Saturday, December 02, 2006

A reading of Emma Tennant's The Harp Lesson

Since roads were treacherous and I had vacation time to use up, I took yesterday off, spending most of the day reading. I started and finished one slim novel, Emma Tennant's The Harp Lesson, biographical fiction about Pamela Sims, aka "La Belle Pamela" (1773-1831), who happens to be the author's 3rd great-grandmother. The discussion following my "what's in a name" post inspired me to pick it up.

If you know Tennant mainly as the author of Jane Austen pastiches, you're in for a surprise and treat with this volume. Pamela was a young woman of mysterious origin. Raised as the daughter of an Dorset washerwoman until the age of six, she was fetched one day by messenger and brought to the estate of the Duc de Chartres (later the Duc d'Orléans), where she resided until the French Revolution. At the French court, she was believed to be the illegitimate daughter of the Duc - who took the name Philippe Égalité during the Revolution - and Madame de Genlis, the tutor of his children. It was Madame de Genlis, an admirer of Samuel Richardson's work, who changed the young girl's name from Anne or Nancy to Pamela. Tennant recounts her story in the form of a fictional memoir, related both by Pamela and her daughter, called Little Pam, in alternating chapters.

By all accounts, Pamela led an extraordinary life, both in France and in Ireland, as the wife of revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald. But Tennant takes a low-key approach, recounting the major events of Pamela's life using understated prose that's quite poetic at times. It works. The sections narrated by Pamela and her daughter overlap and flow into one another. While Pamela tells her story to Little Pam, the younger woman takes down her mother's words and, later, relays them to her own family - an oral history that was passed down to Tennant. While there are dramatic moments, there are no great revelations. The true parentage of La Belle Pamela remains even more of a mystery, for both of her potential mothers deny giving birth to her.

A lovely little book about the private life of an enigmatic 18th century woman who rose from obscurity to lead a very public existence. Its front and back covers display scenes from a painting by Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust. Pamela holds the sheet music for Adélaide, daughter of the Duc d'Orléans (possibly her half-sister?), who learns to play the harp while her tutor Madame de Genlis, a celebrated educator and harpist herself, looks on. Click on the link above for the image, as well as additional details about the lives of all three women.

Full citation: Tennant, Emma. The Harp Lesson. London: Maia, 2005. 159pp. ISBN 1-904559-16-6.


  1. Anonymous11:00 AM

    Sounds fascinating!

  2. Anonymous5:27 PM

    This sounds like a book I REALLY need to read. When you were talking about the name "Pamela" the other day, I was thinking of her. She married the Lord Edward Fitzgerald the Irish rebel, whose mother was one of the Lennox sisters in "Aristocrats," the Duchess of Leinster, who had 22 children. Louis-Philippe d'Orleans, later the "Citizen-King," insisted in his memoirs that Pamela was not not the love-child of his father and his governess, Madame de Genlis. However, Madame de Genlis was so partial to Pamela and favored her so, that most people assumed she was her own child, fathered by Orleans. And she very well may have been. Anyway, can't wait to read the book. Thanks for the review, Sarah!

  3. You're welcome! What's funny is that I'd never heard of Pamela before picking up the book, or at least didn't remember her, especially the connection to the French court. But I've been paging through Aristocrats (one of my favorite historical biographies) and Citizen Lord over the last two days.

    Just edited the original post to include a book cover JPG.

  4. Oooh - looks like something to add to my TBB list!!

  5. How odd! I'd never heard of Pamela either until last month when I picked up a book in a charity shop. It's La Belle Pamela and it's by her great-grand-daughter Lucy Ellis, co-written by Joseph Turquan. No idea of date of publication but it looks no later than 1920ish. Lots of illustrations and looks a real treat, and all for 50p!

  6. That sounds like a fascinating book, Nicola, thanks for mentioning it!