Shiplake Ringing Centre

Tennyson's Marriage at Shiplake
Alfred Tennyson

"THE year 1850”, wrote Harold Nicolson in his biography of the poet, "forms the central point of Tennyson's life and literary career: it emerges dominantly to mark the dividing moment between the lonely uphill struggle of his youth and manhood and the easy, cushioned slope of his later age. For in this year 1850 three very important things happened: he married Emily Sellwood; he published 'In Memoriam’; and he became Poet Laureate. Of the three, it was his marriage, perhaps, which was the most important".

Tennyson's wedding - on June 13 - was at Shiplake Parish Church and the ceremony was performed by the Reverend Robert Rawnsley who was Vicar from 1849-62.

The bride was a cousin of Catherine Rawnsley, the Vicar's wife; the bridegroom, born in 1809, was a personal friend of both Robert and Catherine Rawnsley; and after the Rawnsleys came to Shiplake in January 1849, both he and Emily were frequent visitors at their home - now known as "The Old Vicarage', the house having ceased to be the Parsonage in 1904. And it was here that their acquaintanceship of many years' standing finally blossomed into marriage.

When the poet stayed at Shiplake Vicarage he slept in a little room with two windows, over the porch, then affording a clear view of the Church. The small room next door belonged to Willingham Rawnsley, the Vicar's eldest son, but when Alfred was in residence the boy would be turned out because it was there that the poet would go to smoke and to write when he wanted a quiet moment.

The Tennyson, Sellwood and Rawnsley families all had Lincolnshire roots, and it was while walking In the Fairy Wood at Somersby, Lincolnshire, In 1830, that the future Laureate first saw his wife-to-be - a slender, beautiful girl of 17, wearing a simple grey dress - and he asked her: “Are you a Dryad or an Oread wandering here?"

Nothing came of this encounter and not until 1836 was there any significant development in their relationship. In that year, Alfred's brother, Charles, married Emily's sister, Louisa, and It fell to the poet to escort Emily’ sister, who was a bridesmaid, to the church. It was while they were there that a “pleasant truth” descended upon Alfred:

“And all at once a pleasant truth I learn’d,

For while the tender service made thee weep,

I loved thee for the tear thou could’st not hide,

And prest thy hand, and knew the press return’d,

And thought, 'My life is sick of' single sleep:

The girl’s father, however, discouraged the match. It is said that he considered having one Tennyson as a son-in-law was sufficient, but the more likely cause of his opposition was concern for his daughter's financial future - poets not being renowned as potential money-makers. Mr Sellwood, a solicitor, even forbade his daughter to write to Alfred but, despite the paternal edict, the couple did correspond until the end of the decade.

It seems that for the greater part of the 1840s they were separated. Nicolson suggests that the words “shyness” and “self-distrust”, which occur in “Edwin Morris”, could be autobiographical references explaining the poet's failure to proceed to marriage; a further reason could have been the lack of funds to which the poet alludes in "The Ring":

“Two lovers parted by no scurrilous tale -

Mere want of gold - and still for twenty years

Bound by the golden cord of their first love”.

In 1847, however, the poet made an attempt (clearly, not the first) to secure In marriage the hand of a now unwilling Emily. Hardy Rawnsley, another son of the Vicar of Shiplake who himself became a priest, wrote in his "Memories of the Tennysons”: "Then Tennyson again came forward, and this time was refused on the highest and noblest principles of self-abnegation by the woman who loved him. Emily Sellwood had grown to feel that they two moved in worlds of religious thought so different that the two would not 'make one music as they moved".

It is not clear what led her to change her mind and agree to marry the poet. It cannot have been for reasons of personal status or prestige: he was not appointed Laureate until November 1850 - five months after the wedding - and it was 1884 before he was given a peerage.

While Nicolson suggests that selections from the then almost completed “In Memoriam” might have played some part in persuading Emily to alter her opinion of the poet's Christian orthodoxy, there can be no doubt that it was Catherine Rawnsley, the confidante of both Emily and Alfred, who brought about the final reconciliation; and the result was (in Hardy Rawnsley's words) that “on the 13th June, 1850, the very month 'In Memoriam’ was published, the lovers were happily married from Shiplake Vicarage by my father, the vicar of the parish".

"Thus", as Emily Climenson observed in her paper, "Tennyson's Association with Shiplake”, ”’the little rift within the lute' was closed". And Catherine Rawnsley (who, having persuaded the poet and his love to meet at Shiplake, had been “terribly anxious as to the future result") must have breathed a deep sigh of relief.

But before that could happen, Lady Stanley, the 79-year-old occupant of Holmwood (the large house on the left as one approaches Binfield Heath from Shiplake) saw to it that the proprieties were observed. Described by Emily Climenson as “a great character”, Lady Stanley had been much scandalised to learn that the bride and groom would be sleeping under the same roof on the night before the wedding, and she determined to prevent this threatened breach of etiquette. When, however, she could not prevail upon the poet, “who was very shy”, to leave the shelter of' the Vicarage, it is said that Lady Stanley came for the bride and carried her off to spend the night at Holmwood.

Little did the poet dream that in future years he would have a son (Hallam) who would marry someone who regularly stayed under that roof - Awdrey, Hallam Tennyson's wife-to-be, being a frequent visitor at Holmwood after it became the home of' Admiral Charles Swinburne and his family; and it was at the house almost next door to Holmwood - Shiplake Rise - that Hallam and Awdrey Tennyson's son, Charles, lived in the 1920s.

Emily Sellwood, who was dressed for her wedding by the Rawnsleys' old nurse, wore a sky-blue gown "which matched her beautiful eyes". And when describing the wedding, the nurse always ended by saying: "Ah, how she loved him, and how proud he seemed of her, and what a pair they looked as they walked on the lawn afterwards”.

An untitled poem, commemorating the wedding and dedicated to the Vicar of Shiplake, was written by the bridegroom - some say in lieu of a wedding fee! - while driving from Shiplake to Pangbourne. Copies of the poem are available at Shiplake Church.

Of his wedding day, Tennyson wrote: "The Peace of God came into my life before the altar when I wedded her"; and to his wife he addressed two poems of great beauty - "Roses on the Terrace" and "June Bracken and Heather”.

It has been claimed that Canto CXXI of "In Memoriam" was composed during one of Tennyson's pre-wedding visits to Shiplake; and although it is not known whether any other of his published works was written here, it would be surprising if this beautiful area had not inspired some of his verses. "But be all this as it may”, wrote Emily Climenson in her “History of Shiplake”, "a halo of tender and happy memories must have always existed in the poet's mind relative to our little Shiplake village, ever kept alive by the fact of his truly happy marriage having taken place here".

NORMAN PRINT, Shiplake Vicarage, 1979

Sources of Information taken from:

"Bibliography:"History of Shiplake”, Emily Climenson (1894)

“Tennyson's Association With Shiplake", Emily Climenson (1906)

"Tennyson", Harold Nicolson (1923)

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