Emma Tennant Essay - Critical Essays

Tennant, Emma


Tennant, Emma 1937–

Tennant is a British novelist, critic, and editor. She has been involved in magazine publishing for a number of years, working on the editorial staff of such publications as Queen, Vogue, and Bananas (the literary magazine of the British Arts Council). (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

Perhaps [The Time of the Crack] isn't quite the short, sharp, entertaining novel we are all waiting for …, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Short it certainly is, and rather amateurishly written …, but in a way this adds to its charm. Characterization is about on the level of The Young Visitors. Yet its merits far outweigh the minor faults.

A huge crack opens up in the bed of the Thames, separating London into two halves, leaving only the Playboy Club standing on the northern side; Lewis Carroll technique applied to H. G. Wells material….

As a comic apocalypse this novel could hardly be bettered. It is very much a London book—a knowledge of the town and its geography helps a lot—but it does manage to say a few pertinent things about the society in which we live. As a first novel, too, it has a simplicity and enthusiasm that is often missing from the output of more professional writers of fiction. (p. 661)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London), 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 15, 1973.

Yolanta May

With The Last of the Country House Murders we leave Life behind and begin to play the Tennant games. There is a strong Napoleonic streak in Miss Tennant, which first declared itself at the time of the crack and is now rampant once again: large armies sprout and march on; orders are expected and orders are issued; revolutions have taken place and others will follow. Whole galaxies have been swept off the skies with a few well-aimed sentences and now the Earth stands despondent and unaccompanied, but for the sun and the moon (a last-minute reprieve?), in the great chasm.

It is all, we look about apprehensively, a song of the Very Near Future. Persons like us, who only the other day were enjoying the twenties and the forties in the Orient Express, ornamental behind our famous Dorothy Lamour smiles, and resplendent underneath our Veronica Lake hair-styles, now shift our strangely diminished forms from one foot to the next, as we all jostle against others, similarly afflicted, on the great Salisbury plain. All of us, that is, except one Jules Tanner, a decadent whose head—red chignon piled high, Spanish comb—will roll shortly on the Aubusson carpet for the benefit of the dollar-bearing multitudes.

Miss Tennant has considerable, elegantly turned-out weapons at her disposal, only she will squander them on those armies. The visions of Borodino spring to the mind's eye. Also, the satirical possibilities of that central London group of equals have lost, we would have thought, their bloom some time ago. May they rest in peace! (p. 67)

Yolanta May, in The New Review (© TNR Publications, Ltd., London), March, 1975.

Valentine Cunningham

Hotel de Dream is only hand-me-down Flann O'Brien, noticeably tireder than its master. The depressed gentlefolks of the grotty Westringham Hotel eagerly quit their pongy domicile … in rather obviously needful dreaming. The dreams' casts take to travelling from dream to dream and when a lady novelist arrives to complete her trilogy her characters pop in and out of both the real and dream life of the hotel….

The only person Emma Tennant appears really to get into is a revolutionary whose Sixties career and politics she carefully describes but who is made to have precious little to do with the rest of the novel's doings. (p. 87)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 16, 1976.

Harriet Waugh

In Emma Tennant's new novel, Hotel de Dream, the forces of reality and imagination are let loose on each other, and intermingle destructively; but then, just as the real world appears to be engulfed by the chaos of the over spilling dream world they are suddenly, and to my mind sadly, separated again into their component parts.

The centre of the action is a run-down boarding house, The Westringham, presided over by a mean, decaying widow called Mrs Routledge who has fantasies of grandeur (she and the house could be said to represent England in her present parlous state). The house is inhabited by a collection of seedy, unhappy people who spend their nights and days in escaping reality by sleeping and dreaming….

The skill of Miss Tennant's very enjoyable book, both in weaving … complex and different dimensional threads into one cohesive whole and in successfully making the reader part of this strange comic world, is enormous. My only niggling criticism, and that might well have more to do with my own rather prosaic and muddled mind than with the book, is that I failed to work out the different metaphysical interactions within the novel satisfactorily. The end seemed to imply a more simple structure than the middle and that I thought a pity. (p. 24)

Harriet Waugh, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 24, 1976.

James Brockway

[Emma Tennant] has added another sample of her own brand of sci-fi fantasy to her first two, The Time of the Crack and The Last of the Country House Murders. Somewhere she has referred to her 'trilogy', so that Hotel de Dream may be intended as the last of her laughing-gas murders. Be that as it may, plenty of old English attitudes get murdered in this latest offering of hers and in her own wittily and elegantly lethal way too. Perhaps one needs to read the book more than once to catch the relevance of its satire on every point and to make up one's mind what it is really all about (apart from being a different way of writing a novel). On the surface at least, it is clear enough all the same.

Yet even if it weren't, the book's chief attractions would remain unimpaired: the agility and ebullience of the humour, the sense of the absurd in human beings—in most of us, at least, and in all the inmates of Mrs. Routledge's tatty boarding house in Kensington, her Hotel De Dream—and, best of all, the stylish verve of the writing.

Here the reader lives mainly in the dreams of the characters, but since this is a form of science fiction, dream life and waking life get muddled up, while the dreams of the various characters also start to invade one another. The opportunities this offers for satirical fun and fantasy are naturally as good as unlimited, but also the opportunities to build up fantastic scenes,...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Karl Miller

In Emma Tennant's The Bad Sister, gentlefolk are distressed when one of their number is put to death by his illegitimate daughter. Dependence on the fiction of the first Romantic period is in this case deliberate, explicit, and surprising. So far from shy is Emma Tennant that she has used as a model James Hogg's celebrated novel of 1824, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Hogg describes the or-deal of a fanatic, who, duped by antinomian Calvinism, by the teaching that those to whom God's grace has been given can do no wrong, anxiously aspires to a sense of infallibility, and falls into the "deep gulfs" reserved, in the poet Cowper's words, for God's castaway…. Emma Tennant writes about a modern fanaticism, a new infallibility. So far as execution or "finish" is concerned, objections can be pressed to what she does, but the strategy she has hit on for emulating the Ettrick Shepherd is ingenious and suggestive. (p. 25)

The Bad Sister resembles Hogg's novel in being, and in having to be, ideologically equivocal. Hogg, an admirer of the Covenanters, wrote, in the Confessions, what was taken to be an antipuritan work, an attack on the theology which had characterized, in later times, the sects who saw themselves as heirs to the Covenanters. As for Emma Tennant …, she has written a book which could be taken to be an attack on feminist infallibility…. The Confessions can't have been liked by latterday Covenanters, the Wild, as they were eventually called, and Emma Tennant may have to justify herself before a court-martial of wild sisters. Her novel brings together romantic wildness and its opposites, and it is not the only novel … which does this. (p. 26)

Karl Miller, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), November 9, 1978.