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  • Edition: 00
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2003-06-17
  • Publisher: NEW DIRECT

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A delightful and elegant literary memoir about the Scottish novelist's eccentric family. Selected as a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year and shortlisted for the prestigious Scottish Saltire Literary Award, Strangers is a literary memoir by Emma Tennant, the Scottish novelist whose eccentric family is described here in a pristine and elegant style. The story begins in 1912, as the world is about to break into war. Emma's grandmother, the dreamy and beautiful Pamela, maintains an ongoing feud with Emma's great-aunt Margot (wife of Britain's Prime Minister). Pamela's son Bim dies on the Somme, and his sacrifice is accepted "as if death lies in the faint outline of garden where it merges with rushes and reedbeds." Gradually, we encounter Emma herself, a lonely child left at the enormous family estate, Glen, during World War II, witnessing the mysterious comings and goings of her extended family including her aunt, the wayward, thrice-married Clare. Deeply evocative and atmospheric, and written with stunning detail, Strangers is, as The Guardian explains: "a historical chronicle but also a reverie on where you put your family inside yourself."

Author Biography

Emma Tennant was born in London and spent her childhood in Scotland. Her novels include The Bad Sister, Faustine, and Pemberley. She has three grown-up children and lives in West London.

Table of Contents

Pamela's Jewels
Pamelap. 3
Margotp. 21
Hester and Clarep. 43
Stephenp. 63
A Twisted Branch
Glenp. 83
Visitorsp. 101
Secretsp. 117
The Daughter of an Emperorp. 135
A Visit to My Unclep. 151
A Funeralp. 173
Postscriptp. 179
Family Treep. 183
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


... In psychoanalysis [this] is known as the pubertal child's `family romance'. These are fantasies or daydreams which the normal youngster partly recognises as such, but nonetheless also partly believes. They centre on the idea that one's parents are not really one's parents ... and one has been reduced to living with these people, who claim to be one's parents. These daydreams take various forms: often only one parent is thought to be a false one ...

Bruno Bettelheim,

The Uses of Enchantment

Chapter One


Here they are, in the inevitable photograph. Uncle Jack lies back on the tartan rug with a lordly air, as if the squares of brown, mauve and dim green wool beneath him were emblems of the division of money, land and estates he will one day inherit -- for all that he is only the third son. Uncle Frank has had a glass of port too many, to chase down the rough delicacies of a shooting picnic: his eye is trained on the steep road that leads away from the shepherd's cottage and the nibbled grass where they are sitting. The thought of the afternoon drive bores him; he wants to go home. Cousin John, the busy one who has come from Glasgow to shoot grouse in the presence of a Prime Minister, cranes forward, as far as possible from the younger sons and, like a row of trees, the legs of the keepers standing behind them in hairy stockings. Cousin John is making his own pile, in the works that no-one now mentions. His cross, pudgy face shows his annoyance at being excluded from the front row of this momentous photograph.

    It's August 1912, the twelfth of August, known as the `Glorious Twelfth'; and the front row of this group is glorious indeed. Eddy -- Lord Glenconner -- is taller and more handsome than his brothers: his hair is crinkly like theirs, but, unlike theirs, it is blond and the curls look intentional. His wife Pamela, the famous beauty, sits dreamily at his side. She is, as always, in white: today the simple white lawn dress has a cape of cream-coloured wool over it, to keep her from the piercing cold of a Scottish summer. Her expression is one of self-immolation, of consciousness of the wifely duty she is performing by being there at all. For on the far side of Eddy sits his sister, Margot, and relations are strained between the sisters-in-law. Margot has a beak nose and a fiery wit. She makes it plain whenever she can that she pities her brother for being married to Pamela, who gives him so little of her love and has an unhealthy obsession with her children. If it weren't for the fact that Margot is married to the Prime Minister, who came on the night train from London with his red boxes and Uncle Jack, his Private Secretary, to attend the Glorious Twelfth on his brother-in-law's moor, Pamela would have found an excuse to stay at home. Stephen, her youngest, can be counted on to come up with a fever or a bad cough that needs the attentions of his mother, on these occasions. But today, even though Stephen displayed all the required symptoms at the sight of men in plus-fours and of wagons with dogs and guns, Pamela has left him and gone to join the photograph. Her head is slightly inclined in the direction of the Prime Minister, who sits on the far side of Margot, his other neighbour a tall pile of dead birds.

