Book: Strangers: A Family Romance by Emma Tennant (Jonathan Cape, pounds 12.99)

Thursday's Book

Emma Tennant may have become the new black sheep of her Scottish family, but from the tale she tells, she is merely joining an entire Borders pen-fill of similarly coloured livestock. The Tennants' story is a textbook example of what Anthony Powell characterised as a three-generational product of the Industrial Revolution. The first amasses the wealth (in this case, a formula for bleach), the second consolidates it, and the third spends it "in a decadent manner".

Emma Tennant begins in 1912, shortly after Eddy Tennant was ennobled by H H Asquith, husband of his sister Margot, a beak-nosed anti-Suffragette. Margot maintained an ongoing feud with her sister-in-law, the dreamy, white-clad Pamela, Eddy's wife. Pamela, a Soul and a disciple of Morris, believed in being with her children - indeed, in surrounding herself with them at her Arts and Crafts manor house, Wilsford. She is both the villain and the heroine of the piece.

Frustrated in her pre-marital love affair with Harry Cust, she obsesses over her children, her "jewels", in "a life where love, diverted, must flow underground".

This is the confessional memoir gone genealogical (and fictionalised, which may explain the occasional factual error). It has already stirred a predictable storm within the clan. Yet there is little new here in the way of scandal. I'd like to have seen more, such as the tale of how Cust's Lothario ways extended to a woman of Grantham whose granddaughter - a certain Margaret Roberts - was supposed to have inherited his leonine mane and looks.

Gradually, our narrator becomes a participant. A lonely child left in the Gormenghast-like Scottish baronial seat, Glen, Emma Tennant witnesses the mysterious comings and goings of her kin, Pamela's "jewels": the wayward, thrice-married Clare; David, whose Gargoyle nightclub is another escape from his mother's skirts; and Christopher, Emma's stalwart father and hero. Later we observe, passively, Colin Tennant's flirtation with Princess Margaret, a mirror of Christopher Tennant's own proposal to a pre-royal Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

Emma Tennant's penultimate chapter, on Stephen Tennant's decline, is the most affecting, dealing with territory elsewhere explored by V S Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival. (Both writers lived with Stephen as an invisible landlord). The overgrown, claustrophobic atmosphere was still present when I visited Wilsford and met Stephen in 1986, while writing his biography. He resembled an Edwardian hostess, an imperious aesthete dedicated only to his own beauty and an inert pursuit of artistic truth.

Emma Tennant portrays Stephen with an equivocal affection as a pudgy ballerina gone to seed, all camp affectation, yet a figure to be feared, surrounded by photographs of his mother, polar bearskins and painted shells. "Everything here is devoted to murdering memory and keeping it intact at the same time." Conversely, her own book seems an act of therapy, or exorcism - a private affair. Claustrophobic, dreamlike and allusive, Strangers will doubtless serve to further mythologise her extraordinary family.

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