Tennant, Emma 1937- (Catherine Aydy, Emma Christina Tennant)
Tennant, Emma 1937- (Catherine Aydy, Emma Christina Tennant)
Born October 20, 1937, in London, England; daughter of Christopher Grey (Lord Glenconner; a businessman) and Elizabeth (Lady Glenconner) Tennant; married Sebastian Yorke, 1957 (divorced, 1962); married Christopher Booker, 1963 (divorced); married Alexander Cockburn, 1968 (divorced, 1973); children: (first marriage) Matthew, (second marriage) Daisy, (third marriage) Rose. Education: Attended St. Paul's Girls' School, London, England. Hobbies and other interests: Walking.
Agent—Rogers, Coleridge & White, 20 Powis Mews, London, England.
Writer, critic, and editor. Queen, London, England, travel correspondent, 1963; Vogue, London, features editor, 1966; full-time novelist, 1973—.
Royal Society of Literature (fellow).
Honorary degree in literature, Aberdeen University, 1996.
(Under pseudonym Catherine Aydy) The Colour of Rain, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1963, reprinted under name Emma Tennant, Faber (Boston, MA), 1988.
The Time of the Crack, J. Cape (London, England), 1973, published as The Crack, Penguin (London, England), 1978.
The Last of the Country House Murders, Thomas Nelson (Nashville, TN), J. Cape (London, England), 1974.
Hotel de Dream, Gollancz (London, England), 1976.
The Bad Sister, Coward (New York, NY), V. Gollancz (London, England), 1978.
Wild Nights, J. Cape (London, England), 1979, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1980.
Alice Fell, J. Cape (London, England), 1980.
The Boggart (juvenile), illustrations by Mary Rayner, Granada (London, England), 1980.
The Search for Treasure Island (juvenile), illustrated by Andrew Skilleter, Puffin (New York, NY), 1981.
Queen of Stones, J. Cape (London, England), 1982.
Woman Beware Woman, J. Cape (London, England), 1983, published as The Half-Mother, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1985.
The Ghost Child (juvenile), illustrated by Charlotte Voake, Heinemann (London, England), 1984.
Black Marina, Faber (Boston, MA), 1985.
The Adventures of Robina, by Herself: Being the Memoirs of a Debutante at the Court of Queen Elizabeth II, Faber (Boston, MA), 1986, Persea Books (New York, NY), 1987.
The House of Hospitalities, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
A Wedding of Cousins, Viking (New York, NY), 1988.
The Magic Drum, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.
Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde, Faber (Boston, MA), 1989.
Sisters and Strangers, Grafton (London, England), 1990.
Faustine, Faber (Boston, MA), 1992.
Pemberley; or, "Pride and Prejudice" Continued, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1993, reprinted, 2006.
An Unequal Marriage; or, "Pride and Prejudice" Twenty Years Later, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1994, Thorndike Press (Thorndike, ME), 1995.
Tess, Flamingo (London, England), 1994.
Travesties, Faber and Faber (Boston, MA), 1995.
Eleanor and Marianne, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
Emma in Love, Fourth Estate (London, England), 1996.
Family Scenes, Vintage (London, England), 1999.
Midnight Book, Hodder and Stoughton General Division (London, England), 1999.
Children of Paradise, Hodder and Stoughton General Division (London, England), 1999.
Adele: Jane Eyre's Hidden Story, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2000.
Sylvia and Ted, St. Martin' Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Ballad of Sylvia and Ted, Henry Hold (New York, NY), 2001.
House in Corfu, J. Cape (London, England), 2001.
Felony: The Private History of "The Aspern Papers," J. Cape (London, England), 2002.
Corfu Banquet: A Seasonal Memoir with Recipes, Summersdale Publishers (Chichester, England), 2003.
Heathcliff's Tale, Tartarus Press (North Yorkshire, England), 2005.
Harp Lesson, Maia Press (London, England), 2005.
Pemberly Revisited, Maia Press (London, England), 2005.
Amazing Marriage, J. Cape (London, England), 2006.
The French Dancer's Bastard, Maia Press (London, England), 2006.
Confessions of a Sugar Mummy, Gibson Square (London, England), 2007.
(Editor) Bananas (anthology), Quartet (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Charles River Books (Boston), 1988.
(Editor) Saturday Night Reader, W.H. Allen (London, England), 1979.
The ABC of Writing (nonfiction), Faber (Boston, MA), 1992.
