Another of the Lincolnshire girls in the Somersby neighbourhood who knew him well in his boyhood’s day was my aunt, Sophy Rawnsley. She was a special favourite, and I think I can imagine the why and wherefore, for anything more full of vivacity and sparkle than this Aunt Sophy, as a girl, must have been, can hardly have been created. It was in mind of her he wrote—at least that was an article of faith in our family—“Airy, fairy Lilian,” and that he was much attached to her in his days of calf-love, cannot, I think, well be doubted. (p. 64)….
I often talked with my Aunty Sophy about Tennyson, and I found that the kind of awe with which he had inspired her had not passed away. “He was,” she said, “so interesting because he was so unlike other young men, and his unconventionality of manner and dress had a charm which made him more acceptable than the dapper young gentleman of the ordinary type, at ball or supper-party. He was a splendid dancer, for he loved music, and kept such time, but, you know,” she would say, “we liked to talk better than to dance together, at Horncastle, or Spilsby, or Halton; he always had something worth saying, and said it so quaintly. Most girls were frightened of him. I was never afraid of the man, but of his mind.” (p. 67)
My Aunt’s testimony to the poet’s love of dancing was borne out by others who remembered how, in those old days, he had a passion for it. I remember his telling my brother how, at the age of 60, he had danced a waltz with a partner whom he had tired out, and said, “I was not a bit giddy at the end of that dance.” (p. 67)
Talking once of those old dancing days at Horncastle and Spilsby, Tennyson said, “I remember that sometimes in the midst of the dance, a great and sudden sadness would come over me, and I would leave the dance and wander away beneath the stars, or sit on gloomily and abstractedly below stairs. I used to wonder then, what strange demon it was, that drove me forth and took all the pleasure from my blood, and made me such a churlish curmudgeon. I now know what it was. It was gout.” (pp. 67-68)
The awe with which he seemingly possessed the minds of the young people he came in contact with was not a little remarkable. “He looked you thro’ and thro’ and made you feel that he was taking stock of you from head to toe,” a lady once said to me, who had met him in those early days, but I suspect it was the taciturnity of the man and the quaint way of asking direct questions of those he met, almost as it would seem, with a view to see what effect the question would have upon the questioned one, that inspired something of the aforenamed awe, and the unconventionality which came of his absolutely fearless naturalness astonished them. (p. 68)
My mother felt the same kind of awe of him. She often told me of a certain dinner party at the Sellwoods, whither she and her uncle Sir John Franklin had gone to meet their new connexions from Somersby. Charles Tennyson had just married her cousin Louise Sellwood. It was in 1836. “I shall never forget,” she wrote, “my first impressions. The door opened and in came two very remarkable, tall, broad-chested men, one lighter-haired than the other, but both with hair longer than was usual, quite out of the common in appearance, men who you would speak of as more than distinguished, I should say, noble in appearance. One was Frederick, the other Alfred Tennyson; with them entered the most beautiful woman I thought I had ever seen; this was Mary, their sister. Alfred Tennyson was told off to take me down to dinner and I remember well to this day, the kind of awe of the man that came over me as we entered the dining-room. We were separated by a mistake of the servant who showed us to our seats, and my awe was not lessened when I saw him put up his eye-glasses and look me thro’ and thro’. I remember well how the unconventional free and easy way in which, as soon as he left the room, he had lit his pipe—(smoking after dinner was not so common then as it is now) vexed the soul of Sir John, who as an old naval officer held strong ideas about deference to seniors even when not on shipboard—but the thing I most remember is that when the gentlemen came to the drawing-room and I was set down to play, Alfred Tennyson at once left off talking, came up close to the piano and sat watching, as he said, ‘the sparkle in the rings of Zobeide,’ as my fingers moved over the keys. The awe of him quite unnerved me and I expect I played but ill.” (pp. 68-70)
(Memories of the Tennysons, pp. 62-75)