Tennyson, Chaucer, and ‘problematic’ poets

Would you stop reading this column if you knew about some of the regrettable things that I have done in my life? I ask because there seems to be a growing trend for condemning the work of people regarded as ‘problematic’. Tennyson is the latest to suffer this indignity. In December 2022, it was widely reported that the University of Lincoln has installed a plaque on the Media, Humanities, and Technology Building (known since 2018 as the Alfred Tennyson Building) to say that the poet ‘strongly supported British imperial rule’ and that his poems ‘seem to confirm the dominant beliefs at the time – about faith, gender, British identity’.

The problem with all such ‘problematising’ is that it looks exclusively for faults and failings. If you want to know more about the truly complex personality that was Lord Tennyson, Sherds recommends a visit to his family home, at Farringford on the Isle of Wight. This has been lovingly restored and opened to the public by Rebecca FitzGerald after previously serving as a Thomas Cook hotel and then a Pontins holiday resort (albeit an upmarket one offering ‘holidays in an atmosphere of culture and charm… from 6 to 9 guineas a week’; today you can rent cottages on the estate for £600 to £900 a week).

left Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) has recently come under fire for strongly supporting the British Empire, but can his beliefs be summed up so succinctly?
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) has recently come under fire for strongly supporting the British Empire, but can his beliefs be summed up so succinctly?

A refuge for those in need

At Farringford, the well-informed room stewards will tell you that Tennyson was a generous host who loved food and drink, and that his guests included many a refugee from conventional society. He and his family befriended the homosexual artist and poet Edward Lear, providing him with all the warmth and solace of domestic life at a time when Lear was sick with unrequited love for the barrister Franklin Lushington. Lear idolised Tennyson’s children, for whom he drew the nonsense alphabets that now adorn the walls of the nursery at Farringford.

Even more in need of a sympathetic ear and a safe refuge from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune was Frederick Maurice (1805-1872), one of the founders, along with John Ruskin and Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown’s School Days), of the left-wing Christian Socialist movement. Maurice had just been dismissed from his post as Professor of Theology at Cambridge because of his unorthodox views (cancel culture was alive and well in 1854). Tennyson wrote him a verse invitation to come and stay at Farringford, far from the conflicts of London and Cambridge: ‘Should all our churchmen foam in spite/At you, so careful of the right,/Yet one lay-hearth would give you welcome/Take it and come to the Isle of Wight/…/You’ll have no scandal while you dine/But honest talk and wholesome wine’.

Chaucer the predator

Geoffrey Chaucer is another historical figure deemed problematical after an article on ‘New feminist approaches to Chaucer’ was published in the journal The Chaucer Review. This argued that the time had come ‘for feminists to move past Chaucer’, branding him ‘a rapist, a racist, an anti-Semite [who] speaks for a world in which the privileges of the male, the Christian, the wealthy, and the white are perceived to be an inalienable aspect of human existence’.

Commenting on these claims, several academics made the point that one should not confuse the content of a work of fiction with the views of the author, but the claim of rape was more difficult to dismiss. It was based on court documents that the founder of the Chaucer Society, Frederick Furnivall, had discovered in 1873. Dating from 1380, the legal record consisted of a quitclaim in which one Cecily Chaumpaigne formally released ‘Galfridus Chaucer’ from charges de meo raptu (‘concerning my rape’).

The poet’s guilt seemed to be reinforced by the discovery, in 1993, of a second document filed by Chaumpaigne releasing Chaucer from all charges de feloniis transgressionibus compotis debitis (‘relating to felonies, trespasses, accounts, debts’), as well as any other charges that Chaumpaigne might have had against Chaucer up to that date. Then, five weeks later, Chaucer’s friend John Grove filed documents promising to pay £10 to Chaumpaigne.

below Tennyson was known to host many refugees from conventional society at his home at Farringford on the Isle of Wight.
Tennyson was known to host many refugees from conventional society at his home at Farringford on the Isle of Wight. IMAGE: Michael Garlick, CC BY-SA 2.0

Chaucer’s redemption

Taken at face value, this makes Chaucer look like a medieval Harvey Weinstein, and feminist scholars have expressed anger at the way that his guilt has been ‘swept under the carpet’ for the best part of 150 years. In October 2022, though, two newly discovered legal documents were unveiled by Euan Roger, principal records specialist in the medieval team at the National Archives, and Sebastian Sobecki, Professor of Later Medieval English Literature at the University of Toronto, which clarified the legal meaning of the term raptus in this case.

One of the documents, dated 16 October 1379, recorded the grievance of one Thomas Staundon, who alleged that Chaumpaigne had gone to work for Chaucer in violation of the Statute and Ordinance of Labourers – a legal measure enacted at a time of acute labour shortage in the wake of the Black Death, designed to prevent the poaching of workers with offers of higher pay. By leaving Staundon’s employment before the end of her agreed terms of service, Chaumpaigne and Chaucer had caused him ‘grievous loss’, he claimed. The second document, dated 9 April 1380, concerns Chaumpaigne’s appointment of two lawyers to represent her in answering Staundon’s claims.

The accusation of raptus was thus brought by Staundon, not Chaumpaigne, and had to do with an employment dispute, not a rape case – raptus meaning unlawful seizure or appropriation, not sexual violation – or, as Roger and Sobecki put it: ‘the physical act of Chaumpaigne leaving Staundon’s service’. The poet and his servant were legally on the same side, and the quitclaim document formally releasing Chaucer from charges de meo raptu was an acknowledgement on Chaumpaigne’s part that she made her own choice to work for Chaucer, and that he was not guilty of her abduction or of offering her an inducement.

That should be the end of the story, but sadly not. Some critics remain adamant that while the new documentary evidence clears Chaucer’s name, he nonetheless ‘lived in, wrote for, and reflected in his writing a patriarchal society where such behaviour was common’, and that he ‘participated in hegemonic discourses that shaped the lives of all women’.

What worries Sherds about this approach is that it turns literary criticism into a form of public prosecution. Forget the difficult task of understanding the techniques that an author uses to achieve their effects; let us instead seek evidence that the author was a bad person. And if the author turns out to be blameless, you can always condemn them for reflecting the regrettable values of their time.

The treatment of Tennyson and Chaucer stands as a warning to us all not to adopt similarly reductive techniques in our interpretations of history, heritage, and archaeology. Picking over the reputations of prominent figures from the past, ‘problematising’ their lives, is a feeble kind of sport: it is very easy to identify people’s failings and there is nobody on this planet – past, present, or to come – who does not have flaws.

Lessons for heritage

Unfortunately, there are signs that the ‘single issue’ lens is occasionally used to interpret heritage. Visiting Upton House in Warwickshire in September 2021, Sherds observed that the only label to be found in each of the art-filled rooms was a laminated notice produced by word-processor reminding us of the slavery-plantation origins of the wealth of the people whose house this was. True enough of the 17th-century owners, but the 20th-century owners, who bequeathed the house and its collections to the nation, and were not related to the plantation owners in any way – Lord and Lady Bearsted – purchased the house in 1927. There was no equally prominent notice to recognise the Bearsteds’ tireless work to organise and fund the Kindertransport network that rescued young Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled Europe in the early months of the Second World War. Academics and curators surely have a duty to tell the whole truth or remain silent.