    Bim is with the children, right in the front of the picture; and it's clear the photographer has had difficulty with them, because the land slopes away at this point from the party on the rug, and the children all appear to have large feet -- something Pamela's daughter Clarissa -- Clare -- will be angry about right up to the day she dies. The children, although told by their father to keep absolutely still, are slightly out of focus, as if they were growing so fast the camera was unable to capture them: Bim, the eldest of the boys, his mother's pride and joy and at fifteen too grown up to sit with the children; Christopher (Kit), serious and dark, already sent away to sea and home on leave; Clare, the image of her mother and precociously wilful and sulky, just sixteen; and young David, who bears no resemblance to anyone. Pamela's jewels, her treasures: as the photographer presses down the shutter they turn, just a fraction, towards her; and perhaps it is this movement that throws a shadow across their young faces, blurs jawline and hair -- a shadow that seems to show an ambivalence to the mother, who holds them close to her even as she smiles across her husband and Margot at her eminent guest.

    The sun comes out just as the big box camera and tripod are being packed away. The sitters rise, stiff, from the bumpy ground, and a swarm of small bees chases Uncle Frank into the shepherd's cottage, where he pours himself a brandy from the decanter. The head keeper comes forward, with an allotment of butts for the men to stand in and search the skies for game. Margot's strident laugh rings out and is caught in the valley, where nothing meets the eye but straggling woods and an expanse of heather, home of the birds that will be sacrificed on this all-important day.

    A young woman comes out of the back room of the shepherd's croft to pick up and fold the rug and pack away the picnic things still left on the grass. A smell of sheep's pellets fills the air as she shakes the rug free; and then the smell of wood burning, as Kit and David light a bonfire and throw on sticks and bracken. Pamela calls to them to be careful. Then, in a different, gracious voice, she thanks the photographer for his services -- and in another voice again asks the Prime Minister if she can accompany him to the place in the heather where he will stand half-concealed as the birds come over. The young woman, who is a maid at the Big House, asks Her Ladyship if she wishes to take the rug with her, on the moor.

    Pamela's voice this time is light and teasing. `Bim will carry it for me -- won't you, my darling?'

    For all the clarity of her gaze, in the photograph that is now as brown and faded as the walls of the unused bathroom where it hangs -- at the top of the house, where no-one ever goes -- Pamela is blind to the look that passes between the maid and her eldest son. She accepts his sweet acceptance of his role as carrier of the rug with no more than the faintest of smiles; a smile that seems to freeze the young woman, who kneels, packing a wicker basket with china plates, each stamped with its gold laurel wreath and family crest.

    `Tell Stephen I'll be back in time for tea, won't you, Louisa?' are the parting words of Pamela to the young woman, as she goes off arm-in-arm with her son, to join Mr Asquith on the moor.

The house lies in a pool of stillness, of expectancy. Soon it will be evening, and time for dinner: shadows lengthen on the grass outside and will linger, blue, until late; roses and lilies give off scent from the garden, and heather from the hills, with a whiff of honeysuckle from the brae that runs up to Maggie Cunningham's post office. The yellow tiles of the courtyard, freshly washed down, gleam ready for the tyres of Eddy's new Lanchester. The trees in the many-tiered garden, mostly beech and silver birch, wave leaves that are as crisp and clean as newly printed money. Everything is perfect here -- even if Pamela doesn't think so, but prefers the South, where the downs are more calming to her soul.

