- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009



By David Waller

Yale University Press, $35, 308 pages

Reviewed by Emily Wilkinson

There is a tincture of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in the life of Gertrude Barbara Rich Tennant. The “magnificent” Mrs. Tennant of David Waller’s captivating new biography was not (as Orlando was) prone to surreal fluctuations between masculine and feminine, but she shares with Miss Woolf’s hero/ine an astonishingly long life of astonishing social and geographical variety.

Born at the closing of the age of Jane Austen, Gertrude Tennant died at 99 just before the end of World War I. Writers like Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Robert Browning and Ivan Turgenev were among her intimate friends and acquaintances, as were the controversial explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the painters G.F. Watts and John Everett Millais, and the famous Liberal Party Prime Minister William Gladstone.

Gertrude Tennant became - rather late in life - a Victorian salonniere: She had a gift, even a vocation, for friendship and graciousness, and in her grand home in London’s Westminster, she brought together accomplished men from all nations and walks of life for convivial evenings of conversation and debate.

Gertrude Tennant has long been merely a footnote in the lives of the great men she encountered (Flaubert - with whom she had a romantic friendship in her early 20s and remained close to until his death; Stanley - who married Tennant’s daughter Dolly and who lived with Gertrude and Dolly in a strange sort of menage for several years). But Mr. Waller’s biography reveals that the worth and appeal of Mrs. Tennant’s life should not be confused with the sum of her illustrious male acquaintances.

She is a subject in her own right: a woman who was both the ideal of nurturing, selfless Victorian femininity - wife and mother before all else, an “angel in the house”- and an independent cosmopolitan woman of the world, informed about and engaged by the political and aesthetic issues of the day.

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf insisted that had she not killed the Victorian ideal of womanhood, “the angel in the house” - that angel would have killed her. Gertrude Tennant’s life, by contrast, reveals that traditional roles could be deeply personally fulfilling for some 19th-century women. On her wedding day, Gertrude wrote: “I am now seven and twenty, and married! A human being’s entire happiness depends upon me … I mean now to live in earnest, not merely to dress and be admired, fritter away year after year.”

A year into her marriage, she found herself unquestionably content: “We have been as happy in each other as it is possible for two human beings to be!” Gertrude’s 26 years of marriage to Charles Tennant, a lawyer, poet and political writer, did, indeed, provide the fulfillment she had anticipated. Charles and Gertrude’s love for each other weathered the loss of two children as well as rather serious money worries brought about by several lawsuits that Charles inherited from his father (one distinctly reminiscent of the byzantine case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce at the center of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House”). They also endured Charles’ increasing deafness, a condition that made him reluctant to entertain or attend parties.

When Charles died in 1873, Gertrude was devastated: “First day of a long - an everlasting agony,” she wrote the day after his death. She began keeping a diary in the form of letters to her dead husband, and these writings read like a personal, prose version of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s great Victorian poem of elegy and loss, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”

Gertrude’s letters to her dead husband are earnest, intimate, even unprocessed, in a way that reveals how much she had depended on him - how entwined their lives and minds had been: “How I hate the word widow! It sounds so helpless, so poor, so abandoned, so godforsaken, and that alas, is what I feel! … I have no longer anyone on whom I can cast my many cares!”

Gertrude did not, however, stay lost for long. She had two young, single daughters, Evie and Dolly, and Charles’ death convinced her that she must attend to the business of finding them husbands, and so she began to entertain.

It was this most conservative and Victorian of impulses that launched Gertrude’s brilliant, cosmopolitan career as a hostess. This social career was, in some sense, a return to the excitement and energy of her childhood.

Gertrude had been born quite by accident on the rugged Atlantic coast of Ireland in 1819. Her mother, like other intrepid wives of British Navy officers in the Regency period, had accompanied her husband to sea and was nine months pregnant when his ship foundered on the Irish coast.

When Gertrude’s father, a down-at-the-heel Navy captain, went bankrupt, the family fled to France and remained in Paris until Gertrude was well into her 20s. She learned French (so well that Victor Hugo did not consider her anglaise), encountered impoverished former aristocrats (victims of the French Revolution), the restored French royal family, and Gustave Flaubert (still an obscure doctor’s son when the two met).

Launching her daughters into London society allowed Gertrude to recapture something of the breathtaking social panoply of her youth. Her graciousness and her daughters’ beauty (Henry James called Dolly “the Delicious Dolly,” and both girls were painted by Millais and Watts) and charm (both girls were also accomplished artists themselves) brought into the Tennant dining and drawing rooms all of the major political and artistic movements of the age. These included mesmerism and telepathy, socialism, imperialist exploration, aestheticism, classicism, romanticism and realism.

Gertrude’s broad acquaintance was eclectic. Mark Twain was taken aback by the variety of guests: “There were cabinet ministers, ambassadors, admirals, generals, canons, Oxford professors, novelists, playwrights, poets, and a number of people equipped with rank and brains,” he noted. At Gertrude’s table, the exiled Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin calmly discussed the abolition of social classes with Prime Minister Gladstone over Fortnum and Mason turtle soup.

Thus, Gertrude Tennant’s life is not merely a biographical subject for Mr. Waller, but a lamp with which he illuminates the intellectual and cultural history of the second half of the 19th century. This is cultural history in the drawing room - writ small - on two inches of ivory, as Jane Austen once described her art - but beautifully. Mr. Waller traces with care the filaments of larger historical forces that intertwine with the finer threads of Gertrude’s single life, but he never loses sight of her in this interweaving. Through Gertrude and her expansive, democratic social tastes, Mr. Waller offers a tapestry of the ideas and people of the age - each one delicately interconnected with the rest.

Emily Wilkinson is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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