Strangers: A Family Romance (memoir), New Directions (New York, NY), 1999.
Girlitude: A Memoir of the Fifties and Sixties, J. Cape (London, England), 1999.
Burnt Diaries (a memoir of Ted Hughes), Canongate (Edinburgh, England), 1999.
Also author of the juvenile novel Dare's Secret Pony, 1992, and the television film Frankenstein's Baby, 1990. Contributor to Women on Women, Sidgwick & Jackson (London, England), 1974; Novelists in Interview, edited by John Haffenden, Methuen, 1985; and Women's Writing: A Challenge to Theory, edited by Moira Monteith, St. Martin's, 1986. Contributor to periodicals, including the Guardian. Founding editor, Bananas (literary magazine of the British Arts Council), 1975-78; general editor, In Verse, 1982—, and Lives of Modern Women, 1986-88.
Emma Tennant's wide-ranging body of fiction offers a satirical but penetrating vision of conditions in modern England. Herself a descendant of Scottish nobility, Tennant turns a novelist's eye on the Brit- ish upper class, with special emphasis on the uneasy relationships between men and women. "Fantasy, feminism, and political satire are combined in Emma Tennant's novels, which portray humanity's groping, fumbling quest of meaning and purpose today," wrote Georgia L. Lambert in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Lambert continued, "The difficulties of distinguishing between illusion and reality are exemplified by Tennant's often comic, dreamlike narratives and her stunning imagery. Her exploration of the imagination and her depiction of the passing of time show exciting originality, and she is a novelist who is inspiring followers of modern fiction."
Tennant's work defies easy categorization. Some of her novels are considered science fiction, others offer a mock gothic atmosphere, and still others are indebted to Daniel Defoe, James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jane Austen. If any theme unites her fiction, it is the state of decay and disreputability plaguing her society in the wake of its grand empire days. Times Literary Supplement contributor Carol Rumens wrote: "Large, faded country houses and hotels form an important part of the imaginative terrain of Emma Tennant. They seem to provide a metaphor both for the individual human consciousness and for historical change, particularly as it is played out between the generations." In the London Review of Books, Margaret Walters noted that Tennant "has a caricaturist's skill in pinning down social types, and she brings them together in some splendid farcical set-pieces."
Tennant was born in London, the daughter of a wealthy titled businessman. Her father, Lord Glenconner, was of Scottish descent, but the family had long resided in or near London. Just before the outbreak of World War II, however, Lord Glenconner moved his wife and children to the relative safety of Peebleshire, Scotland, the family home. In a piece for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (CAAS), Tennant describes Glen House, the family seat, as "an unfashionable hideosity … with [a] labyrinthine basement, freezing halls, and elaborate staircases." It was there, Tennant continues, that she spent her early childhood. "And it is the landscape, both of those hills and burns and moors and of the inside of this surprising house itself, that informs a great deal of my work."
Thus Tennant grew up under the influence of Scottish fairy tales and legends and was especially inspired by the works of James Hogg, author of The Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Tennant writes: "As James Hogg knew—and described—it was only too probable that the idle walker would be transformed into a three-legged stool, or a jay, or maybe even a hare." Tennant went on to note: "This taking for granted of the magical and the mundane combined did a great deal to provide inspiration in my later years, when I came to understand that I would be a writer. The tales of possession by the devil, of the sinister double who takes over the Confessions, had been my earliest landscape. And it was as far from an English landscape, with its realism and irony, as it would be possible to find."
When Tennant was eight her family moved south again to London. There she was raised in a genteel environment, doing "what was expected of a woman of class." At seventeen she had a formal debut, including a presentation at court. The experiences among high society provided Tennant with grist for her fiction—her first novel, The Colour of Rain, was written under the pseudonym Catherine Aydy when she was only twenty-four. Lambert describes the work as "a conventional third-person narrative that depicts the English upper-middle class way of life and shows the artificiality and shallowness in their lives and marriages." Spectator contributor Susanna Johnston wrote: "Although there is an atmosphere of general malevolence in these 115 pages, the novel, at its birth, emerged alive and showing promise (subsequently borne out by the development of Miss Tennant's greater talent) as it shone an unsteady torch onto the spoilt ways of upper-crust high-livers."
