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Josa Young

Josa Young

Posted: August 11, 2009 12:27 PM

Celebrating Tennyson's 200th Birthday


Only slowly over the last few years has the significance of uber-poet Tennyson in my own family history become apparent. Here I am, sitting in a room that used to be his study, high up under the eaves of a rather confused house on the Isle of Wight. The ceiling rises into the roof. There is a fireplace intact but not in use. There are beams holding the roof apart, and decorated with pieces of flower-carved wood. In here, looking out over countryside to the sea, Tennyson wrote Maud and other famous poems.

At that time, the room was full of books. There are books here now, but they look like an enjoyable and rather random selection from a charity shop. My husband is reading Philip Norman's The Stones, from 1984 -- he loves rockographies. I have devoured two very obscure novels, one about farming on the South Down between 1872 and 1930 and another about a spoilt little American princess who marries a British mine engineer and goes to live in Mexico in 1902.

I love random reading. Anyway, we were invited to celebrate Tennyson's 200th birthday in his house, Farringford, in the Isle of Wight. The invitation came out of the blue, and it took me a while to work out our significance. It is this: Tennyson came here with his delicate wife Emily, who fell in love with the view, in 1860. They rented this house -- originally Georgian, but with added Gothic (pointy) windows and incongruous battlements, and then bought it when Maud became a massive best seller. They had lots of arty friends, who came to visit and stay and be clever and creative together, and some of them moved here as well.

Chief among them was my extraordinary great great great grandmother, Julia Margaret Cameron (nee Pattle) -- an Anglo Indian lady who, when her son in law (my great great grandfather) gave her a camera, took to the new medium immediately and made portraits of many of the eminent people of the time. I relate closely to her passion -- I was a very early internet adopter for the UK, creating my first web site in 1995 -- and also had the experience of my fellow journalists not understanding the new medium and rather despising me for adopting it.

She was an extremely forceful woman, who did not take no for an answer. And she would bustle up to this house on a regular basis to kidnap Tennyson's famous friends, drag them back to the chicken house she used as a studio, drape them in fabrics and make them sit still for up to 10 minutes. The results are portraits of the likes of Longfellow and Tennyson himself (whose portrait, always known as the Dirty Monk, was his favourite of himself).

O what fun it must have been. All that talent, all that newness rushing up and down the lane where I walked yesterday, between this house (now a wonderful hotel) and Dimbola where Julia M lived with her extremely tolerant husband (who was made to pose constantly, as Merlin among other characters, in a series of pictures created to illustrate Tennyson's The Idylls of the King). Tennyson referred to my great great great grandfather as having hair and beard "dipt in moonlight" -- he was a picturesque old thing with flowing silver locks.

And these were not young people. They were middle aged, which makes my visit here poignant. Julia didn't make it til middle age. And my first novel was published on Friday 7 August 2009, and I am not young either. Hope it all augers well that I was here among the spirits of all these create forerunners, on that particularly day.

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