Emma (Christina) Tennant Biography
Has also written as Catherine Aydy. Nationality: British. Born: London, 1937. Education: St. Paul's Girls' School, London. Career: Travel correspondent, Queen, London, 1963; features editor, Vogue, London, 1966; editor, Bananas, London, 1975-78. Since 1982 general editor, In Verse, London; since 1985 editor, Lives of Modern Women series, Viking, publishers, London. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1982.
The Colour of Rain (as Catherine Aydy). London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964.
The Time of the Crack. London, Cape, 1973; as The Crack, London, Penguin, 1978.
The Last of the Country House Murders. London, Cape, 1974; NewYork, Nelson, 1976.
Hotel de Dream. London, Gollancz, 1976.
The Bad Sister. London, Gollancz, and New York, Coward McCann, 1978.
Wild Nights. London, Cape, 1979; New York, Harcourt Brace, 1980.
Alice Fell. London, Cape, 1980.
Queen of Stones. London, Cape, 1982.
Woman Beware Woman. London, Cape, 1983; as The Half-Mother, Boston, Little Brown, 1985.
Black Marina. London, Faber, 1985.
The Adventures of Robina, by Herself. London, Faber, 1986; NewYork, Persea, 1987. Series: The Cycle of the Sun The House of Hospitalities. London, Viking, 1987.
A Wedding of Cousins. London, Viking, 1988.
The Magic Drum. London, Viking, 1989.
Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde. London, Faber, 1989.
Sisters and Strangers. London, Grafton, 1990.
Faustine. London, Faber, 1991.
Pemberley; or, Pride and Prejudice Continued. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993; as Pemberley: A Sequel to Pride and Prejudice, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.
Tess. London, HarperCollins, 1993.
An Unequal Marriage; or, Pride and Prejudice Twenty Years Later. London, Sceptre, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Travesties. London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1995.
Emma in Love: Jane Austen's Emma Continued. London, FourthEstate, 1996.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Mrs. Ragley," in Listener (London), 1973.
"Mrs. Barratt's Ghost," in New Statesman (London), 28 December1973.
"Philomela," in Bananas, edited by Tennant. London, Quartet-Blond and Briggs, 1977.
"The Bed That Mick Built," in New Stories 2, edited by DerwentMay and Alexis Lykiard. London, Arts Council, 1977.
"Cupboard Love," in New Stories 4, edited by Elaine Feinstein andFay Weldon. London, Hutchinson, 1979.
"Tortoise-Shell Endpapers," in Time Out (London), 21 December1979.
"The Frog Prints," in London Tales, edited by Julian Evans. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1983.
"The German in the Wood," in London Review of Books, 1984.
Television Script: Frankenstein's Baby, 1990.
Other (for children)
The Boggart. London, Granada, 1980. The Search for Treasure Island. London, Penguin, 1981. The Ghost Child. London, Heinemann, 1984. Dave's Secret Diary. London, Longman, 1991.
The ABC of Writing. London, Faber, 1992. Hooked Rugs (with Ann Davies). New York, Sterling, 1995. Girlitude: A Memoir of the 50s and 60s. London, Jonathan Cape, 1999.
Strangers: A Family Romance (autobiography). New York, New
Directions, 1999. Burnt Diaries (memoir). Edinburgh, Canongate, 1999. Editor, Bananas. London, Quartet-Blond and Briggs, 1977. Editor, Saturday Night Reader. London, W.H. Allen, 1979.
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.
"Emma Tennant, Hyper-Novelist" by Gary Indiana, in Village Voice Literary Supplement (New York), May 1991.
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Since the early 1970s, when she was in her mid-thirties, Emma Tennant has been a prolific novelist and has established herself as one of the leading British exponents of "new fiction." This does not mean that she is an imitator of either the French nouveaux romanciers or the American post-modernists, although her work reveals an indebtedness to the methods and preoccupations of some of the latter. Like them, she employs parody and rewriting, is interested in the fictiveness of fiction, appropriates some science-fiction conventions, and exploits the possibilities of generic dislocation and mutation, especially the blending of realism and fantasy. Yet, although parallels can be cited and influences suggested, her work is strongly individual, the product of an intensely personal, even idiosyncratic, attempt to create an original type of highly imaginative fiction.