More than ten years passed before Tennant published another novel, although she wrote constantly. In 1972 she became acquainted with several of England's notable science-fiction writers, including J.G. Ballard, John Sladek, and Michael Moorcock. These authors encouraged Tennant to use science fiction conventions to create surrealistic allegories about the hostile environment she perceived around her. The three novels she wrote between 1972 and 1975—The Time of the Crack, The Last of the Country House Murders, and Hotel de Dream—all offer portraits of England in crisis in the very near future. In these works, noted Harriet Waugh in the Spectator, "the forces of reality and imagination are let loose on each other, and intermingle destructively."
Tennant writes in CAAS that after 1975, "my preoccupations as a writer had turned almost exclusively to the subject of the female psyche, whether pubescent or mature." In works such as The Bad Sister, Wild Nights, and Woman Beware Woman, Tennant makes the nature and role of women in society a central theme. While a departure from her earlier science fiction, these works abound in mystical and supernatural phenomena, especially the theme of the "double" and the myths and fairy tales that influence the female subconscious. Spectator reviewer Francis King observed that the novels are "primarily about the terrible damage that women can inflict on each other."
The Bad Sister, for instance, concerns a troubled young woman who murders her father and his legitimate daughter. Tennant's story is based on Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but she substitutes a female character in the central role and then explores feminism carried to the extreme. In her Village Voice review of the novel, Sonia Jaffe Robbins writes that the central character's narrative "is a masterful emotional document, plunging us directly into her mind as she is driven mad by the fragmentation women often feel in trying to discover who they are." Robbins went on to note: "In this story feminism is no answer, for all it denotes is fanaticism."
Among Tennant's best-known work is her series of comic novels of manners, including The House of Hospitalities, A Wedding of Cousins, and The Adventures of Robina, by Herself: Being the Memoirs of a Debutante at the Court of Queen Elizabeth II. As the titles suggest, the novels offer a social history of the modern British upper class, sometimes from the point of view of its members and at other times from the point of view of a middle-class observer. New York Times Book Review correspondent David Sacks claimed that in these satires of postwar British aristocracy, Tennant shows the reader "quite a crew: … rogues, boors and dimwits, the prey of pimps and con men, in love with bathroom humor and forever poor-mouthing amid ancestral splendors. Totally mercenary, they nevertheless harbor a medieval disdain for commerce, and so they are the worst gold diggers of all." Sacks added: "Ms. Tennant knows her subject from the inside, … offering cruel insights into the mysteries of the ruling class." In the Times Literary Supplement, Patricia Craig contended that with The House of Hospitalities and A Wedding of Cousins, Tennant "is attempting, and in the course of bringing off, … an indictment of upper-class exorbitance." Craig concludes that the works "[bristle] with astuteness and animation."
Dark comedy infuses the gothic-tinged Magic Drum, in which a female journalist struggles with her sanity while investigating a death at a writing colony. Called a "rattling good mystery" by Shena Mackay, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, the book drew less supportive reviews from others. Zachary Leader, writing in London Review of Books's noted that "the novel quickly dwindles into an uneasy satire of genre conventions." Mackay nevertheless asserts that the work remains an "entertaining, darkly comic whole."
Tennant's work continues to revisit the work of classical writers in Faustine, translating the ideas of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe into a contemporary, feminist setting. The work explores a middle-aged woman's rejuvenation as the result of her deal with the devil, which is revealed to the reader through her granddaughter's search for the truth about her grandmother's diabolically preserved image. According to Barbara Hardy, writing in Times Literary Supplement: "It is everywoman's story of youth's short span." Not all critics find Tennant successful in her treatment of feminist themes. John Sutherland in London Review of Books classified the work as being in a subgenre of "feminist travesties of literary classics." Nevertheless he found the work "as clever, enjoyable and tactfully self-revealing as anything Tennant has written." Similarly, Hardy also commented that this short novel is "so piercingly clear about the failure of ‘attempts at idealism and brotherhood,’ that it could even be a heart-changer."
Based loosely on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tennant's Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde concentrates on a cast of feminist characters in a contemporary setting haunted by the Notting Hill rapist. Judging the tale less frightening than the original, Mackay asserted that it is nevertheless a witty reworking that reflects "the Scottish obsession with duality." She stated that the novel is "perceptive of modern mores and values, and, in its brilliant observation of its prey, has a horror of its own."
