as anyone alive’ (232). The reconstruction of Tennyson as a major poet and of In Memoriam as a ‘very great poem’ is vindicated and reclaimed: as Ann Mary Adams writes, ‘[o]bviously, the tenth chapter of ‘The Conjugial Angel’ does a great deal to recuperate Tennyson and memorialize his identity as an important (heterosexual) author’ (33).

17In Tennyson’s Gift, he and his unconditional admirer Julia Margaret Cameron keep on quoting and reciting his poetry (especially Mariana and Maud, published respectively in 1832 and 1855) to all and sundry. Not only does he reel off his poems, he also comments on them and how good they are:

With blackest moss the flower-pots [note the way “moss” and “plots” suggest the rhyme; a lovely effect, do you think you could do it?] Were thickly crusted, one and all: [“crusted” is a fine word here] The rusted nails fell from the knots [“knots” rhymes with “plots”, you see; “crusted with “rusted”] That held the pear to the garden wall— (58–9)

18The parallel with Virginia Woolf’s comedy is striking. In Freshwater, Tennyson is seen for example insisting on reciting Maud to the departing Camerons: ‘How am I going to read Maud to you when you’re in India? Still—What’s the time? Twelve fifteen? I’ve read it in less. Let’s begin’ (I, 8). This is taken up in the stage directions at the beginning of Act III: ‘TENNYSON reading Maud aloud. TENNYSON reads aloud for some time’ (III, 39). He also keeps on congratulating himself on the quality of his verse:

Yes. There was a damned ass praising Browning the other day. But I ask you, could Browning have written:
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
The murmuring of innumerable bees.
Or this, perhaps the loveliest line in the language – The mellow ouzel fluting on the lawn? (I, 16)

19Thus, the Poet Laureate’s vanity and professional jealousy, derided in Freshwater, were probably well-known traits in Modernist literary circles and were later mocked again in the same way in Tennyson’s Gift. On the other hand, the characters in Truss’ novel have serious reservations about the poet and the poems, even if they do not voice them aloud. Ellen Terry for example ‘had tried to read Tennyson’s latest poem Enoch Arden’ but ‘had trouble with that as well’, and describes it as ‘the usual cheerless Tennyson stuff’ (Truss 43). Moreover, she thinks Tennyson has ‘a mournful, barking recital manner reminiscent of an expiring moose’ (157). Tennyson’s status as a major poet is thus thrown into doubt in both works.

  • 15 Queen Victoria herself also appears at the end of Freshwater as a kind of dea ex machina to bestow (...)

20Even if the great poet is often ridiculed in Tennyson’s Gift, as are most of the other Victorian characters of the story, the novel ‘is exempt from [the] moral or ideological indignation’ (Gutleben 32) so often found in neo-Victorian fiction. If debunking there is, it is very mild, and the foibles of the Great Victorians of the novel do not make them loathsome. The only revisionist purpose here is to make them more human and, to a certain extent, closer to the contemporary readers. Even Queen Victoria is humanized at the end.15 When instead of ‘an edifying recital of In Memoriam to remind [her] of [her] poor dead Albert’ (252), she is given by mistake a pamphlet written by Lorenzo Fowler’s brother explicitly promoting the merits of vigorous sex in marriage, she does not ‘hop in her four-poster-bed’ and ‘scream the place down’ (254) as expected. On the contrary, she is definitely amused and in the ‘thank you’ note she writes Tennyson, ‘she says she was never more happily diverted than by the reading material she obtained from [his] house—that it made her think more than ever of her poor dear Albert!’ (256, original emphasis).

  • 16 Lynn Truss herself however seems doubtful about the marketing value of the Tennyson brand: ‘Tennyso (...)

21Of course, we shall never know what the ‘real’ Tennyson was like. The two late 20th-century literary reconstructions of Tennyson studied here, though very different, both present, in their own distinctive ways, a humanized version of the Victorian poet Laureate and generate in the reader a feeling of amused (Tennyson’s Gift) or compassionate (‘The Conjugial Angel’) benevolence. Indeed, he is seen in ‘The Conjugial Angel’ as a pathetic old man but a great poet, the author of what is by and large considered to be one of the greatest poems of the 19th century, In Memoriam, and in Tennyson’s Gift as a figure of gentle fun. In that respect, both differ considerably from other neo-Victorian (bio)fictions, which are much more censorious of their models. They contribute also to a renewed interest in and a more balanced view of the poet and his poems: no longer a revered and towering presence on a pedestal but no longer loathed and despised either. More generally, it seems that neo-Victorian literature has reignited readers’ interest in Victorian fiction16. This is probably, all things considered, a positive outcome.

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Adams, Ann Marie, ‘Reader, I Memorialized Him: A. S. Byatt’s Representation of Alfred Lord Tennyson in ‘The Conjugial Angel”’, Literature. Interpretation. Theory 19.1 (2008): 26–46.

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Byatt, A. S., “True Stories and the Facts in Fiction’, Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt. Imagining the Real, eds. Alexa Alfer and Michael Noble, Westport, CT, Greenwood, 2001. 175–200.

Cole, Sarah Rose, ‘The Recovery of Friendship: Male Love and Developmental Narrative in Tennyson’s In Memoriam’, Victorian Poetry 50.1 (Spring 2012): 43–66.

Corbett, Mary Jean, ‘No Second Friend? Perpetual Maidenhood and Second Marriage in In Memoriam and “The Conjugial Angel”’, English Literary History 81.1 (March 2014): 299–323.

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Dennis, Abigail, ‘“Ladies in Peril”: Sarah Waters on Neo-Victorian Narrative Celebrations and Why she Stopped Writing about the Victorian Era’, Neo-Victorian Studies 1.1 (Autumn 2008): 41–52.

