According to Rebecca West, F. Tennyson Jesse was ‘ideally beautiful. I have never seen a lovelier girl.’ A sketch in Joanna Colenbrander’s biography shows a flat, winsome face with wide, rather fishy eyes; her thin limbs are splayed out with flapperish elegance. It may be that her attractions – a fat bundle of love-letters was destroyed when she died, and Mrs Colenbrander finds several witnesses to testify to her ‘aura’ – had less to do with ideal beauty than with loquaciousness and flair. She published more than thirty books,and was praised for her ‘masculine insight into human motives’, but her most enduring fictional creations are women who passed themselves off as gorgeous.
She was born in 1888, the second daughter of an amiably evangelical clergyman (Tennyson’s nephew) and a mother who retired to her sofa at 25. He had asthma and she had migraine – and they very soon ceased to have sex. Home life was irregular and inequitable. Her elder sister was first dumped with and later adopted by prosperous maternal relations who pampered her. ‘Fryn’ (a self-made contraction of ‘Wynifried’ which seems to have been quite typical of her chatter) spent parts of her childhood with both parents in exotic and hopeless clerical postings abroad, and parts in what are described here as ‘dingy lodgings’, alone with her mother who didn’t much like her. In The Alabaster Cup she gives a vehement third-person account of her early years – full of religious anxiety and aesthetic epiphanies – and a poisonous picture of her mother. Edith Jesse, who quickly decided against her husband and his ‘interferences’, liked women and dallied with a succession of them. This is made to seem more innocent – less glandular and less malevolent – in Mrs Colenbrander’s account than in Tennyson Jesse’s. Both tell the story of how one fading female companion was banished because her skin was ‘like a crocodile’s’; the story of how Edith Jesse had earlier gone hand-in-hand with this woman to her husband and asked him to bless their special friendship does not appear in Mrs Colenbrander’s book.
Edith Jesse managed to turn even her sanctimoniousness into spite, and surviving such a hateful mother gives Tennyson Jesse a claim to wonderfulness which Joanna Colenbrander is eager to uphold. She was for many years Tennyson Jesse’s secretary: she has access to a lot of first-hand information, and records much of it as if she were taking dictation. When she comes to student days at the Newlyn School of Painting she is helped by an effervescent diary in which Tennyson Jesse detailed gypsy beanos, picnics at which girls imitated the noise of water coming out of bottles, and a weird episode when she and a friend dressed up in black and spent a night at a hotel pretending to be interesting widows. All her friends had nicknames – ‘Damit’, ‘Horse’, ‘Aunt’ – and favoured a mewing private language: ‘I began a big pastermiece – a dragon, and a lady in a birthday-suit – for which Dod is going to sit.’ They dressed up as butterflies and bacchantes, and squeaked about sex over cocoa and boiled eggs; Mrs Colenbrander tells us that when Harold and Laura Knight arrived: ‘Their brilliant painting stunned the whole colony.’
After Damit and Horse, there was Tottie Harwood and literary London. Edith Jesse didn’t want her daughter back at home after college, so she started to write to keep herself: paragraphs about mannequins for the Times, a short story for the English Review and a novel, The Milky Way, which the Daily Mail called ‘fresh and blithe’, and she thought ‘very bad’. She wore a hat ‘like a coal-heaver’s, with a pink quill’, was courted by publishers, and gossiped about: ‘I hear that William Heinemann has given you a black pug,’ spat Ivy Litvinov at a party. H. M. Harwood, a big, relaxed, bossy doctor-turned-playwright, wrote to her admiringly, and they began to gad together. They went to Madeira and played roulette, and to Paris where she wore ‘an opalescent dress with a zigzag hem’, and he called her a foolish virgin.
Then they went to Windermere, and she was changed. Joyrides were being offered over the lake in an old-fashioned aeroplane, a ‘pusher’ machine with the propellor behind the pilot. People went up one at a time, and Tennyson Jesse went first:
We took off. I peeped round and down and put out my right hand to wave – and it got struck. It didn’t really hurt. I pulled the hand back into my lap, and watched fascinated as a pool of blood reached to my knees. My pretty new pleated skirt had formed a basin for it.
