- Girlitude: A Memoir of the Fifties and Sixties by Emma Tennant
Cape, 224 pp, £15.99, April 1999, ISBN 0 224 05952 1
In the 15 years her memoir covers Emma Tennant transformed herself. The poised, if slightly stolid-looking debutante of 1955 was, by the end of the Sixties, a three-times-married, chronically hard-up, left-wing novelist. There was little more to wish for. Given the temper of the times and the Tennant family’s established bohemian tendencies it was not such a surprising trajectory. But all lives are surprising to those who live them. Tennant evokes, sometimes with too much vividness to be entirely coherent, the bewildering experience of a life lived forwards by someone who never considers herself its heroine and indeed often seems to herself to be struggling for a speaking part.
The world of the postwar deb was a remarkable survival. With its round of luncheons, stiff invitations and even stiffer frocks, it stood, like 13 Chester Terrace, Tennant’s parents’ house in Regent’s Park, apparently unshaken amid the ruins of the Blitz. The old order had, of course, been structurally weakened but the cracks were yet to show in institutions or individuals. Her Uncle Stephen’s life was still ‘unmomentous’, his exuberance ‘not then known, in the family at least, by any medical term’, and indicated only by his sending ‘a muff of gardenias’ to his niece’s coming-out ball.
Her parents, Lord and Lady Glenconner, launched their daughter with Austerity-busting splendour. A marquee, a New Look dress from Dior, a pillar of dry ice and she was ‘out’. Out into what is the question that occupies the rest of the book. What is a well-connected, semi-educated girl at a loose end to do? Take a job with Vogue of course. This Tennant does, assisting at photo sessions. On one occasion she is required to run about behind a model, creating a blur that will suggest, in the published picture, a whole crowd. It is a poignant moment for she has quickly come to find her outed self similarly indistinct, not comfortable in any group nor yet identifiable as an individual.
After hanging around for a while as a ‘moll’ to the dangerously unpleasant Dominic Elwes and enduring an unwanted pregnancy, Tennant decides to give in, to conform after all to the pattern of marriage and domestic life expected by her parents’ generation. This retreat into safety and approval through marriage is what she diagnoses as ‘girlitude’: ‘the dependence, the longed-for protection and the self-reproach of a species which can now only be alluded to self-consciously and with scorn’.
In fact ‘girlitude’ is still very much with us. To reach the end of childhood and find that there is nowhere – or at least nowhere congenial – to go is still a common experience for girls. The bid for approval can still be the reason for marriage or motherhood, for the attempt to reverse puberty by refusing to eat or, as a recent report on science teaching in mixed schools discovered, the unwillingness to do Physics A level because boys don’t like girls who do. Not only debutantes but any middle-class woman born before 1960 knows what it is like to arrive on the battlefield of life with the equivalent in social skills of a manicure set.