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Obituaries / Emma Tennant

Emma Tennant
 Emma Tennant described herself as ‘a ventriloquist’ and ‘a feminist – among other things’: her books often featured the bifurcated lives of women. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

Emma Tennant obituary

Satirical novelist who depicted Britain in a state of decay
Frances Wilson
Tue 31 Jan 2017
Emma Tennant, who has died aged 79, was the author of a remarkable procession of novels, which appeared at the rate of more or less one a year between 1973 and 2016. Tennant’s voice – satanic, subversive, sly, unclouded – was unique in British fiction: a satirist in the Swiftian vein, she depicted a Janus-faced nation in a state of decay. In The Beautiful Child (2012), her spin on The Turn of the Screw, Tennant described the ouija board used by Henry James’s secretary as “the Outernet, the great web beyond the stars where the dead can communicate with the living”. The Outernet was also Tennant’s terrain, as a ghostwriter of sorts. Her first novel, The Colour of Rain (1964), was written under the pseudonym Catherine Aydy, a name chosen by the manipulations of a ouija board, and her subsequent novels called up the spirits of Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, James HoggEmily Brontë and Henry James himself.

Tennant produced gothic fantasies, postmodern fairytales, prequels, sequels and literary doubles. A vivid reader of the classics, she described herself as “a ventriloquist” and also as “a feminist – among other things”. Her novels return again and again to the bifurcated lives of women. In Pemberley (1993), she imagined Elizabeth Darcy’s insecure early years of marriage; in Elinor and Marianne (1996), a continuation of Sense and Sensibility, she gave us the pregnant Marianne, not half as happy with Brandon as Austen would have us believe. “Is not Colonel Brandon’s age against him when it comes to fathering a child?” Marianne writes to Elinor. “I have a freak within me, Sister, who prefers not to be born and be seen to be the offspring of an old man.”
Tennant’s merciless revisions have a disturbing effect on their originals. The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde (1989), a re-reading of Stevenson’s classic tale, dramatises, as Tennant put it in her Author’s Note, “the manichean split” in women “between ambition and caring”, while The Bad Sister (1978), later filmed by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, reworks Hogg’s tale of doppelgangers, Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Seeing doubles everywere, Tennant believed, was a Caledonian malady, and she dedicated The Bad Sister to her friend and fellow Scot Karl Miller, whose study Doubles (1984) “completely set me off”.

Emma Tennat
Her fiction doubles up as autobiography. The picaresque Adventures of Robina, a play on Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, is a version of the Adventures of Emma, in which a naïve young Scottish girl comes to London, where she is tricked, manipulated and ripped off by one rake after another. In Pemberley she drew on her knowledge of the kind of social world Elizabeth Bennet was marrying into, and reading Stevenson, Tennant said, gave her “flashes of recognition”, not least because her own father alternated between “frightful rages and paternalistic benevolence”.

Born in London, Emma was the elder daughter of Christopher Tennant, 2nd Baron Glenconner, and his second wife, Elizabeth (nee Powell). Her half-brother, from her father’s earlier marriage, to Pamela Paget, was Colin Tennant, later the owner of Mustique and sometime suitor ofPrincess Margaret. Her uncle was Stephen Tennant, the brightest of the “bright young people”. The family fortune, Emma used to say, came from “pollution”, her great-grandfather Sir Charles Tennant having discovered bleaching powder.
Her childhood was divided between a big London house in Regent’s Park and Glen, the “freezing and completely empty” mock-baronial manor on the Scottish borders where she spent the second world war years (being both Scottish and English was, said Tennant, “another double thing”). Living in a faux-gothic building proved endlessly stimulating to the future author of faux-gothic novels. Glen was “mad” on the outside and so labyrinthine inside that going up to bed, Lady Glenconner admitted, “took a lot of nerves” and quite a few drinks. Tennant’s bedroom looked on to a landscape dominated by Hogg and Walter Scott.
Leaving St Paul’s girls’ school in London aged 15, Tennant went to finishing school to prepare for her launch as a debutante. Her life in the 1950s and 60s, during which time she turned from a deb in a stiff tartan gown to an insurrectionary, hard-up novelist (Tennant saw none of the family’s money) is described in Girlitude (1999), one of her four volumes of memoir. Girlitude was Tennant’s term for the woman’s retreat into marriage: “the dependence, the longed-for protection and the self-reproach of a species which can now only be alluded to self-consciously and with scorn”. Tennant, who knew a good deal about girlitude, married three times during these years: to Sebastian Yorke (1957-62), to Christopher Booker, co-founder of Private Eye (1963-68), and to the journalist Alexander Cockburn (1968-73).
After stints on Queen magazine and at Vogue, where she was assistant shoe editor, Tennant wrote The Colour of Rain, a comedy of manners inspired by the novels of Henry Green (at the time her father-in-law). She was 25 and easily “crushed by intellectuals”. One of those who crushed her was Alberto Moravia, chairman of the Prix Formentor, who denounced The Colour of Rain as “an example of the decadence of the contemporary British novel”, before apparently throwing the book in the bin.
Her confidence dented, Tennant remained silent until 1973 when her apocalyptic novel The Time of the Crack appeared. Two years later she founded Bananas, an irreverent literary magazine whose editorial policy was influenced by “Borges and Márquez and The Master and Margarita”. There she published new fiction by JG BallardMichael MoorcockSara Maitlandand Angela Carter, and found a home for herself beyond mainstream literary naturalism. Her writing was now unstoppable.
Tennant lost count of the number of books she published, but believed she could rightly be called “prolific”. “My life has really been about writing,” she said, “though some think it’s all about once having been in a ball dress and having an odd life and marrying all the time. But it’s the writing that’s always been the point.”
She is survived by Tim Owens, her partner of 41 years, whom she married in 2008, and her three children, Matthew, Rose and Daisy.
 Emma Christina Tennant, novelist, born 20 October 1937; died 21 January 2017

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