The first novel she published under her own name was The Time of the Crack. This futuristic fable about an ever-widening crack in the riverbed of the Thames is a fusion of black farce, wide-ranging satire, and apocalyptic vision. One reviewer described it as "Lewis Carroll technique applied to H.G. Wells material," but other names suggest themselves even more strongly, notably Orwell and Waugh. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Time of the Crack is, in its bizarre way, a "condition of England" novel, projecting onto the immediate future current obsessions with decline and fall, and literalizing the metaphor of national disintegration. Stylistically, the book is characterized by a satirical panache recalling Waugh's early period, as Tennant mercilessly caricatures many aspects of contemporary society.
Her next novel, The Last of the Country House Murders, is also set in the near future—Britain after the Revolution—and in its oblique way is another "condition of England" novel. Again like Orwell, Tennant extrapolates from the present a possible picture of the future, but what makes this novel so different from other dystopias is her ingenious fusion of the novel of pessimistic prophecy with an amusing parodistic re-working of the country-house brand of detective fiction. Indeed, the book increasingly focuses on the small group of peculiar, virtually caricature figures who arrive at Woodiscombe Manor to participate in the murder mystery planned by the government as a tourist attraction; the wider social and national issues become more marginal than in The Time of the Crack. The result is bizarre comedy, replete with the eccentricities, foibles, and oddities that recur throughout her oeuvre.
Eccentricity also pervades the small hotel that provides the setting for Hotel de Dream, in which the dreams and fantasies of the few residents, one of whom is a romantic novelist, play a much more important part than the framework of waking reality. Reality itself dissolves into fantasy and vice versa, and the various dreams and fictions merge with one another to create a super-reality of the collective unconscious, in which the dreamers acquire new identities and the romantic novelist's imaginary characters become as real as their creator. While the book is certainly not lacking in the weird humour of her two previous books, and actually abounds in the grotesque, there is a shift away from satirical comedy in favour of psychological fantasy, from a broad perspective to a closed world. Even so, Tennant still provides a tangentially symbolic comment on the "condition of England" issue through her characters and their dream-selves.
In both The Last of the Country House Murders and Hotel de Dream, Tennant plays self-consciously with novelistic conventions, but in The Bad Sister she attempts something much more daring and ambitious—some would say foolhardy. She models the entire book very closely on a literary masterpiece, Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner. While setting her novel in the present and locating only part of it in Scotland, she adheres to Hogg's highly original structure, adopts some of the main features of his plot, and retains his embodiment of the Devil, Gil-Martin, though in a peripheral role. However, she does alter the sex of the main characters, the equivalent of the Justified Sinner being Jane Wild and her evil genius being Meg rather than Gil-Martin. This change allows Tennant to introduce the subject of feminism and the contemporary phenomenon of female urban guerrillas, but the main focus is not social or political but psychological—the split personality of Jane under the influence of the obsessional Meg. Like Hogg, Tennant is concerned with human duality, fanaticism, the subjectivity of reality, and the possibility of possession, but she interprets these in a contemporary context, developing the theme of the schizoid nature of modern woman.
If The Bad Sister is imaginatively claustrophobic, her two subsequent novels, Wild Nights and Alice Fell, are even more so, the dividing line between reality and fantasy being increasingly blurred and ambiguous. In Wild Nights, for example, the child-narrator presents a vision of the world controlled by the imagination rather than reason, in which magic and enchantment are an integral part of nature. Seasonal symbolism and archetypal images play a vital part, and the action seems timeless and placeless despite being located in postwar Scotland and England. For the most part, the relatively few characters in this closed world are strange, eccentric beings, more mythical than social. Alice Fell is strikingly similar to Wild Nights in a number of these respects, despite the differences that arise from it being a third-person narration. Tennant sustains the obsessive visionary quality of both novels by brilliant and evocative writing, but she does so at a price. In moving so far from The Time of the Crack, she sacrifices some of her most attractive qualities as a novelist. Nevertheless, Alice Fell, a reworking of the myth of Persephone in terms of contemporary British society in a state of upheaval, is a most ambitious imaginative feat, even if the symbolism and archetypal characterization tend to be too intrusive.
