A Girl Called Tennyson

TENNYSON research bulletin, Vol 5, No 9, January 2012 

This is a marvellously literary children’s story, written by a former university English professor, which contains echoes and resonances of George Macdonald, Rudyard Kipling, Bulwer Lytton (The Coming Race) and, a more recent influence, Philip Pullman. Its achievement is that it contrives, without compromising its literariness, to appeal to a modern Young Adult audience. The author is adept at grabbing the reader’s attention with an arresting first sentence: ‘The ferry had moved some distance away from the dock before Tenn noticed anything strange’. She also prepares cleverly for a possible sequel with an open-ended final sentence in which the heroine dreams ‘of walking back into her own house, and introducing Una to her family and her world.’ In between is a classic rite of passage story, in which the heroine, Anne Tennyson Miller, the ‘girl called Tennyson’, slips from her own well-realised contemporary world into ‘Greensward’, a parallel universe in which there is a ‘Great Dearth’ of children and in which families are made up of ‘borners’(birth parents) and ‘dopters’ (adopters), in order to share the children around. The rules of this world are clearly set out to appeal to a young readership: at a council meeting, every teenage child must announce the name they have chosen to be known by in their future adult life. It is, however, far from a Utopia: there is danger from wicked kidnappers and a perilous Pied Piper-like journey in which the heroine has to guide a group of rescued children through a series of dangerous encounters with snakes, wolves and quicksands.

Behind all the action is Tennyson’s poetry. The heroine gains acceptance in her new home by retelling stories from Tennyson’s Arthurian works, beginning with ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and moving on to Idylls of the King, through ‘Lancelot and Elaine’, to ‘The Passing of Arthur’. Story-telling is presented as the way of finding one’s own true identity. Una (Tenn’s closest friend in Greensward) becomes her true self when she composes and recites ‘The Song of Tennyson’s Journey’, an account of the daring adventures she and her friend have shared. ‘The Lotos- Eaters’, of course, looms large, as the heroine struggles with the inclination not to return to her own world. Frequent quotations from the poems engage and challenge the teenage reader.

This book, as well as being a delightful read in itself, provides yet another example of a strange and, as far as I know, little-explored literary phenomenon: the impact of Tennyson’s poetry on North American girlhood. This can be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century, but it announced itself most clearly in 1925, with the publication of Anne of Green Gables by another Canadian author, L. M. Montgomery. The University of Prince Edward Island, where the novels are set, now has a School of Montgomery Studies and runs a biennial conference at which the influence of Tennyson seems ripe for discussion. The Green Gables novels are full of Tennysonian quotations and even Tennysonian events, a climactic scene being the near-drowning of the heroine as she attempts to ‘float down to Camelot’ upon a ‘barge’ which springs a leak, and has to be rescued, to her chagrin, by the young hero, Gilbert Biythe. However, the imaginative power of Tennyson’s poetry is presented by Montgomery as having to overcome what was (and still is?) done to it in schools. She gives in passing a telling insight into 1920s educational methods:

They had studied Tennyson’s poem in school the preceding winter, the Superintendent of Education having prescribed it in the English course for the Prince Edward Island Schools. They had analysed and parsed it and torn it to pieces in general until it was a wonder there was any meaning at all left in it them, but at least the fair lily maid and Lancelot and Guinevere and King Arthur had become very real people to them. Anne of Green Gables (London: George Harrap [1925] 1953), 186.

The tension between the harsh adult world of ‘parsing’ and the dreamy, numinous world of Anne herself is redolent of the latter-day Romanticism of North American cultural life in the early years of the twentieth century. Montgomery’s belief in ‘Imagination’ is positively Coleridgean. Anne may be gently ironised, but her values have her author’s full support. Characters are judged by whether they are ‘kindred spirits.’ Landscape is mystical and richly personified: there are ‘books in the running brooks’.

