Emma Tennant (1937-2017): Latter-day BYP

Novelist Emma Tennant has died at the age of 79. She was a prolific writer, leaving an oeuvre of over 45 books. She was also founder and editor of a 1970s literary magazine known as Bananas. Although she wrote in a satirical style, she is unlikely to be compared to Waugh or others of similar stature. Here’s The Times’ description of her writing from her obituary:

…critics were wary of her idiosyncratic style, but beguiled by her quirkiness. “Too wild to be fully effective, but fun all the same,” wrote one …Tennant’s oeuvre also included challengingly postmodern, feminist takes on 19th-century classics; memoirs of her aristocratic family and of her bohemian life (sometimes deliberately mixing fiction with fact); extravagantly fanciful tales based around members of the royal family; and children’s books…Her style was characterised by shifting perspectives and convolutions so extreme that a sentence might contain 150 words, four dashes, four parentheses, two colons and two semi-colons. Although commending The Bad Sister for its “consistently striking” writing and images, The Times stated that “vampirism, previous existences, departures from the body . . . play such a confusing part in the story that its fictional grip on the imagination is intermittently lost”. Tennant was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, yet her subversive sequels to Austen and Brontë classics were often critically panned.

Her life, on the other hand, sounds like something out of  a Waugh novel. She was the daughter of the 2nd Baron Glenconner whose brother Stephen Tennant was her uncle. Stephen was certainly among the brightest of the BYPs, at least for a brief time. Commentators credit him with having contributed to Waugh’s characters Sebastian Flyte and Miles Malpractice as well as Cedric Hampton in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. He was also the direct model for V S Naipaul’s landlord in The Enigma of Arrival. Emma’s own life in the 1960s and 1970s sounds like Vile Bodies updated. According to the Daily Telegraph, she was not a major beneficiary of the once large family fortune and had to work for a living while watching it become much smaller in the hands of her half-brother Colin, the 3rd Baron.  Emma was married several times. One of her husbands, Alexander Cockburn, was the son of Claud Cockburn, Evelyn Waugh’s cousin, so the families are distantly related by marriage. Another, Sebastian Yorke, was the son of novelist Henry Green, Waugh’s friend from Oxford. On the whole, well-connected both intellectually and socially, she made the best of her connections and her talent to promote her career and may well be remembered as much for her life as for her works.

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