Queen of Stones represents a move away from the cul-de-sac of poetic fiction into which Tennant was in danger of becoming trapped. After The Time of the Crack, Tennant's fiction in the 1970s had gradually become more intense, more introspective, and narrower in focus. There was a gain in the sheer virtuosity of her writing, but there was also a loss of the comedy and satire of The Time of the Crack, together with its panoramic sweep. Like The Bad Sister, Queen of Stones has a specific literary model, Lord of the Flies (itself an antidote to Ballantyne's The Coral Island), but Tennant does not provide such close parallels to Golding's novel as she does to Hogg's in her earlier book.
The most striking resemblance between Queen of Stones and The Bad Sister is Tennant's use of sex-reversal, substituting females for their male equivalents in her sources. A sponsored walk in Dorset goes terribly wrong when a group of girls are lost in appalling fog; cut off from their normal everyday surroundings and the adult world, like Golding's schoolboys, they create their own imaginative reality involving ritual and sacrifice. Tennant arrives at a conclusion not dissimilar from Golding's. In her next novel, Woman Beware Woman, Tennant again investigates the deeper mythic reality behind the appearances of social reality, the subconscious drives that shape reality itself, especially as they manifest themselves in women and their behaviour. The literary roots of Woman Beware Woman are less obvious than in The Bad Sister and Queen of Stones, but the close similarity to the title of Middleton's Jacobean revenge tragedy Women Beware Women suggests that Tennant is creating her own highly imaginative equivalent of a drama of thwarted love, resentment, suppressed passion, hatred and revenge as various people assemble in a quiet part of Ireland following the death of a distinguished literary man.
Political undercurrents are present in a number of Tennant's novels, but Black Marina is the most explicitly political. The setting is the imaginary island of St. James, adjacent to Grenada in the Caribbean; the time, Christmas Eve 1983, not long after the murderous real-life coup against Maurice Bishop's government in Grenada which precipitated American military intervention. During the day in which the novel is set St. James is expected to be the target of a similar Marxist-Leninist coup by a group of those involved in the attempt to seize power in Grenada. The subject-matter is topical and journalistic, but Tennant's handling of it is characteristically complex and far removed from orthodox social realism. The principal narrator, Holly Baker, an English woman who came to the island in the 1960s and stayed, gradually unfolds in piecemeal fashion the network of human relationships in St. James and England that has eventually precipitated the happenings of Christmas Eve 1983. As usual in Tennant's fiction, mythic elements lie just beneath the contemporary surface, and the title itself, alluding to Shakespeare's Pericles (Marina is the King's long-lost daughter) and Eliot's related Ariel poem "Marina," points towards the most important of these, a daughter's quest for her father. Even so, Black Marina is something of a new departure for Tennant in setting and theme, and it confirms her ability to go on regenerating herself as a novelist.
The Adventures of Robina, by Herself is a lighter work in picaresque vein, but stylistically it is one of Tennant's most bravura performances, a brilliant display of sustained literary pastiche. Throughout she imitates the idiom Defoe adopts for his female narrators while wryly adapting it to accommodate her 20th-century concerns. After this "imitation" of Defoe, Tennant began work on something different again, a sequence of novels with the overall title The Cycle of the Sun that is intended to explore aspects of aristocratic and bohemian life in England from the 1950s to the 1980s, reflecting the major changes in the country's international role during these decades. So far two of these novels have appeared. In the first, The House of Hospitalities, Tennant introduces her central character Jenny going through a crisis of adolescence, while the second, A Wedding of Cousins, continues Jenny's confused life story four years later. Although Tennant's approach is essentially comic and satirical, there are elements of sadness and confusion at both social and individual levels. Despite the underlying realism of the sequence, Jenny's frequent inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy gives the novels a pervasive ambiguity typical of Tennant.
