On Emma Tennant, women writers and literary legacy

As I write, there have been three obituaries so far for the writer, Emma Tennant, who died on Friday January 20th 2017. My own obituary/tribute which I've written for The Herald, has yet to be published, and I understand at least one other newspaper is planning to publish one.

That will make five. For a writer who published some thirty plus books over a fifty year period. Tennant wasn't unknown when she died; she hadn't stopped publishing for a long enough time for people just to forget she was there. On the contrary, her last book, a novel called The Beautiful Child published in 2012, was given a superb review by Frances Wilson in the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9742167/The-Beautiful-Child-by-Emma-Tennant-review.html.
She was delighted; she told me that her publishers had reported a surge in sales as a result of it.

Between 2000 and her death, Tennant published over ten books, one of them the memoir, A House in Corfu. It's a prolificacy matched by only a few of her peers like Joyce Carol Oates - of almost exact ages with one another, both women first published in 1964, Tennant with The Colour of Rain, and Carol Oates with With Shuddering Fall. Both women would go on to publish in every single decade up to the present one, an astonishing feat matched only by a handful of internationally acclaimed writers like John Le Carre, Philip Roth, Edna O'Brien, Margaret Atwood and Thomas Keneally (and my thanks go to Facebook friends for their wonderful recommendations!). Quite an exclusive little club, isn't it? And Emma Tennant belongs to it.

Why, then, such little fanfare at her death? Part of it is literary luck, of course. Each of the writers mentioned above have won international prizes, have become globally recognised. Published still by major publishers. After her 2002 novel, Felony, failed to sell enough to convince the new bosses at Waterstone's to keep stocking her, Tennant told me she struggled to get a deal with a major publisher. Her subsequent novels were published by tiny presses like Maia, Tartarus, Peter Owen, Quartet, Robson Square. All perfectly good publishers but with a much smaller reach. It's my own opinion that Felony should have been shortlisted for the 2002 ManBooker, year of literary riches as it was.

But her books still attracted reviews in major newspapers. She still encouraged interviews - I interviewed her myself several times, and took every opportunity I could to review her latest. What she wasn't good at was social media - she never even managed email.

Does that mean she was out of touch, and her books must have been too? Tennant's career really took off in the 1970s, with novels like Hotel de Dream, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction prize, and The Bad Sister, a wonderful feminist re-telling of Hogg's Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The Bad Sister was made into a film as part of Channel Four's Film on 4 series in 1983, directed by Laura Mulvey and starring among others Kevin McNally.

The involvement of Mulvey, who is better known for her feminist film theories, is perhaps our first clue to what has happened to Tennant's reputation. For other challenging novels followed, often surreal and magical and feminist, like Two Women of London, Wild Nights and Queen of Stones (of which the London Review of Books reviewer, Stephen Bann wrote, 'In order to envisage the curious achievement of Emma Tennant's Queen of Stones, you must first imagine that Virginia Woolf has re-written Lord of the Flies').

Increasingly, we saw Tennant's love of re-writing the classics. In the 1990s, she'd pen sequels to Pride and Prejudice and Emma which might have been an attempt to connect with a wider audience, have a commercial hit. But these sequels were often contentious - readers are often reluctant to see their literary icons taken up and altered in any way. And there was a literary 'sniffyness' in attitudes towards them, as though this wasn't quite a serious enough activity for a literary writer.

But even her attempts to court a larger readership couldn't disguise what Tennant really was: an outsider. For all of her aristocratic connections (she was the daughter of Earl Glenconner and his second wife, who was born in London but who spent most of her youth at the family 'seat' in Scotland, a baronial mansion called Glen), she was always outside where power lay. As she wrote in the part-factual, part-fictional Waiting for Princess Margaret, 'As I stand in my oddly-shaped room, my gaze now fixed on the picture above the Victorian grate, of a train going across the dimly painted land, I see my grandmother Pamela, and I wonder, is everyone as lonely as I am in this family? Does a door open or close for anyone here?'

One might have thought that the literary community would have been the surrogate family to replace the aristocratic one that Tennant felt she didn't belong to. When she edited the literary magazine Bananas in the 1970s, one might have thought her position there secure. But the publication of her third volume of memoir, Burnt Diaries, in 1999, slightly put paid to that. In it, she detailed her affair with Ted Hughes, while he was married to his third wife. Hughes had died just the year before; at least one reviewer took her to task for revealing this so soon. Women are often criticised for revealing sexual information about men (when, one might ask, is the right time to reveal such experience? Never, some would say. But they'd be wrong). And in the midst of a rush to venerate and applaud the late Poet Laureate, Tennant was crushed underfoot.

It's hard to say finally whether this personal revelation, together with the commercial failure of Felony just three years later, the novel that for me is Tennant at her most brilliant, really are what did for her reputation on a larger scale. But it seems possible to me that it never quite recovered from those two moments. And yet both are so typical of her extraordinary - and I would argue, necessary - outsider-ness. Not 'honouring' a poet laureate's reputation sufficiently; not being kind enough to her readers with work that doesn't suffer fools gladly: those are the actions of the true outsider indeed. Tennant didn't adhere to rules, or conform to expectations. There was something deliciously uncontainable about her, something utterly independent and hard to define.

It remains to be seen how her literary memory will be cherished, whether she will be discovered by future generations, whether posterity will be kind to her. Those of us who adored her work, who met her and found her generous, supportive and always entertaining and inspiring, can only try our best to ensure she'll take her place among the greats. For that is where, for all her outsider status, I would love her to be.  


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