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


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.