Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Recovery of Friendship: Male Love and Developmental Narrative in Tennyson's in Memoriam

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Recovery of Friendship: Male Love and Developmental Narrative in Tennyson's in Memoriam

Article excerpt

In July 1844, the barrister and journalist George Venables found a mysterious volume in the Temple chambers that he shared with his lifelong friend Henry Lushington. As leading members of the Cambridge Apostles, the secret society whose "brethren" kept up their bonds long after their days of college debating, Venables and Lushington allowed their chambers to be used as an unofficial meeting ground for Cambridge men passing through London. (1) Thus, Venables may not have been much surprised to discover that his bookshelf contained an apparently abandoned manuscript by his fellow Apostle, Alfred Tennyson. Stuck behind the other books, the strange volume resembled a butcher's account book in a very shabby condition; it contained the drafts of Tennyson's untitled "elegies," the brief poems that he had been periodically writing since the sudden death of his closest Cambridge friend Arthur Hallam in 1833. In response to Venables's inquiry, Tennyson wrote:

   You had better keep the MSS which you mention till I see you. I
   suppose I must myself have slipt it behind your books to keep it
   out of people's way, for I scarcely liked everyone who came in to
   overhaul those poems & moreover the volume itself was not fit to be
   seen, foul with the rust dust and mildew of innumerable moons. (2)

When Tennyson finally decided, in 1849, that it was time to make his private elegies "fit to be seen" by a wider public, he discovered that he had once again mislaid the manuscript in the Temple, where Venables and Lushington had often offered the poet a resting place in his life of "genteel vagrancy." (3) This time, Tennyson decided that the manuscript must be retrieved at once, and assigned the task to his young disciple Coventry Patmore. (4) While Patmore gleefully showed off the notebook to assorted friends as "the greatest literary treasure in England--the manuscript of Tennyson's next poem," his wife copied out the verses at Tennyson's request (qtd. Shatto and Shaw, p. 19). The still untitled book, printed from Emily Patmore's fair copy, then went back to the Temple, where the proofs were corrected by the experienced journalist George Venables.

While the story of In Memoriam's journey to publication may be familiar to Tennyson scholars, the collaboration between Tennyson's friends carries a symbolic resonance that has not yet been noticed. When Tennyson asked for the help of George Venables and Emily Patmore, he brought together the real-life models for Thackeray's George Warrington (the charismatic "woman-hater" of Pendennis) and Coventry Patmore's Honoria, better known as the "Angel in the House." (5) Although the equation of literary characters with their supposed models tends to obscure rather than illuminate literary texts, the image of the iconic Victorian bachelor Warrington and the "Angel in the House" laboring together over In Memoriam is too fitting to pass up. No other Victorian text has had quite the dual life of In Memoriam, a poem that came to be read--and continues to be read in modern criticism--as both a ritual text of Victorian household piety and the most extended English poem on male same-sex love.

In the extensive critical debate over the relation between marital domesticity and same-sex bonds in In Memoriam, scholars have shared one over-riding assumption: that the most salient form of male-male attachment in Tennyson's work is what we would now call "homosexuality." While earlier readings often take a defensive stance, seeking to explain how the marital imagery of In Memoriam does not point to a homosexual attachment between Tennyson and Hallam, more recent studies generally argue that the poem either expresses or attempts to neutralize homosexual desire. (6) In both strands of criticism, male-male love appears as a subversive force (either feared or validated for its divergence from sexual norms), while domestic relationships stand for Victorian normalcy. I suggest, however, that this dichotomy between normalcy and subversion has obscured the connections between same-sex love and the dominant forms of Victorian gender and class identity. …

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