Jane Austen provides the inspiration for Tennant's later works, including Pemberley; or, "Pride and Prejudice" Continued, An Unequal Marriage; or, "Pride and Prejudice" Twenty Years Later, and the Sense and Sensibility sequel Eleanor and Marianne. The first two novels extrapolate on future events in the lives of classic lovers Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Taking place a year into their marriage, Pemberley revolves around Elizabeth's anxiety to provide her new husband with an heir. It also delves into her growing distrust of Darcy over a supposed affair with a mysterious Frenchwoman that may have produced an illegitimate son. Elizabeth is portrayed in great turmoil throughout the book, her preoccupations treated "with an openness that would horrify Austen," according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Delicate matters such as infertility and vaginal douches are even addressed in mixed company. Rachel Cusk, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, also commented on Tennant's bluntness: "Where Austen delicately fades out, Tennant tunes in and turns up the volume." Other critics praised her faithfulness to Austen's manner. In contrasting Pemberley with another Austen sequel, Robert Grudin, in the New York Times Book Review, complimented the author for her "utter mastery of Austen's style," owing the novel's "malaise" to Tennant's exploitation of material already present in Pride and Prejudice. Joyce R. Slater, reviewing for Chicago Tribune Books, went so far as to claim the sequel is true enough to the original that it "smack[s] of deja vu."
As the subtitle suggests, An Unequal Marriage; or, "Pride and Prejudice" Twenty Years Later reaches two decades into the future, where, according to a Publishers Weekly writer, Elizabeth is enmeshed in "a nicely snarled web of predicaments," not the least of which is the trouble her gambling teenage son, Edward, has caused. A wedding assembles a colorful cast of minor characters at the Darcy estate, some familiar to Austenites and others new creations provided by Tennant. While acknowledging the literary inventiveness of Pemberley, David Nokes, writing for Times Literary Supplement, took exception to what he labels Tennant's "rambling cliche-ridden style," and what the writer for Publishers Weekly called "a creditable imitation of period diction" that is both sly and playful.
Written in epistolary form, the third of Tennant's Austen sequels, Eleanor and Marianne, is heralded by Penelope Lively in the Spectator as a "cheerful, witty and nicely inventive read." Well-known Austen characters meet personal disaster in the form of abandonment, seduction, cannibals, madness, and New Age philosophies in what Lively suggested is a "larky tribute." A London Times reviewer failed to see humor in Tennant's work, calling the sequel "opportunistic … more burlesque than homage." In contrast, Lively maintained that the book provides the reader with "respectful and affectionate fun."
Brockway outlined the chief attractions of Tennant's fiction, namely "the agility and ebullience of the humour, the sense of the absurd in human beings, … and, best of all, the stylish verve of the writing." Rumens cited Tennant for prose that is both "beautifully measured and graceful." One reads Emma Tennant, Rumens noted, "for the pure pleasure of the style." However, Paul Hansom of the Encyclopedia of World Literature saw Tennant in a different and more revolutionary light, classifying her as "a leading proponent of British ‘New Fiction.’" According to Hansom: "Tennant blurs traditional genres and exploits the conventions used in mainstream forms to produce a highly original vision … [She] is no mere aesthetician." Hansom went on to write: "A feminist and a political thinker, Tennant has pushed the British novel into exciting new directions."
In addition to writing fiction, Tennant has served as a magazine writer and as founding editor of Bananas, a respected English literary magazine. She has also edited several anthologies of women's writing and penned two books about her family's history and her own life, Strangers: A Family Romance and Girlitude: A Memoir of the Fifties and Sixties. The first book opens in 1912, twenty-five years before Tennant's birth, and is set in Scotland at Glen, her family's castle. Tennant not only relates the lives of her forebears but unflinchingly delves into their faults and eccentricities, their intrigues and their conflicts. Her Edwardian grandmother Pamela, a woman famous for her ethereal beauty, emerges as a destructive tyrant whose children, including Tennant's father, grow up as emotional cripples smothered by her obsessive control. Emily Eakin, writing in the New York Times Book Review, suggested that Tennant's novels have all had an imitative quality, never revealing the author's true voice. "One of the pleasures of Strangers: A Family Romance," Eakin states, "is getting acquainted with that voice—more compelling in the end than the odd, unhappy characters in her family tree." Eakin found Strangers to be "admirably taut and understated, less a story than a lyrical meditation on the obscure psychodynamics of family life." A Publishers Weekly writer observed: "Written in the languid prose of an Edwardian novel, Tennant's family portrait is, as the subtitle suggests, a somewhat elusive blend of romance and autobiography. But it's also a provocative meditation on the ways that the past informs the present and on the simultaneous importance and unreliability of memory."