    Louisa goes round the house, preparing it for evening. She has to do this and wait at table as well, for Maudie Renshaw and Janet Vaughan are both down with influenza in the village, and Her Ladyship won't have menservants, it's a well-known foible of hers. Until the women are better, Louisa must do their work, and hers as well. She breathes noisily as she goes up one staircase and down another, and comes out on the main landing, where Mrs Asquith has her room, and the Prime Minister his dressing-room opposite. Louisa goes in and draws the heavy yellow silk curtains, and turns on the lamps so that the room, like a stage set, is suddenly ready for night, for jingling an evening bag with a beaded fringe and sweeping out in a dress with a narrow waist and a full, striped skirt. Is it time to draw the bath? Janet does this, generally, and Louisa pauses, unsure, in the vast bathroom Sir Charles Tennant, His Lordship's father, installed, along with twenty others, in this house that was built as a monument to his fortune and success. Louisa goes and closes the mahogany and wicker lid to the lavatory, a throne with arms, set on a pedestal. Behind her, the sky in the bathroom window comes in still light as innocent day -- surely the water would be cold if she were to fill the bath now and add the salts that sit packed in a glass jar on the rosewood table? She decides to wait; and turns to see herself in the glass, which descends from the ceiling to meet a wide wash-basin, resplendent with lemon verbena soaps and hung with freshly ironed Irish linen hand-towels.

    Louisa practises a smile -- a smile such as Pamela might wear, calm, unworldly, compassionate -- but sees instead a grin spread across a freckled face, on which a blush suddenly appears, as footsteps are heard outside in the passage. Heavens, it's later than she thought! The pale blue of the sky in the window has turned, treacherously, to an evening darkness; the house throbs with rising and falling feet, as family and guests go to their rooms to change for dinner. There's a smell of gardenias, brought in from the greenhouses by McNeil, the gardener, for the gentlemen's buttonholes; and from the back stairs, when the door into the passage is opened by Mrs Wilson, the housekeeper, in search of the mooning Louisa, a mingling of gravy smells and singeing feathers, as today's game is plucked, trussed and drawn.

    To escape Mrs Wilson, Louisa goes into the bedroom as the housekeeper knocks and then opens the bathroom door -- and from the bedroom she slips into the passage and off towards the nursery, where no-one will think of looking for her. For a reason she knows well, but refuses to admit to herself, she is restless and rebellious tonight: she has already turned down the thick, crisp sheets on Pamela's bed and laid out the tortoiseshell hair-brushes on the china tray on the dressing-table, where Pamela, in white voile, sits and looks into the perfection of her face. Louisa has been up and down the back stairs, where the bachelors' quarters lead off gloomy landings; she has seen to the needs of Mr Frank and Mr Jack, the diminutive brothers of His Lordship and uncles of her Bim. She has drawn the curtains in Mrs Asquith's room -- very well then, the Prime Minister's wife will have to fill her own bath. Now, before she must don frilly apron and cap and wait at table as well, she will go to see Nanny Trusler as she tucks Stephen into bed.

The nursery, a three-windowed room that looks out on the garden at the point where it rises to the road that goes along the hills, still holds on to daytime: the curtains, stiff with William Morris's birds and berries and willow branches, are still drawn back; and in this light, which might have been invented just to lure children outdoors again, Kit and David, dawdling over their supper at the big, square table, look longingly out at fields where imagined rabbits run, to be chased and shot. Now their sister, Clare, the sole daughter in the family, comes in from her cold blue bedroom with the narrow four-poster next to the nursery, and goes to the window-sill to lean out into the darkening garden. She dreams of lights and carriages and cars there, of young men waiting to take her to the dance -- when all that is there is a long breath of wind from the immense hills, their flagrant purple dimmed to brown by the dying light. She turns and snaps something at Louisa. Certainly it seems unfair, not to be allowed to come down to dinner, if you're spoilt and beautiful, like Clare. Bim will join the Prime Minister and the other guests at dinner: why not she? But Pamela, sensing the coming rebellion, has announced that her daughter's head cold has worsened after spending all day on the moors.

