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The Magnificent Mrs Tennant

The Magnificent Mrs Tennant

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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    The Magnificent Mrs Tennant
    Book Description:

    Gertrude Tennant's life was remarkable for its length (1819-1918), but even more so for the influence she achieved as an unsurpassed London hostess. The salon she established when widowed in her early fifties attracted legions of celebrities, among them William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Thomas Huxley, John Everett Millais, Henry James, and Robert Browning. In her youth she had a fling with Gustave Flaubert, and in her later years she became the redoubtable mother-in-law to the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. But as a woman in a male-dominated world, Mrs. Tennant has been remembered mainly as a footnote in the lives of eminent men.

    This book recovers the lost life of Gertrude Tennant, drawing on a treasure trove of recently discovered family papers-thousands of letters, including two dozen original letters from Flaubert to Tennant; dozens of diaries; and many other unpublished documents relating to Stanley and other famous figures of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. David Waller presents Gertrude Tennant's life in colorful detail, placing her not only at the heart of a multigenerational, matriarchal family epic but also at the center of European social, literary, and intellectual life for the best part of a century.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15994-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Family Trees
    (pp. x-xii)
  5. CHAPTER 1 How I Found Gertrude Tennant
    (pp. 1-8)

    Mrs C-T, who married the grandson of the heroine of this book, knew that I had long been interested in the Victorian books sitting on the shelves of her farmhouse. One day early in 2005, she called me and invited me to come and explore the attic. We climbed the steep wooden stairs, unlocked the door of a room the size of a child’s bedroom, pushed aside broken tennis racquets, ancient loudspeakers and other bric-à-brac to make our way to a pair of oak chests. ‘One belongs to Gertrude and the other to her daughter Dolly,’ explained Mrs C-T. The...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Born into a Long Line of Heroes
    (pp. 9-15)

    Gertrude Barbara Rich Collier was born on 9 November 1819 at Newcastle Lodge in County Galway, a small house overlooking the stormtossed waters of Lough Corrib. She was delivered at nine in the morning by Dr McCew, an old man with a face scrunched up like an owl, who had journeyed through the snow from nearby Galway town to attend to her mother Mrs. Harriet Collier in the last stages of her confinement. The baby was sickly-looking with long brown hair hanging around her head and ears, as her mother recollected many years later.¹

    The Colliers found themselves in this...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Early Adventures
    (pp. 16-22)

    The Admiralty punished Henry for the shipwreck by ordering him to sail the damaged vessel home from Ireland to Plymouth and then on to the West Indies. After some six months at sea, Henry ‘invalided’ from theFalmouthat the Leeward Islands – that is, was declared unfit for service; suffering from some unspecified tropical disease, he was sent back to England to rejoin his wife and children. For two years, the family enjoyed a period of unaccustomed stability. They lived in a village near Plymouth, in a thatched cottage surrounded by violets and primroses. Gertrude by now had rosy...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Arrival in Paris
    (pp. 23-38)

    Gertrude’s parents were among those William Makepeace Thackeray called the ‘hardy adventurers’ who sought, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, to find a better life, or at least respite from creditors or the constraints of respectable English society, on the other side of the Channel. While English girls of her age grew up in a society shaped by the forces of industrialisation and urbanisation, of evangelicalism and gradual social reform, Gertrude lived a picaresque expatriate existence.

    France, open again to British visitors after a blockade lasting nearly fifteen years, had rapidly become the preferred destination for disgraced or impoverished...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Unsentimental Education
    (pp. 39-45)

    Gertrude’s grandmother Lady Collier (widow of the old Admiral Sir George) came to Paris to console her daughter Mrs Aïdé after she lost her husband in the duel. The old lady’s arrival was a mixed blessing for Gertrude. Lady Collier now enjoyed spending time with her eldest granddaughter, taking her into her bedroom and playing games, but she was highly critical of the girl’s educational attainments. She was passionate about poetry, and especially fond of James Thomson’sThe Seasons, and she used to read these poems to Gertrude. The heroine in Thomson’s poem is called Lavinia, ‘and Lavinia bored me...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Gertrude Meets Her Future Husband
    (pp. 46-52)