Forward, Stephanie, ‘Tennyson’s Rise and Fall’, last accessed at on 27 January 2018.

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Gutleben, Christian, and Marie-Luise kohlke, Neo-Victorian Tropes of Trauma: The Politics of Bearing After-Witness to Nineteenth-Century Suffering, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010.

Hadley, Louisa, Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative: The Victorians and Us, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

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1 For example, Stephanie Forward writes: ‘The reaction to Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, published in 1830, was generally favourable. However, when Tennyson’s next volume of poems came out in 1833, a number of critics were not impressed; indeed the poet was stunned by a lengthy, sarcastic mauling in The Quarterly Review on 6 April. The derogatory article was penned by John Wilson Croker, who had savaged John Keats’s Endymion back in 1818: indeed, Croker compared Tennyson to Keats)’.

2 Alfred Austin’s review, ‘Mr Tennyson’ in The Poetry of the Period (London: Richard Bentley, 1870) is quoted in Stephanie Forward’s article ‘Tennyson’s Rise and Fall’.

3 Some of these so-called ‘Alfie’ poems were even recorded by the BBC in 1956.

4 For a detailed analysis of the fluctuations of Tennyson’s literary criticism in the 20th century, see Laurence W. Mazzeno, Alfred Tennyson: The Critical Legacy, Rochester and Suffolk: Camden House, 2004. The lack of interest of the readers was not just with Tennyson: in an interview with Abigail Dennis, Sarah Waters for her part remarks that until the 1980s, ‘certainly the Victorians weren’t in fashion at all’ (Dennis 47).

5 A. S. Byatt herself explains the spelling of ‘conjugial’: ‘Swedenborg believed that angels were composed of a man and a woman conjoined, and that these androgynous angels were known as conjugial angels’ (Byatt 2001, 184).

6 I am using Richard Nordquist’s definition of enargia in his Glossary of Key Terms, last accessed at on 27 January 2018.

7 This is how Lynne Truss herself describes her (real life) character on her web site

8 Right from the start, the presence of this 20th-century narrator is made obvious in the text, as when s/he reflects on Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll’s very uncomfortable attire: ‘this is just the sort of discomfort a real mid-Victorian gentleman is obliged to put up with’ (Truss 4), which is reminiscent of John Fowles’ narrator’s comment in The French Lieutenant’s Woman: ‘[Charles] would have made you smile, for he was carefully equipped for his role (as a fossil hunter). […] Nothing is more incomprehensible to us than the methodicality of the Victorians’ (45).

9 ‘[T]he speaker [in In Memoriam] refers to himself as either widow or widower no less than five times’ (Williamson 127).

10 Tennyson’s attitude was typically Victorian, as Linda Hughes, in her critical review of Mary Jean Corbett’s article, points out: ‘It was of course legal to remarry, but a strict gender binary operated because of the imperative of female sexual chastity. Corbett quotes the horror of even the radical William Cobbett at women’s remarriage, attitudes that illuminate Tennyson’s suppression of his sister’s mourning in the poem once she had pledged herself to Hallam’ (342).

11 See the chapter ‘Sex and crinolines: a combination aimed at seduction’ in Christian Gutleben’s Nostalgic postmodernism (172-184). Christian Gutleben also shows how Mrs Papagay, one of the two fictional mediums of the story, is in fact a comic and ‘unVictorian Victorian’ character, whose sexual fantasies are recorded through internal focalization. At the end of the second séance in chapter 11 she produces in automatic writing an obscene parody of In Memoriam, using ‘the verse pattern of Tennyson’s poem (using both its rhyme and metre)’ (107). Of course, after Possession, A. S. Byatt had plenty of practice in writing pseudo-Victorian poetry.

12 Quoted in Sarah Rose Cole, ‘The Recovery of Friendship: Male Love and Developmental Narrative in Tennyson’s In Memoriam’: ‘For this striking but exceptional critique of In Memoriam, see ‘The Poetry of Sorrow,’ The Times 28 November 1851, 8’ (46, note 15).

13 The play was clearly intended for a private audience and remained unpublished until 1976. It was staged in Vanessa Bell’s London studio and the different parts were all played by family members and close friends (Adrian Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s and Vanessa Bell’s younger brother, played Tennyson). There are several references to and in-jokes about Bloomsbury which are now impossible to understand.

14 Adam Foulds discussed his novel The Quickening Maze with James Naughtie in the BBC Radio 4 programme Book Club on 9 April 2015, last accessed at on 27 January 2018.

15 Queen Victoria herself also appears at the end of Freshwater as a kind of dea ex machina to bestow a peerage on Tennyson and the Order of Merit on Watts (III, 53).

16 Lynn Truss herself however seems doubtful about the marketing value of the Tennyson brand: ‘Tennyson’s Gift got great reviews when it came out, but it sold around 2000 copies and I was heart-broken. It suffered partly because Penguin Books was in upheaval, editorially—but also, I think, because you should never put the name Tennyson in the title of a book and expect it to sell.’ Last accessed at on 27 January 2018.

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Isabelle Roblin, « A Cultural Reconstruction: From Pathos to Comedy, Alfred, Lord Tennyson Reimagined in A.S. Byatt’s ‘The Conjugial Angel’ (1992) and Lynne Truss’ Tennyson’s Gift (1996) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 04 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Roblin

Isabelle Roblin is an Assistant professor at the Université du Littoral-Côte d’Opale and specialises in contemporary anglophone literature. She has published many articles on Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Timothy Mo, Alice Randall, etc. She is currently working on literary and cinematographic rewritings of the British and American literary canons and more particularly on Harold Pinter’s adapted screenplays and has published Harold Pinter adaptateur: la liberté artistique et ses limites.

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