Alfred Tennyson’s Move

Grace Timmins

The libraries of Alfred Tennyson, his father, his brother, son and wife have been housed in the dome room of Lincoln Central Library since 1964. The letters were boxed and shelved alongside them, together with photographs and a display case of ‘spare’ objects. Over the years, following the closure of the Tennyson Room in the Usher Gallery, a range of belongings and furniture joined the leather bound tomes including his desk, a highly decorated chair made especially for the regal bottom of Queen Emma of Hawaii, his paintbox, pipes, tobacco and quills. It was a pungent, thrilling conglomeration of Victorian stuff.

Tennyson’s grandson, Sir Charles Locker Tennyson assisted in the arrangement and provenance of many items, handling them and arranging them. His notes are still to be found all over the holdings. The librarians decided to arrange the books according to the owners of the books, a decision that has upset librarians devoted to the Dewey system ever since. That decision also has a fundamental impact on how people experience the collection: you get a sense of the material and intellectual surroundings of the individual men and women who lived amongst these things. The three-volume pot boilers which had originated in the ‘servants’ cupboard’ or ‘outside hall’ were banished to the stack in the central library.

Tennyson’s wife and daughter-in-law were crucial to the labelling and editing of the collection. Audrey Tennyson’s books might be subsumed into her husband’s library, but her hand is on the notes of most of the objects and she helped record, for example, how Tennyson’s books were arranged at his home, the progress of his last illness and the kinds of things he said on his walks. Emily with her son Hallam enacted ruthless carnage with correspondence and papers considered unsuitable for the poet’s image carefully crafted for posterity.

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Fifty years after its homing in the dome and the centre has been in the hands of four curator/librarians. The crisis of local government funding led Lincolnshire Libraries to outsource the running of their sites. The Tennyson collection remains with the county archive service, a bit of a cuckoo in the public library nest. Environmental considerations led to a proposal to box all the books, papers and photographs and place them in the repository. This was re-thought pretty quickly and an upstairs room in Lincolnshire Archives was set aside for a ‘new’ research centre.

We are in the process now of arranging the transfer of the books and furniture in the centre. Decisions have had to be made based on vulnerabilities of material. The photographs, letters and manuscript material are already in the archives’ bomb proof repository with the scary heavy doors. My colleagues need to be able to find things independently of me and this has exposed the idiosyncrasies of some of the boxing arrangements. After all, only three people before me have looked after the collection since its incarnation as a local government jewel. I see my predecessors’ traces through catalogues, cards, notes and feel absurdly loyal to their arrangements.

The libraries will be in wonderful new bookcases lining the new room which will be accessible for more hours and be a more flexible space. The content of the collection remains the same but it feels very different. The room will be ‘dressed’ with Tennyson’s things and be a more deliberate arrangement than an organic one. A welcome change should be that there will be space for the servants’ books and those of the outside cupboard to join the family libraries.

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By the time of the conference, ‘Books-Place-Space: Tennyson in the early 1860s’, we hope that a large Victorian crown court table will accommodate the Tennysons’ display of books on the drawing table which they prepared for visitors to the drawing room and which is recorded in a notebook in the collection. On 9th June a workshop is planned to take place in the archive and experience as closely as possible what the visitor to the Tennysons’ drawing room experienced.

Moving the collection from one place to another place does not change the contents of the collection but it does change the interaction with it. I’ve seen it with fresh eyes, been forced to judge its different components and had to think about how my colleagues will view how it has been organised, The collection bears the evidence of all those who have made decisions about editing, handling, arranging, boxing and cataloguing, me included.

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