In 1989 Tennant published two novels outside the The Cycle of the Sun sequence, Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms. Jerkyll and Mrs. Hyde and The Magic Drum, both being crime stories of a characteristically eccentric and gothic kind. The subtitle of Two Women of London, The Strange Case of Ms. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde, indicates that this is another of Tennant's reworkings of famous literary texts. Cast in fabular rather than realistic form, Tennant's tale of rape and murder in West London is a timely feminist adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's seminal exploration of the divided self, in which she examines the enormous pressure experienced by women in a violent, competitive society. The divided self she portrays reflects the divisions in a society where poverty and deprivation co-exist with conspicuous consumption and a "loadsamoney" philosophy. The subtext of the novel is highly political. By refurbishing an important Victorian work of fiction, Tennant radically subverts the "Victorian values" advocated by free-market and self-help politicians in the 1980s.
The Magic Drum is set in an isolated country house, Cressley Grange, the home of the cult feminist poet Muriel Cole before her suicide at the age of 32 (the same age as Sylvia Plath, to whom there are parallels and even references). Since Cole's death, her husband, also a famous poet, has turned the house into a shrine to her memory and a place of literary pilgrimage. The Grange has the potential for the kind of closed-world crime story favoured by such Golden Age authors as Agatha Christie, and there is certainly a mystery at the heart of the novel—a murder, too, if the main narrator, Catherine Treger, is to be believed. Yet the status of Catherine's diary entries for her five days of detective work at the Grange is uncertain. Do they provide a reliable, factual account or are they the imaginative outpourings of a disturbed mind? Is she observing reality or creating a "reality" of her own out of the materials of crime and gothic fiction? The ambiguous conclusion does not provide a clear answer. The Magic Drum is a teasingly enigmatic book in which Tennant remodels elements of crime fiction to examine the posthumous power exerted by the real-life equivalents of Cole, and to undermine commonsense assumptions about the meaning of "reality."
After Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde and The Magic Drum, Tennant did not return immediately to The Cycle of the Sun but published Sisters and Strangers, perhaps her most ambitious attempt to provide a comprehensive survey of the life-lies, contradictions and hypocrisies central to women's lives, both past and present. Although couched in the form of an a historical fable or A Moral Tale, as the subtitle puts it, Sisters and Strangers is, paradoxically, a history of woman. Within a fairy-tale format, Tennant retells the story of Eve in an imaginatively exuberant as well as incisively sardonic manner. The Genesis story is blended with 20th-century reality in a freewheeling, synchronic way that incorporates myth, legend, and fantasy as the narrative surveys the recurring roles offered to women, such as Harlot, Madonna, Courtesan, Bluestocking, and Witch (titles of some of the sections). For all its wit and inventiveness, Sisters and Strangers is a disturbing post-feminist analysis of the deceptions and self-deceptions, especially concerning love and romance, by which women are virtually forced to live if they are to survive at all.
During the 1990s, Tennant made a sharp turn away from the past, a move perhaps prefigured by her exploration of the 19th-century Jekyll and Hyde story. Her Faustine incorporated ideas from Goethe in a modern setting for a feminist retelling of Faust. There followed a series of sequels to Jane Austen: Pemberley, An Unequal Marriage, and Emma in Love. Unfortunately, the first two, which continued the story of Elizabeth Darcy (née Bennett) and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, failed to replicate the joys of their precursor. The problem was that Tennant was writing in an entirely different time, and apparently thought it appropriate to picture Elizabeth discussing topics such as vaginal douches. Somewhat more successful was her sequel to Emma, but again Tennant faced the restrictions imposed by a theme that has existed at the margins, if not the center, of her work: time, and the changes time imposes on all of society.
updated by Judson Knight