A novelist at the fringe of realism

Emma Tennant's imaginative books were inspired by dreams, fairy tales and science fiction

NEW YORK• Emma Tennant, who blended fantasy, science fiction and social satire in dozens of novels that explored the borderland between daylight and dreams, anatomised contemporary Britain and updated the works of Jane Austen and other classic writers in sequels that often had a feminist twist, died on Jan 21 in London. She was 79.

The cause was posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of Alzheimer's disease, her daughter Rose Dempsey said.

An unusually prolific writer, Tennant produced dystopian fantasies such as The Time Of The Crack (1973), about a seismic fault under the Thames that destroys half of London, and comic novels of manners such as The Adventures Of Robina, By Herself: Being The Memoirs Of A Debutante At The Court Of Queen Elizabeth II (1986).

In Alice Fell (1980), one of many novels in which she looked deeply into the psychology of modern women, she recast the myth of Persephone and Demeter as a mother's search for her errant daughter in the urban underworld of Soho.

It became gradually clear to me, after meeting British science-fiction writers – J.G. Ballard among them– that away to the centre for me lay in the fantastic.

EMMA TENNANT to the reference work World Authors in 1980

Perhaps most provocatively, she wrote audacious sequels to famous English novels. In Two Women Of London: The Strange Case Of Ms Jekyll And Mrs Hyde (1989), she transformed Robert Louis Stevenson's dark tale into a contemporary feminist parable.

In two Jane Austen sequels, Pemberley: Or, Pride And Prejudice Continued (1993) and An Unequal Marriage: Or, Pride And Prejudice Twenty Years Later (1994), she risked the wrath of Austen fans by imagining Elizabeth Bennet's anxieties as the wife of Darcy and detailing the couple's squabbles and estrangements.

Writing in The Village Voice in 1990, critic Gary Indiana called her work "a startling procession of novels unlike anything else being written in England: wildly imaginative, risk-taking books inspired by dreams, fairy tales, fables, science fiction and detective stories, informed by a wicked Swiftian vision of the UK in decline".

Emma Christina Tennant was born on Oct 20, 1937, in London. Her father, Christopher Grey Tennant, was the second Baron of Glenconner, with a family fortune derived from a large chemical business. Her mother was the former Elizabeth Powell.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the family moved to the Glen, a mammoth Gothic folly implanted in a deep valley near Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. It was in the woods outside Tennant's childhood bedroom window that the 19th-century Scottish writer James Hogg had set his fairy tales, which enchanted her and led her to his novel The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner. That book became a decisive influence on one of her most celebrated works, The Bad Sister (1978).

When she was nine, the family returned to London, where she attended St Paul's Girls' School. She left at 15. After attending a small finishing school in Oxford, studying languages and art history, she spent a year studying art at the Louvre.

Tennant was presented at court in 1956 and, a year later, she married Sebastian Yorke, the son of the novelist Henry Green. The marriage ended in divorce, as did her marriages to Christopher Booker, a founder of the satirical weekly Private Eye, and the journalist Alexander Cockburn.

In addition to her daughter Rose, she is survived by her husband, Tim Owens; a son, the writer Matthew Yorke; another daughter, Daisy Cockburn; a sister, Catherine Tennant; a brother, Toby; and three grandchildren.

Under the pen name Catherine Aydy, Tennant published The Colour Of Rain, a dark satire about the British upper classes, in 1963. Her publishers submitted it for the Prix Formentor, awarded yearly in Majorca, Spain.

The chairman of the judging panel, the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, denounced it as a prime specimen of the decadence of the British novel.

Tennant found her footing in the early 1970s after discovering writers whose anti-realist qualities dovetailed with her own love of myth, magic and dream. In 1980, she told the reference work World Authors: "It became gradually clear to me, after meeting British science-fiction writers - J.G. Ballard among them - that a way to the centre for me lay in the fantastic; and despite the very deep loathing of the British literary establishment for any writing that could be so described, I set out to read as many Latin American and Central European writers as possible, finding confirmation in such works as Bulgakov's The Master And Margarita and the writing of Bruno Schulz that there was nothing inherently 'silly,' as the English would have it, in showing the world through lenses both fantastic and real: that the English were indeed limited by a creative feebleness and love of irony which left them out of the most interesting writing, all going on in other parts of the world."

This new orientation was reflected in The Time Of The Crack and the two novels that followed, The Last Of The Country House Murders (1974) and Hotel De Dream (1976).

In 1975, she founded the influential literary journal Bananas, which published new work by Ballard, Beryl Bainbridge, Angela Carter and the science-fiction writer Michael Moorcock. She served as editor for three years.

Her many novels also included Queen Of Stones (1982), a feminist retelling of William Golding's Lord Of The Flies; Faustine (1991), about a woman in her late 40s who makes a pact with the devil to return to her 20s; and The Beautiful Child (2010), a ghost story revolving around an unfinished manuscript by Henry James.

In 1995, the estate of Margaret Mitchell chose her to write a second sequel to Gone With The Wind. (The first, Scarlett, by Alexandra Ripley, was published in 1991.) St Martin's Press paid US$4.5 million to publish it, but rejected Tennant's first draft of the novel, Tara, so forcefully that the project collapsed.

"I've never had this experience before, where I put heart and soul into a book and it wasn't published," Tennant told The New York Times. "The most awful feeling was just seeing the book sitting there like a lump."

She wrote three volumes of memoirs about her socially and politically well-connected family - Strangers: A Family Romance (1998), Girlitude: A Memoir Of The 50s And 60s (1999) and Waiting For Princess Margaret (2009) - as well as a memoir about her love affair in the late 1970s with the poet Ted Hughes, Burnt Diaries (1999).


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'A novelist at the fringe of realism'. Print Edition | Subscribe