    In the summer of 1834, some time after the departure of Mlle Mercier, Gertrude and her family went on an extended holiday to Boulogne on the Channel coast. The Colliers spent their time walking on the beach, riding on donkeys, swimming in the sea and making friends with other privileged middle-class English families. It would have been an unremarkable seaside holiday except that on this occasion Gertrude met the man who would become her husband. At the age of 14, Gertrude was too young to be thinking of marriage; and Charles Tennant, who celebrated his 38thbirthday on the first...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Gertrude Enters Society
    (pp. 53-62)

    Shortly after her return from holiday, Gertrude was reading an English newspaper in Lady Cochrane’s apartment. Contact with the cultivated Tennant family had left her more than usually conscious of her educational shortcomings and she was intrigued to read the following advertisement in a corner of the journal:

    Monsieur Colard, tutor to the duc de Bordeaux, has established in the rue de l’Arcade cours for young ladies on interesting subjects. Apply for information No 12, rue de l’Arcade.¹

    Resolved to improve herself, Gertrude walked by herself to the rue de l’Arcade (which now runs from the Boulevard Malesherbes to the...

  12. CHAPTER 8 The Marriage Market
    (pp. 63-69)

    One has to have some sympathy for the Collier parents: they had four girls, all of whom had to be propelled into matrimony without the benefits of fortune or a title, and three sons who could be launched into their careers only at considerable expense. In the late 1830s, by which time Gertrude was coming to the end of her teens, the Colliers decided to introduce their eldest daughter to English society. In Paris, she was meeting Frenchmen by the score, many of them titled and wealthy, but the xenophobic Colliers could not countenance their eldest daughter marrying anyone but...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Phantoms of Trouville
    (pp. 70-80)

    The next summer the extended Collier family – all of the six children based in Paris and their parents, together with Aunt Georgina and her son Hamilton – left the capital as usual for a long holiday. Their destination was Trouville, then a remote fishing village in Normandy on the estuary of the River Touques. Later in the century, Trouville and nearby Deauville were developed into full-scale resorts that became popular with the haute bourgeoisie of the Second Empire. In 1842, however, there were none of the pompous villas, hotels and casinos that line the sea-front and give the place...

  14. CHAPTER 10 At Home with the Flauberts
    (pp. 81-97)

    Henrietta had been treated by many doctors during the three years that she had been ill. First, there was Dr Richard Verity, attached to the British Embassy, who prescribed bleedings and cataplasms; then there was his nephew Dr Robert Verity, whose ministrations succeeded in turning a low fever into a spinal complaint; then Dr Rue, who recommended cautery, a technique whereby a branding-iron was applied to the unfortunate patient’s flesh (hence the blisters in the letters to Gertrude). Dr Rue also prescribed the holiday in Trouville, but the fresh air did her no good. ‘The pain being severe and augmenting...

  15. CHAPTER 11 An Improbable Romance
    (pp. 98-108)

    A few days after leaving Paris, Gertrude was in England. She and her parents went first to the Isle of Wight, where they rented a house overlooking the sea in Ryde, and from there to stay with friends in London, where by chance they met their former family solicitor in Gray’s Inn and blithely accepted an invitation to tea at his home in Russell Square.

    Charles Tennant, now nearly 50 years old, bewhiskered and hard of hearing, was far from being a romantic figure in the mould of the wildly good-looking Gustave Flaubert. In the years since they had met...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Portrait of a Marriage
    (pp. 109-119)

    During more than a year of enforced separation, Charles and Gertrude had corresponded extensively, on all manner of subjects, but in reality they barely knew each other when they became man and wife. They had spent little time alone together: perhaps a stroll on the beach under the reproachful eye of Mrs Collier or a polite kiss on the cheek at the ferry as Charles made his way back to London after a weekend visit. Now, married at last, they had ample time to make up for that as they embarked on a honeymoon destined to last a leisurely four...

  17. CHAPTER 13 Charles’s Angel in the House?
    (pp. 120-125)

    Both Charles and Gertrude had conventional notions of the role of marriage. It was, first and foremost, holy matrimony, a union undergirded by the principles of the established Christian religion. Charles had urged Gertrude to take communion on the day before their wedding, ‘so that the Lord’s blessing may be with us both when we meet to celebrate together, in his name, the holy sacrament of marriage’. On the day after the wedding, they attended the afternoon service together and, with rare exceptions, they went to church on every Sunday morning of their lives. At a more worldly level, Charles...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Births and Deaths
    (pp. 126-141)

    One evening shortly before Christmas 1849, Gertrude was sitting in the music room at Cadoxton with a companion, reading out excerpts fromThe Times. Now thirty years old and three months pregnant with her second child, she was spending a few weeks in South Wales with her husband’s family. The following lines from the newspaper’s Hong Kong correspondent caught her eye:

    We regret to have to announce the death of Rear Admiral Sir Francis A. Collier, Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s Naval Force in the east.

