Tennyson, Emily (1813–1896)

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Tennyson, Emily (1813–1896)

Wife and amanuensis of English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Name variations: Lady Tennyson; Baroness Tennyson; Emily Sellwood. Born Emily Sarah Sellwood in 1813 in England; died on August 10, 1896; the eldest daughter of Henry Sellwood (a solicitor); married Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892, the writer), on June 13, 1850; children: two sons, Hallam and Lionel.

The intelligent, well-read daughter of a Horncastle solicitor, Emily Sellwood first met poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1830, thus beginning an on-again-off-again courtship that lasted for 20 years. They were first engaged in 1838, but Alfred broke it off two years later due to his unsteady financial situation. He proposed once more around 1847, but this time Emily refused, fearing Alfred's religious skepticism. It was not until 1850, after reading his poem Elegies (later titled In Memoriam), that she finally agreed to marriage. By all accounts, Emily and Alfred never wavered in their love for one another and suffered deeply during their various estrangements. H. Drummond Rawnsley, a cousin of Emily's, wrote that during their years apart they "ate out their hearts in secret," and Rawnsley's

brother Willingham noted that while separated "each kept the sacred fire alight in their hearts." The wedding, which finally took place on June 13, 1850, may have been the most meaningful event in Alfred's life. James O. Hoge, editor of Lady Tennyson's Journal, writes: "Lonely, self-tormented, troubled by religious uncertainties and doubts about his own abilities, Tennyson probably exaggerated little when in 1845 he confessed to Aubrey DeVere 'that he must marry and find love and peace or die.'"

During her 42-year marriage to the poet, Emily managed several households (including the finances), cared for the couple's two sons, handled her husband's correspondence, copied his poems and helped to prepare them for publication, entertained visitors, and generally protected the poet from the distractions of daily life. "In short," writes Hoge, "Emily must be given paramount credit both for rescuing Tennyson from the tragic self-absorption that warped his youth and for managing his home and continuing to minister to his personal needs in a manner designed to promote his contentment and leave him free to write."

Plagued from childhood by a spinal disorder which rendered her physically frail, Emily nearly sacrificed her own health to provide for her family. "Do not throw away your life in the performance of imaginary duties which are really unimportant," advised family friend Benjamin Jowett, in 1861. Emily, however, did not heed her Jowett's advice, particularly as Alfred's fame increased, requiring more entertaining and the further censoring and answering of mail. In September 1874, finally pushed beyond endurance, Emily suffered a near-fatal breakdown, which caused her to temporarily give up serving as Alfred's secretary or his amanuensis. Within six months, however, she had recovered sufficiently to take over the household affairs and by 1877 had taken up correspondence once again, although she judiciously kept it within the family circle.

From the time of her marriage until her collapse in 1874, Emily kept a running journal of her life with Alfred, which Hoge, who edited and published the work in 1981, calls a "treasure trove" of invaluable information about the poet and the entire Tennyson family. "She periodically indicates his state of health, his mood, his plans for composition, revision, and publication, his reactions to praise or blame, his opinions on a host of topics, and (most important of all from her point of view) she describes Tennyson's relationship with herself and with their sons." The diary reveals great love and respect between husband and wife, which grew stronger with the years. Emily describes quiet evenings spent alone with Alfred, discussing poets and writers, or politics or religion. Alfred frequently read his work aloud, soliciting his wife's opinions and advice and usually acting upon her judgment. An accomplished pianist, Emily sometimes set her husband's poems to music, with the goal of providing an impression of the reading. Several were printed, including "The Song of the Alma River," "The City Child," and "Minnie and Winnie." In 1891, she gave permission to Polish pianist Natalia Janotha to perform several of her songs in concert at St. James's Hall.

Following Alfred's death in 1892, Emily assisted her son Hallam in the preparation of the Tennyson Memoir, which required the collecting and inspecting of hundreds of letters and other items related to the poet's life and works. She also prepared her own final Journal, recopying illegible sections and condensing where appropriate, although failing eyesight made the task quite difficult. As well, she spent time entertaining and caring for her five grandchildren. Even as she aged, Emily stayed involved in the world around her, retaining a clear grasp of the major issues of the day. In one of her last letters, she rejoices in the possibilities of women studying for the B.A. degree at Oxford, and in another she expresses concern about the possibility of war. She died on August 10, 1896. "Perhaps the desire that I could in any way influence [the world] according to what I believe to be right is more passionate than ever," she wrote in 1891. "If it were not so it would be hard indeed to go on living."


Hoge, James O, ed. Lady Tennyson's Journal. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1981.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts