Books: The Books Interview: Hopes and anchors

First an Hon., always a rebel, Emma Tennant is causing explosions again. John Walsh talks to her
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Halfway through Emma Tennant's shimmery memoir, Girlitude (Cape, pounds 15.99), she runs into Bruce Chatwin. Yellow-skinned with jaundice, the ephebic nomad is in bed at the Paduan villa rented by his artist lover, Teddy Millington-Drake. Undismayed by Chatwin's flamboyant homosexuality, Ms Tennant falls for him instantly. She, Bruce and Teddy hit the road together and drive to a Palladian dream-house in search of a sixth-century BC fragment of marble statuary, featuring the hips and bottom of a nameless Greek athlete. After a long wait, Bruce appears, his arms wrapped around the marmoreal bum, which he manhandles into his car - en route, not to Sotheby's, but to his own London flat.

The Italian home of the sculpted post- erior is the Villa Malcontenta and Emma Tennant wonders, rhetorically: "Where and how in England could the white pillars and rotunda and the name - Misery Hall, Villa Discontent - exist?". The answer, of course, is: in her head. For on the evidence of this grimly absorbing confessional - full though it is of vivid scenes, like the above - the author spent most of her early life in a state of chronic disaffection.

Though she was born into the moneyed, eccentric Tennant dynasty, into a Fifties world of debutante balls, private gambling dens, angostura bitters, imperturbable butlers and couples who called each other "Duck", her memories are mostly of mel- ancholy, frustration and disastrous choices in l'amour.

"Some people have said, `You're very hard on yourself', as if you might want to write something where you felt pleased with yourself," she says with a laugh. "But it's not a sad book. It's a way of showing that I could only be happy when I'm writing, and about a time when I wasn't or couldn't. I didn't go to university, I hardly went to school, but I grew up among people well versed in Henry James and Proust, and just felt this endless, total inadequacy."

Her mother's friends included Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender. Her aunt married the philosopher Richard Wollheim. She fell so much under the thrall of the novelist, Henry Green, a distant relation via the family cat's-cradle of Tennants and Wyndhams, that she married his son Sebastian - just as she was later to marry Alexander Cockburn out of, it seems, a generalised love for his family and his father, Claud.

Literary obsessions and family connections - and vice versa - form twisted patterns in the weave of Emma Tennant's life. She is well-known as both a serious novelist and an aristocratic rebel. Brought up in Scotland, in the Gothic family mansion called Glen, the eldest daughter of Christopher, Baron Glenconner, whose great-aunt married the prime minister Asquith, she was expected to live in the condition of financially secure arrested development she calls "girlitude" - "expected to have babies and imitate your parents' life".

Instead, she demanded independence, hung out with the jeunesse doree of Italy and America, and married into the worlds of satire (Private Eye founder Christopher Booker) and radical journalism (Alexander Cockburn). "I did get out by virtue of having one thing - a flat or house. The family provided it, yes - but I forced it out of them when they sold the family business and all the shares went to the men."

Social gossips, from the Fifties onwards, derided her rejection of upper- class values. She was the champagne Bohemian, the girl who "put the Che in Cheyne Walk". Ensconced at the top of Waldorf Towers, the most expensive building in New York, she "could have her grouse and eat it", the British papers said. Fans of her novels, meanwhile, could wonder about the psychodramas of The Bad Sister, Queen of Stones, Black Marina and Faustine, with their pacts with the devil, their obsessions with power, evil, abandonment, the dark side of femininity.

"I didn't want to write a romp, like Joan Wyndham's Love Lessons," said the author when we met in her west-London flat, where silhouettes of her ancestors and Grand National betting forms sit together on the mantelpiece. "I was inspired by W G Sebald, my hero, and Luc Sante, who wrote Belgitude. I told my mother, `I'm going to make it really flat and dull'. She said, `Darling, I don't think you've had a life that would make that possible'."

Mother is right. Tennant's shilling life is a chronicle of adventures with corrupt and striking men, from Dominic Elwes (who deflowers her and leaves her pregnant) to Gore Vidal, Chatwin, Norman Mailer and a floating population of swells at her house in Chelsea. The book is full of texture - clothes, food, houses, colours - and image clusters, the gold of private casinos, the whitening "chlorine liquor" on which the family fortune was based. London before the Sixties explosion is briefly sketched as a dismal place, where, she now says, "you took the number three or 53 bus up Regent Street to Galerie Lafayette, but rich and upperclass women had dressmakers. The alternative was to buy `a Horrocks' - a grim cotton ball-dress trying to look like sprigged muslin, if you couldn't afford a gorgeous real ball- gown."