The Anne-books succeed largely because of this supreme confidence in their underlying Romantic philosophy, with Tennyson its moving spirit, interpreted entirely in terms of his Romanticism. It is heartening that, through Joan Givner, Tennyson’s influence, albeit purely as a Romantic (and Arthurian) poet, seems likely to reach another generation of Canadian children, and similarly disheartening that no British children’s writer has so far appeared who is equally steeped in his work. — Valerie Purton

What If? Magazine, Reviewed May 31, 2011 Tennyson's full name is actually Anne Tennyson Miller, but everyone calls her Tenn. Her adventure begins when she embarks on a trip to visit her grandmother. Tenn has been on the ferry many times before, both with her family and by herself as a foot passenger, but instead other normal journey she finds herself on a strange and dangerous ferry, which takes her to the fantasy world of Greensward. There, she is kidnapped and taken to safety, makes a new friend, and teaches her newly-adoptive family about storytelling. Tenn tells them old myths, poems, and the stories of Arthur. She has an obvious love for these old, fantastic tales of adventure and loves to share them.

Problems increase in the already troubled world of Greensward when Tenn's new friend, Una, disappears the night after her naming ceremony. Tenn must embark on her own fantastic adventure to rescue her friend. She encounters problems along the way requiring her to conquer her fears and grow up. Just as she solves one problem, she discovers that her expedition is much larger and complex than she first anticipated. However, one thing remains the same, and is pointed out many times through Tenn's journey, the importance of storytelling.
Givner has created a fantasy adventure about the wonders of storytelling. She tells the story with a rhythmic tone, and incorporates excerpts from poems and songs, which inspire, expand on, and embellish Tenn's journey. The fantasy world of Greensward shows what would happen if there were not acceptance in society of differences in ages, abilities, and wealth. A Girl Called Tennyson is thought-provoking and is a satisfying read. — Sarah Dowling, Erin, ON

CM MAGAZINE, Volume XVII Number 19, January 21, 2011


The circle of light grew bigger and brighter all the time as they headed into it and out of the dark tunnel. Then they came out onto the shore of an inlet or a lake.

There was a row of buildings all along the shoreline, and Tenn could see that they were not houses exactly but glass domes set upon wooden structures with doors in them, and they were of all different sizes, like clumps of huge mushrooms. When they drew closer, men, women, and children came out, and stood watching them. Some reached out and touched them in a friendly way as they passed by.

They headed towards a large dome at the end of the row. When they reached it, the door opened and a young girl, about Tenn's own age, stepped out and stood there smiling.

“You did it!' she said.

The man who was carrying Tenn stooped down and the woman helped her climb off his back – she was stiff from being so long in one position – and steadied her as she stood on the ground.

The young girl stared intently at Tenn for a few seconds, then took her hand and led her towards the door. As they went inside, Tenn looked back to see if the man and the woman were following, but they were nowhere in sight.

The girl who took Tenn's hand was called Una. She lived in the dome with her parents Octavia and Brock, her brother, Quintus, and her sister, Tertia. It was Una who became Tenn's guide to the Greensward, for that was the name of the settlement to which Tenn's rescuers had brought her. Una was a gentle soul and, during those first hours when Tenn was so confused and afraid, Una never left her side.

 A short trip to Salish Island to spend a month with her grandmother goes awry when Tenn (Anne Tennyson Miller) notices unfamiliar aspects of the ferry and the people. The ferry lands, and Tenn sees not her grandmother, but a “tall authoritarian figure in a kind of military uniform.” An explosion distracts him allowing two figures to shepherd Tenn away through a tunnel to the settlement of Greensward and Una's family. Tenn must adjust to her new surroundings and the strangeness of the language, culture, and dynamics of life in another time frame in this time travel fantasy.

Tenn adapts and earns her place in the family with the stories she tells them garnered from classical literature, especially Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Tenn learns there is “a shortage of children in the Greensward,” the “Great Dearth,” so “birthers” share children with “dopters.” However, another part of the island, The Other Place, experiences the same dearth and solves the problem by kidnapping children from wherever it can. The attempt to kidnap Tenn had failed the first time, but the kidnappers return for another attempt, mistakenly kidnapping Una instead. The local wise woman, Bethan, trains Tenn to negotiate a series of barriers that include deadly quicksand, treacherous waterfalls, wolves, and snakes to cross to the Other Place and rescue Una and return her home.

