To be considered a controversial Scottish novelist, such a writer must favour contemporary, urban subject matter and, preferably, be male. Or at least that is the impression one sometimes has. Emma Ten-nant’s life and work suggests an alternative route. Aristocratic, London-born, interested in exploring the past (her own as well as literary history), Tennant is sui generis as far as Scottish literature is concerned. For not only her novels but her life story, too, embodies a variety of controversy different from that encountered by James Kelman or Irvine Welsh.
It’s been that way since she began to write fiction. Her first published work, a novel called The Colour of Rain, was denounced by Alberto Moravia at the Prix Formen-tor in 1964 for its ‘decadence’, its reception leaving Tennant shaken. But it was a foretelling, in many ways, of what was to come. For Tennant would regularly clash with critical expectation, whether it be through her mixing of genres such as fantasy and science fiction, or her rewrites of the classics. During her tenure as editor of the literary magazine Bananas, she championed subversive new voices. A difﬁcult writer to pin down, she is also one of Scotland’s best.
The new Faber Finds series, launched to republish forgotten works, will hopefully bring 74-year old Tennant to a new audience. The surreal and frightening 1989 novel Two Women of London has been republished, as has 1992’s Faustine (which is currently being adapted for opera by the composer Arlene Sienna and the playwright Lucy Thurber). This autumn, Black Marina will follow. Those who have never read her work may be surprised to discover a Scots voice that was recognisably post-modern in the 1960s. There is more to Tennant than the writer of sequels to Jane Austen classics (Elinor and Marianne and Pemberley). If you value the experimental, the surreal, the avant-garde even, or wondered why Scotland never produced an Angela Carter or a J.G. Ballard, Tennant is a writer who will repay your attention. She is the novelist for readers who fear Scottish literature can be a closed-off, homogeneous body of work in thrall to social realism, to the extent other styles of mapping life and thought are ignored or untested.
Tennant was born in 1937, in London, spending her childhood summers at her father’s baronial mansion in Peeblesshire. She attributes the Gothic element in her early ﬁction to a place that could be ‘plain terrifying’ in its appearance – it had an atmosphere that found its way into two books that made her name and launched her on the British literary scene at the end of the 1970s as a new voice after a decade of ﬂoundering in the wake of Moravia’s denunciation.
Before these books could be written, she endured difﬁculties in her personal life. During the 1960s and 1970s, she married three times. Her ﬁrst marriage was to Henry Yorke (son of the writer Henry Green) with whom she had her ﬁrst child, a son, Matthew Yorke, who is also a writer. She went on to marry the journalists Christopher Booker and Alexander Cockburn, and to have two more children, daughters Daisy and Rose.
During this time, she also had an on-off affair with Ted Hughes, himself married to his second wife, Carol. Tennant would write about that affair in her 1999 volume, Burnt Diaries, published a year after Hughes’s death. It earned her the opprobrium of the literary world who considered the memoir’s swift appearance to be in poor taste. She was undaunted by criticism: two years later she published a ﬁctional work, The Ballad of Sylvia and Ted, that examined Hughes’s affair with Assia Wevill, the relationship that ended his marriage to Plath and which, some say, contributed to her decision to commit suicide. One reviewer called it ‘tasteless but compelling’. Tennant argued in an interview at the time of Burnt Diaries’ publication that ‘there has been so much mythologizing of Hughes. First he was a murderer – now he has been canonised, he’s a saint. I just hope that my account is a valuable part of putting together the Ted Hughes jigsaw.’ The reason for her attraction to him was clear; as a writer still ﬁnding her way, she was drawn to another more established one. She wrote of the ‘lurid light of scandal about him’ as well as ‘his special vision of the world, his belief that little things, particularly natural events, were portentous’.
During the same period she was Hughes’ lover, she also edited Bananas, a magazine that aimed ‘to take the word “Review” away from the concept of a literary magazine and insist on original ﬁction’. J.G. Ballard was a contributing editor who frequently provided short stories. Other authors who published new work in Bananas included Harold Pinter, Philip Roth, Beryl Bainbridge and Bruce Chatwin. Tennant has a good claim to discovering Carter, having published her early short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ in her magazine. By the end of the 1970s, she had published The Bad Sister, a feminist riposte to Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Wild Nights, a ‘tale of old love and family friction’, according to another Anglo-Scot, Candia McWilliam.