    Nanny Trusler makes use of Louisa as soon as she sees her -- Fill the water jug, dear -- Pass Stephen's nightshirt, it's on the fender -- Take Kit and David's plates to the sink -- Wash them up while you're at it, Louisa, will you? And, as Louisa goes to the door in the corner of the nursery, which opens into a turret-shaped room converted with sink and draining-board to a place where the children's meals are washed up, after being cooked and carried all the way from the kitchen, she hears the tone of Nanny Trusler's voice change. Bim, the loved, the favourite, has come into the room. With clumsy hands reddened by scrubbing and polishing and cleaning and scouring, Louisa drops the plates into the sink with a dreadful clatter. David, the naughtiest, the least obedient of Pamela's children, laughs at the sound. But the restlessness in Louisa is, for the time being, assuaged, quietened. Bim has come in; and, picking up young Stephen, he tosses the angelic-looking child high in the air.

    Nanny Trusler cries out in mock alarm. But she is contented, too: Bim brings with him a sense of evening, of anticipation. He switches on the lights, which glow on the walls in crystal tulips of glass and illuminate the plaster Madonna above the fireplace, in her blue robe. Nanny Trusler calls for Stephen to be set down -- and the child, with his long, golden ringlets already acting the part of the daughter Pamela really wanted when he was born, cries out in feigned terror.

    But Bim makes everyone gather round him. He soon has Kit and David and even Clare listening and whispering; and, when Nanny Trusler goes into the night-nursery, a `conspiracy' is forged, to meet after dinner up on the roof, where only Bim is allowed to go unattended. What fun it will be! Louisa dries the plates -- two are chipped from the fall, but none broken -- and comes out of the turret cleaning-room with a surge of sudden, new confidence. Although it can't be so, she feels that Bim has come here this evening especially to find her. She looks him straight in the eye; and he looks gravely back at her, at fifteen as tall as he will ever be, with a faint pencilling of a moustache and a face so handsome that John Singer Sargent has already drawn it again and again. Bim takes after Pamela and not his father. Bim is Pamela's son: it's as if she's barred anyone else from being involved in the process of creating someone so perfect.

    Bim smiles at Louisa. A gong sounds in the hall, the sound muffled by the heavy baize door that cuts off the nurseries from the rest of the house.

    `Dinner!' Bim says, and Clare asks him for the hundredth time to plead with their mother to allow her to come down.

    `But, sweetheart, you've eaten up here already,' says Nanny Trusler. And she sends Louisa down to the kitchen to see if there's any summer pudding left from yesterday for the children.

    Louisa, as she flees down the back stairs, stops for just one moment and looks up -- at the skylight, high above her, set in the roof, where, somewhere in all its dizzying levels, she will find Bim later, under the moon.

There are so many people seated in the dining-room that Louisa follows Bina, the head parlour-maid, with panicky steps. She has never waited at table, here, and it's quite different from Wilsford, the house in Wiltshire where Pamela's dream of simplicity permits just one maid handing at table, and very few courses of plain food. Here, the gold tree-candelabra, with the stags standing at the base as if caught in a forest of money, the rich carvings on ceiling and cornice, the cornucopias of fruit and flowers that crown the dining-room, and the high fireplace in green and red marble seem like a warning to those who would like to enter the family but have no right in it. Even the table, opened out with another leaf tonight to accommodate the Prime Minister and his wife, presents a code that is indecipherable to Louisa. Thin silver forks go from the fruit fork, frail at the outer edge of the place settings, to the medium fork for savouries and the like, and the sturdy fork for meat and game. Louisa has been told a hundred times how to arrange cutlery, and how to make a perfect globe from the linen napkins, crested like the knives and forks with a sailing-ship, a device conjured up by Eddy's father -- but she never can remember how it goes. Her thoughts wander and she sets the side plate to the right of the mat, with its starched, frilly cover. Or she lines up the turreted pepper pots and mustard boats, with their blue glass linings, like an array of miniature soldiers in front of each guest. She's only half there, when it comes to serving this family whose fortune, crest and motto have been acquired so very recently. It's as if her own fortunes, as daughter of the kennel-man down the Back Road, have got muddled up with them somehow; and she finds herself upsetting the order of the dining-room like a wicked fairy, to remind them of the thin line between their antecedents and hers.

