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Tennyson [née Sellwood], Emily Sarah, Lady Tennysonlocked

  • Ann Thwaite

Emily Sarah Tennyson, Lady Tennyson (1813–1896)

by George Frederic Watts, 1865

from the Tennyson Research Centre, Lincoln. By permission of Lincolnshire County Council

Tennyson [née Sellwood], Emily Sarah, Lady Tennyson (1813–1896), secretary and manager for her husband, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was born on 9 July 1813 in Market Place, Horncastle, Lincolnshire, the eldest of the three daughters of Henry Sellwood (1782–1867) and his wife, Sarah, née Franklin (1788–1816), a younger sister of Sir John Franklin, the sailor and explorer. Sellwood himself was born in Berkshire and had come to Horncastle before 1808. He married in 1812 into the remarkable family of a Spilsby grocer. Their connections and his own energy helped him to become prominent in Horncastle, where he practised as a solicitor for forty years. Her uncle John Franklin's two strong wives, Eleanor Porden and Jane Griffin, influenced Emily's idea of what women could be and do. Her own particular talent was for music and she composed and played all her life. But it was her marriage to Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892), poet laureate, which gave her the chance to make use of all her skills and virtues. Benjamin Jowett wrote to her son that Julia Margaret Cameron used to say that, though unknown, Emily Tennyson was as 'great' as her husband and that 'the poet himself was aware that these words were truly spoken'. Jowett wrote, 'It was a wonderful life—an effaced life, like that of so many women … He could never have been what he was without her'.

Emily Sellwood first saw Tennyson when she was nine years old and he was a boy, outside her house while their two fathers discussed business. Somersby, where the Revd George Clayton Tennyson was vicar, was only 7 miles from Horncastle. Emily described the Tennysons as 'among our neighbours we had as friends'. Only three when her mother died, Emily was extremely close to her father. The girls were educated first by 'some ladies' in Horncastle, and it is likely that it was when they were with the Misses Bousfield of Far Street that they made friends with Alfred Tennyson's sisters: Mary, Emily, Matilda, and Cecilia. Emily Sellwood later attended boarding-schools in Brighton and London.

It was soon after Emily left school that she stayed overnight at Somersby for the first time in April 1830. Six years later Tennyson's elder brother Charles married Emily's youngest sister, Louisa; Tennyson's poem 'The Bridesmaid' celebrates his feelings. This first TennysonSellwood marriage was full of stress and was one of many reasons why Henry Sellwood did not encourage Alfred and Emily to marry in the late 1830s, although they were informally engaged. The poet's gloomy material prospects and worrying heredity, his despair following the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, and his religious doubts made Tennyson write to Emily: 'I fly thee for my good, perhaps for thine'. There was no contact for seven years until they met in Kent in 1847 at the home of Tennyson's sister Cecilia and her husband, Edmund Lushington. Tennyson's poems The Princess and In Memoriam and the reconciliation of Charles and Louisa all had a good deal to do with Emily's eventual agreement to marry.

Emily Sellwood married Alfred Tennyson on 13 June 1850 at Shiplake, near Henley-on-Thames. The ceremony was performed by the Revd Drummond Rawnsley, the husband of Emily's cousin Catherine (née Franklin). Emily was nearly thirty-seven and Alfred nearly forty-one. Tennyson said the peace of God came into his life when he married. Emily's devotion, faith, tolerance, flexibility, and managerial skills transformed his life.

There was a first, stillborn, son in 1851. Then, in 1852 and 1854, the two boys, Hallam Tennyson (1852–1928) and Lionel, were born. Emily taught them herself until they went to school in 1865 but Tennyson was also actively involved in their upbringing. Emily said that those days when the boys were young were the happiest period of her life. It was also the healthiest period. So often portrayed (for example by Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy) as a woman who spent her entire life on a sofa, she was able to scramble over rocks and give the boys rides on her back. She had been delicate as a girl and her ill health in later life (after some sort of breakdown in 1874) may have been caused by gynaecological problems as well as overwork.

The family settled at Farringford, Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight, in 1853. In 1868 they built a house, Aldworth, near Haslemere (but just in Sussex), and came to divide their time between the two houses, with some travel in the summers. Emily's full powers came into play with her marriage. She devoted the rest of her life to her poet and his work. She answered his letters (sometimes for six or seven hours a day), protected him from criticism, corrected his proofs, set his poems (more than twenty of them) to music, ran the households and their farm, and lent a sympathetic ear to his constant fussing and grumblings as well as his reading aloud. She herself read French, German, and Italian but had no Greek or Latin. One of her greatest pleasures was to listen to Tennyson's viva voce translations of Homer.

Some observers (notably Anne Gilchrist) thought Emily's attitude ill-conceived. 'Mrs Tennyson, watching him with anxious, affectionate solicitude … surrounds him ever closer and closer with the sultry perfumed atmosphere of luxury and homage in which his great soul droops'. But most people, including Tennyson himself, felt she was his perfect partner. Her faith in God ('as clear as the heights of the June-blue heaven') sustained them both and enabled them to cope with the death of Lionel in 1886 on the way home from India. (It had been Emily's idea that he should go.)

Lady Tennyson (as she became in 1883) spent her remaining years, after the poet's death in 1892, helping their son Hallam to write the two-volume Memoir of Tennyson's life. Much of it was written by Emily herself, based closely on her journals. She died of 'congestion of the lungs' on 10 August 1896 at Aldworth and was buried four days later in Freshwater church on the Isle of Wight. The best-known portrait of her was painted by G. F. Watts. It is in the Usher Gallery in Lincoln. An earlier (apparently more accurate) portrait by Millais remains in the family. Both show her physical delicacy, which her strong character so triumphantly overcame.


  • A. Thwaite, Emily Tennyson: the poet's wife (1996)


  • Harvard U., Houghton L.
  • Lincoln Central Library, Tennyson Research Centre, corresp.
  • Yale U., Beinecke L.


  • J. Millais, watercolour?, 1854, priv. coll.
  • G. F. Watts, charcoal drawing, 1858, Watts Gallery, Compton
  • G. F. Watts, oils, 1865, Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln [see illus.]
  • Cameron Studio, photograph, 1890 (with husband and son), NPG
  • photographs, Lincoln Central Library