The Life of Stephen Tennant

By Philip Hoare

Hamish Hamilton. 463 pp. $29.95

AT THE AGE of 4, while walking in the gardens of Wilsford, the Tennant family mansion, Stephen Tennant experienced a moment of profound recognition: Catching sight of a pansy he exclaimed, "Oh! Something's looking," and crouched down to commune with the flower. Tennant was already seeing himself flatteringly reflected in nature. When asked by his father what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied unhesitatingly "A great beauty," and he might have added "like mother." What he did unquestionably grow up to be was an eccentric, homosexual aesthete in the distinguished tradition of William Beckford and Ronald Firbank.

Such a subject surely demands an exquisite prose style. Sadly, Philip Hoare's style is often breathless, novelettish and littered with solecisms. At one point he even remarks that an operation that Tennant underwent "appeared to be successful in restoring his breathing difficulties," and American readers will be surprised to learn of the "Florida desert" across which one must drive to reach Sarasota. Hoare's account of the heyday of the Bright Young People, the notorious band of English aesthetes who flourished in the 1920s, is particularly grueling. These appalling people would flock down to Wilsford to spend their weekends "screaming with joy" and dressing up in what they fondly imagined to be the style of the rococo French painter Nicolas Lancret. Instead of the wit and concision that this material demands, we are offered page after page of dull gossip, so that Stephen Tennant's chief distinctions seem to be his prodigious talent for shopping and his willingness to wear more makeup in public than any male before or since (stage performers excepted). But he was not, in fact, the trivial person he appears to be for much of this book. If he had been, it is unlikely that Siegfried Sassoon would have fallen in love with him.

Stephen Tennant is a character who could easily have stepped from the pages of Firbank's novels, particularly Valmouth and Vainglory, and the two men had much in common. In both cases extravagant behavior and styles of dress were designed to conceal and protect an essential shyness and innocence, but it was Tennant's fate to be a Firbank who was born just a little too late, a Firbank, furthermore, who never managed to complete a single novel. For the greater part of his adult life, Tennant labored on the production of Lascar: A Story of the Maritime Boulevards, the novel that was supposed to be the fulfillment of all his scattered talents. In it he seems to have attempted to apply Firbankian stylization to material more suited to Genet: Alluringly butch matelots out of Querelle are apt to lapse into perfervid discussions of flower arrangements and wallpaper designs. Cyril Connolly could find in it nothing more than "the soul and vocabulary of a lovelorn and raffish housemaid," but others, including Willa Cather and E.M. Forster, seem to have had faith in Tennant's talent, and valued his comments on their own work. Indeed, the number and quality of Stephen's literary friends are the most convincing testament to the seriousness of his thwarted devotion to literature.

IN 1939 the aristocratic, intellectual and predominantly homosexual milieu that had nurtured Stephen Tennant's orchidaceous personality and made it possible for him to flourish at parties and in the gossip columns came to an abrupt end. It is Tennant's tragedy and his peculiar glory that he did not change with the times. When the greater part of Wilsford was requisitioned to serve as a convalescent hospital, he would sometimes decide that the patients needed cheering up, and on one occasion announced brightly to a room full of wounded soldiers: "Now you're all going to have a treat today. If you watch carefully out of that window, you'll see a buddleia being transplanted from one end of the garden to the other." Even after the end of the war he did not fully re-enter society. Perhaps sensing that he would seem out of place and out of time, he preferred to stay at home, filling Wilsford with a surreal collection of bric-a-brac and spending more and more time in bed. According to Cecil Beaton he soon came to resemble "a porpoise," and, since his love of Americana induced him to wear loudly patterned shirts and bright pink shorts, his few public appearances were mesmerizingly bizarre. He still refused to admit that he had lost his youthful beauty, and once prevailed upon Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia to help him struggle out of his trousers so that she could admire his legs.

It would be wrong to think of the Tennant of Wilsford Manor merely as a grotesque old queen Miss Havershambling about amid the ruins of his childhood. He retained much of his vaunted charm, and all his intelligence, and by the late 1960s it was difficult to say whether he was a period relic or a man who had always been ahead of his time. His loathing of hypocrisy, moralism and conventionality now seemed thoroughly up-to-date, and the talented and the fashionable sought him out. In 1974 the lucubrations of Lord Longford's commission on pornography inspired him to pronounce: "No condemnation of physical joy can be admirable," and his own attitude to sex was completely guiltless: "Oh, what a sexy book! quite uplifting! ah yes, to aspire! that is our aim!" Much of his appeal in his later years must have derived from this total lack of shame.

Despite Hoare's shortcomings the last chapters of Serious Pleasures are genuinely funny and touching, but for a sympathetic portrait of Tennant in his prime the reader would be better advised to turn to Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate. The wildly effeminate and completely charming Cedric Hampton, who makes his first entrance in the book wearing gold-rimmed blue-glass goggles, could be no one but Stephen Tennant. In 1949 he proved too much for American reviewers to take. Mitford was indignant, and leapt to the defence of Cedric-Stephen: "America is taking exception to Cedric, the sweet pansy . . . It seems in America you can have pederasts in books so long as they are fearfully gloomy and end by committing suicide. A cheerful one who goes from strength to strength like Cedric horrifies them." Sad to say, times have not changed so very much.

John Ash is a poet and critic who is the author of "Disbelief" and other collections of poems.