‘On Round Table in Drawing room’: Tennyson and his Books

Sibylle Erle

The Tennysons moved to the Isle of Wight in November 1853. They rented the house at Farringford in Freshwater which they bought in May 1856, once they had saved enough money. The Tennysons had left Twickenham as they wanted to escape the tourists who, ignoring Tennyson’s wish for privacy, were trying their hardest to catch a glimpse of the famous poet. However, privacy for the Poet Laureate proved difficult to maintain on the Isle of Wight as well: Farringford soon became a tourist attraction. Thus James Briddon’s popular guidebook of 1860 announced that the Isle of Wight was ‘hallowed by the residence of England’s greatest living poet, who dwells in the very shadow of that sea whose music swells so grandly in his “immortal verse.” At Farringford House resides Alfred Tennyson.’1 After buying the house, Tennyson started to catalogue his library. How serious he was about recording the arrangements of his books can be gleaned from the surviving lists as well as the help he had from both Emily and G. G. Bradley, a close friend of Tennyson’s.2 While most of the early lists from 1856 to 1861 are written on individual sheets or sheets stitched together into a notebook, there is also a bound book from 1887.

‘On Round Table in Drawing room’ is unique and the only surviving reference to a display of books at Farringford. The list occupies two pages and is written partly in Tennyson’s hand and partly in Emily’s.3 Some of the books are crossed out. 4 Tennyson was at the height of his fame when the list was compiled. It coincides with the publication of ‘Enid’, ‘Vivien’, ‘Elaine’ and ‘Guinevere’ (Idylls of the King), the launch of Cornhill Magazine in 1860, Prince Albert’s request for an autographed copy of Idylls of the King, the Prince Consort’s death in 1861 and Tennyson’s subsequent ‘Dedication’, Francis Taylor Palgrave’s preparation of The Golden Treasury (1861) and the beginning of ‘Enoch Arden’. The list is also significant in terms of books owned by Tennyson. It bears, for example, the only mention of his copy of William Blake’s The Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826).

In the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln Blake’s Job has been catalogued with Tennyson’s Bibles. That Blake’s Job was on the table suggests not only that Tennyson was interested in Blake well before the Blake revival launched by Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake (1863), but also that he thought of Blake’s Job as an illustrated book rather than a commentary on the Book of Job.5

‘On Round Table in Drawing room’ is much more than a reading list, if it is considered in its context: the Tennysons’ drawing room. According to Thad Logan in The Victorian Parlour (2001), the parlour or drawing room in the Victorian house raises interesting questions relating to the perception and construction of private and public spaces as well as of gender; by the mid-nineteenth century the Victorian home but especially the drawing room, was identified as a female space: ‘Because so many cultural authorities asserted and elaborated the confluence of the feminine and the domestic, Victorian wives and mothers functioned, at least in the culture’s official self-representation, as both creators and guarantors of a new kind of world, a domestic realm in which bourgeois identity was nurtured.’6 In the drawing room members of the family gathered in the evenings; here visitors were entertained after dinner. Logan notes that the drawing-room table was usually in the middle of the room and, therefore, at the heart of the activities in that room.7 The central drawing-room table was normally laden with illustrated books, bought and chosen to be seen, read and handled by the family and its guests. The Tennysons’ list includes a great number of books with no illustrations. We could think of Tennyson as a collector because many of the books have been signed by their authors. The evidence of the list, in short, suggests not only that Tennyson was the hub of the drawing-room entertainments, but also that the selection of books was far from random. What the Tennysons put on display was of current relevance as well as a statement about friendship.

[The above extract is from the author’s current research project on Tennyson and his Books.]

1 Briddon’s Illustrated Handbook to the Isle of Wight, Containing Everything Necessary to the Tourist (Ryde: J. Briddon, 1860), p. 71.
2 In the early 1860s, Bradley (Dean of Westminster from 1881 onwards) was headmaster at Marlborough, the school Hallam Tennyson attended from 1866.
3 Most but not all of the lists in the notebook containing “On Round Table in Drawing room” are dated. On the first page are three dates: “July 1859”, “1860”, “May 1861”. The lists, in other words, were changed, edited and amended, three times over the course of two years (TRC/N19A). On the page following on from “On Round Table in Drawing room” is a precise date “24 May 1861”.
4 For an overview of information on visitors to Farringford and Tennysons’ absences from Farringford for 1859 to 1862, see F.B. Pinion, A Tennyson Chronology (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1990), pp. 84-97.
5 For Blake and the rise of commercial book illustration see G. E. Bentley, Jr, “Blake as a Book-Illustrator: The Master of the Book Arts versus the Trade,” The Aligarh Journal of English Studies 13 (1988): 171-95.
6 Thad Logan, The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 26.
7 Logan, Victorian Parlour, p. 126.
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