Poor little rich girl

Poor little rich girl

Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan

GIRLITUDE:

A PORTRAIT OF THE 50s AND 60s

by Emma Tennant

Cape, L15.99, pp. 216

Sex, money, how self-revealing to be, who to portray in detail, who to offend, who not to offend – in descending order of ghastliness these are some of the ghastly questions in the examination set for autobiographers. Plus, in Britain, class – to some the trickiest.

Emma Tennant’s first novel, The Colour of Rain, offended so many people so much that an undisclosed number refused to speak to her again. Written in ten days (about as long as it took Oscar Wilde, a hero, to write The Importance of Being Earnest), it must have been painful when Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green), another hero, said in his cups, his habitual dwelling place by then, that she hadn’t ‘brought it off.

That lesson went deep. This book will offend almost no one, except possibly a few husbands. Partly, it’s her method. Guided by ‘those sudden brightly lit scenes which furnish memory’, a film unreels which carries her from 18 to 30. It is not really a portrait of the Fifties and Sixties as billed. Of course the decades are there: the Fifties trying to recreate the Thirties (or was it the Twenties?), seemingly the last shot from the grouse moors, to the Sixties, with their satire, freedoms, ‘revolutions and drugs. But they are really just a backdrop to this skimming memoir of her life.

You have to keep your eyes peeled to catch things, to catch the two husbands as they glide swiftly past and – poor Sebastian Yorke, poor `Mr Booker’ – to catch the divorces. Seduced when young by Dominic Elwes, an abortion – you don’t quite get the full Monty perhaps, but quite enough to pass the sex question. There’s not much she can do about class. Despite some vague suggestion at the start of how far below the more or less aristocratic McEwens was her nouveau riche family, it is irredeemably upper and her pen is as sharp and amusing about that as it was in her very good novel about them, Strangers: A Family Romance.

But riche is the point here. As she dashes you along – dashes literally, she is as addicted to the dash as Byron – only money suddenly pulls you up. Understandably infuriated at the monstrous and many injustices of primogeniture by which everything is in trust to the elder son – in this case the half-brother Colin Tennant – she says on page 24 that she will have no money. What, nothing, Emma? Nothing at all? Despite, it is true, being trussed to the gusset by the major trust – sad shrug of solicitors’ shoulders – there is nearly always some teeny-weeny ignominious C trust or D trust – like, say, for L250,000 which is made even for younger daughters. Let’s hope so anyway.

Certainly a good deal of money sloshes about the later pages. Streams of nannies are hinted at, Chelsea houses come and go, an Italian housekeeper crossly waves gigantic bills on the stairs, run up by shopping (by taxi). Perhaps it was all just her father Christopher, a sort of saint to his wayward, gifted, spoilt, doomed family; Christopher who always allowed her to spring back on the elastic of his enormous wealth.

Because this is a memoir of attempted escape, escape from the fate of an upperclass Fifties debutante into marriage, then restless escape from marriage and motherhood, flight to Rome and Paris and New York, to smart and clever (and famous) people, Bruce Chatwin, Elaine Dundy, Bob Silvers, Terry Southern, Andy Warhol, Lawrence Durrell. She flees conformity into the world of the satirists and Private Eye, only to flee from them realising they are really Daily Telegraph readers stood on their heads. Herself extremely attractive, she soon leaves lovers, or else avidly pursues beautiful young men who leave her: both forms of escape. One senses an inner solitude implicit in the curious title, only finally dissolved perhaps by the escape into art in the series of extraordinary and distinguished novels, which, to follow her style, will follow the end of this book.

As one would hope from a fine novelist, there are fine portraits, the best being that of Henry Yorke (by whom she was eventually more fascinated than by the son she’d married), cackling, sardonic, teasing, a genius, at home `in his rumpled, ash-strewn state, drunk’ or on holiday on the Costa Brava where `Henry, never leaving his chair and drink in the loggia, would point delightedly out at the view: “First, the cars” …’ There are portraits of servants: an old nanny, having lost a leg in, one assumes, some nursery fracas, is trapped like a beetle at the top of the house. John McCubbin, Scotch factor/butler sleeps with the Hungarian cook and cackles as much as Henry Yorke. Emma is lenient but vivid on her uncles: David, who once would land his tiny plane to read the signposts and now smelt of stale brandy, and Stephen, plump exbeauty, ex-scatterer of gardenias on trains full of troops.

What do we learn about the author the most difficult portrait? She is ruthless about her lack of feeling then (so is that the drive, not escape?), her snobbery, her narcissism (a family failing), her romanticism, impulsiveness, and long-postponed maturity. But she reveals, too, formidable intelligence and quickness, warmth, courage, wit, a love of people, if principally in the froth of their gossip. And what would Henry say from his coffin in which, during his last years, drink in hand, he used to practise for death? Has she brought it off this time?

Emma Tennant, following in great loops of film the path dictated by the sudden magnesium flares of scenes remembered, writing with considerable grace and sometimes poetry has somehow succeeded in recreating the feeling of the stream of memory, as writers once, usually unsuccessfully, tried to convey the stream of consciousness. And the reader often laughs at least this reader did. So yes, she has brought it off. It is an achievement.

Copyright Spectator Apr 24, 1999

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