Lady Audrey Tennyson: trailing spouse, invaluable observer

Mark Klemens reflects on Audrey Boyle, Lady Tennyson’s eye-witness historical account of the Federation of Australia in 1901.

Briton Riviere (1840-1920), Portrait of Audrey, Lady Tennyson with the wolfhound Karenina (1899). Image via National Library of Australia (NLAref109830).

I have a particular affinity for Audrey Boyle, Lady Tennyson (1854-1916). Like her, I am a trailing spouse. When my wife and I married more than 20 years ago, I had no idea that her academic and research career would take us to four different universities across the United States, but such is the nature of soft money. In repetitive fashion, one of us – her – enters a position with fixed responsibilities, interesting colleagues, and the prestige and attendant pressures of a university appointment. The other person – me – begins in a supporting role, with no clear pathway or assurance as to how things will work out, either professionally or personally. It is either an opportunity, or a curse, of reinvention, depending upon how one approaches it.

As we now prepare for a fifth move – this time to Florida – I am again struck by Audrey Boyle’s mettle. More than a century ago, in 1899, she moved her family from England to Australia under significantly uncertain circumstances. Her husband Lord Hallam Tennyson was offered the Governorship of the Colony of South Australia, a position that was certain to disappear in a year’s time upon the federation of the various colonies into the unified nation of Australia. It was a risky proposition.

Audrey already had a tough gig. Her Irish mother was domineering and demanding. Her famous father-in-law, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), had been the foremost literary personality of his day. He was so admired by the public that while attending Charles Dickens’s funeral service in 1870, he was mobbed by mourners. Known for his stirring literary image of doomed British soldiers riding to their certain deaths in the Crimean conflict – ‘Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred,’ Lord Tennyson wrote in 1854 – his fame cast a long shadow on his children and their families. After his death in 1892, his son Hallam assumed the peerage, and Audrey became Lady Tennyson.

Living abroad was not new to Lady Tennyson. The young Audrey lived as a child in Cape Town, South Africa, where her father had served as Director of Railways, and then in Mauritius. But by adulthood, moving her household and children to the antipodes for what might turn out to be a very short assignment gave all of them pause.

The Tennysons accepted the position and resided in Australia from 1899 to 1903, where Lord Tennyson II ultimately became the second Governor-General of the Australian nation in 1902. Hallam’s political and legislative tenure in Australia is well-documented. He served at a crucial time, during the convergence of three dramatic events: the Australian colonies underwent Federation, Britain became embroiled in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and the death of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) resulted in the ascendancy of a new monarch, Edward VII (1841-1910).

Two hundred and sixty-two letters written by Lady Tennyson – an average of more than one per week and most to her ‘difficult’ mother – contain a stunning level of observation and detail as to the events of the time. They are rich in description and nuance, and augment the ‘official’ record in significant ways. The letters are held in the National Library of Australia (Papers of Lord Tennyson, NLA Bib ID 2245809: Audrey, Lady Tennyson ms 479/49). A heavily edited selection from the collection, entitled Audrey Tennyson’s Vice Regal Days: The Australian Letters of Audrey Lady Tennyson 1899-1903 (1978) and compiled by Dame Alexandra Hasluck, is available in print.

Not long after her arrival, on 20 June 1899, Audrey notes the excitement and anxiety of the referendum in New South Wales on Federation:

… Well, the great day has arrived & Federation of Australasia is no longer a dream but a fact, & a grand thing it is. We dined at the Chief Justice’s last night & Hallam desired that he should be kept acquainted by telephone there of the votes recorded from N.S.W. Just as we went into dinner a majority of 5, 000 – then, later on 10 – and this morning 21, 000. The papers say there was tremendous rejoicing in Melbourne and Sydney. But of course everyone is at sea as to what will happen & whether the Governors remain on as they are or as Lieutenant-Governors. One paper I have been reading says it will take a year to settle things (40).

In sections such as these, Lady Tennyson’s observations serve as a unique bridge between the political concerns of the British governors and the excited anticipation of the Australian public.

Soon afterward, as Queen Victoria’s health declined, Lady Tennyson’s focus began to shift to the particulars of proper mourning attire. On 14 October 1899, she wrote to her mother about what she would need:

Of course if it were summer it would have to be of the very thinnest & if the end of summer, part warm, part cool. A grey dust cloak and a long black travelling cloak or dark grey, from the Austrian tailor in Sloane Street – a smart cape or jacket whatever was worn at the time – if it were to be in the winter, a black serge coat & skirt from Mrs Lane & a black umbrella & anything you thought necessary, remembering that one has to pay duty 5/- on the [pound]. It is dreadful to talk of such things but one has to be prepared in case such a terrible thing happened. God forbid it – and the people must be hurried to send out in a week for I should not know what to do for clothes ….. (66).

The minutia of detail, down to the precise articles of clothing to be worn during mourning and the amount of duty to be paid for importing them, is an indication of the richness of these letters to historians. In the same letter, Lady Tennyson refers to the ‘great row’ in the colonial parliaments ‘by the Labour Party who are furious at the money being voted & spent’ for the Anglo-Boer War. Politics are mixed with the necessities of day-to-day life throughout her letters.

During the Australian winter and spring of 1900, Lady Tennyson had the opportunity to immerse herself in Australian life, visiting Katoomba and the Jenolan Caves, seeing the American actress Miss Nance O’Neill in performance, visiting outback stations and meeting Indigenous people. Explaining to her mother the concept of the ‘Squatocracy,’ she wrote, ‘Squatters in the colonies are our aristocracy’ (109).

His Excellency the Governor reading the Queen’s proclamation on Federation from the Treasury Building in Queen Street, Brisbane, January 1901. Image via John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Lady Tennyson further described the events of Federation Day on 1 January 1901, and the opening of Parliament on 9 May 1901. Her observations encompassed both the anxiety of an insider with immense responsibilities, and the detachment of an enthusiastic observer. The solemnity of the May event in Melbourne impressed her. She reported that ‘[t]here was a profound silence, all the thousands of people being, I think … awed at this tremendously important moment for Australasia.’ She writes of the Duchess pushing an electric button, announcing the opening [by telegraph] to the world; of a grand concert for 8,000 guests; and of a review at the Racecourse where Fijians marched past wearing the ‘most wonderful headgear … you ever saw.’ Still, Audrey found it ‘a curious sight each time to see the huge masses of black wherever you could see’ (148) due to the mourning for Victoria.

Lord Hallam Tennyson’s work was highly regarded – no doubt aided by the enthusiasm with which Lady Audrey Tennyson embraced Australia and its people. She worked hard to establish the Queen’s hospital for women, in Adelaide, a legacy that remains to this day. And she found time to record for posterity the incredible succession of events that impacted Australia between 1899 and 1903. Dame Alexandra’s compilation of the Tennyson letters provides a significant glimpse into the rich life of a trailing spouse with an insider’s view of a critical period in Australian history. But the complete letters, located in the Tennyson archive at the NLA, are certainly worthy of re-examination forty years after the initial edited volume was made available to the public.


Mark Klemens studied Australian literature at The University of Sydney. His essay on P.L Travers’ working relationship with Walt Disney appeared in the book Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935-2012 (2013). He has worked as a criminal trial lawyer in the United States, as a scholarly publisher, and as an adjunct lecturer of Australian literature at the State University of New York at Brockport. A version of this blog post was presented at the Australian and New Zealand Studies Association of North America’s 2017 conference in Washington D.C. 

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