Stephen Tennant: Underachieving Novelist

The publicity surrounding the shuttered Cecil Beaton exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (see earlier posts) has apparently stirred up interest in Beaton’s friend and sometime collaborator Stephen Tennant. The Paris Review has posted an article reviewing Tennant’s career, with a particular focus on his writing, hardly any of whch was ever published. The article by Emma Garman is entitled “The Great Writer Who Never Wrote” and opens with this:

Stephen Tennant’s letters, thought Stephen Spender, were “the essence of English retention—objects for private consumption, deluxe samizdats.” Tennant also wrote poems, painted pictures, and worked on a novel, never to be completed. His most significant published work was his 1949 foreword to his friend Willa Cather’s essay collection, commended by Cather scholars and still in print today.

After a brief description of his eclectic childhood and his participation with Beaton as Bright Young People of the 1920s, the article takes up his writing, or lack thereof:

The […] phobia of being seen thwarted Tennant’s literary ambitions. As a young man, he wrote at least one novel, which he chose not to publish. And he spent many decades on his projected magnum opus, a Marseilles-inspired novel to be titled “Lascar,” conceived in 1938 and never to be completed. He revised, rewrote, and reconfigured the story of, in his words, “crude desires, lusts, fidelities, and treacheries.” He began other novels, and engaged in such procrastinatory activities as illustrations and designing covers, only to return to it. In 1941 Cyril Connolly’s magazine, Horizon, published a “Lascar” cover featuring one of Tennant’s own paintings. In Connolly’s opinion, he was “an interesting and pathetic phenomenon, a great writer who can’t write.” E. M. Forster, meanwhile, read sections and urged Tennant to stick with it. Various other author friends offered kind words and advice, including Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, and Willa Cather, whose work he idolized. (He wasn’t very interested in male writers.) The American novelist, an unlikely but close friend, said she had high hopes for “Lascar.” In the eighth decade of Tennant’s life, and of the century, by which point he rarely ventured beyond the perimeter of Wilsford, he was still, supposedly, working on it.

The introduction suggests his literary brilliance surfaced in his letters, but so far as I am aware, those have never been published. Garman also credits him with appearing in other artists’ works, including works of fiction:

He inspired Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh characters, was sculpted by Jacob Epstein, wrote style columns, and stole the show in the group photographs that helped launch Cecil Beaton’s century-defining career.

As noted in the article, Stephen also appears in his later years as V S Naipaul’s “landlord” in his novel The Enigma of Arrival. In Mitford’s case it is easy to see to see some of Stephen’s flamboyant campiness in the character of Lord Merlin in her Pursuit of Love trilogy, although Gerald Berners would seem to be the primary model. In Waugh’s case, however, it is difficult to see what character Stephen may have influenced. Aside from his homosexuality and domineering mother, his descriptions do not sound much like Sebastian Flyte:

Tennant’s gift for high camp, cultivated as least partly as camouflage for shyness, was always displayed at heroic levels. On one visit to New York, he disembarked the ship in full makeup, his hair in marcel waves, with a bunch of orchids in his hand. “Pin ‘em on!” jeered a customs officer, to which Tennant responded: “Oh, have you got a pin? What a wonderful welcome … you kind, kind creature.” John Waters, who in 2015 named Philip Hoare’s excellent biography of Tennant as one of his ten favorite books, put it thusly: “Aubrey Beardsley, Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch—believe me, Stephen Tennant made them all seem butch.”

That sounds a bit like Anthony Blanche/Ambrose Silk, but it is questionable how much room there may have been for Stephen in those characterizations after the contributions from Brian Howard and Harold Acton had been incorporated. Waugh would have have known Stephen from the BYP period but not as well as he knew Brian and Harold both of whom he had met at Oxford.

The topic of appearances of real life characters in novels recently featured in the Spectator’s competition 3148 set by Lucy Vickers in which she asked readers:

… to imagine what the result might have been had a well-known writer slipped a self-portrait into a scene from one of their works. […] There were creditable Hemingway cameos […] and I enjoyed J C H Mounsey’s sketch of self-confessed misanthrope Evelyn Waugh, and Martin Hurst’s of the rather less self-aware Jeffrey Archer.

Unfortunately, the Waugh example was not reprinted with the winners, which included scenes from works of Hilary Mantel, Sally Rooney, Raymond Chandler, P G Wodehouse and Charles Dickens. Perhaps they can be persuaded to print it in a later issue or allow the EWS to do so.

The Beaton exhibit at the NPG (also mentioned in the Paris Review article) continues to be shut down. This hasn’t prevented David Platzer from reporting on it in the Exhibition Note section of the current issue of The New Criterion:

Interest in Cecil Beaton, since his death aged seventy-six in 1980, continues to flourish. Hugo Vickers’s biography (1985) was so complete as to forestall other biographers, but regular Beaton exhibitions have appeared. Some shows have examined specific aspects of Beaton’s work, such as his war pictures or his royal portraits. Others have taken in his career as a whole from his 1920s beginnings through to his war work, his triumphs as a stage and screen designer, and even his turn as a 1960s “Rip-van With-It,” as Cyril Connolly, Beaton’s friend since prep school days, put it, though Beaton was wise enough to remain an observer rather than a participant in switchedon antics. This new exhibition is the first to concentrate on Beaton’s early achievements in the late 1920s.

In some ways, this was Beaton’s most attractive period. It was then that, aided by his Box Brownie camera, an original eye, and boundless creativity, he emerged from middle-class obscurity into the stratospheres of Vogue and aristocratic bohemia, a key player in and sometimes organizer of costumed country house “Lancret parties”-named after the French painter of outdoor fetes-with his celebrity caricatured as “David Lennox” in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.

Two portraits of Waugh appear here, the first the famous 1930 Henry Lamb painting, the second Beaton’s 1932 photograph of him, at Beaton’s house in Ashcombe, Wiltshire, an alert Waugh looking severely out of an open French window. Waugh’s hostility to Beaton went back to early childhood prep school days, when Evelyn tormented Cecil, who must have struck him as girlish. Each enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame in the later 1920s. Moving in simi- lar circles and sharing friends, they were forced to meet again until Waugh’s death. Beaton, dreading Waugh the man, admired his writing, but Waugh dismissed Beaton’s achievements. The story of the way their paths crossed cries out to be described in a novel, the names and details changed.

Although the NPG exhibit remains closed, the catalogue by its curator Robin Muir is now for sale in the USA as well as the UK. Here’s a link.

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