Tenn succeeds in reaching Una who is enjoying the luxuries afforded her by her new “parents” and proves reluctant to leave. Danger opens her eyes, and, with the help of a group of cleaners, the girls escape to an encampment outside the city where the outcasts, rejected as unacceptable, live. Bethan's twin sister, Magda, a healer and wise woman in the Other Place, helps the girls survive in the encampment and eventually takes them to the city at festival time to be spirited away from the military environment to another encampment in the woods where other child escapees survive as best they may. Tenn convinces them all must attempt to return to the Greensward. She has schooled Una in the protocol for crossing back and shares the information with the older children. The group manages successfully to negotiate the obstacles, albeit with complications as winter has set in. The stones Tenn had used to cross the quicksand now sink under the weight of the children so that, by the time Tenn crosses, she sinks within steps of the shore. Fortunately, Bethan rescues her, Tenn recovers, and Bethan promises to help Tenn return to her time and home accompanied by Una, but she does not explain the means of transport home.

A former English professor at the University of Regina, past editor of the Wascana Review, scholarly researcher and writer, biographer, and author of the “Ellen Fremeden” series, Givner, who now lives on Vancouver Island, presents her fifth middle year's adventure and first fantastic fiction novel. She eschews a modern setting to revert to a past time that reflects her growing up in England in place names and the present time living on Vancouver Island in landscape descriptions. Givner explains her choice of creating a fictional past time world: “I am ill-equipped to reproduce the idiom of today's youth, or to depict their high tech games and skills.”

The complexity and nuances of the English language Tenn encounters in the past produce some amusing misunderstandings and effectively reflect Givner's fascination with and command of language. Her protagonist brings the literature of stories, poems, and songs to literature-deprived archaic Greensward and to the military Other Place. “She is strong and she has the gift of memory,” wise woman Bethan insists; both characteristics ensure a successful quest to rescue not only Una but other stolen children. Tenn arrives in the past on a ferry, but the means of returning to her own time remains unclear. Plenty of action, contrasting cultures and political situations, the classical good versus evil theme, unusual characters, an appealing protagonist, and well-paced prose combine to present a fantasy to transport readers from their daily reality to another world. The open-ended conclusion suggests the possibility of a sequel so middle readers may anticipate the further adventures of Tenn and Una.


Darleen Golke writes from Abbotsford, BC.

Resource Links, Vol 16, #3, February 2011

Touted as a “classic fantasy quest” (book cover), A Girl Called Tennyson follows the archetypal pattern of the heroic journey. Anne Tennyson Miller (Tenn), while on a ferry ride to visit her grandmother, is instead transported to the realm of Greensward. Here. she is saved from child slavery by strangers and taken to live in the forest. It is a fantasy world where “hit” or “kick” are bad words, where there are “borners”, the family that gives birth to a child, and “dopters.” the family that raises a child. Tenn quickly becomes friends with a girl named Una and is also taken under the wing of the local healer and mystic, Bethan, who praises Una for her story-telling ability and her fantastic memory. When Una is ab­ducted and taken to The Other Place, Tenn is elected to rescue her and bring her back.


This story is rife with incongruities and con­tradictions. It does not seem plausible that Serah, Una's bomer, and Octavia, her dopter, would be viciously sparring one minute and then leave arm in arm like best friends the next. There is also a comment that “the fairground was one of the few contacts that the dwellers in The Other Place had with lawlessness and dis­order” (98). These are the people who are ab­ducting children and forcing them into captiv­ity or slavery. Their whole existence is know­ingly lawless. Also, Givner ruins any hint of suspense for the reader: “In the end you [Una] will succeed” (88). After that, what incentive is there to read the other 172 pages?

The didactic nature of this quest is predict­able. Una is supposed to leam life-lessons and become a stronger, more appreciative human being. Even though Una succeeds in her quest (as we are told she will), the problem is that the reader just does not care. Clearly this is not a book that 1 think will interest or engage young readers.

— Angela Thompson

Thematic Links: Human Trafficking; Responsibility; Quests; Heroic Journey; Story-Telling; Fantasy; Coming of Age