Faber Finds republishing neo-gothic of Emma Tennant: advance sneak preview of preface Q&A

Posted by Glennis Byron on July 21, 2011 in Blog, Interviews tagged with , , , , ,

Faber Finds, a special imprint that brings neglected books back into print, is about to reissue two novels by Emma Tennant.

Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde (1989) is Tennant’s  brilliant re-imagining of Robert Louis Stevenson well-known tale. It concerns an impoverished single mother at the bitter end of her tether, who finds dark pharmaceutical means to revive her looks and career ambitions. This splitting of personality, however, leads to disintegration and murder.

Faustine (1992) is Tennant’s ingenious modern-day reworking of the Faust legend and describes a young woman’s dark discovery of just what befell her kindly long-lost grandmother.

Contemporary gothic with a feminist twist, the novels will be available to buy online as of Thursday, June 21st on the Faber website: http://www.faber.co.uk/work/two-women-of-london/9780571280148/ and http://www.faber.co.uk/work/faustine/9780571280124/

These re-issues will also include a preface, in the form of Q&A between Emma Tennant and Faber Finds editor, Richard T. Kelly (author of another recent contemporary gothic, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest). We’re very pleased to be able to give you an exclusive advance sneak preview of part of this interview below, courtesy of Faber:

On Two Women of London and Faustine:

An interview with Emma Tennant

By Richard T Kelly

The following discussion about these two novels and their themes and influences was conducted at Emma Tennant’s home in Holland Park  on April 15, 2011.

Q. The Bad Sister was the first of your re-imaginings of a classic text. What was it about Hogg’s Justified Sinner that you found so compelling? And was it a gratifying experience for you to reinvent a literary work you had admired in that way?

EMMA TENNANT: Yes, it was exciting to take a story and, with a tiny twist, show another possibility, another world. The world of Justified Sinner is just the most terrifying you’re ever likely to find. No English writer could touch it. It’s not just a case of ‘What a fantastically written book…’ Within its very nature, I think, is something more terrifying than anyone else – except for the Russians – have attempted to do. The Bad Sister got great praise but it then sort of vanished. Some people thought it was far too odd and violent, it frightened them. I had letters from people telling me they thought it was ‘extraordinary’ – so that one thought, ‘But…?’ It’s part-real, part-dream, different in that sense to Two Women of London and Faustine, which are fables. But all three of them are Scottish works – because the idea of ‘the double’ is so important in them.

Q. On that point, you dedicated Two Women of London to Karl Miller, renowned literary editor and author of, inter alia, the acclaimed Doubles: Studies in Literary History (1984). Was he an influence on you?

ET: Karl very kindly gave me huge encouragement from the beginning and had a tremendous input into everything I did, particularly to do with Scotland and ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’[1], which is the Scottish thing to be suffering from. I think Karl’s work and his obsession with the double completely set me off – because it was so much what you wanted to read about, and you felt that no-one had quite talked about before. The theme felt very Scottish, and Karl kept on saying to me that that was what I must remember I was…

Q. Did you agree with him?

ET: I did feel that, because I had been in Scotland so much. I grew up in this fake castle, ‘Glen’, which was frightening enough in itself, as far from England as you could get. And I had to come to terms with my peculiar family and my… peculiar everything, actually. The exterior of this castle looked so mad. And within it just felt like an amalgam of everything Angela Carter and such writers had ever invented in their imaginations – it was plain terrifying. My mother used to say that going up to bed in the castle was an act that took a lot of nerve, and probably quite a few drinks…

But during the war my parents were sent to Turkey [where Tennant’s father undertook Special Operations work] and it meant that I was alone there in this gigantic mad invention. All the editions of James Hogg, I should say, were in the castle library. And opposite my bedroom window, across a little valley, was a wood that I loved more than anywhere, which had inspired every kind of magical story. You could see why – it was the sort of place where you could imagine a man might turn into a three-legged stool… None of this existed in English literature. But as a writer it’s enough to keep you going for a lifetime because you’re seeing such peculiar but beautiful things. Where do you find that in the land of Jane Austen? England is wonderful and brilliant, of course, but it never becomes as terrifying or as real, in a way, as all the unreal things described in Scotland, which are so unlike what you find if you cross the border into England, just by one mile even, as far as Berwick. Scotland is just a completely different country and culture, and I don’t think people really think about how different Scotland is. It’s fearsome, actually.

Q. For Two Women of London you relocated Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde to Notting Hill Gate, but you replicated Stevenson’s intricate narrative structure. Was that a challenge?

ET: Yes, but necessary. It sounds like a simple idea – ‘There’s Jekyll, and there’s Hyde.’ Not at all, it’s the most complicated thing, and it demands that strange structure. I wrote a screenplay of Two Women of London for Paramount at a time when they had a London office that lasted about three weeks… But the script didn’t work at all, the novel is better. It had demanded that complexity, it was impossible to do it unless by smoke and mirrors.

Q. Of course, famously Stevenson’s story has no women characters to speak of, whereas your cast-list is entirely female. You have described yourself as ‘a feminist writer—amongst other things.’ In Two Women of London the put-open, maddened Mrs Hyde transforms into the fragrant Eliza Jekyll, but there comes a point when Ms Jekyll starts to welcome the change back to the aggressive Mrs Hyde – ‘the sensation of pure violence that poured through me was the most wonderful sensation I have ever had in my life.’ And this feels like a striking admission, because we’re familiar with men rhapsodising the idea of a beast within them, yet still it seems that woman are not quite ‘meant’ to have such feelings, much less exult in them.

ET: Absolutely. Of course every single woman has had those very violent feelings, just like every man. It’s just odd to think that where we are today, what’s going on – I’m amazed that so many women seem to have given up on any form of expression of those violent feelings. The anger has been siphoned out into consumerism – it’s a cliché, but that’s what happened. Women today who are told they must be like dolls – what can they be making of it? What do they think as they slide down the lap-dancing pole? ‘I am a very angry woman’…? Maybe this is just one’s generation. But to me the point of everything is to get those feelings out and make something of them, not to conceal their existence or to allow what will happen if you leave them bottled up. Perhaps some new form of fiction could deal with this.


[1] ‘…a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability…’ G. Gregory Smith, Scottish Literature: Character and Influence (1919)

You can read the rest of the interview in the preface to either of the Faber Finds new editions.

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