Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).
This comic novel is set at Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight, and takes place in the last weekend of July 1864. Nearly all the characters are historical, and include Alfred Tennyson and his wife, Emily; Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll); and the painter G.F. Watts and his wife, the actress Ellen Terry. Few of these people, one imagines, would relish the way they are portrayed here. Tennyson, for example, is represented as obsessed with his poetic reputation and excessively sensitive to any kind of criticism; Dodgson comes out as pusillanimous, with tendencies towards paedophilia. Probably the most sympathetic portrayal is that of Ellen Terry, who is constantly trying, and failing, to persuade her singularly tiresome husband to consummate their marriage.
The main plot, such as it is, revolves round two themes: photography and phrenology. Julia Cameron is obsessed with taking pictures and is constantly trying to persuade people to pose for her. An American phrenologist and his young daughter come to the Isle of Wight to give a public demonstration of their skill, and this leads to various outcomes for the characters. But the main interest for the reader lies, not in the events themselves, but in the way they are described. Lynne Truss plays with her story in a catlike way. For example: "Ellen jumped from rock to rock like— oh, Puck or Ariel, or something, while Watts poked at the ground with his stick, as though Daisy [a missing girl] might be a shell fish burrowed there. Perhaps he was looking for dropped florins." [Watts was notoriously miserly.] Another kind of joke, running through the book, depends on recurring echoes of the Alice books.
The book, in fact, strikes me as constituting an elaborate joke rather than a novel in the ordinary sense, but taken in this way it is quite entertaining. The subsequent lives of the historical figures are outlined in an appendix.
8 January 2004
%T Tennyson's Gift
%A Truss, Lynne
%I Hamish Hamilton
%G ISBN 0-241-13521-4
%P 241 pp
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