Tennyson’s Gift is a period piece, set in the summer of 1864 on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. It is my baby. Astonishingly, some people are not immediately attracted to the subject matter, since it deals with highbrow Victorians such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. They fear it will be educational, perhaps. Anyway, Tennyson’s Gift is, of all my books, my darling, and I won’t hear a word said against it. It lifted my heart and it still does. I loved the research and I loved the writing — which I did almost entirely in situ at Freshwater Bay over three long holidays in the mid 1990s. In Tennyson’s Maud, there is a chokingly beautiful line — “And the soul of the rose went into her blood” — and I feel that this special little English bay with its sparkling sea and bracing cliffs got into my blood as I wrote the book, and I still shed tears whenever, after the briefest stay on the island, I board the ferry that takes me back to the mainland.
Madness seems to be a recurrent theme in my novels. The greatest influence on Tennyson’s Gift is not the poet laureate, or even his wonderfully enthusiastic neighbour, slaving night and day for Art, Mrs Cameron. It is the great Victorian children’s writer Lewis Carroll (real name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), who made a real visit to Freshwater in July 1864, and thus supplied a real date for the book’s entirely invented action. Tennyson’s Gift is about love, poetry, the beauty of girls with long hair, the questionable sagacity of men with beards, the language of flowers and the acquisition of famous heads; but it is mainly about the insane Carrollian egotism that accompanies energetic genius.
All the main characters are real people who were really regulars at Freshwater: the solemn painter G.F. Watts; the burgeoning young actress Ellen Terry; the two maids; the Tennyson boys; even the little girl Daisy. They can all be found in Mrs Cameron’s pictures from that year. The only imports to the scene are the rather splendid American phrenologist Lorenzo Niles Fowler and his precocious daughter Jessie, who cannot be placed historically at Freshwater in July 1864, but were touring England in the early 1860s, which was good enough for me.
Tennyson’s Gift got great reviews when it came out, but it sold around 2000 copies and I was heart-broken. It suffered partly because Penguin Books was in upheaval, editorially – but also, I think, because you should never put the name Tennyson in the title of a book and expect it to sell. Every so often, there’s an idea that Tennyson’s Gift will be made into a film, but nothing has got beyond the script stage yet. That greatest of readers, Timothy West, reads it, unabridged, for BBC Audio.
NB – BBC audio for this book is a library edition only