In 2005, John (my husband) and I were invited into the comfortable sitting-room of The Old Vicarage, Grasby and entered a new adventure. We had been engaged by local residents to lead study of the Sonnets written by Alfred Tennyson’s beloved brother the Reverend Charles Turner, as part of the Grasby Project 2000. Among the outcomes were presentations in Somersby and Grasby churches, and Hello Reverend Charles, ‘an anthology of poetry by The Grasby Sonnet Group and Charles Tennyson Turner.’
While several group members were writing poems for the first time, I plunged into a deep concern for someone I had not before encountered. Louisa Sellwood Turner had lived in the old house ‘with its surging floors’ before Charles built the imposing vicarage at the top of the hill. Through Ann Thwaite’s biography of Emily Tennyson, The Poet’s Wife, we began to learn the story of this other poet’s wife, Emily’s sister. I felt such connection, partly through aspects of my life which mirrored hers, that I began a sequence of poems to give her a voice. ‘In memoriam LST’ was a challenge to myself. ‘Occupational therapy 1879’ was published in 2012. At this time, I felt angry with Emily and Hallam Tennyson for, as I thought, offloading Louisa into a lunatic asylum, where she died. Several years later, I unexpectedly wrote the second half of the sequence, and discovered how much I had changed, not only in understanding myself, but also in my attitude towards those people. Lost Lady Found achieves reconciliation for us all, people and poet.
Louisa needed no more of my poems, but I had become interested in all three Sellwood girls. I began to write a play and, seeking a framing narrator, found Hallam who, I now realised, also needed a voice. The Sellwood Girls opens as Hallam is writing his own play, and develops as he meets, out of time and space, his mother and two aunts. The play is based on contemporary journals, letters, poems and diaries, including Louisa’s own largely illegible little red-leather-covered volumes. To study this material, we spent much time in the Tennyson Research Centre and are grateful to Grace Timmins for her generous help.
On completing the one-act play, I needed a companion piece, to be free-standing or provide a full programme. For years, John had enjoyed the conceit of an informal meeting at Farringford between Alfred Tennyson and Prince Albert. Walking on the Lincolnshire Wolds, we improvised their discussion, and eavesdropped on Victoria’s incognito visit to Emily. As our ideas developed, we learnt that Albert had indeed called on Alfred, and that Victoria had planned, but failed, to call on Emily. Our play imagines the Prince’s second visit, and the call the Queen might have made.
From the Grasby vicarage to the Farringford study and drawing room, these plays invite you into the private places and spaces of the wives and their poets. And they’re a delight to read with friends, and of course, afternoon tea.