She glided through three disastrous marriages ("Things were so different then, you couldn't live with somebody if you had a child; I'm afraid you married thoughtlessly") and worries obsessively in the book about changing sex. Asked about this theme, she relates it directly to her family. "It just means, why wasn't I the eldest son of this place - Glen - and why didn't I inherit the most beautiful place on earth?" The prodigal daughter is much on show throughout, epater-ing the bourgeois for all she's worth.

A third volume of memoirs, The Notting Hill Diaries, is still to come, evoking The Emma Seventies, when she set up the literary magazine Bananas. It's mostly remembered as a showcase for fantastical modern prose, under the spell of recent imports from South America and Europe. "Borges and Marquez and The Master and Margarita were suddenly available in shops that, until then, had been selling the equivalant of those Horrocks dresses." Bananas published the fantasy fictions of Michael Moorcock and J G Ballard ("The first line of the book is `Wham! The manuscript of Crash lands on my bed, on my recumbent figure' "). Angela Carter's mod-Gothic reworkings of Perrault's fairy tales - "The Company of Wolves", "The Erl-King" - first appeared in its pages. And it brought Ted Hughes into Emma's life.

Ms Tennant is riding a new wave of controversy with the news that she is sitting on a 150-page narrative about her passionate affair with Hughes in the late Seventies, when he was married to Carol, now his widow. It has become the most talked-about document in literary London. She says a US publisher is interested ("She said she found it very poetic, very moving. She said, `Of course, it's a love letter to Sylvia Plath' ") but clams up about its immediate fate in this country.

Some people are already accusing her of cashing in on Hughes's death. "I don't mind people saying `Isn't she shocking?' and `Isn't it awful?'," said this seasoned veteran of public disapproval, "and actually I think it would be slightly awful it it were in the shops now. But once a certain time has elapsed, though...".

She met Hughes at a Bananas party in autumn 1976, then later at the Arvon Foundation in Lumb Bank, Yorkshire. She proudly showed me a couple of books Hughes had inscribed to her from those days. One is Franz Bardon's Initiation into Hermetics, a treatise on magic published in Germany. Hughes has dedicated it "To Emma", with outspread eagles' wings drawn on either side of her name, an "as ever, Ted" - and from the "d" of Ted, he has drawn a chain of links leading down to an anchor. "The wings suggest I'm a free spirit while he's chained up," she said, "but I wasn't free at all. I had children, a mortgage, I was trying to run a magazine. It was a fantasy."

What had brought them together? "Well, pretentious though it may sound, I think he wanted to have something to do with a writer. He was wonderful about my work. I'd never have written The Bad Sister - since you mention the book - if I hadn't known him. And I do believe Hughes had a kind of magic. Anything and anyone connected to him - and to Plath - became surrounded by weird coincidences. When my father died in Greece, leaving my mother strapped, a cheque arrived next day from my Greek publishers who'd just bought two of my books for pounds 500. These things still happen all the time, because of him."

Had she been in love with Hughes? "Like the Prince of Wales, I don't accept the term. I never have. The fascination of somebody with original creative gifts is something that's always drawn me. I get attached to them but I can't call it being in love, because the words are so debased. My life has really been about writing, though some think it's all about once having been in a ball dress and having an odd life and marrying all the time. But it's the writing that's always been the point."

There's a tiny note of triumph in Emma Tennant's voice that the two strands of her life, the passionate-creative and the social-rebellious, have become so gratifying joined at last.

Emma Tennant, a biography

Emma Tennant was born in 1937, daughter of the second Baron and Lady Glenconner, and was brought up in a castle near Peebles. After attending a finishing school and studying art history, she was a debutante and then became a journalist with Queen and Vogue. She published her first novel, The Colour of Rain, in 1964, and The Time of the Crack in 1973. In 1975 she founded the literary magazine Bananas, and edited it until 1978. Later novels include Hotel de Dream (1976), The Bad Sister (1978), Alice Fell (1980), Black Marina (1985), and sequels to classics such as Pemberley (1993) and Elinor and Marianne (1996). Last year she published a family memoir, Strangers. She has two daughters and a son, and lives in west London.