IN THE early nineteenth century the Tennysons were an utterly undistinguished family trying to struggle up from minor to less minor gentry status in the middle of Lincolnshire. Their affairs were complicated by hypochondria, hot temper and drugs – alcohol, opium and nicotine. It also happened that one of them, unknown to the rest, was a genius. This was Alfred, fourth of the twelve children of the virtually disinherited eldest son. Alfred’s elder brother Frederick was called by Keate the cleverest boy he had ever sent from Eton. He wrote a few fine lyrics, and petered out quietly as a Swedenborgian mystic in Jersey, overshadowed in the end by his more brilliant sibling. Alfred’s friends at Cambridge recognised how outstanding he was going to be, and called him King Alfred or ‘Alfred the Great’; his cousins only wondered at his debts, doubted about the state of his health and the thickness of his accent, did not know why he would not go into the Church as his father had done. Of the twelve children, one died in infancy, one went mad, several were epileptics and drunkards like their father; who indeed became so violent that his wife and daughters left him for a time.
When in the fullness of years Alfred died – aged eighty-three, in 1892, of cirrhosis of the liver – he was a peer of the realm and as much of a national institution as Mr Gladstone. He had been Poet Laureate since Wordsworth’s death in 1850. His widow and his son Hallam devoted themselves to preparing a two volume Memoir of him, in which his origins, character and career were most thoroughly laundered. To make sure that their official, authorized version should never be revised, they then burned much of the evidence they had been using; including almost all Tennyson’s letters to his wife, and – worse still – the whole correspondence of what Tennyson’s latest biographer calls the most celebrated friendship of the century, between the poet and his Cambridge contemporary Arthur Henry Hallam. Tennyson’s lasting reputation rests partly on some splendid lyrics, partly on ‘In Memoxiam’ that overpowering lament for Arthur Hallam which he slowly composed in the seventeen years that followed his friend’s sudden and untimely death in 1833.