    The line isn't thin at all, of course. For it's not only the money which pours in from Eddy's father's investments and mines and chemical works that distinguishes this family from her own; it's breeding, too. Pamela, who boasts French royal blood in her veins, was never in love with Eddy, some say, but at least he was rich, and she, in love with another, married him for that. Others say the match was made in Heaven: Eddy good-looking and good-humoured, and so much in love with the beautiful Pamela that he gives her anything she asks for. (And, for all her cultivation of simplicity, Pamela asks for a great deal.) Proof, anyway, of their success as a couple are the children, all so fascinating -- if a little spoilt -- and, most of all, Bim.

    Louisa finds Bim at the far side of the table and watches him through a haze of candlelight. Bim the poet, the valiant, pure Bim, who is so clearly cut out for an extraordinary life. He will serve his country -- no doubt about that -- and Louisa sees Pamela watch him too, as he replies to questions about his hopes for the future, from Mr Asquith the Prime Minister. Even Aunt Margot (Louisa thinks of Bim's relatives in this way -- to call them Aunt and Uncle and Papa in her thoughts is to draw closer to him) looks on with approval as Bim talks of poetry. Asked to quote from The Iliad , he does so with modesty and finesse.

    Uncle Frank, downing the white Pouilly Fuissé that is poured to accompany the stuffed crab, leans forward to catch Bim's quiet responses to further questioning about his hopes for a career. How about the Army? he says, his voice still tinged with the Glasgow accent of his youth; and Louisa, removing plates, feels her hand brush against Pamela's head, as her agitated reaction comes. Of course Pamela will not see her son going out to massacre people. Inevitably Bim is destined to be a Leader in the Movement towards Peace.

    Uncle Frank mumbles and wipes his moustache with his napkin. He looks imploringly at Louisa to refill his glass. And, despite Margot's disapproving glare, she does so. Uncle Jack sits as square and self-important as a despatch box at the far end of the table: his eyes dart constantly to the PM and he barks his comments on any subject, whether invited to do so or not. Eddy, joining in the conversation about Bim's future, leans down the table towards his son and his wife. They all smile together: how handsome, how perfect they are! Louisa fills Uncle Frank's glass in defiance of family disapproval. She knows Uncle Frank feels as permanently excluded from this powerful circle as she does. Anyway, it's quite fun when he has to be helped across the hall, as she has seen happen after dinner, and guided into the billiard room rather than embarrass his relations at their port.

    Tonight, however, there are to be other diversions. The grouse comes in on a silver platter (the game should be hung for several days, but this is the Twelfth, after all, and the Prime Minister is here and has vanquished several birds); and there are murmurs of approval at the garniture of feathers tied to the rump of each bird, the sculpted silver sauce-boats (these carried awkwardly by Louisa), which follow the progression of the game round the table. The dishes contain bread sauce, crumbs and gravy. Louisa knows which she should offer first -- but, as always, she forgets to offer the gravy at all. She sees Aunt Margot, who is in the midst of a scornful diatribe against women's suffrage, stare pointedly at her through the blaze of candlelight. And she knows she stands for what Margot hates most about the regime here, since the old Bart died and Eddy allowed his whim-struck wife to run the place. Women serving at table! Women -- who are anathema to Margot (as she places with dry, brittle fingers a cigarette in the long amber holder, to smoke just as soon as the grouse has gone round) -- women, who keep her poor husband awake at night, with their bombs and their smashed windows and their ludicrous fasts. Louisa's clumsy hands could belong only to a girl trained to feed shooting-dogs their oats; but here Margot stops her line of thought and digs the spoon deep into the bread sauce, which Louisa holds far too close to her, as if the wretch wanted to spill it all down her chest, encased in glittering jet beads. Margot decides to speak to Eddy about this monstrous affectation of maid-servants on the part of Pamela. There will be a disaster before dinner is over, that's plain to see.

