A Book for Margaret Kennedy Day: Return I Dare Not (1931)

Back in the 1920s Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, ‘The Constant Nymph’, was a huge, huge success. It was one of the bestselling novels of the decade, she adapted it for both stage and screen, and then she gave the world a sequel that would also become a play and a film.

I mention this because I wondered when I read this book whether this 1931 novel – the book that followed that sequel – reflects her feelings about the fame and the demands that her success brought.

Young playwright Hugo Pott is at the centre of the story. He is the man of the moment, with three plays running simultaneously in the West End of London; and he is a genuinely nice young man, largely unspoiled by his wonderful success. But Hugo is on the brink of a crisis. He is beginning to realise that his life is no longer his own, and that he is playing the part of a nice young man unspoiled by success. He is says the right things, he is seen in the right places, he mixes with the right people, he eats the right lunch in the right restaurant …..

He wants to do something different, but he really doesn’t know what.

Hugo has no time to stop and think, because he has accepted  an invitation to a weekend party at Syranwood, the country home of the Lady Geraldine Rivaz. To be invited into the exclusive circle of Syranwood was the greatest of social successes; but he also knew that he would be expected to be witty and amusing for the whole weekend, and to be particularly charming to the notoriously difficult Lady Agneta Melmotte. He wasn’t sure that he could do it – he just wanted to sleep – but he knew that he had to try.

Return I Dare NotThere is drama over the course of the weekend.

The critic Sir Adrian Upward, a man acutely conscious of his social position, is  confronted by his estranged daughter, Solange; a friend of Lady Geraldine’s granddaughter  who has arranged an invitation with the express purpose of clearing the air with her father.

Lady Geraldine’s granddaughter, Lady Laura Le Fanu, has never forgotten her first love, and they meet again, for the first time since they were parted. In the ensuing years Ford Usher had become a famous medical researcher and had risen through society. His mother, the gossip columnist Dulcie Usher, had separated the pair twenty years before, and when she learns that her son has been invited to Syranwood she realises that she may have to act again.

Philomena Grey had been a good wife for years but she was bored, and she decided that it was time to do what she wanted to do. She wanted to seduce the nice young playwright. That distracts Hugo, he fails to entertain Lady Aggie; and when she cuts her visit short he realises that he has failed to play his part, that he is a social failure.

Marianne, Lady Geraldine’s granddaughter sees this and she tries to help. Because she can see that Hugo is quite unlike her grandmother’s other guests; and that he is a genuinely nice young man…

There is little plot to be found, but the characters and their situations were so very well drawn, and that kept me turning the pages. Margaret Kennedy was clear-sighted, she was psychologically acute, and she made these characters and their world live and breathe.

I didn’t stop to think about whether I liked or disliked them, because I was having a lovely time people-watching. Philomena’s behaviour disappointed me, but I still worried that she didn’t realise what the consequences of her actions might be. I appreciated understanding what lay behind that face that Lady Aggie presented to the world. I loved the story of Laura and Ford’s youthful romance. And, most of all, I wondered what would happen to Hugo.

That so much would happen over the course of one weekend was highly unlikely, but that was something else that I didn’t worry about too much. Each story worked and the house party as a whole worked. I appreciated that those stories were all different but that there was a common thread: the consideration of life choice, what a different choice might have meant, and whether a choice could be changed.

I was a little disappointed that the use of certain names was no more than a nice touch; and that some characters and situations were not explored as much as they might have been.

I suspect that this is a book best appreciated if you already know something about Margaret Kennedy’s life and work. I do think that Hugo’s character says much about the author’s own life at that time. I think that Philomena’s story may have sparked ideas for her next book, ‘Together and Apart’. And I can see that she was developing a way of writing here that would mature when she wrote books like ‘The Midas Touch’ and ‘The Feast’.

I have to say that ‘Return I Dare Not’ isn’t Margaret Kennedy’s best book, but it is a very interesting one.

Its conclusion was everything that I hoped it might be.