Her hand was mangled and her self-esteem badly wounded: ‘I thought no one would ever be in love with me again.’ During the next year she had six operations: each time the hand failed to heal; each time a bit more of it was chopped off. Eventually she went to New York, where she had an introduction to a surgeon, and the treatment there included morphia injections. At this point Mrs Colenbrander becomes magisterial. Confronted with Tennyson Jesse’s taciturnity about her treatment, she deals with the matter as if it were the subject of a High Court action: ‘It has been affirmed that ... [she] became an addict, eventually a registered addict’; ‘It was known positively that Dr Armando Child treated her for the addiction ... He is said to have been a charming man.’ Mrs Colenbrander invites pardon rather than understanding: she is vague about the period of time for which the addiction lasted, and quotes only one acquaintance on what seems to have been a much-discussed subject. This is Rebecca West, who suggests that the problem was more than fleeting: ‘Her tragedy was that she was put on drugs almost at the start ... The wonder is that she achieved so much.’ Throughout this book there are hysterias and obsessions which bear out her words.
There is also much achievement and activity. Fitted with a new hand in New York, Tennyson Jesse sailed for the West Indies, with the alcoholic nurse who administered her injections; on the voyage she collected two proposals of marriage. She went to Havana, shark-fished, and made friends with a salesman who gave her his models of ladies underwear. The New York Evening Sun found her ‘gowned in a debutante frock, twirling a purple streamer hat in her artistically moulded fingers’, and talking about adventures. Back in London, she wangled an assignment from the Daily Mail to go to the Front. Mrs Colenbrander is duly admiring of her bravery, but seems no more amazed by her success as a war-reporter than she is by her shark-fishing.
She could be efficient as well as bold, organising a household in which her father could shelter from his wife, and in which her stammering sister Stella (an actress who never stuttered on stage) could play the ingénue. Mrs Colenbrander thinks that one of the most striking features of this life was the number of ‘distinguished’ people who took an interest in Tennyson Jesse. She lists some sirs, some publishers, and, at various points, Conrad, Maugham, Coward and Walpole, but she doesn’t tell us enough of what they said about her subject to persuade us that they are peculiarly valuable testaments to her incandescence. She does have a lot to say about the queue of eager aides and secretaries who acted as administrators, amanuenses and buffers. There was May, who fled from a grim family and remained with Tennyson Jesse for the rest of her life, suspecting men and sewing the household initials on bedspreads; Minnie, who had hair like a dandelion and ‘scattered melodious notes like a skylark’; there was Letty, who was dear and unselfish; Mrs Colenbrander, who was instantly captivated. And there was ‘Tiger’, an Irish empathist, who shortly after she joined the household felt the small form of her hostess creep into bed beside her, ‘the mothlike hands, that were yet so strong, clutching spasmodically’. This visit seems to have been prompted by anxiety, not desire, but, despite Mrs Colenbrander’s warmth, it is difficult not to see in Tennyson Jesse’s treatment of these women – encouraging one, ignoring another – some echo of her mother’s capriciousness.
In 1918, when she had known him six years, Fryniwyd Jesse married Tottie Harwood. The terms of the marriage were enough to turn anyone’s brain. It was to be kept secret, because for years Harwood – who ‘it was said that nobody had ever refused’ – had been having an affair with a married woman. Her husband was ‘distinguished’, her son was Tottie’s, and Harwood’s reasoning seems to have been that by concealing his marriage he could maintain a hold on his child. His stance was one of sonorous integrity; his wife’s of submission. Mrs Colenbrander quotes an exchange which could have come from one of Harwood’s less good plays: ‘He had said to her: “I have responsibilities which you would be the last person to make me wish to evade,” and she had answered: “ I know.” ’ His family thought that he was a philanderer and she was an adventuress, a maimed person using her torn hand as a hook. As usual, Rebecca West was able to give the literary view: ‘It was cruel and pointless ... His mistress was protected from scandal by her position in life, and Fryn had enough to contend with already. There had been talk, which I knew to be groundless, about her friendship with dear Alfred Mond. When she and Tottie started going away together, naturally nobody knew what to make of it, and Fryn’s reputation must have suffered.’
