Tennyson Manuscripts Online

Portrait of Alfred Tennyson by George Frederic Watts (1890)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) was a student at Trinity between 1827 and 1831. Some of his most important manuscripts, which are kept in the Wren Library, have been made available online via the Cambridge Digital Library. The collection includes the earliest extant full-scale draft of his best known poem, In Memoriam. This manuscript was a gift to the College in 1897 from Lady Simeon who had been given the manuscript by Tennyson himself in 1886.

O.15.13, ff.15v-16r

Later – in 1924 – the College’s collection was increased by a bequest from Tennyson’s son, Hallam which included many of his father’s notebooks. However the terms of this bequest limited access to the material: the manuscripts could not be published or used to provide variant readings and readers were only permitted to make short notes. The Library was, however, free to display the manuscripts. It was not until 1969 that the family agreed to lift the restrictions.

The collection is of interest, not simply because it includes drafts of some of Tennyson’s most lyrical poetry, but because it also contains many sketches and doodles made by the poet. Together the words and images provide new opportunities for understanding his process of composition.

O.15.15, inside back cover

The newly established Archive seeks eventually to bring together all Tennyson material into one centralised digital library. In a collaboration with our colleagues at the University Library, the manuscripts kept in the Wren Library are the first to be included.

Mrs Wedderburn’s Abigail

Curio C6
Curio C6

This month’s curio is a piece of stranded knitting worked by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) for his paternal aunt, Mrs Isabella Wedderburn, when he was about 12 years old. The intricate design in stocking stitch includes a Union Jack and lozenge shapes.

Two explanations have been found for the use to which the ‘Abigail’ was put: i) in a letter sent when the knitting was presented to the Library, it is described as an accessory for holding down sleeves when putting on a jacket and ii) Clerk Maxwell’s school friend and biographer described it as a sling for holding a workbasket. Both explanations presumably relate to the popular association of the name ‘Abigail’ with female servants.

007_add-ms-b-52_4_frontHere in the Library we have a small archive of items (Add.ms.b.52) from Clerk Maxwell’s childhood. His mother died when he was young and thereafter he spent much of his time at the family estate of Glenlair and, after beginning his formal schooling at the Edinburgh Academy, with the Wedderburn family at 31 Heriot Row, Edinburgh. He also spent time with the family of another maternal aunt, Jane Cay.

His family on both his father’s and his mother’s side included talented artists but he was greatly encouraged, in particular, by his older first cousin, Jemima Wedderburn who later in life, as Jemima Blackburn (1823-1909), became a renowned watercolourist. The designs featured below demonstrate young James’ obsession with geometric form and harmonious colour combinations. James had accompanied his father to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts in 1845-6 and saw the work of David Ramsay Hay (1798-1866). Hay’s decorative work used geometrical symmetry and young James was inspired to develop a method of drawing ovals using string around pins.


Childhood design for a spinning top (Add.ms.b.52.22)

Later, in his first year at Edinburgh University (1847), Clerk Maxwell developed these ideas about oval curves and wrote an important paper on analytical geometry which was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. During his time at Trinity (1850-56), he developed his interest in colour by experimenting  using a colour wheel. The scientist Thomas Young (1773-1829) had suggested that there were three distinct receptors in the eye which responded to different ranges of light. Using the spinning wheel to mix the primary lights of red, blue and yellow, Clerk Maxwell was able to demonstrate that, if colours are mixed with mathematical precision, then it is possible to synthesise any colour. The experiments also revealed that we see colour in lights differently to colour in pigments. For example, a mixture of blue and yellow light produces a pinkish hue, but blue and yellow pigments mixed together make green. Clerk Maxwell’s analysis using the colour wheel led him to devise a colour triangle for calculating the ratios of the three primary lights needed to create any particular colour.

JCM with his colour wheel, c. 1850

James Clerk Maxwell is now remembered as one of the most influential scientists of all time. His later work included study of the composition of Saturn’s rings (drawing the conclusion that they were composed of a myriad of small, solid particles). This conclusion was confirmed by the work undertaken by the Voyager space probes of the 1980s.

Other important research was on electromagnetism and he devised a set of equations which later formed the basis for Einstein’s theory of relativity. When the Cavendish Laboratory was established here in Cambridge in the 1870s and became the first Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics. Clerk Maxwell died in Cambridge in 1879.

Further Reading:



From the Crewe Collection: Works by Richard Francis Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton by Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton, oil on canvas, circa 1872-1875, NPG 1070, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Richard Burton (photograph pasted to the front flyleaf of First Footsteps)

The explorer Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was best known for his travels in Africa, Asia and the Americas.  His observations, which he recorded in numerous books and articles, provided a remarkable insight into the lives and habits of the people he encountered. There are five works by Burton in the Crewe collection, of which two are notable for their rarity.  The first is a copy of First footsteps in East Africa, or an exploration of Harar (1856), an in depth account of the customs, practices and way of life of the peoples of East AfricaRichard Burton was a personal friend of Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton) and this copy includes a handwritten letter from Burton, addressed to ‘My dear Milnes’ explaining that he has found the ‘original copy’ of appendix 4.  Appendix 4 describes the practice of female circumcision in the East Africa region.  To circumvent the censor, it was translated into Latin, but the cautious publisher left it out of all but a few copies of the book.  A website devoted to Burton and his work (burtoniana.org ) tells us with regard to appendix 4 that ‘Spink & son (1976) estimated that no more than 6 of these were printed, presumably for Burton’s personal use.  Appendix IV contains 4 pages, on two leaves, numbered as pages 593-6.  Most known copies with Appendix IV have only 1 leaf, that is two pages’.  The Crewe collection copy has two printed pages of the appendix, the rest of it (another two pages) has been completed in manuscript by an unknown hand but is tempting to think it was completed by Burton himself.

The second book is Stone Talk (1865).  Burton’s lifestyle and attitude often brought him into conflict with the mores and values of the society of the day and by the 1860s his career in the army was faltering.  It was these circumstances which gave rise to this bitter satire on Victorian society. The book was written in verse under the pseudonym Frank Baker.


Referring to the publication of the book, his wife Isabel writes in her ‘Life’ (London: Chapman & Hall, 1893), ‘When I showed it to Lord Houghton, he told me that he was afraid that it would do Richard a great deal of harm with the “powers that were.” And advised me to buy them up, which I did.’

burtoniana.org tells us that ‘Stone Talk has been hard to find ever since it was first published. Burton … only had 200 copies printed. The majority of these (128) were for distribution to his friends and the press, and  most of the remainder were soon bought back by his wife Isabel and destroyed, ostensibly because she thought the book might damage his career’.

Books from the Crewe Collection including First Footsteps are currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.

Further Reading: