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Book Review

Trying to Piece Together a Portrait of Puzzling Family

STRANGERS, A Family Romance; by Emma Tennant; New Directions $22.95, 184 pages

July 09, 1999|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sometimes, the closer you are to something, the less you are able to see it. Growing up on her family's Scottish estate during World War II, Emma Tennant knew next to nothing about the people whose portraits and possessions surrounded her. In her strangely mesmerizing memoir "Strangers," Tennant puzzles her way into the hidden corners of her family's history.

Although Emma's paternal grandmother, Pamela Tennant, had been a celebrated beauty, the youngest of the three Wyndham sisters in John Singer Sargent's famous portrait, Emma's parents seldom spoke of her. One reason, perhaps, for their silence was that Emma's father, Christopher Tennant, had been so under his mother's influence as a young man that he'd allowed her to choose his first wife, whom he later divorced to marry Emma's mother.

Had Emma Tennant been growing up in the 1980s instead of the 1940s, she might have learned something about her ancestors from "Unquiet Souls," Angela Lambert's witty and informative account of that rather fascinating set of free-spirited, high-minded, romantic British aristocrats known as the Souls. Both of Tennant's paternal grandparents had been Souls: Edward Tennant was the eldest son of a wealthy bleach manufacturer; his wife, Pamela, a daughter of the more socially exalted Wyndhams. The Tennants, especially Edward's sister Margot, wife of British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, were noted for their keen wit and intelligence. The Wyndhams were artistic and spiritual.

Whether Edward and Pamela's marriage was a union of souls in fact as well as in name is debatable. Pamela seems to have married Edward on the rebound from her first love, Harry Cust. Pamela also had special feelings for Asquith's foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey, whom she married after her husband's death.

But "everyone" seems to have agreed that Pamela's greatest love was for her oldest son, Bim, whose death in World War I sent her into the world of table-tapping spiritualism. Pamela's impetuous daughter Clare, shortchanged of maternal love, vainly sought to make up the deficit in a string of marriages and liaisons. The youngest Tennant boy was none other than the ultra-narcissistic Stephen, best known for having spent the latter part of his adult life in bed.

"Somehow," muses Emma Tennant, "the accepted view of Pamela . . . is that she is the villain of the piece. . . . a cross between the Whore of Babylon and the Madonna." Then again, Emma hears elsewhere that Pamela was kind and charming.

"Strangers" spins an elliptical web of imaginative surmise around two main figures: the lovely but possibly suffocating Pamela and her disapproving sister-in-law Margot Asquith. The first half of the book spirits us back to their world: a way of life about to crumble under the assault of the Great War. In the book's second half, the author tells of her own childhood and her attempts to figure out what kind of family she had been born into.

"What was difficult," she reflects, "in that time when all seemed empty, half-hidden or plastered-over, with only a young child's vague grasp of history (there was the Great War; the sound of [the servant] May's wireless as it crackled with bulletins of the present one; the sad, impossibly noble face of Bim as he looked out from his penciled drawing in the hall), was to put together Pamela and her life and loves and vitality--and vulgarity, as May hinted, wanting to compare my mother's family favorably with my father's over her knitting needles (but they were never mentioned, any more than my father spoke of his)--with Margot and her world."

This murky sentence illustrates the author's prose style at its worst. Fortunately, for most of the book, the incantatory flow of her sentences summons up a lost world of powerful yet ambiguous emotions. The author has more than a sneaking sympathy for her Great-Aunt Margot, who was widely known for her rudeness and her caustic tongue. Pamela does not fare as well: As depicted here, she comes off as a cloying sentimentalist, claiming to live for others while making sure she gets her way. One wonders if this is really fair or merely the knee-jerk reaction of a late-20th century woman out of sympathy with Pamela's old-fashioned brand of femininity.

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