Tennyson Jesse, who made rather a speciality of going to hotels in strange guises, seems at first to have got a thrill from living as if she were her husband’s lover. After three years the charm had worn off. In an account occluded by a gabbled time sequence, and delivered in tones of great mystery and complication, Mrs Colenbrander pinpoints a crisis on their wedding anniversary. They met on Harwood’s yacht: there had been some discussion of his plans (public school and money) for his son’s future, and he had given her a pair of jade ear-rings. Then he told her to run along, because he was expecting ‘guests’. She knew who he meant: she ran along, and fell ill. She may have had a miscarriage; she was treated, with a flurry of eyeshades and injections, for migraine; she certainly suffered some sort of nervous collapse. The immediate effect was that Harwood took his marriage out of the closet and his wife on holiday. The long-term consequence was more bitter. Year after year for the rest of her life she lashed him and herself with the certainty that he had once let her down and the possibility that he didn’t now love her best. From hospital beds and holidays, from her own bedside, she wrote him letters: the occasion of these is often obscure, but their theme is always of injury and their tone invariably see-saws between lament and elegy. In 1931: ‘it remains that it was I who have been sacrificed ... Oh my heart, I’m so excited at the thought of seeing you.’ Three years later: ‘Dearest – It isn’t that I don’t love you, but I felt your hatred of me was setting me back.’ Twenty years after this she was still compiling lists of the things he had ‘spoilt’ for her, and telling him: ‘I love you so terribly it hurts me to look at you.’
It’s difficult to know from these letters what was actually going on. Harwood’s responses are in turn affectionate, bewildered and exasperated: ‘What has not been cleared up?’, and Mrs Colenbrander does not go outside their exchanges to establish a chain of events and delinquencies. Harwood was probably arrogant and definitely a male-chauvinist pig – in response to a complaint that his wife couldn’t cook, he explained that he wanted her ‘as a pet’ – and in attempting to smother all news of his marriage he didn’t display much sign of the big brain with which Mrs Colenbrander credits him. Tennyson Jesse’s pain and resentment were increased by several miscarriages and by well-wishers who were eager to supply her with details of the other menage and its offspring. But at some point her grievance lost touch with its source and became obsessional: fuelled by drugs or drink, she would periodically turn to anyone who would listen and transfix them with a tale of muddled misery.
For much of the time things were quite jolly. Harwood had leased the Ambassadors Theatre, and there produced a number of his lightly-turned plays – among them, The Pelican, written with his wife, which treats the case of a disinherited son. The couple had comfortable houses from which they found it easy to exit. In 1922, while they cruised down the Thames in their yacht, May and Stella Jesse were knee-deep in Harwood weeds, clearing a stream which ran through the grounds of their new house, a 15th-century mill near Chichester. The householders returned in time to admire a new wing and give a well-publicised feast for the construction workers. Several house-parties later, they were off to India and Burma. Here Tennyson Jesse got the idea for The Lacquer Lady, a lusciously written novel about palace life in Mandalay, and found the Marquis of Reading and his wife completely ‘unspoilt ... Alice arranged the flowers in my room herself.’ In Cairo she put henna on her hair, and ‘floated up the Nile looking like a giant tangerine’. Back at the mill, she and her sister lolled in the bath, talking about their mother and their ‘wombys’ – and Tennyson Jesse started to write about murder.
