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Tennant, Emma

Entry updated 23 December 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1937-2017) UK editor and author whose first acknowledged novel – her actual first, The Colour of Rain (1964) as by Catherine Aydy, was not sf – is The Time of the Crack (short version as "The Crack" in New Worlds 5, anth 1973, ed Michael Moorcock; exp 1973; vt The Crack 1978), an sf novel about an inexplicable faultline – described in terms that imply a gamut of meanings, from Sex to apocalypse – that opens through the heart of London, told at least in part as a Parody of the Cosy Catastrophe tale. Released around the same time, her first independent tale of genre interest is "Old Moorcock's Revenge" in Time Out for 9-15 November 1973, a spoof on a Near Future Britain as it might have been imagined in the pages of New Worlds, named characters including Michael Moorcock and John Clute.

Tennant's third novel, The Last of the Country House Murders (1974), is a somewhat offhanded pastiche of a classic detective novel set in a hazily realized, depressed Near Future Dystopian UK, where the last country house is maintained as a relic of a culture which Tennant – a member of the eminent Tennant family – viewed with considerable ambivalence. Indeed, it might be argued that her work as a whole repudiates Empire while seeming to lament its loss, a decline which became precipitate around 1950, certainly for those experiencing at first hand the post-War transformation of Britain.

Some sf devices figure in Hotel de Dream (1976), set in a surreal Keep whose obsessively nostalgic residents begin to find themselves in each other's dreams: the nostalgia they share – for a cleansed and triumphant royal Britain, the kind of land Edwardians might have anticipated, but which World War One destroyed any chance of – somewhat resembles in detail and ironical import the proto-Steampunk Edwardian futures ironically promulgated by Michael Moorcock in his Jerry Cornelius and Oswald Bastable series and elsewhere, intensifying a lifelong practice of self-consciously rifling through existing texts (see Postmodernism and SF). Tennant's next several books for adults – including The Bad Sister (1978), which takes off from The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg (1770-1835), Wild Nights (1979), Alice Fell (1980), Queen of Stones (1982) and Woman Beware Woman (1983; vt The Half-Mother 1985) – tend to combine Gothic furniture, a complex Feminism, supernatural intrusions and a continuing ambivalence. This refusal to settle meaning (or bestow her sanction) upon her characters, her plots or her generic surrounds results in books of dream-like vivacity which, through their tendency to close insecurely, occasionally diminish the insights they have dodged towards.

This almost surreal casualness of affect may increase the intrigue – but perhaps renders uncongenial for younger readers – The Search for Treasure Island (1981), a Young Adult tale whose contemporary protagonist Sam is carried away through a Timeslip by Jim Hawkins and the bemused crew of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), who are in search of the true Island, which may this "time" around be Galapagos. Sam is able simultaneously to see both the present day and the time of the tale; the crew's confusion is caused by their inability to recognize twentieth-century artefacts unless if they can visualize them in their own terms, with a submarine, for instance, being perceived as a giant dolphin (see Perception). The treasure itself turns out this time round to be a Time Viewer through which Sam is able to see transformations wrought by Evolution. Throughout, the Doppelganger-like intimacy of the protagonist and Jim Hawkins reiterates and prefigures a central topos, especially in works where Tennant unleashes a strong bent towards Fantastika; these works remain her strongest.

Of her later titles of interest, the most interesting are fables in modes of unsettlement. Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde (1989), again taking off Stevenson, plays on its classic source an intricate game of female possession in the late twentieth century. Sisters and Strangers: A Moral Tale (1990) is a feminist reconstruction of history in which Adam and Eve survive to the present day. Faustine (1992) replays the Faust myth with a female protagonist whose beauty chills the world. Some of Tennant's last novels directly or indirectly reflected, sequelized or parodied the works and world of Jane Austen (1775-1817); Heathcliff's Tale (2005) works similar transformations on Emily Brontë (1818-1848).

In 1975-1978 Tennant edited the journal Bananas, which published J G Ballard, Angela Carter, John T Sladek and others. Bananas (anth 1977) was taken from the journal, and Saturday Night Reader (anth 1979), with mostly original contributions by the same authors, plus others, including Ted Hughes, also fairly represents its bent. The essays assembled in Did We Meet On Grub Street?: A Publishing Miscellany (anth 2014) edited with Hilary Bailey provide useful background information on conditions for writers in the late twentieth century; Tennant's wide knowledge of the English publishing scene proves particularly useful. [JC]

see also: Women SF Writers.

Emma Christina Tennant

born London: 20 October 1937

died London: 21 January 2017


works as editor

works as editor: nonfiction


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