A Long Time Ago by Margaret Kennedy (1932)

I was delighted when it was finally Margaret Kennedy’s turn to be LibraryThing Virago Group Author of the Month, and I knew that it was time to pick up one of only three of her novels that I had left to read for the first time.

I could visit a house party in Ireland, I could holiday on a Greek island, or I could travel back in time to Regency England.

I chose the house party; and I loved it, both for its own sake and for where it sits in Margaret Kennedy’s writing history.

The story opens quarter of century after that house party, when Ellen Napier has been a widow for seven years. She keeps busy, she is a good friend to many and a proud and loving mother, but there are still moments when she forgets that her beloved husband is gone, and she is still completely at a loss without him.

Her daughter, Hope, is thirty-six, and she has just discovered that her father was unfaithful, that he had left the house party that she remembered as a wonderfully happy chapter in her childhood, with a lover. She had known that Elissa Koebel, one of the greatest and most famous singers of her age, had visited that summer but, until she read Miss Kobel’s newly published and terribly indiscreet autobiography, she had no idea that anything had happened between the celebrated guest and her father.

She couldn’t understand what her father had done, or why her mother seemed to have accepted it.

Was Ellen a gullible fool, or did she make a decision to fool herself?

Hope’s uncle told her that the family had been divided over what happened, that none of them could really explain, but they all agreed that the most important thing was to protect Ellen from gossip and scandal.

He gave her a cache of letters written during that summer by the various family members to their own mother, discussing the situation (and each other) and writing things that they would never have said aloud to each other. He hoped that they would help her to understand what happened.

Ellen’s sister, Louise, had been the instigator. She was rather bored with her marriage to an Oxford Don, she suspected that he was unfaithful; she wanted something to happen but she didn’t want to rock the boat too much. She suggested that their siblings and their husbands and wives pool their resources and rented a castle in Ireland.

Louise imagined herself a heroine in novel, and she found a great deal more drama than she had expected swirling around her.

At first Louise was overjoyed at first to have a great singer for a neighbour, at being able to turn her into a friend. Things changed when, rather than gravitating towards one of the single men in the company, she set her sights at Dick, her sister’s husband. Louise decided that Elissa was an enemy, she tried to freeze her out, but the other said that wasn’t the right thing to do, that she should leave things alone.

Dick was tired, he had been a latecomer to the party as he had professional commitments and he had worries that he couldn’t quite shake. His wife’s cool, calm understanding wasn’t what he wanted, and that made him susceptible to Elissa’s charms, and it made the prospect of escaping from the family group rather appealing …

Margaret Kennedy drew her characters and their family dynamics wonderfully well. There were three marriages, they had different strengths and weaknesses, and I loved the way she studied them and set them against each other.

I knew these people, not well but I knew them. I understood where they came from, what made them, and I never doubted that they lived and breathed.

This is the first of her novels that plays with structure, rather than telling a story from beginning to end. There is a section set in the present, a longer section set in the past, with shifting perspectives. There is also a chapter – the critical chapter – from Elissa Koebel’s memoir, and there are a number of family letters too. Margaret Kennedy is a wonderful writer of letters, and I am sure that she had a wonderful time creating the purple prose of the spoiled and selfish singer.

The shifting perspectives show that all of the family saw things rather differently, that none of them saw the whole picture, and that their memories might well be unreliable, prejudiced by opinions about things that couldn’t really know.

The story is more understated, its attractions less obvious, when I compare it with Margaret Kennedy’s other novels; but the writing is lovely and I was always intrigued.

She would explore similar ideas and use some of the same techniques in her next book ‘Together and Apart.’

The two books are quite different, but I see a progression.

Ellen is the most intriguing, and the most likeable character in this book. It begins with her and ends with her, its final line explaining quite beautifully why her marriage had endured after what happened a long time ago.

10 thoughts on “A Long Time Ago by Margaret Kennedy (1932)

  1. Really like the sound of this one with its shifting perspectives moving back and forth in time. Margaret Kennedy was such an interesting writer – there are a number of artists of varying types in her novels, so I can some slight echoes of other novels in the description of A Long Time Ago – although other aspects make it sound rather different overall. I will look out this.

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  2. This sounds a very interesting novel using varied techniques. When you talk about the development into her next novel, I wonder if she’s an author who would do well in a chronological re-read.

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  3. I haven’t heard of this one. A little intrigued, though I do have trouble with shifts in time/perspective if they are plonked as big chunks, rather than being worked alongside each other. Hmm. I should probably turn to the unread Kennedys on my shelf first!

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  4. I’m still discovering Kennedy, and haven’t heard of this one, but it sounds interesting with the changing perspectives.Following my disappointment with The Constant Nymph I loved The Ladies of Lyndon, and Together and Apart, so I’m open to other recommendations about her work.

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  5. lol – I misread Ireland for ‘Iceland’ and was momentarily intrigued by the thought of some early nordic noir! Even so, this sounds like a great read, thanks to your thoughtful review 🙂

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