Ronald Bryden

  • The Life of Kenneth Tynan by Kathleen Tynan
    Weidenfeld, 407 pp, £16.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 297 79082 X

Kathleen Tynan says that she wavered for some time between writing a personal memoir of her 16 years with her husband Kenneth and embarking on a full-dress biography, embracing the 36 before they met. As she foresaw, making the second choice has produced an odd, hybrid book, not quite one thing nor the other. At times deeply intimate, at others coolly dispassionate, her narrative becomes an antiphony of two voices in uneasy tension. Frequently, one feels that she might write more emotionally were it not for the biographer looking over her shoulder. Almost as often, one finds oneself reading passages of straight reporting as if they were playing the tricks of a novel, using flatness to imply feeling, disguising as unruffled objectivity the chilled revulsion of a wife.

For this is not, it must have leaked out by now, the traditional saint’s life expected of literary widows. Mrs Tynan chose to write a biography, she says, because she felt the need to assert her husband’s rightful place in 20th-century English letters and theatre history, but she has not erected the conventional pious monument. It is hard to imagine Mary Shelley canvassing the opinions of former secretaries, asking how the Shelley ménage struck them at the time, or the second Mrs Hardy interviewing the novelist’s former mistresses, discussing his sexual preferences. Mrs Tynan does all this and more, stopping short only (by whose decision she does not say) at comparing notes with her predecessor, the previous title-holder, Elaine Dundy. Before she dwindled into a wife, Kathleen Halton was an excellent journalist, from a family of some renown in the business, and she has done her leg-work conscientiously and well, excavating all the truth she could uncover about the erratic, divided egotist she married. But the objectivity with which she invaded the regions of his life not shared with her was, she recognises, unnatural, and the strain she put on herself in doing so translates into an underlying strain running through her book like the San Andreas Fault.

Nonetheless, it’s a compelling piece of writing, and her choice obviously was the right one. To tell only the story of her years with Tynan would have been to unfold a mystery with no key, the sort of cryptogram Tynan’s favourite film, Citizen Kane, would have become had Orson Welles’s studio bosses cut the childhood episodes which explain Kane’s dying word, ‘Rosebud’. The Tynan for whom she forsook her own first marriage in 1964 was a man glittering with success and his own pleasure in it: leading drama critic of the English-speaking world, newly-appointed dramaturg of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre, someone who could claim, like Oscar Wilde, a symbolic relation to his time. The husband whose agonising death from emphysema she watched in California in 1980 (this is the book to give a smoker you love for Christmas) was a lost, wasted man whose misery and sense of exile stare hauntingly out of the book’s last photograph. The explanation for that change does not lie in the years during which it took place. To account for it, Mrs Tynan had to go back to the beginning: to the indulged Birmingham schoolboy who was always to maintain that he really was born on his first day at Oxford.

The time to which Ken Tynan bore a symbolic relation was the quarter-century following the Second World War, during which the generation of grammar-school children to whom the Education Act of 1944 opened Britain’s older universities created a new society open to their talents. Tynan was the first, and flamboyantly the foremost, of their number. In fact, his father Sir Peter Peacock, chairman of the family chain of Midland drapery stores, could easily have sent him to a public school, and wished to. But his mother, Letitia Rose Tynan, feared that if he left home, he might discover his parents’ guilty secret. She and Sir Peter were not married; the knight had an obdurate wife and four older children in Warrington, where he had served six terms as mayor. So Ken went to King Edward’s School, got a better education than he would have found at most boarding-schools, grew up heterosexual and entered Magdalen, Oxford in 1945 on a demyship of £50 a year. His spending allowance, ten pounds a week, was larger than that of most undergraduates in those days and enabled him to become more conspicuous, famous for his technicolour suits (one green, one purple) and gold satin shirts. But essentially he was in the same situation as scores of clever provincial boys after the war, feeling their way into the new world which had given them equality with Etonians, Harrovians and Wykehamists, but left them to prove it.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in