EMMA Tennant’s new novel – a slender, sly and ingenious tale of the supernatural – is the literary equivalent of Dr Who’s Tardis – that disarmingly innocuous 1960s’ police box whose interior is so vast that its limits are unknown even to the doctor himself.
Weighing in at 139 well-spaced pages, The Beautiful Child looks harmless enough, but is a terrifying mise en abyme containing so many floors, walls and different dimensions that I wondered, once I had opened the book, how I could ever find my way back out.
It begins, as ghost stories tend to, with a Christmas house party “sitting around the fire” telling ghost stories.
The talk turns to Henry James, whose former home, Lamb House, is up the road, and whose chilling tale, The Turn of the Screw, also begins with a Christmas house party sitting “round the fire” telling ghost stories.
“Good God,” exclaims one of the guests, “are we going to be treated to a watered-down version of The Turn of the Screw?” The answer is no: Tennant does versions, but not watered down. She serves her shots neat, and prefers doubles.
Tennant can be a terrific tease. In her novel Two Women of London: the Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde, she gave a feminist twist to Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale.
In The French Dancer’s Bastard, she revealed what happened to Adele. Elinor and Marianne is her sequel to Sense and Sensibility, and Pemberley is Tennant’s take on Pride and Prejudice II. Though she has also written memoirs such as Burnt Diaries, which reveals her affair with Ted Hughes, and Girlitude, where she describes coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s, Tennant’s originality lies in her literary look-alikes.
It is tempting to think her interest in copying the classics began when, as a child, she holidayed at The Glen, the Scottish mansion built by her grandfather – whose fortune came from pharmaceuticals – to resemble a bastion of the Middle Ages.
The Beautiful Child is set in another “ersatz” castle, a wified faux medieval chateau referred to as Digital Towers and compared to the Big Brother house.
The mahogany tables are polished to the point where you can see your face, but reflections are everywhere in these pages.
In The Turn of the Screw, a character called Douglas offers to thrill his audience with a tale “beyond everything … for general uncanny ugliness, horror and pain” – here Tennant gives us another Douglas, who suggests “a tale of perversion and corruption which cannot be paralleled anywhere”. Both Douglases send to town for their stories to be delivered.
Both stories arrive in the form of faded manuscripts which are then read aloud to the assembled party.
Each story involves an enigmatic master, untrustworthy servants, angelic children and a potentially hysterical narrator, but Tennant gives to James’s tale of “ugliness, horror and pain” another turn of the screw.
The Beautiful Child plays with the characters and form of James’s novella, but the book’s title comes from another story, now lost, also called The Beautiful Child, which was begun and discarded by him in 1902. Why could James not finish it? And what was the mysterious story about, anyway?
There is nothing, James knew, more unsettling than the act of writing itself – “if only I could let myself go” is the refrain throughout his notebooks. Most of his ghost stories involve haunted writers and, in Tennant’s hands, James’s final secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, who is known to be a dedicated spiritualist, continues to take dictation from the Master for many years after his death.
From beyond the grave, he leads her to the secret room in Lamb House where the manuscript of The Beautiful Child is hidden.
Tennant, who is a writer’s writer, plays throughout with the various technologies of authorship: James’s up-tothe-minute Remington typewriter, text messages and computer disks. Even the Ouija board by which Bosanquet contacts James is a form of writing.
As in The Turn of the Screw, Tennant’s use of narrative frames allows for an increasing sense of claustrophobia. Every frame contains another frame, but frames also form part of the landscape: “the windows that once looked out on marshlands and gentle snowfall were now adorned with outer frames, of freezing snow and ice, giving one the impression of being trapped inside a sickening set of Christmas cards”. Also narrating the story is an academic sleuth and, at the heart of the book, in a “transcription” of James’s The Beautiful Child, now recovered from the secret room in Lamb House, Tennant ventriloquises the voice of the Master.
The tale, as Tennant imagines it, is about a childless couple who admire a portrait of a beautiful boy in a sailor suit. They approach the artist with a commission: to paint a portrait in a similar style of the child they have longed to have.
But it’s not that simple.
If this all sounds confusing, it does because it is. James described The Turn of the Screw as “an excursion into chaos … a trap to catch those not easily caught”, and The Beautiful Child is indeed like “being trapped inside Christmas cards”.
As with James, Tennant’s mocking eye is on the critics who will try to outsmart her.
A guest at the Media Mansion has written a paper on Charlotte Brontë and spiritualism entitled “Jane! Jane! Jane!”, Professor Jan Sunderland – John Sutherland, surely? – denounces Cynthia Ozick for a fictional essay titled “Henry James and the Unborn Child”, in which she suggests that “the choosing of an ideal offspring for the childless couple in the story brought James ‘too close to the birth canal'”.
To get the full impact, the novel needs to be read carefully, and read again. It helps if you have a copy of The Turn of the Screw, as well as Leon Edel’s Life of Henry James, because Tennant weaves together the servants at Bly, Peter Quint and Miss Jessell, with James’s housekeeper and butler, Mr and Mrs Smith, whom he dismissed in 1902. – The Daily Telegraph