Book Review: Tennyson's Gift by Lynne Truss


Tennyson’s Gift is a madcap novel by Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves.  Set in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, in the 1860s, Truss takes such Victorian luminaries as Alfred Tennyson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll, and symbolist painter G. F. Watts to spin a wonderful, farcical tale.

This is a novel about irrational behaviour especially when it is conducted in the belief that one is perfectly sane and has good intentions.  Mrs Tennyson, tries to protect her husband from negative criticism by hiding the post and periodicals.  In her efforts, she drives herself to distraction.  Mrs Cameron, kind hearted by nature, emotionally suffocates people with her well-intentioned gifts.  While Tennyson obsessively checks his family for inherited signs of madness. Into the mix, throw in the phrenologist, Lorenzo Fowler, and his precocious daughter, Jessie, and you get an insight into the distinguished notables of the day and the fads and follies of the period.

One recurring theme is head hunting with the ultimate trophy head being Tennyson’s: Cameron, cutely attuned to the current “aesthetic buzz”, admires Tennyson's “temples”, and wishes to fulfil her greatest wish by photographing him.  Hot on their heels is Carroll who doggedly pursues Tennyson in the hope to photograph him as well.  While ever since Jesse spotted Carroll on the beach, the Fowlers fingers have twitch to read his “massive” head, which is “all numbers and logic at the front; all love of children at the back”.  One is struck by the characters’ dedication to pursue their quarry with such a singularity of mind.

Truss does an excellent job in fleshing out these Victorian ghosts.  Such is the hirsute nature of the Victorian gentlemen that you cannot help but admire their beards: “Watts’s wiry and deceptively virile; Cameron’s soft and white, like flax on a distaff”. However, it is not just the physical descriptions that conjure up these ancients.

By picking out their peccadilloes, Truss makes these famous characters very much alive.  Julia Cameron greets Watts as “Il Signor”. Truss says, with a wry sense of humour, “Watts loved this kind of devotion….He felt no obligation to return it”; In turn, Tennyson, self-absorbed in his genius, constantly tweaking Mariana and pondering with deep concern whether to replace the word “peach” with “pear,” is oblivious to the emotions of anyone else. Their egotism adds to the farcical nature of the book. Truss carefully exploits each ridiculous situation to bring the novel to a frothy head of misunderstandings and finally a resolve.

Farce when done badly leaves you groaning with your head in your hands, tired of the absurdity.  However, when done well, you believe in the characters and the situations they find themselves in, the mix-ups and cross-dressing and you surrender yourself to a good hearty laugh.  Tennyson’s Gift delivers.

Written by Rachel Boser 

Tennyson’s Gift

Lynne Truss

Publisher: Fourth Estate

ISBN 978-0-00-735527-3


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