The Great Writer Who Never Wrote

From The Paris Review:

By the time of its reclusive occupant’s death in 1987, the faux-Elizabethan country manor Wilsford, in Wiltshire near Stonehenge, overflowed with a dusty mishmash of valuable antiques, ephemeral gewgaws, and exotic objets d’art. Outside, ivy shrouded the gables and moss thickened on the roof tiles. In the overgrown gardens stood a myriad of neglected statuary, marble urns, stone columns, and rococo fountains. To disperse it all, Sotheby’s hosted hundreds of potential bidders, over four days, at what they described as an “English eccentric’s dream house.” Said eccentric was Stephen Tennant, who was born at Wilsford in 1906 and died there, aged eighty-one. According to his devoted housekeeper and nurse, Sylvia Blandford, he’d have turned in his grave at the spectacle of his possessions being pawed over and auctioned off piece by piece. But he had left no will. Death was not, perhaps, a notion permitted within Tennant’s elaborate fantasy world, into which he had retreated ever deeper as the decades passed.

Like a fairy-tale character magically granted every conceivable blessing, only to discover those blessings carry a curse, the Honorary Stephen James Napier Tennant began life arrayed with sublime advantage. His father, Sir Edward Tennant, came from a family who owed their vast wealth to a Scottish ancestor’s invention and patenting of bleach powder in 1799. Edward’s blue-blooded wife, Pamela Wyndham, was a socialite who courted the leading artists and writers of the day. Pamela doted on Stephen, her youngest child of five, and encouraged him in his creative pursuits. As he was turning fifteen, she even arranged for his first art exhibition, at a respected London gallery. All the biggest national newspapers covered the event, offering fawning praise of the artist and his work. It must have been intoxicating indeed. And yet, as any former child star will attest, nothing warps one’s sense of self like youthful celebrity.

. . . .

It was in the late twenties, when Tennant was around twenty-one, that his life peaked. Among the so-called Bright Young People, whose decadence and penchant for fancy dress kept gossip columnists in brisk trade, he shone the brightest. “His appearance alone,” the Daily Express rhapsodized, “is enough to make you catch your breath.” He inspired Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh characters, was sculpted by Jacob Epstein, wrote style columns, and stole the show in the group photographs that helped launch Cecil Beaton’s century-defining career.

Soon after Beaton was introduced to Tennant in late 1926, he accepted an invitation to Tennant’s home, Wilsford, for the weekend. “My whole visit from beginning to end,” the twenty-three-year-old Beaton recorded in his diary, “was like being at the most perfect play. Here Stephen was saying glorious things the entire time—funny, trite, vital, importantly exact things.” Tennant’s influence was formative, believes Beaton’s biographer, Hugo Vickers. “While Stephen was far from short of ideas, he lacked the stamina to carry them out himself. Thus he was often the inspiration of an idea and Cecil its executor.”

. . . .

The same phobia of being seen thwarted Tennant’s literary ambitions. As a young man, he wrote at least one novel, which he chose not to publish. And he spent many decades on his projected magnum opus, a Marseilles-inspired novel to be titled “Lascar,” conceived in 1938 and never to be completed. He revised, rewrote, and reconfigured the story of, in his words, “crude desires, lusts, fidelities, and treacheries.” He began other novels, and engaged in such procrastinatory activities as illustrations and designing covers, only to return to it. In 1941 Cyril Connolly’s magazine, Horizon, published a “Lascar” cover featuring one of Tennant’s own paintings. In Connolly’s opinion, he was “an interesting and pathetic phenomenon, a great writer who can’t write.” E. M. Forster, meanwhile, read sections and urged Tennant to stick with it. Various other author friends offered kind words and advice, including Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, and Willa Cather, whose work he idolized. (He wasn’t very interested in male writers.) The American novelist, an unlikely but close friend, said she had high hopes for “Lascar.” In the eighth decade of Tennant’s life, and of the century, by which point he rarely ventured beyond the perimeter of Wilsford, he was still, supposedly, working on it.

. . . .

Callers were received as Tennant reclined on his unmade bed. He only got up in June, he’d explain, to see the roses. In truth, he sometimes went shopping: a lifelong occupation was buying furniture and curios for the house and gardens; the more recherché, the better. A 1966 letter from his brother Christopher, who looked after his finances, suggested mildly: “I think the first thing to find out about the seal pool is how much it would cost to maintain and look after the seals.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

The OP was written in connection with the Covid-restrained opening of an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery about photographer Cecil Beaton, who was a close friend of Tennant and principal recorder of Tennant’s life and release of an associated book, titled Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things. Following are a couple of photos from the book and a short video from the National Portrait Gallery:

4 thoughts on “The Great Writer Who Never Wrote”

  1. What is immediately obvious is how BOYISH all the BYTs look – a veritable display of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, in fancy dress.
    A truly sad group, whose lives would have been improved by some Tough Love at an early age. Instead, they were petted and indulged, left to become addicted to drugs and acclaim, and, if they reached the point when they could no longer be tolerated, sent off to distant possessions of the British Empire (Kenya was a common destination), to languish in dissipation until an early death.
    And, yet, they are held up as THE EXAMPLE of an artistic life, and something to aspire to.

    • TIL that “Bright Young Things” has a whole other meaning. In high school, a teacher would say to us, “Settle down, my Bright Young Things,” and I always thought BYT was a term of endearment she’d made up. She was warm and kind, so I still think she meant it that way.

      But the Peter Pan angle gives the term a tragic and reproachful dimension when applied to the subjects here. Bright, full of potential, but lacking the inner drive or the external pressure to live up to their potential.

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