In Girlitude Tennant deals with her own life, in particular the fifteen-year period from 1955 to 1970, which opens with her coming-out party as a debutante and ends after three marriages and the beginning of her career as an experimental novelist. The title of the book refers to the preconceptions concerning her role as a young woman of the upper British class, the expectations that she would marry a suitable man, have children, and lead her life in a "proper" fashion. Commenting on Girlitude in the London Review of Books, Rosemary Hill observed: "Tennant evokes, sometimes with too much vividness to be entirely coherent, the bewildering experience of a life lived forwards by someone who never considers herself its heroine and indeed often seems to herself to be struggling for a speaking part." Hill also noted that despite the many changes that Tennant goes through in the decade and a half the book covers, she never entirely leaves "girlitude" behind. According to Hill: "Tennant's musings on feminism are among the most confused and annoying passages in the book. What she clearly considers to be the raising of her consciousness since the times of which she writes seems more like a continuation of girlitude by politically correct means." Yet Hill tempered her criticism by noting that all women have been victims of some kind of girlitude. "It would be a bold reader," Hill noted, "who condemned Tennant utterly," adding: "We have all at times been in Tennant's shoes, or at least in a chain-store copy."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 9, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 13, 1980, Volume 52, 1989.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 14: British Novelists since 1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Chicago Tribune Books, December 25, 1994, review of Pemberley, section 14, p. 4.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1993, review of Pemberley, p. 1224.
Library Journal, November 1, 1994, Mechele Leber, review of An Unequal Marriage; or, "Pride and Prejudice" Twenty Years Later, p. 112.
London Review of Books, October 13, 1988, review of A Wedding of Cousins, p. 20; June 22, 1989, review of Two Women of London p. 15; March 12, 1992, review of Faustine, p. 23; May 13, 1999, Girlitude: A Memoir of the Fifties and Sixties, p. 10.
New York Review of Books, November 9, 1978, review of The Bad Sister, p. 24.
New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1985, The Halfmother, p. 14; April 3, 1988, The Adventures of Robina, by Herself: Being the Memoirs of a Debutante at the Court of Queen Elizabeth II, p. 10; December 12, 1993, Pemberley, p. 11; June 20, 1999, review of Girlitude.
Observer, June 4, 1989, review of Two Women of London, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, March 16, 1992, review of Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde, p. 74; October 10, 1994, review of An Unequal Marriage; or, "Pride and Prejudice" Twenty Years Later, p. 63; May 3, 1999, review of Girlitude, p. 61.
Spectator, February 1, 1975, review of The The Last of the Country House Murders, p. 125; July 24, 1976, review of Hotel de Dream, p. 24; July 22, 1978, review of The Bad Sister, p. 24; September 22, 1979, review of Wild Nights, p. 24; November 26, 1983, review of Woman Beware Woman, p. 27; October 10, 1987, review of The House of Hositalities, p. 38; March 12, 1988, review of The Colour of Rain, p. 34; April 6, 1996, Penelope Lively, review of Eleanor and Marianne, p. 30.
Times (London, England), March 17, 1996, review of Eleanor and Marianne, section 7, p. 8.
Times Educational Supplement, July 7, 1989, p. 27.
Times Literary Supplement, June 15, 1973, review of The Time of the Crack, p. 661; January 31, 1975, review of The The Last of the Country House Murders, p. 102; July 16, 1976, review of Hotel de Dream, p. 871; July 21, 1978, review of The Bad Sister, p. 817; November 7, 1980 review of Alice Fell, p. 1250; November 19, 1982, review of Queen of Stones, p. 1268; November 30, 1984, review of The Ghost Child, p. 1377; January 25, 1985, review of Woman Beware Woman, p. 102; June 21, 1985 review of Black Marina, p. 689; September 30, 1988 review of A Wedding of Cousins, p. 1068; March 6, 1992, review of Faustine, p. 21; October 29, 1993, review of Pemberley, p. 19; December 2, 1994, review of An Unequal Marriage; or, "Pride and Prejudice" Twenty Years Later, p. 23.
Village Voice, October 16, 1978, review of The Bad Sister, p. 132.
Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com/ (July 23, 2007), information on author's film work.