Emma Tennant Karl Miller - Essay

Karl Miller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.