An interesting aspect of my book The Water Doctor’s Daughters,  is the lifelong friendship of  the poet Alfred Tennyson  and the Reverend John Rashdall.  The pair had grown up together in rural Lincolnshire, and were contemporaries at Cambridge University.  Rashdall was the maternal uncle of the girls in the book.

In 1850 John Rashdall became Vicar of St Mary’s Priory Church at  Great Malvern, Worcestershire. He had moved from London, to be closer to his dead sister’s children, the young Marsdens.

The Reverend John Rashdall 1846
The Reverend John Rashdall 1846
Alfred Lord Tennyson - close friend of John Rashdall.
Alfred Lord Tennyson – close friend of John Rashdall.

Two years later Tennyson and and his wife Emily  came   to stay  with the then bachelor  John Rashdall at the Vicarage.

St Mary's Vicarage, Great Malvern circa 1800 where John Rashdall was vicar.
St Mary’s Vicarage, Great Malvern circa 1800


Tennyson with children. He was a long time friend of John Rashdall.
Dr James Loftus Marsden. brother-in-law of John Rashall.
Dr James Loftus Marsden

In January 23 1852 the poet wrote to his wife Emily, ‘…John Rashdall wants us to spend three weeks with him at Malvern which I think will be nice when thou canst move.’   Emily was then a few weeks pregnant with their son Hallam, and feeling unwell. The couple arrived at the vicarage in March.

 Rashdall’s invitation  may well have been extended at the prompting of his  ambitious brother-in-law Dr James Loftus Marsden, who ran  a water-cure  clinic in the town. Emily Tennyson was soon being attended at the vicarage by Dr Marsden.

The Tennysons thoroughly enjoyed their stay, and it was no doubt a memorable experience for  Dr Marsdens young children.  The girls  in the above photo are not identified, but they could well have been two of the doctor’s daughters. How exciting to be invited to tea with Uncle John to meet Queen Victoria’s very own poet laureate .

In an 1842 letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle’s description of the poet suggests he was the antithesis of the prim and proper Dr Marsden in both appearance and personality. ‘One of the finest-looking men in the world. A great shock of rough, dusky dark hair; bright, laughing, hazel eyes; massive aquiline face, most massive, yet most delicate; of sallow brown complexion, almost Indian-looking, clothes cynically loose, free and easy, smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical, metallic, fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation free and plenteous..’

By contrast, the children’s father was humourless and controlling.  However, the men had something in common. Like many Victorians, Tennyson had a strong interest in mesmerism, a subject that also fascinated Dr Marsden.   Given his belief that the power of the mind could affect physical health, it is not surprising that the Doctor was excited by the idea of using the technique in his medical practice. While he was treating Emily Tennyson at the vicarage he took the opportunity of asking her husband to mesmerize another of his other female patients. Years later Tennyson would relate the story to Hallam;

‘ Dr Marsden was attending my wife and said to me, ‘Instead of paying me my fee, I wish you would grant me a favour. Come and mesmerize a young lady who is very ill.’ I said, ‘I can’t mesmerize, I never mesmerized anyone in my life.’ But the doctor would take no refusal and said, ‘Pooh! Look at your powerful frame!’ So I mesmerized her according to the doctor’s instructions. The first day it took me about an hour to send her to sleep; afterwards only a few seconds. Once she had a pain over her eye, and the doctor said, ‘Breathe upon her eye!’ I did so, then begged her pardon, saying I had forgotten I had been smoking. Dr Marsden said, ‘She cannot hear you, that one breath has sent her off into the deepest of slumbers.’ In a little while the lady grew better and we moved to Cheltenham. A week or so afterwards I returned to Malvern for a few hours, but I had not thought of telling anyone that I was coming. I met Dr. Marsden in the street, who at once went and told the lady. Before he had said more to her than, ‘I have good news for you,’ the lady said, ‘I know what you have come to tell me, I have felt Mr Tennyson here for half an hour.’ ’


Unknown to Tennyson, James Marsden was romantically involved with his patient (Mary Campbell)  She became his wife the following year.  To ‘clear the field’ during his courtship, Marsden sent his five young daughter to France  with their French born governess, Celestine Doudet. Mlle Doudet had established a private school in Paris.  The doctor’s decision resulted in the suspicious deaths of two of the girls, and of  Mlle Doudet standing trial   in 1855

Celestine Doudet on trial (Frenh film 1960)
A depiction of the accused in the witness box,  from a 1960s French film.

There is a self-guided literary walk around Great Malvern, which takes in all the places and properties associated with the Marsden case.  It includes the grave of Lucy Marsden, who is buried not far from a childhood playmate….Annie Darwin, the beloved daughter of Charles Darwin.  John Rashdall conducted the funeral service for Annie Darwin in 1851, but was far too distressed to do the  same for his niece three years later.

Lucy Marsden's grave, Priory Churchyard, Great Malvern.
Lucy Marsden’s grave, Priory Churchyard, Great Malvern.


  1. Absolutely fascinating

    • Pauline

      Thanks Helen. The young Marsdens grew up knowing some of the most famous people of the day, and yet faced such trauma.

  2. I’m loving all these twisted tales of love and intrigue. What happened to Mlle Doudet?

    • Pauline

      Thanks Christine. Well as to Mlle Doudet, an author can’t really divulge the climax of a book on an open site. You will have to PM me. lol

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