Magazine article The Spectator

Stirring the Pot Again

Magazine article The Spectator

Stirring the Pot Again

Article excerpt

STRANGERS by Emma Tennant Cape, 12.99, pp. 183

Why do families quarrel? Why is there invariably so little of that disinterested love which we are brought up to believe a family should possess? Some of these answers can be found in my cousin Emma Tennant's book, Strangers. She subtitles it 'A Family Romance' but it is romance of a very twisted sort.

However, the ground she treads is mostly known to me, since I wrote the story of my mother's family, the Tennants, ten years ago. At the time my book received the cold shoulder from the family. `How could you write of your grandmother in that way?'

one society-frenzied cousin, Laura Marlborough, said to me. Even my mother's first cousin, the author of this present account, announced to the family that my book must be denounced. I became the victim of furious telephone calls. 'I don't know about books, but Emma does,' a relation yelled at me.

At issue was my suggestion that my great-grandmother, Pamela Wyndham, a beauty painted by Sargent, had had lovers while married to my great-grandfather, Eddy, the first Baron Glenconner. This brought the legitimacy of some of the children into question. I am delighted that Emma does not shy away from Pamela's dalliances, which makes me all the more surprised that exception should have been taken to my own assessment. I can only put it down to that lurking monster, family rivalry. On the subject of my grandmother, Clare Tennant, the only daughter of beautiful Pamela, cousin Emma is perfectly frank, portraying a spoilt tigress with an unusually advanced sexual ego.

The mercantile Glasgow past, where the Tennants made their money, is but briefly touched on. My cousin is more interested in the psychological effect of Pamela's vanity and blue blood on her Eddy-born children, whom she cosseted as her 'jewels'.

And rightly so: as my book Broken Blood pointed out, this was the family's turningpoint. Glasgow was banished by Pamela when she brought her ancient Wyndham and royal Orleans blood to the plain-speaking Tennants. Thus, her daughter, my grandmother Clare, was a far more familiar sight on the byways of Mayfair than on her own Clare Street - a street which I was amused to find on a turn-of-the-century map showing the roads neighbouring the vast Tennant chemical works at St Rollox.

Of Pamela's children, Emma's father, Christopher Glenconner, was the 'normal' one. The book has a true-to-life portrait of his solidity and detachment. I remember from my childhood his strolling round Glen, the Tennant mock-baronial seat in the Borders, built by the Bart to house his family and his treasures. I learnt to fish in the loch where Emma recalls Uncle Stephen pining for truite au bleu. Clare, David and Stephen - Christopher's siblings and Pamela's surviving 'jewels' came badly unstuck due to Pamela's stranglehold that, under the guise of allgiving love, was threatening and destructive. And yet, unaware, she saw her closeness as a challenge to the fashion for parental distance.

Because of Christopher, Emma had a secure childhood; because of Clare, my mother and I did not. But, like Emma, I was curious and wanted to know everything about Clare, who had dismissed my mother, her first child. I wanted to know if I could forgive my grandmother. She was 18 when she married, the first world war was on and my grandfather was in the trenches, and she took a lover which led to a scandalous divorce. Clare's aunt, Margot, had her husband Asquith intercede. …

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