    ‘Thus,’ Gertrude wrote in her diary later that night, ‘was the manner I received the...

  19. CHAPTER 15 Rita and Emma: Two Literary Heroines
    (pp. 142-150)

    If there was one person from outside the immediate family circle whom Gertrude was pleased to see at this time, it was her first cousin Hamilton Aïdé. Aïdé (pronounced ‘aye-eee-day’), it will be remembered, was the son of her mother’s sister Georgina and uncle George, the cosmopolitan businessman killed in a duel after an altercation at a Parisian ball. Aïdé was six or seven years younger than Gertrude, but they had been close since childhood and would remain intimate friends until he died in 1906.

    Aïdé is now completely forgotten, but in his day was known as a versatile man...

  20. CHAPTER 16 Les Misérables
    (pp. 151-165)

    The death of Blanche was a grievous blow, all too common in mid-Victorian England, where small children died in droves, victims of random accidents and incurable illnesses. The statistics describe what one historian has called a ‘massacre of the innocents’¹: throughout the High Victorian period, around 100,000 children a year died before their first birthday. From 1840 to the end of the century, infant mortality stayed relentlessly high at around 150 per thousand live births, despite the rapid advances in so many other fields of human endeavour. The chief killers in the first year were diarrhoea, pneumonia, bronchitis and convulsions;...

  21. CHAPTER 17 Moving Up in the World
    (pp. 166-182)

    Richmond Terrace, to which the Tennant family moved in late 1868, five uneventful years after the holiday encounter with Hugo, is the direct continuation of Downing Street to the east of Whitehall, a cul-de-sac of eight substantial three-storey houses clad in amber brick and Bath stone. The houses are not as imposing as the great mansions of Belgravia or the terraces built by Nash in Regent’s Park at around the same time, but the location is if anything better, lying (according to a contemporary guidebook) ‘close to the centre of the metropolis, between the parks and the converging point of...

  22. CHAPTER 18 Gertrude’s Dark Night of the Soul
    (pp. 183-186)

    A month after Charles’s death, Gertrude began a diary written in the form of letters to her deceased husband. On 11 April, 1873, she resolved to write to:

    Him who is only ‘Gone before’, who for a little time must be absent from me, to whom I shall speak again, see again, and be with again for ever in the Holy presence of My God, and my Saviour. I mean to speak to Him – my own dear Charles, my Husband and My Friend, as if he was only gone on a voyage to some distant part, where I must...

  23. CHAPTER 19 Re-entering the Marriage Market
    (pp. 187-195)

    Just three weeks before Charles died, Dolly attended her first ball, at the home of Mr George Smith, the publisher. The vivacious red-headed girl danced every dance and was very happy. Gertrude must have been reminded of her gregarious younger self, ‘hoofing it’ until the early hours with the young princes at the Tuileries Palace, but she would not allow the comparison with her own youth to be taken any further. Her parents had left her to her own devices at this critical point of her life and she had been obliged to take matters into her own hands. Thirty...

  24. CHAPTER 20 Reunited with an Old Flame
    (pp. 196-207)

    Early in 1876, Gertrude decided to take her daughters to see Paris, the city where she had grown up and which she had not visited in more than thirty years. She and the girls, together with the omnipresent Hamilton Aïdé, left Richmond Terrace for Victoria station on the morning of Tuesday, 25 April, from where they took the 7.30 boat train via Calais to the French capital. They required two carriages for the short journey to the station, so they must have taken a quantity of luggage, not the least of which was Dolly’s adored pet horned toad which had...

  25. CHAPTER 21 An Eligible Match
    (pp. 208-213)

    The very last letter Gustave Flaubert wrote to Gertrude was to console her on the news of the impending marriage of Eveleen, now aged 23, to Frederic Myers. He tells her not to be sad at the loss of a daughter and to think of all the others who are likely to come to depend on her as a result of the match, a reference to theépicierconsolations of grandchildren:

    I wish Eveline [sic] all the happiness that her lovely character and her extraordinary beauty deserve. A poet for a husband!Diable, a bourgeoise would not have done that...

  26. CHAPTER 22 The Delicious Dolly
    (pp. 214-220)

    When Henry James met Dolly for the first time in May 1879 at a party given by her mother at Richmond Terrace, he sat alone with her in the drawing-room while the other guests were at dinner. ‘The Delicious Dolly,’ he wrote to his sister, ‘is one of the finest creatures I have met here – as free and natural as an American girl, as handsome as the youthful Juno, and with the dimpled English temperamenten plus’.¹ He was not alone in being captivated by her. Edwin Arnold, the influential poet and editor of theDaily Telegraph, said of...

  27. CHAPTER 23 A Salon in Whitehall
    (pp. 221-229)

    Some time before Gertrude’s social career thus began in earnest, the now forgotten man of letters Abraham Hayward sought to analyse whether the essentially French institution of the salon could be transplanted to British soil. He was pessimistic: England had produced its fair share of great society hostesses, and givers of parties, ‘who have done good service in blending, harmonizing and elevating society … in facilitating, refining and enhancing the pleasures of intellectual intimacy’. Among these historical figures, he numbered Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Palmerston, the wife of the famous Foreign Secretary, and Countess Blessington, who had held court...

  28. CHAPTER 24 Bula Matari in the Drawing-Room
    (pp. 230-237)

    Gertrude’splacementor seating plan was not well judged, for, although Dolly revered both Gladstone and Stanley, they did not like each other at all. Their mutual antipathy was not surprising, in that they represented very different types of Victorian greatness. Gladstone was pious, learned to a fault, an Old Etonian constitutionalist, the embodiment of establishment values. He was genial, otherworldly, most at home in the Oxbridge senior common room or the protocol-bound House of Commons, and his manner that of a donnish clergyman rather than a great parliamentarian. Stanley, by contrast, had exceedingly humble origins, and had clawed his...

  29. CHAPTER 25 Dolly’s Choices
    (pp. 238-248)

    Oscar Wilde had summed up Dolly’s dilemma long ago, on the day of the visit with Ruskin, telling her he did not know anyone great and good enough for her to marry.

    Surrounded by the great men of the world, Dolly was utterly uninspired by the younger, marriageable men she met, one of whom had underwhelmed her by stating that he wanted to be her pet, like an animal or bird in her studio. How could the gaucherie of such a boy compete with the thrill of conversing with Gladstone or Henry James? It was, Dolly told her father, a...

  30. CHAPTER 26 Quel bel avenir?
    (pp. 249-258)

    A journalist jokingly suggested that when Stanley asked Gertrude’s permission for the match, she replied: ‘She is yours, and so am I!’¹ Following the honeymoon, the Stanleys moved into Richmond Terrace with Gertrude, and there they all lived, in a more or less harmoniousménage(together with half a dozen servants and ultimately an adopted baby) for nine years, until at last the Stanleys got a place of their own, a mock-Tudor mansion at Furze Hill, near Pirbright in Surrey. Much against the odds, thegrande dameand the man of action got along famously, and well into her seventies...

  31. CHAPTER 27 ‘Whom Shall I Meet in Heaven?’
    (pp. 259-263)

    Within two years of Stanley’s death, Dolly wrote to her mother in considerable distress: she said she wanted desperately to marry Henry Curtis, Stanley’s doctor, and that if she could not marry him, she would kill herself. The terrible, incoherent letter reflects the extremity of Dolly’s nervous state; she had been driven to the verge of breakdown by the strain of caring for Stanley in his last years: ‘Dearest mother, I will write down for your quiet consideration a few facts,’ she wrote in a letter simply dated 1906:

    I cannot trust myself to speak them, so I write them...

  32. Epilogue
    (pp. 264-268)

    In 1927, Virginia Woolf published an article in an American newspaper in which she sought to draw a line between Victorian life-writing and what she called the New Biography.

    ‘The Victorian biographer was dominated by the idea of goodness,’ she wrote. ‘Noble, upright, chaste, severe: it is thus that Victorian worthies are presented to us.’¹ This moral worthiness was conveyed by an exhaustive accumulation of factual, preferably documentary evidence. The result was to fossilise the subject of the biography, rather than bring him (and more rarely her) alive, presenting a carapace of externalities rather than the person within. Skilful biographers...

  33. Note on Primary Sources
    (pp. 269-272)
  34. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 273-274)
  35. Notes
    (pp. 275-293)
  36. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 294-298)
  37. Index
    (pp. 299-308)