I was wary of Margaret Kennedy’s first novel for a long time, seeing that it had mixed reviews – both on its original publication and on its later reissues – and wondering that if I had read it first it might have changed my feelings about progressing through her work, if maybe I might not have come to love that work as much as do.
Now that I’ve read the book, I’m sure that it wouldn’t have changed things too much. I would have liked it more than enough to pick up her second book – her huge success and the book I did read first – ‘The Constant Nymph’. And after that I still would have been more that interested enough to order ‘The Fool of the Family’ – the sequel that I enjoyed even more – from the library; then I would have still ordered and fallen in love with ‘Lucy Carmichael’ because I’ve always has a weakness for book titles that include both forename and surname; then I still would have ordered in ‘The Feast’, because it was set in Cornwall, and been so very impressed ….
But I’m glad that I read ‘The Ladies of Lyndon’ after reading many of Margaret Kennedy’s later novels. I recognised her distinctive voice and style, and I realised that neither were quite fully formed, that she still had some growing to do. I saw wit and I saw a clarity of vision that could be almost brutal; qualities that are a little more understated in other books. And, most interestingly, I saw character types, themes and ideas that she would run through her work in the years that were ahead of her.
Lyndon was a wonderful house, and the country home of the Clewer family.
“Lyndon, architectural and complacent, gleamed whitely amid the sombre green of ilex and cedar. Its classical facade stretched in ample wings to east and west. The grounds, originally laid out by the famous ‘Capability Brown’, and improved upon by successive generations of landscape gardeners, were admirably in keeping with the dwelling house they guarded. They maintained a note of assured artificiality: they belonged to an age when gentlemen of property owned the earth and could do what they liked with it – an age which had nor read Wordsworth and which took for granted that nature could be improved on … “
When this story opens, early in the twentieth century the family was large and its relationships were rather complicated. Because a widow and a widower, each with children, had married and produced another child. He – Lord Clewer – had died not long after his second marriage, leaving his title to the elder of his two unmarried sons and leaving the dowager Lady Clewer as chatelaine of the family home.
Mrs Varden Cocks was delighted when Sir John Clewer made a proposal of marriage to her eighteen year-old daughter, Agatha. She believed that girls should marry young, before they had had time to form opinions of their own, she knew that Lyndon was the perfect setting for her lovely daughter, and she was relieved that marriage would put Agatha’s brief romance with her cousin, Gerald, who she believed she might still have feelings for, very firmly in the past.
Her only worry was John’s brother, James. She had been told that he was ugly, that his intelligence was limited, that his behaviour was unpredictable, but the family was managing. Lady Clewer had said that James could stay with her in London while Agatha and James were on their honeymoon, but his longer term future had still to be decided. Agatha was worried; but when she met him she realised that he was clumsy, he was unconventional, he was eccentric, but that when she put her ideas of what was ‘proper behaviour’ to the side there wasn’t too much wrong with James at all.
They became friends, and Agatha supported him when he declared that he was going to go to Paris to study art.
(At this point I thought of Margery Sharp’s Martha books. Martha and James lived in different ages, came from different classes, were of opposite sexes, so their stories were quite different but their talents and their approaches to life were remarkably similar.)
When James proposed marriage to the third housemaid Agatha supported him. The rest of the family was horrified, but she saw that Dolly wasn’t interested in James’ money or his social position. They had played together as children, when his aunt was employed at Lyndon, and Agatha could see that she loved him for what he was and that he loved her.
Agatha had a knack for friendship, and she was the one person who loved and was loved by every member of the family.
Sadly though her marriage was not a success. It was nobody’s fault, it was simply that they had been alone very little before they married, they hadn’t known each other very well at all.
And Eric Blair, Agatha’s old flame, was a regular guest at Lyndon’s house parties …
The plot is quite simple, but it is the characters who make this story sing. They are so very well drawn, and their dialogues and their actions are utterly believable. Margaret Kennedy manages a large cast, and makes use of their different perspectives quite beautifully.
(I was particularly taken with Agatha’s mother, who was a force of nature in the very best of ways.)
She did that better in later books – ‘The Feast’ and ‘The Midas Touch’ – are that titles that come to mind. But she does it well enough here to keep the story rolling along nicely, and the social satire is very well judged.
The changing world is caught too, but not quite so well, and there is a time shift that is handled rather awkwardly in the middle of the book.
This is not Margaret Kennedy’s most accomplished novel, but it is an accomplished first novel and it held my attention from the first page to the last.
The characters, the writing style and the narrative voice made it work.
Nicola Beauman’s introduction to the Virago edition of ‘The Ladies of Lyndon’ suggests that Margaret Kennedy had at first intended that James be at the centre of her story, but I think the position that he occupied – slightly off-centre, suited him much better. I loved him and his story, I loved Dolly even more, and I love that Margaret Kennedy put the ideas she explored here – about a family’s response to someone ‘different’, about how that affected their life, about how they might bend social convention – at the centre of her last novel forty years later.
Agatha was perfectly suited to the position at the centre if the story. I loved and, though her action bothered me at times, I always felt for her.
And the end of the story – a turning point in Agatha’s life – was so perfectly judged.
* * * * * * *
Margaret Kennedy Day is just two weeks away. All of the details are here, and all you need to do to take part is read a book and post about it on the day.
Do let me know what you’re reading and what you think about it ….
23 thoughts on “Margaret Kennedy Day is just two weeks away – and so I thought that it was time I met The Ladies of Lyndon”
My current stack is too piled up to add another book. (Plus I dont own one by Kennedy). But great to read the review. I can see that the writing focuses a lot on relationships. Very few writers can tackle that topic effortlessly without being repetitive.
Margaret Kennedy is excellent at character and detail. I can quite understand why now isn’t the time for you to try her work, but I hope that you will one day.
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I have skipped the review completely, but am sure it us your usual thoughtful and insightful review :)…..I will come back to compare notes when I have read The Ladies of Lyndon, which I have gotten a hold of for Margaret Kennedy Day….I am so very excited!
I loved seeing the things I loved in Margaret Kennedy’s book at an early stage in her development and I hope you will too. We’ll compare notes later!
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I’m enjoying Troy Chimneys, which I have almost finished, and thoughts on this will follow in due course. And I’m hoping to read The Constant Nymph – it’s been in and out of the VMC bookcase any number of times over the years, and I’ve intended to read it on lots of occasions (including Simon and Karen’s 1924 Club), but never actually got round to it! So fingers crossed this time…
It took me decades to read The Constant Nymph – I remember looking at a copy in the library when I was still at school but I didn’t read it until a few years ago. It feels a little dated now – and I can’t quite understand why it was such a huge success – but the writing is lovely. And I hear great things about Troy Chimneys, though I have yet to read that one.
I’m hoping I might be able to take part but I’m not sure at the moment, especially as the date comes at the end of a rather difficult block-booking I have at work (difficult in that I have to put in 9 or 10 hour days; luckily, it’s interesting and rewarding). This sounds like an interesting book and it’s lovely that you were able to pick out themes that are developed in her later books – always a good aspect of going back to the start.
I can understand why when you’re that busy with work reading has to go on the back burner. It would be lovely if you could be part of the day, but its lovely to see people reading Margaret Kennedy any day of the year.
I will be reading, but I’ll be on the fluffy novels and Indriðasons!
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Lovely review Jane. I’m not sure if I can join in this year (though I do have a book available if I can) – but I shall certainly read all the reviews and posts with interest!
I can understand that – I planned it and it caught me by surprise last week when I realised the event was just a few weeks away.
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Excited to participate. I read the Constant Nymph for this occasion and really enjoyed it. This is my second Kennedy book. The first was Lucy Carmichael that I read a year ago. I liked that too but thought this one superior in storytelling.
That’s wonderful. I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts and you might tempt me to go back for a re-read.
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Oh! I enjoyed The Ladies of yndon, so if it’s not one of her best I have a lot to look forward to! I’m going to (finally!) read Lucy Carmichael, thanks to you and your lovely gift. 🙂
Margaret Kennedy at not quite her best is better that a great many authors, and I’m really looking forward to finding out how you get on with Lucy.
Now that I’m finished with my big presentation for work I can join in some reading days and this one is perfect! I bought a few of her books the last time you had the event (and I didn’t read any of them because I was preparing for and then on my trip to England), but I can’t remember which ones…I’ll need to find them. But whatever one I read I will be participating and I look forward to reading my first Margaret Kennedy.
I’m glad that the timing has worked out for you, and you’ll be able to find a book and be be part of the celebrations this time around.
What a lovely review. I have just started reading Troy Chimneys and although it’s really too early to have an opinion, I think I’m going to enjoy it. 🙂
I have yet to read my copy of Troy Chimneys, but I’ve read a lot of praise and it does sound like it might be your kind of book. My fingers are crossed that it is!
You make her books sound so good! I wish they were more available where I live. But sadly, my library doesn’t have any of them. (And neither do the two used bookstores nearest me.) Guess I’ll have to look online.
I wish you happy hunting – her books are almost all in print and some of them should be on bookshop shelves but some of them are pod.
Jane, I don’t know how I missed this review before–lovely, and so well thought out. I am just sitting down to write up some thoughts on this book, as I realized I had read it some time ago and forgot to take any notes for the blog. I enjoyed many things about the book, but it was less so than others…thanks for reminding me of some of the really quite fascinating angles about this book. I, too, enjoyed the James and Dolly story the best, and it is interesting to learn that little inside info from the forward to your edition. (my edition is an old hardback). One thing about Margaret Kennedy, she is diverse, and her novels are always absorbing. Thanks again for such a great review.
Margaret Kennedy is new to me, and your review of Together and Apart makes it sound fabulous. I may well have a go at it in time for your celebration, which is a lovely idea. 🙂
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