IN THE DECADES around 1900, widows, sons and daughters were hard at work all over England preparing the public image of the Great Victorians. Queen Victoria's own daughter Princess Beatrice tirelessly copied out the journals which her mother had kept from her girlhood, left out anything in the least bit indiscreet, tart or enjoyable, and burnt the originals as she finished with them. Fanny Holman Hunt got to work with scissors and paste on the early letters of her husband, W. Holman Hunt, the great Pre-Raphaelite, and sedulously cut or blotted out all references to his sexual adventures as a young man. Her censorship was nothing compared to the literary massacre carried out by Tennyson's wife Emily and son Hallam after the poet's death in 1892. Having inherited some 40,000 letters to or from Tennyson the two destroyed three-quarters of them along with a mass of other papers. All Arthur Hallam's letters to Tennyson and almost all Emily's own letters to and from him vanished irrecoverably; others were transcribed in part and then destroyed, and scissors and ink have left their mark on many of the survivors. The end result was Hallam Tennyson's two-volume Memoir, a formidable and fascinating work of family piety from which all trace of Tennyson's drunken and violent father, his mad or opium-addicted brothers, and his own youthful unhappiness, near bankruptcy, permanent hypochondria and the other complexities and tensions of his genius have vanished. It was not until the 1930s that his nephew, Sir Charles Tennyson, began to dig beneath the surface of the golden image; ever since, trying to disinter the real Tennyson has been a fruitful occupation for literary historians.

The latest additions to Tennysonian literature both have the shadow of Emily's and Hallam's censorship hanging over them. The first volume of his letters is edited with meticulous scholarship and illuminating footnotes by Cecil Lang and Edgar Shannon, but it is of necessity limited to what was left after the pious holocaust. Emily's own journal, lovingly but not always meticulously edited by James Hoge, is not the original but her "reduction or epitome" of the original journals, all of which were destroyed by Emily or Hallam.

The loss of a substantial portion of Tennyson's letters is not as disastrous as the loss, for instance, of Byron's letters would have been. Tennyson was not a natural or, except occasionally, a good letter-writer. On the whole he only wrote when he had to, and not always then. The first volume, which takes him up to the age of 41, contains only about 250 letters, and this paucity is probably due as much to his own dislike of letter writing as to Hallam's destructions. Moreover his letters contain little in the way of description or analysis, and he seldom wrote about his own poems or the poems of others, or gave any insight into his feelings. His earlier letters tend to be written in a vein of literary pretentiousness or facetiousness which seems to have been the accepted mode among his Cambridge friends. When success came his way, the letters become more relaxed, but only a few have the kind of spontaneous vividness that can make letters especially enjoyable.

Taken on their own the 250 letters are clearly valuable as souce material, but they are too thin on background to document Tennyson's own life adequately and too thin in themselves to illuminate more than a few aspects of his personality. What is likely to make the book attractive to the general reader is the skillful interleaving by the editors of a selection of relevant letters from or between his relatives and friends, and of contemporary descriptions of meetings with him. The two halves coalesce to suggest, as the letters on their own could never have done, the complexities of his history and the qualities that made his friends, as one of them put it, "love you heartily and wish you were with us." And indeed Tennyson's troubled family background, the swarthy good looks of him and his many brothers, the beauty of his sisters, his moodiness, wanderlust and alternation of depression with infectious good spirits, and not least the poems that gradually filled up the "Butcher's Book" which he carried around with him, and read to his friends with extraordinary intensity out of a cloud of tobacco smoke, must have given him a quite remarkable aura as a young man.

As an old man he had an aura too, but it was a different one, the aura of the "great man," the most famous living English poet, whose most casual remarks were greeted with hushed reverence. It was part created and sedulously fostered by Emily, whom he married in 1850 when he was 41 and she was 37. "The peace of God came into my life before the altar when I wedded her," he later wrote. In 1850 Edward Lear wrote to a friend, "I should think, computing moderately, that 15 angels, several hundreds of ordinary women, many philosophers, a host of truly wise and kind mothers, three or four minor prophets, and a lot of doctors and school- mistresses, might all be boiled down, and yet their combined essence fall short of what Emily Tennyson really is."

Edward Fitzgerald wrote, less enthusiastically, that "she is a graceful lady, but I think that she and other hysterical ladies have hurt A.T., who . . . would have done better to remain single in Lincolnshire or married a jolly woman who would have laughed and cried without any reason why." Elizabeth Barrett Browning thought that "Tennyson is too much indulged. His wife is too much his second self; she does not criticise enough."

The two groups of opinion are not, of course, necessarily opposing. Whatever Emily Tennyson was, she was not dim. The wonderful portrait of her by G.F. Watts, which glows on the cover of the Journal, epitomizes her combination of worn frailty, radiance and determination. Her journal is good enough to make one constantly regret the disappearance of the originals. It is full of information as to what Tennyson was reading, and also of vivid vignettes of life at Farringford: December, 1856. "A. rolls the grass by moonlight & goes to the sea. Stormy." One can watch with fascination Tennyson's ascent to the pinnacles of fame until dukes, prime ministers, archbishops and even monarchs are two a penny. On occasion the journal reads like a social column, and it has a social column's everlasting sweetness; everybody is charming, kind, pleasant, noble or beautiful. One continually wonders what has been cut out. On February 21, 1858, for instance, is the single entry "Defence of Guinevere." This must mean that Tennyson read William Morris' poem of that title, which came out that year, and depicted Guinevere as a splendid and unrepentant lover, at the same time Tennyson was depicting her as a shameful adultress. But what did Tenyson think of it?

A quality of Emily's which comes out strongly in the journal is her feeling for nature and gift of expressing it. She notes "the reflections of the clouds soft as the still sea," the "long brown tender spiral buds" and "gorgeous crimson sheaths" of beeches and maples," "the owls hooting wildly and sadly at night." On June 2, 1858 she records: "A snail on the drawing room window. We watch the blood flowing thro'it like smoke from head to tail."

After 1858 such descriptions die away, and with them an aura of happiness which glows through the editing in the early years. It was about then that visitors began to notice how exhausted Emily was looking. Protecting and looking after Tennyson was not an easy assignment. However, the journal continues until September, 1874, growing ever sweeter. Then it stops abruptly, for Emily suffered a complete breakdown in that year and although she recovered from it she never renewed her journal.