When I use the term “Anglo-Scot” here, I’m thinking of a group of women writers born in Scotland or who grew up here or who have Scottish parentage, but whose class sets them apart and which to some people at least appeared to compromise their Scottishness. In addition to Tennant, one might mention Antonia Fraser, Elspeth Barker, Helena McEwen, and McWilliam. It is an unjustiﬁable prejudice, and Tennant addressed the matter in The Bad Sister, the ﬁrst book she wrote under her own name. Here, she explored the doubleness that was then (and now) acknowledged as a deﬁning national characteristic, although it perhaps better suited an exploration of the conﬂicting aspects of her own identity (and for which she credits Karl Miller for encouraging her to see). She was the St. Paul’s-educated schoolgirl who came to play in the grounds of a ‘mad-looking’ Scottish baronial mansion every holiday; the young woman writer who wasn’t afraid of rewriting the classics of Scot-land’s most revered male authors as feminist parables.
Between the publication in 1978 of The Bad Sister and 1989’s Two Women of Lon-don, a feminist retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Tennant challenged many orthodoxies of Scottish, and British, literature of that period. She eschewed naturalism in works like Queen of Stones (1982), a retelling of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and The Adventures of Robina (1986), told in the style of an eighteenth-century novel. But she wasn’t content with merely picking out classics and addressing their inequities, although Frankenstein’s Baby, about a man who gets pregnant, and Faustine continued that trend. She was also experimenting with form and voice, creating post-modern works that indulged in literary tricks but also questioned what we thought we knew. Magical fables, even science ﬁction and detective ﬁction, were genres that she borrowed from and used to create entirely original work.
By the time she reached the end of the century, she had turned to memoir with the trilogy Strangers: A Family Romance, Girlitude and Burnt Diaries. None of these tells her life-story straight-forwardly: as McWilliam says of her novels, ‘one of the strengths of (her) writing is her thrilling disjunctive oddness. On account of the atmosphere she works up, her ﬁctions are placed in a time that is out time but not too datingly within it…at once violent and cool.’ These traits are replicated in the three volumes of autobiography, and she would subsequently turn episodes from her life (like the time her half-brother was dating Princess Margaret) into playful stories told by unreliable narrators (see 2009’s Waiting for Princess Margaret).
Why, then, we might ask, does such a writer need rescuing by Faber Finds? Ten-nant says The Bad Sister ‘got great praise then vanished. Some people thought it far too odd and violent, it frightened them’. She reﬂects on feminism and women, commenting that ‘I’m amazed that so many young women seem to have given up on any expression of those violent feelings. The anger has been siphoned into consumerism.’ It seems hard to believe that her work is too violent for this current generation of women, but her writing is more demanding than say, the chick-lit genre, which has also often riffed on Jane Austen’s plots, themes, and tone, but in a placid, uncomplicated manner. Tennant can no more be easily slotted into the contemporary deﬁnition of women’s ﬁction than she can the canon of Scottish ﬁction.
Not ﬁtting in, though, is the essence of her work. What truly good writer wants to ‘ﬁt in’, anyway? She has pursued her intellectual passions, rejecting trends and dodging pigeon-holing. On the subject of why she wrote sequels to classics, she says, ‘I seem to have a strong urge to show the unchangingness of many things not perceived by those who think that “classics”…belong to history and literature, and the plots and character could never bear any relation to reality today.’ One might argue there is an ‘unchangingness’ to Tennant herself, despite the experimentation and the variety of her work. What it boils down to is a refusal to compromise or shape her work in the style of whatever is deemed fashionable.
TWO WOMEN OF LONDON: THE STRANGE CASE OF MS JEKYLL AND MRS HYDEFABER FINDS, £12.00, 128PP ISBN 978-0571280148
BLACK MARINAFABER FINDS, £13.00, 158PP ISBN 978-0571283613