Family Secrets: I Don't Capture the Castle

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by Elizabeth C. Gyllensvard by Elizabeth C. Gyllensvard Previously by Elizabeth C. Gyllensvard: Indifference


Waiting for Princess Margaret by Emma Tennant London: Quartet Books. 2009

"Isn't that what I'm doing…a kind of reconstruction of members of the family and their past lives?" [37]

I’ve never heard Emma Tennant’s voice.  But by the time I had read the first pages of Waiting for Princess Margaret, I knew that I'd give much to do so.

Imagine yourself by an open fire in the library of an old country home. Seated across from you is Emma Tennant.  The afternoon is despatched by a deluge.  Rain makes the windows all wavy and offers a backdrop of white noise.  The world shrinks, as if there were just Tennant telling her story and you listening.  

This is a memoir about a house in the Borders of Scotland; about family secrets and about the consequences of withholding truth. 

The contrast between those who know precisely who they are (royalty, in this case, Princess Margaret) and those who are struggling to get facts (Emma Tennant) from reticent family members is the main theme of this book.  The tale is written as if the author were recounting a dream, or a myth, or both.   There’s that uniquely British aristocratic depth of legend to it.   Tennant sighs: "you are the owner of the places you visit in memory; no one can take them away or alter them for you." [28]

The point of the book is that memory plays tricks on us.  And yet, in the end, because memory is all that we have, we have a duty to share it with the next generation.

Which is precisely what Tennant's parents neglected to do.   She writes of "my mother's fervent reserve" and of her father's "strong dislike of any mention of human feelings." [31]  Indeed, "my mother is…good at blocking out those scenes she would rather not revisit…" [28]

"In this family there are plenty of secrets."[9] And it is with a mixture of hesitation and daring that the author tries to unlock a multitude of family mysteries.  "I'd learned to steer away when a past situation is said to be u2018all right'; it usually signals something complicated, if not actually forbidden." [46]

"….I wonder; is everyone as lonely as I am in this family? Does a door open or close for anyone here?" [112]

In the Preface, the author is more honest than many memoir writers.  She looks at the sweet and torturous ruses of memory and owns that fabrication may well be part of the story she tells.  Moving effortlessly between stream of consciousness and real time events, Tennant's memoir is enlivened by the highly-evolved life of her mind.  There's a rich trove of self-awareness.  While one chapter takes the reader further back in Tennant's memory, the next chapter recounts more recent occurrences.  

Like Lot’s wife turned to a salt statue looking backward, the British aristocracy is shown by Tennant to be in its last gasp; the book is a lament. Tennant's story implies a condemnation of the landed classes failure to meet the reality of an expanded electorate.  The landowner's practice of primogeniture did indeed keep large estates intact and provided for an array of dependents who worked on them as well as funding bequests to relatives.

However, as the works of F.M.L. Thompson and David Cannadine point out, primogeniture not only excluded all but the first born son from inheritance it also decreased the total number of landowners and made them an easy target for 19th and 20th century politicians eager to rouse the working class who made good Joseph Chamberlain's threat, that property would have to pay a ransom. And from that ransom the State grew rich, powerful, and unaccountable.

Waiting for Princess Margaret is also about a house.  Glen.  It was "a show-chateau built by Sir Charles [Tennant] in the mid-nineteenth century in order to impress Mr Gladstsone and the rest." [25] 

In those days the estate rule obtained.  Anyone with a handle to their name required the means of maintaining that superior social standing.  The socially acceptable means usually were a largish pile and at least ten thousand acres the rents of which were to support the owner. So important was the estate rule that Disraeli's supporters clubbed together to buy him a country estate.   In the 18th century, the Tennants were Ayrshire yeoman farmers [21], in the 19th century they had a chemical empire in Glasgow. [22][32]

Glen, according to Margot Asquith, was "u2018the most beautiful place on earth.'" [26]  Tennant writes that everyone who visited "had fallen under the spell of Glen." [26]  She asks, "was I doomed to live ever after in my memories of the place…" [27] 

Emma's father, the second Baron Glenconner, married twice.  The first marriage which ended in divorce produced two sons, Colin and James.    In 1935, Lord Glenconner married again, to Emma's mother, Elizabeth Powell. 

During World War Two, when her parents were in the Middle East, infant Emma was left alone at Glen with Tibbie, her nanny.  To escape the London bombings, her father's ex-wife along with Colin and James, evacuated to Glen. [24]  In 1945, Emma was seven years old and at that time she removed with her parents to London. [44] 

After the Second World War, "old houses were crumbling under the burden of taxation….Glen was not a heritage number ripe for rescue" therefore it was "impossible to maintain." [38]  The author's parents were not social[48]; the house was so poorly heated that in the winter everyone suffered chilblains [39] and "the staff had one by one," except for a faithful old nanny, "been swallowed up by the war." Indeed when Princess Margaret visited in 1954, the dinner party in her honor lacked a butler and other staff that might have been expected to grace such an occasion. [67]

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By, 1963, the date when her father handed over the deeds of Glen to Colin, his eldest son [113] by his first marriage, "the place was also a disaster" because in the mid 20th century, "Victorian piles were mocked or excoriated." [26]

Immediately he had inherited in 1963, Colin, who became the third Baron Glenconner in 1984, sold off the family art, heirlooms.[26][113] "On taking possession of the place he announced proudly that u2018the cows have been driven away in a van.'" [18]

In the summer of 1965, Colin abruptly told his half sister Emma, who had just arrived for the summer holidays, to depart Glen.  Pondering her sudden dismissal from Glen, Tennant wondered: "Why did no one tell me that Glen had changed hands? How was I allowed…to continue in the certainty that all was as it had always been…. Did girls, under the laws of primogeniture, forfeit the right to learn the new set-up in the place they had considered theirs to visit when they pleased?" [131]  But this is a family “where no one is what they seem and no secret remains unshared." [152]

As she left her family home, Tennant did not know that she had been "branded as wrongdoer in some inconvertible way."  She had not figured out that her "identity" was "the true reason for the expulsion." [133]

The question of identity moves to center stage as Tennant learns more about her maternal grandfather's parentage. This is no easy task as both her mother and her aunt Anne are adept at keeping secrets. "Neither Anne nor my mother could have tolerated the existence of any record of their past or their family; and now, beginning to see there really was something to conceal, I thought of them less as u2018modern' women…and more as people with a desperate need for privacy and a desire, if possible, to bring about the total removal, except for their children, of such a thing as the family." [138]

"Glen is poison." Or so Emma Tennant's mother thought.   Emma Tennant writes that Glen is "the house where I once spent the happiest and the saddest days of my life." [9]   The book is an intimate view of "the inevitable tales of disinheritance and foiled expectations which make up the lure – and the curse – of Glen." [10]

In her search for "the possible reasons for the evil times that have fallen on the family," Tennant places the blame on Glen, which has, she writes "produced divisions…" [25]  And as a result of those divisions, Tennant was "cut off from the place I still thought of as home." [27] 

All of this is told in exquisite prose of which Tennant is a master. Describing the Glen visitor's book with its famous signatories dating back to the 1800s, Tennant says that whenever the "the great marbled volume" was brought out "into the open," then "the ghosts of those who have loved Glen throng the long Hall.  This is the hour the dead walk with the living, in this pocket of suspended and cancelled time." [75]

And this is a book in which the dead try to speak in answer to Emma Tennant's desire to know who she is. Those who read this book will know the author to be a memoirist without equal.

Elizabeth C. Gyllensvard [send her mail] is the product of barbaric Swedish ancestry sharpened by two decades in Washington DC. She has gone to earth in the foothills of Georgia.

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