‘And yet, could the age of the conquering bourgeoisie flourish, when large tracts of the bourgeoisie itself found themselves so little engaged in the generation of wealth, and drifting so rapidly and so far away from the puritan ethic, the values of work and effort, accumulation through abstention, duty and moral earnestness, which had given them their identity, pride and ferocious energy? ... The fear – nay, the shame – of a future of parasites haunted them.’ These sentences, from the Marxist historian E.J. Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire, 1875-1914, would make the perfect epitaph for Simon Blow’s history of his maternal grandmother’s family, the Tennants. Or for a Thatcherite tract on Britain’s decline from Victorian values. Or for a great novel like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. The rise and fall of a mercantile dynasty is a rich old subject, and can be approached from several angles. Which will Simon Blow’s be? ‘If I was more Tennant than anything else,’ he writes, ‘I began to wonder who the Tennants were. Should I be proud, worried or ashamed? What influence was this blood likely to have over my destiny?’ It sounds like another search for identity – ‘the curse of the age’, as E.S. Turner recently remarked à propos of Gloria Vanderbilt’s autobiography.
Well, at least this isn’t an autobiography – though perhaps it would be more amusing if it were. The first half traces the Tennants back to their origins as subsistence farmers in Ayrshire. At the turn of the 18th century, one of them was apprenticed to a weaver and developed an interest in bleaching – then an area of growth in the textile industry, since everyone was looking for a fast chemical process to replace the space and time-consuming laying-out of linen on meadows. Tennant teamed up with a trained chemist called Macintosh, who later immortalised his name by inventing a waterproofing method. Together they patented a bleaching powder and set up a factory at St Rollox near Glasgow. By 1830, it was the largest chemical factory in the world, creating a lot of wealth for Glasgow and a sky black with fumes.
The next Tennant, John, went on developing, expanding and diversifying the business, which already had a branch in the City of London. A multi-millionaire by the age of 25, John was a typical early Victorian entrepreneur, perhaps not even all that untypical in not being married to the mistress of his solid Glasgow mansion who was also the mother of his children. Her name was Robina. Robina’s son Charles was born in 1823 and succeeded his father as head of the firm. He bought an estate at Glen in Peebleshire, and built a baronial castle on it where he brought up 12 children by two successive wives to hunt, shoot and fish. He sent the boys to Eton and acquired a collection of paintings, a house in Grosvenor Square and, in 1885, a baronetcy – after which he was known as ‘the Bart’. By this time the business empire was already beginning to decline, partly because of a general recession, and partly because Ludwig Mond, the founder of ICI, was using more advanced chemical methods: in the end he was able to force Tennants into a partial merger.
Up till now, Blow has munched his way conscientiously through uncongenial material: the Scottish Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Radicalism, even insider dealing and the defeat of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar – none of these subjects really seems to turn him on, though some of the Tyrian purple has leaked into the prose and produced phrases like ‘Society gave a brittle laugh.’ But with the Bart’s children he is at last into Society, and things begin to brighten up. Society, according to Blow, was slumbering under a pall of stuffy philistinism, waiting for the unconventional Tennants to kiss it awake. The kiss was administered by the girls: Charlotte, who married Lord Ribblesdale; Lucy, who married Thomas Graham-Smith; Laura, who married Alfred Lyttelton; and Margot, who considerably later married Asquith and had the highest profile of them all. The male Tennants of that generation were not conspicuous for profiles. Laura and Margot’s unconventionality consisted in managing without chaperones and turning their bedroom at Glen into a snuggery where they discussed books and ideas with men. This, says Blow, was ‘to crystallise that group of leisured but sensitive country-house people who came to be dubbed “the Souls”. Lately the group has had a revival of interest shown in it.’ Blow does nothing to keep the interest going. The character he homes in on is his own great-grandmother Pamela Wyndham. As described by him, she is such an outsize monster that she brings the book to life and runs away with what there is of it. She was a great aristocratic beauty; her vanity and self-absorption were monumental; and she smothered her sons with the kind of love that has to be instantly and demonstratively returned with knobs on. When her eldest son was killed in the First World War, she turned to Spiritualism. She was horrid to her daughter (Blow’s grandmother), who consequently failed to develop a heart and turned into another kind of monster, a bolter. (She was, in fact, one of the models for Nancy Mitford’s famous Bolter in The Pursuit of Love.) She abandoned her children and had an insatiable ‘need to be noticed’. Blow rather imprudently describes this failing as ‘a feature among Pamela’s descendants’.
The feature didn’t come out in her eldest surviving son, Christopher, the second Lord Glenconner: so Blow doesn’t devote much space to him, though he regrets that in 1963 he sold the family firm to Consolidated Goldfields. He has more to say about the two younger brothers, David and Stephen. David led a rackety life with three wives and a lot of drink. Blow gives him no credit for founding the Gargoyle Club. But he descrves some: in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, the Gargoyle, though a nightclub and not a café, was a London version of the artists’ and intellectuals’ hang-outs in Paris, Vienna and Berlin.
Stephen Tennant became an enfant terrible, the love of Siegfried Sassoon, and a fairly famous aesthete. He died this year. In 1894, a decade or so before David and Stephen were born, Kipling wrote a poem which might have been about them – ‘The “Mary Gloster” ’. He rolled them into one and made them the child of a Glasgow shipowner, though it could just as well have been an industrialist. The self-made old man, ‘Sir Andrew Gloster, dying, baronite’, addresses his son:
I know the kind you are.
Harrer an’ Trinity College! I ought to ha’ sent
you to sea –
But I stood you an education, an’ what have you
done for me?
The things I knew was proper you wouldn’t
thank me to give,
And the things I knew was rotten you said was
the way to live.
For you muddled with books and pictures, an’
china an’ etchin’s an’ fans,
And your rooms at college was beastly – more
like a whore’s than a man’s.
It’s lucky Sir Andrew didn’t see the sale, in October, of Stephen Tennant’s house and collection of camp bibelots. And it’s a shame Blow didn’t decide to end his book with Stephen’s death. He clearly has it in for the present Lord Glenconner. The pages devoted to him are unpleasant (without being in the least bit interesting). Of course one wonders a bit what happened to make Blow so disgruntled: but even more how Faber and Faber could decide to publish a book written in media-speak clichés, punctuated by mistakes of grammar and syntax, and even with its whiff of rancour so very dull.