THE FLIGHT FROM THE FOOTLIGHTS
SOME years ago, Queen Victoria had bought the Osborne estate as a haven from publicity. Now, in 1853, the year of the fifth edition of The Princess and the eighth edition of his Poems, her Laureate in turn escaped across the Solent: to Farringford, at Freshwater, in what he called the 'nookshotten' Isle of Wight. Here, where the grand chalk down, the furze-covered wasteland stretched out to the sea, where a man might live three miles from a church and seven from a butcher, where smugglers still hid their kegs of spirits in the gardens of the gentry, where, said Emily, 'there is no very exact record of time,' where a Yarmouth porter could call out to the departing traveller: 'This way for England!', Tennyson sought to 'confound the publicities and gabblements of the nineteenth century'. Fame might not be so persistent here: the local flyman knew that Mr Tennyson 'was no great man. He only keeps one manservant, and he doesn't sleep in the house.' Here the Laureate was at best a mysterious figure. 'He makes poems for the Queen,' explained a Freshwater boy. 'I don't know what they mean, but p'liceman often seen him, walking about a-making of 'em under the stars.'
Here, on his island, Tennyson lived, in an eighteenth-century house which seemed to Thackeray's daughter
like a charmed palace, with green walls without, and speaking walls within. There hung Dante with his solemn nose and wreath; Italy gleamed over the doorways; friends' faces lined the passages; books filled the shelves, and a glow of crimson was everywhere; the great oriel drawing-room window was full of green and golden leaves, of the sound of birds and of the distant sea.
Here, on his island, Anne Thackeray walked with Tennyson, 'listening to his talk, while the gulls came sideways, flashing their white breasts against the edge of the cliffs, and the poet's cloak