She produced crisp introductions to Notable British Trials, and a study, Murder and its Motives, which oddly features ‘elimination’ as one motive. Her best-known novel, A Pin to See the Peepshow, was based on the Thompson and Bywaters case, in which Edith Thompson was hanged with her lover for the murder of her husband. The book was published in 1934; it is an expansive, romantic novel, full of dresses and decor, which tells its story – that of a young woman bewitched by the possibility of glamour and intent on the joys of sexual activity – with ease and dash. There are some sentimental snobberies: it is hard to believe that the trim and capable heroine sprang from a family so uniformly weedy and ill-favoured, and difficult not to feel that the author to some degree supports the view that there is nothing so terrible as suburbia – there is a sprinkling of Jesse attributes on Julia Almond, who is short-sighted and devoted to her dog as well as her appearance. The novel’s chief pleasures are provided by furnishings as much as by psychological sharpness: it speaks clearly of a time when the Goldhawk Road was lined with elm trees and cows, when young women draped their rooms in pagoda-figured wallpaper, and when boutiques were stuffed with debs in hats yelling darling. A strong condemned-cell scene led some to suppose that the book was designed to deliver a plea against capital punishment: it hardly seems to favour it, but although Tennyson Jesse, along with others, was disturbed by the sentence in the Thompson-Bywaters case, she elsewhere proclaimed it more humane as well as more thrifty to ‘kill more people’.
While Tennyson Jesse was writing about murder she was making regular attempts to kill herself. In 1926, yachting around St Tropez, the Harwoods had seen another house they liked, and in which they lived with extravagance and strain. Tennyson Jesse wrote a chirpy memoir of their life there, which turns on a minute and anthropomorphic examination of their cats and dogs – with a brief excursion into the habits of the fancily-named goldfish which cavorted in the fountain. In it, she quotes, apparently condoningly, from an essay written by a visitor who, though seemingly bent on celebrating a deliciously tangled existence, conveys an atmosphere of self-consciousness and wilful intimidation: there are animals and guests and baby-talk everywhere; Harwood runs round naked but for his corduroy shorts, while his wife, terrifically got up, makes grand entrances in cartwheel hats and ‘very ordinary, frightfully old’ frocks. Mrs Colenbrander also draws on this guestschrift, though she misses out from the middle of her quote a point which makes Tennyson Jesse look both wee and wierd: ‘She is always on the lookout for daddy-long-legs, they frighten her – though to be entwined from head to foot by a cobra is her heart’s delight.’
All this enshrining of her daily life in print suggests some precariousness, and Mrs Colenbrander reluctantly makes it plain that Tennyson Jesse wasn’t always a joy to be with. In long spells of wretchedness she attacked her friends and worried at her husband, demanded sudden trips for what she called ‘migraine injections’, and chirruped strangely about having found the secret of eternal youth. Again and again she took overdoses, leaving hellishly accusatory notes for Harwood: ‘You did this to me, by your lack of self-control.’ How much of this can be laid at the feet of Harwood – who seems a good instance of the fact that loyal conduct isn’t enough – how much was morphia, how much was madness, Mrs Colenbrander leaves open.
There was dippiness as well as damnation in their lives. At one moment Harwood was devoting himself to domestic economies – and discovering that they had 80 pairs of necessary sheets; at the next, he was bathing in Hollywood with Garbo (topless). In the Second World War he set himself to the study of vitamin supplements, while Tennyson Jesse wrote excitingly about the crew of a burning oil-tanker. Together they published a volume of letters addressed to American friends, in which, with a larding of ‘my pets’, they deliver wartime news. It’s surprising that Mrs Colenbrander doesn’t make more use of these letters, for they have a lot to say about the Harwoods. He boomed about destruction: ‘There were a few righteous men in Sodom, but the Lord ... didn’t allow that to influence him.’ Tennyson Jesse was alternately brisk and gossipy, chatting about stray cats, about Old Bailey murder trials, about Noel Streatfeild being accosted by a French tart in Bond Street. She declared herself left-wing, but this seems to have been mostly a way of announcing a caring spirit: few of the ‘little ordinary people’ she commends for behaving so well in the Blitz would have warmed to her description of East End evacuees as ‘savage, verminous and wholly illiterate’, or have wept for her as she bewailed the exit of domestic help from London.