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.

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine