- 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.
Tennant’s exaggerated self-criticism is an aspect of her self-absorption. Had she at any point been more aware of other people’s experience she might not, one feels, have given herself and everyone else such a bad time. Nevertheless, it is the exploration of her girlitude that gives her book its theme. If it was not a condition unique to the Fifties and Sixties it certainly took on peculiarly grotesque proportions in the postwar period, when men’s opportunities developed rapidly while the position of women went, if anything, into reverse with the attempt to get them back into the home.
The godmother of postwar girlitude is Princess Margaret, whose baleful presence haunts the margins of Tennant’s memoir. She makes her first unwelcome appearance amid the dry ice of the coming-out ball, the guest of Tennant’s ‘smirking’ older half-brother. To Tennant herself ‘the sister of the Queen’ is merely a nuisance, someone who has brought ‘unwanted publicity’ to the family. To the reader she seems to offer an awful warning of the perils awaiting those who can neither fit in nor get out, who want independence but cling to the privilege of rank or sex and so become monstrous, petulant and pathetic.
Tennant partly avoids this fate, but at a cost. In the attempt to find out who and what she is, she adopts the drastically empirical method of trying on one sort of life after another, discarding each as it fails to fit. Her first marriage was not only a bid for acceptance, it was that classic manoeuvre of girlitude, marrying something rather than being or doing it yourself. Even this she goes about obliquely. Having begun to want to write, she marries the son of Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green), though it was the father rather than Sebastian (‘the poor young man I married’) who attracted her.
After a spell of forlornly playing house, buying crockery like her parents’ and having a baby, Tennant, bored and intimidated by the German butler she has somehow hired, begins to drift out of her marriage. She takes to spending time in Rome in the ‘dangerously bohemian’ Isola Tiberina, which is not so dangerous that it can’t be visited by the cream of Italian society and, ominously, Princess Margaret.
It is all ridiculous, but Tennant is so selflaceratingly, if self-pityingly aware that she is spoiled for choice and spoiling her choices, that it is impossible not to warm to her. ‘I had no sense of anything other than my own ridiculousness,’ she writes dejectedly of her life in the early Sixties: ‘was I not privileged? – but I was also the butt of many jokes, a preposterous figure – Lady Caroline Top Drawer – in George Melly’s Flook ... Yet I felt none of the cheer of the publicly clownish figure ... I was so clearly in need of something else, something I so clearly failed to find.’
The failure was another consequence of girlitude, for if Tennant looked hard for what she wanted, she never looked far or thought of breaking out of her own milieu. She was, as she says, ‘a snob’ and as a ‘Portrait of the Fifties and Sixties’, her memoir is very much the view de haut en bas. ‘Shoes – evening shoes, that is – are hard to find,’ she notes of 1960, when ‘the rich are still dressed in “couture” and the poor struggle along dismal pavements with little but C&A or Richard Shops to sustain them.’ The customers of C&A would surely be surprised to find themselves described as ‘the poor’ and most people expect to go along a pavement to get to the shops. Yet, despite her misplaced sympathy for the huddled masses in Ladies’ Separates, Tennant writes well about clothes as another vehicle for experimental identities less dangerous than marriage. Indeed she often seems to remember outfits more clearly than people and describes her first trousseau much more interestingly than her first husband.
Marrying somebody because they are what you would like to be yourself is always a risky business. When, like Tennant in the later Fifties, you decide that what you want to be is a homosexual man, the enterprise is pretty much doomed. Her self-dislike extends to dislike of her sex; she has a vague romantic dream of an ideal twin brother/lover who sees in her the boy-self she has imagined since the night of her coming-out ball. She is also attracted by what she imagines to be the hatred of homosexual men for women, ‘infinitely preferable to its opposite, “love”, of which I have a well-founded suspicion, for we are in the age before the rising up of women against men’. To capture a homosexual would be like ‘the finding of the black tulip’.
What she finds, inevitably, is Bruce Chat-win, laid up with jaundice outside Padua and longing for company, but no more. There is also Gore Vidal (‘unobtainable’) and the diplomat, Fred Warner, who declines her proposal of marriage on the grounds that he’s ‘far too queer’. Her mistake, Tennant now sees, was ‘to imagine that hatred will best be found in homosexual men, when the buried homosexuals – that is, virtually all heterosexual men – are those with an ambition to maim and scar ... at this stage in my life I am blind to the frivolity and superficiality of most men.’
