On the Keynote Lecture: Tennyson, The Princess, and Tennyson’s Global Women Readers, by Linda K. Hughes

In her paper, Professor Linda K. Hughes argued that Tennyson’s poem The Princess, is a text which
exemplified the relevance of replication in the nineteenth century by meticulously tracing its textual
history and speaking about the global response it elicited from its female audience. The poem
incorporated numerous iterations beginning from its initial publication in 1847 to its final version in
1853. She stated the different socio- political and cultural contexts that influenced Tennyson to make
changes in each iteration such that, it becomes easier to align Tennyson with the ‘I’ who narrates the
prologue and the epilogue of the poem. Although Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s indictment of the poem, as a
tool for the imposition of normative ideologies may have some validity, yet as Professor Hughes shared
with us personally, she appreciates the fact that Tennyson took up the cause of female education,
exploring its emancipatory potential.
The five versions of Tennyson’s poem as replicas, were dependent upon his own creative powers as well
as Victorian technology. In many ways they embraced several topical issues. However, literary replicas,
commonly perceived as a new version of the original copy, were disadvantageous as they could not be
preserved materially, as against replicas in the discourse of paintings. By the third edition of the poem in
1850, Tennyson included songs sung by the neighbouring women. Female presence thus becomes more

vital from this edition onward, as even the protagonist , Ida acquires a degree of dynamism and heroism.
Professor Hughes draws our attention to the subsequent editions, where Tennyson diminishes
masculine agency by attributing what was ostensibly regarded as an index to Victorian masculine
disability of the Prince, making him vulnerable. The Prince’s emasculation, which the paper further
revealed was connected to Tennyson’s personal experiences with catalepsy and his acquaintance with
theories of evolution. Professor Hughes pointed out that Victorian critics often glossed over these
nuances which made their way into the text, and such alterations were overshadowed by Tennyson’s
more famous composition, “In Memoriam”, published around the same time.
Interestingly, the paper recorded the variety of responses to The Princess, not only within the Empire
but also among its colonial subjects in general, and more specifically its women readers. According to
Professor Hughes, Tennyson’s female audience that included the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton; an
American suffragist, Anna Julia Cooper; African-American author and sociologist, Toru Dutt; an Indian
poet, and Sarojini Naidu; an Indian freedom fighter and poet, appropriated the poem, culturally and
socially, advocating women empowerment and higher education.
Thus, Professor Hughes’s paper throws light upon the sizeable readership of Tennyson’s long poem not
only in Victorian England but even beyond it. Her insight which led her to situate his various revisions of
the poem in their immediate context seemed to problematize the so-called authorial intention as is
generally perceived and further challenged by the readers and critics of the poem. The paper however
did not go into the details of the concerns as raised by Sedgwick and the others, mainly attacking the
ending of the poem which is seen as a breakdown of the Princess and her reformative ideals and her
submission to an expected feminine role. However, these questions were discussed with her in an
informal interview which succeeded her talk.
She recounted the delightful experience of being in Kolkata, or rather being in India for the first time.
Professor Hughes was highly appreciative of the infrastructure and intellectual ambience that the
University houses. In an effusive tone, she recollected her visit to ‘Jorasanko’, saying that she was
pleased to “be able to set foot inside Rabindranath’s(sic) house”, the Bengali poet who inspired her
“beloved mentor” , Mary Lago. When asked about the general attack against the poem’s ending, she
explained what wasn’t included in the body of the paper, elaborating on the more recent criticism which
actually adds uncertainty to the general assumption that the Princess gets married to the Prince. Our
discussion with her concluded with her affirming the ambivalence and sexual tension as Tennysonian
characteristics that evade easy resolution.


Popular posts from this blog

The Historical Legacy of the Writers' Building

The Balloonatics of Leicester, or The Monghol Hordes of the Khan