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.
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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 ….