Tennant’s musings on feminism are among the most confused and annoying passages in the book. What she clearly considers to be the raising of her consciousness since the times of which she writes seems more like a continuation of girlitude by politically correct means. Perversely insulting to everybody, her ‘men are bastards’ view of sexual politics is terribly undemanding. It requires no constructive effort to re-imagine social or personal relations, it has no sense of a struggle for fairness, it simply allows her to stay as she is and feel justified.
Meanwhile, back in London in the early Sixties, it was Tennant’s ‘tabloid fate’ to be seen only as the sister of Colin, whose royal friendships made him an object of curiosity. In her most desperate attempt to get away from Princess Margaret she crosses the Atlantic. Here to her relief Tennant is not part of Society and gets in touch with the gritty realities of life by hanging out with George Plimpton, Norman Mailer and his wife-at-the-time, Jeannie Campbell, daughter of the Duke of Argyll. She has the chance of a new, if not totally different career with the offer of a job on American Vogue, but she never gets round to taking it up.
People laugh at her for wanting to ‘have her grouse and eat it’ and she is hurt, which is understandable. But given this vulnerability to ridicule her next attempt at marriage was foolhardy, for in Chapter 9 she reveals: ‘I Married a Satirist.’ Christopher Booker, her second husband, enables her to be part of the satire boom, and its ‘sudden, unblinking stare at reality’. Private Eye, Christine Keeler, That Was the Week that Was all duly happen, but Tennant is not, as she imagines, ‘by proxy a satirist’ herself, for inevitably the jokes are, literally, at her expense. Satirists, she discovers, are not very nice people. They are disloyal. They are happy to eat her spaghetti and stay in the country houses of her friends but then they write about them in the newspapers – satirically. They are really, she complains, ‘Telegraph readers in disguise ... schoolboys’. In fact they are her masculine counterparts, examples of public-school-laditude, a condition which, though no doubt as crippling to the psyche as girlitude, in no way impedes social or professional progress.
Having managed at last to write the novel she has so long contemplated and unable to stand another night in the unheated flat she shares with Booker, Tennant retreats from the nasty boys to read her proofs at the Ritz. Soon another marriage dissolves into the haze of the late Sixties. Tennant has now got the hang of ‘cheap clothes’ and so her father puts up the money for her to open a boutique off Ebury Street. But she still aspires to write and squirms to overhear Lord Glenconner telling a friend that ‘Emma has had a great success with her caftans.’
Shoes remain a problem. Marching down a Paris boulevard in 1968 with Alexander Cockburn, the compañero of her political phase, her feet are killing her. They stop off to get new footware, but ‘the trouble is I want smart shoes – we are still in a banlieue. I select in the end a pair of brown brogues.’ These are as uncomfortable as they are unflattering, but she hobbles on to the Sorbonne with her new friends of the New Left. They, like the satirists, turn out to have a disappointingly chauvinist side. After several months Tennant complains that ‘no one has asked me to attend a meeting or contribute an idea.’
It is indeed a painful truth that ‘the hardest battle’ for women has been sometimes against ‘those very radicals who should welcome their emancipation’, the sort of men who demonstrate their feminism by letting the door slam in your face. But always waiting to be asked, as if still at a society ball, is pure girlitude. Tennant never escapes it. Towards the end of the book she is given Juliet Mitchell’s The Woman Question and for a moment it seems as if Mitchell may descend like a dea ex machina, an anti-Princess Margaret, to make all right. Alas, our last glimpse of Tennant, in February 1969, when she is in hospital having just given birth, is not promising. There are no coloured ribbons on the crib. She tells the compañeras that what she has had is ‘a woman’. But she is in ‘a room at the end of the ward’, looking at the common run of life through glass.
Girlitude is still with us all, different from what it was in the Fifties and Sixties and in some respects more dangerous. Princess Margaret is, if scalded, still alive, unlike the Princess of Wales, her obvious successor in the role of manipulative approval-seeker, unwilling either to put up or shut up. And it would be a bold reader who condemned Tennant utterly, for who could put her hand on her heart and say she had never simpered for approval, or been callous in big things because she was afraid to seem rude in small ones? Annoying as she is, we have all at times been in Tennant’s shoes, or at least in a chain-store copy.