    The door opens and Nanny Trusler looks in. There's something undeniably comic about seeing Nanny in this setting, and Uncle Frank, well gone on the Château Palmer, gives a snort of laughter. What on earth can she be doing here? Is there a crisis, or has Clare set fire to the place with her curling tongs? Uncle Frank voices his opinions on the matter; then, as Nanny Trusler comes right into the room, with a timid look in the direction of Pamela at the foot of the table, he falls silent with the rest. It's as if Nanny Trusler, whose starched apron and blue blouse stand for an earlier order of things -- a punishment meted out when deserved; a liquorice stick as a reward for good behaviour -- has come to put the assembled company to bed. They have stayed up too late, they are indulging themselves in their own ways -- ways Nanny Trusler knows only too well: Frank with his drinking; Jack bolting down his food, as if they hadn't been told often enough that only servants eat in silence; Eddy, Sir Edward now, of course, as round-shouldered as she always told him he would be. Even the Prime Minister, who had been in the midst of describing his yacht, The Enchantress , and its beauties to his brother-in-law, looks apprehensive at the sight of this figure of authority suddenly and unexpectedly amongst them. She is not demanding the vote -- no, certainly not -- but she is formidable for all that, she brings disruption with her, just as a calm, opulent evening away from the cares of office stretched ahead.

    Margot is the only one with the courage to ask this visitor what is wrong. For Pamela, cheeks pale and eyes burning very dark at the end of the table, lives in a climate of fears and premonitions. You can see her glance at Bim, now, to make sure he's safely there, not the subject of Nanny Trusler's alarm. Her misty `signals' -- she's said to have seen ghosts in her mother's house down in the South, and to foresee disaster (for she has Irish blood too, of course: aren't Margot and the rest of the family tired of hearing about it?) -- may have failed her tonight, or so her expression says, for she had seen nothing bad coming to them all. God, let it not be a fire, not another fire! The house burned to the ground six years ago and was built up again exactly as it was, for the old Bart would certainly not permit his life to be seen to end in a ruin. The thought causes Pamela to twist in her chair, away from Nanny Trusler, as if staring at the pointed, caustic faces of the portraits Eddy's father hung here -- faces that were no forebears of his, but whose lace and delicate accoutrements gave him the air of a gentle past -- could make the problem, whatever it might be, go away. There was a crudeness, still, about life with Eddy's family: these powdered ladies and their red-faced husbands, unrefined though they undoubtedly were, would have sent Nanny Trusler from the room, dealt with the matter both more efficiently and with less sense of self-importance.

    For Margot, exercising her right as elder sister of Eddy, has risen to her feet and walked round the table to put an arm -- a scraggy, authoritative arm -- on Nanny Trusler's shoulder. (She is ruining the evening, Pamela always knew she would.) But there's no stopping Margot now. She bends down and invites the old nurse to confide in her. Really, it's too mawkish, like something in a Barrie play -- or so thinks Uncle Frank, who chortles again at all the fuss. It's probably nothing more than Stephen with a temperature, calling for his mother, who spoils him and dresses him as a girl; Stephen, who insisted on sending for his mama. And here they all are, arrested just as the grouse, with those bright, splayed feet, are levered on to their plates.

    Nanny Trusler speaks in a low voice to Margot -- whose rudeness and precocity when a child are forgotten now she's so sophisticated, and married to the Leader of the country as well. She says Miss Clare has gone missing. Nanny Trusler found she wasn't in her room, and when she went down to the kitchen, McNeil the gardener came in and said he'd seen what he took to be Miss Clare walking fast down the Back Road, keeping away from the moonlight under the big trees.

    She was with a man, Nanny Trusler says McNeil the gardener had said.

Copyright © 1998 Emma Tennant. All rights reserved.

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