It was the right ending for this book; for the character and for their creator.

I think it might have signalled the end of the first act of her career and the beginning of the second act.

* * * * * * *

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Now, please do tell me if you’ve read a book for Margaret Kennedy Day. I’ll post a round up once the day is done.

And please don’t worry if you haven’t – Margaret Kennedy posts are welcome on any day of the year!

27 thoughts on “A Book for Margaret Kennedy Day: Return I Dare Not (1931)

  1. You are doing such a wonderful job of championing this writer’s work that I feel I should give her a try at some point! I actually like your descriptions of the characters in this one, but it sounds as though it might be best to start elsewhere. If you were to recommend one of her novels in particular, which would it be? I guess I’m looking for a good entry point, something that would give me a feel for Kennedy’s style.

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    1. Well, if country houses appeal The Ladies of Lyndon, her first book would be a good place to start. It’s not her best but she begins to do many of the things she did so well. Alternatively, The Midas Touch is said to be her personal favourite and is a lovely example of her character drawing and her ability to manage a large and diverse cat. Or Together and Apart might be interesting. I’ve not read it yet but I think it would be an interesting one to set against authors like Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor.

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  2. Enjoyed your review, and ‘ll try to track this down, I read Troy Chimneys, and enjoyed it, and it strikes me that there may be similarities between Miles Lufton (the central character in TC) and Hugo Pott. They both seem to be men playing a part. I’ll try and post a review later today – I’m all behind because of my ineptitude with the tablet while I was at my daughter’s.

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  3. Thank you for hosting another day for Margaret Kennedy, Jane. I loved my book (Troy Chimneys) and am enjoying seeing what everyone else has been reading!

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  4. I can just imagine all that she could do with this ‘material’ – her character drawing can be wonderful. I’m excited that our library has this one. I have just a few chapters left to go in Lucy Carmichael, but it’s lovely, as you know!

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    1. I didn’t exactly forget, but it was only a week or so ago that the date was quite so soon. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on ‘Troy Chimneys’ but please don’t feel you have to rush. A late birthday gift a few days after the big day can be a lovely thing.

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  5. Jane, thank you for a fascinating review of a book I haven’t even seen, much less read! I have been looking forward to reading along with your Margaret Kennedy day but I’m in the middle of a prolonged move and most of my books are now packed…and when my books get packed my mind goes into a sort of frozen stasis…! So I’ve been missing the blogs; but here is my Troy Chimneys review from awhile back, https://genusrosa.me/2016/02/02/troy-chimneys/ …. here https://genusrosa.me/2014/10/08/reading-margaret-kennedy/ for The Fool of the Family….and perhaps I might get ‘The Feast’ written up in time for a review for this current event. I loved The Feast…it was fascinating, and fit what has become what I expect of a Margaret Kennedy book: ‘complex and difficult to categorize’. 🙂 I loved the ‘people watching’ description you made, though. Perfect. Plus…a country house weekend with a cast of intriguing characters–what’s not to love??! Thank you, as always, for hosting such interesting reading events. BTW…playwright named Hugo…hmmm, that reminded me of Margery Sharp’s Something Light and her playwright (described as ‘indigent’) named Hugo!

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    1. Having books packed away is traumatic, and I hope it isn’t too long before you can unpack and place them in their new homes. I loved The Feast too and it was lovely to read your thoughts.

      I have yet to read Something Light, but I must pick up my copy because I’ve seen Margaret/Margery parallels before. There’s an artist who is very talented but a little eccentric in The Ladies of Lyndon who, even though he lived in a different age, belonged to a different class and was of the opposite sex, made me think of Martha. I wonder what common influences these two lovely authors had ….

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  6. I had such good intentions but I didn’t manage it this time round. I’ve ‘The Constant Nymph’ at my side but as yet unopened. Still, I’ll at least be able to enjoy reading all the reviews for Margaret Kennedy Day, which will give me a taste of what I have to look forward to!

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