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.

A Thank You Letter after Margaret Kennedy Day

88fe70ca7a39902253fe85ae7e942f1fI want to say thank you to everyone who played a part in this celebration of the lovely legacy of books that Margaret Kennedy left to the world.

Circumstances meant that the announcement was low-key and I’m sorry that this thank you is rather late; but I do really appreciate everyone who found a book to read, and everyone who spread the word.

I found some summer flowers for you all.

We covered a interesting range of titles, from four different decades, and we had some quite different – and very interesting – thoughts.

* * * * * * *

The Constant Nymph (1924)

Madame Bibi Lophile said:

“The novel is also not wholly a romance, but also a consideration of art and how to create it, how to pursue it, the value we attach to it and the various ways in which it is consumed. This is done with a lightness of touch and Kennedy never lets the broader themes get in the way of the plot.”

Christine said:

“It’s a clash of worlds as much as a clash of personalities: natural versus artifice; conformity versus rebellion; order versus disorder; outsiders versus those who belong… Lewis, Tessa, Tony, Lina and Sebastian are wild, anarchic, passionate creatures who know no rules and trail chaos in their wake. Set against them is the conventional, well ordered society created by Florence and her friends, where appearance is everything, and talking about feelings is more important than the feelings themselves.”

Juliana said:

“I could not help but have the feeling that there was a stronger story that had been left behind, waiting to be told. Either you tried to tame the circus and lost; or the circus has come close to enchanting you, and you run away from its wild exuberance.”

Together and Apart (1936)

Audrey said:

“Reading Together and Apart reminded me that one of M.K.’s greatest strengths, in my view, is how she draws her characters. From the very first page, when Betsy tells her mother in a letter that she is planning to divorce Alec, we have a strong sense of who she is, and M.K. stays true to this for the rest of the book. Whether we like them or not, or think they’re sympathetic or worthy or not, they definitely come to life.”

Madame Bibi Lophile said:

“I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say everything works out in the end. Which is not to say things work out perfectly. Lives are messy and Together and Apart shows how much of that mess is of our own making, but how we are myopic regarding our own situations and so clear-sighted regarding others. Once again, there are piercing, but sympathetic psychological insights.”

Lucy Carmichael (1951)

Simon said:

“The writing is great, there is wit and thoughtfulness; Kennedy is clearly trying to inherit the mantle of Jane Austen (and there are many references to Austen throughout; Melissa and Lucy are both aficionados) and that’s an admirable intention, even if it highlights the disparity between their achievements are ‘structurers’. There is a lot to love here, and I did love the final chapter so much that I almost forgave everything else”

Helen said:

“Margaret Kennedy shows a lot of understanding and sympathy for Lucy’s situation; being jilted at the altar is, thankfully, not something I have experienced myself but if it did happen I hope that I would have the strength to react the way Lucy does, with dignity and resilience, rather than allowing her heartbreak and humiliation to destroy the rest of her life.”

GenusRosa said:

“I really enjoy this aspect of Kennedy’s novels–how she creates character. Even seemingly unimportant characters are built in with a solid foundation and story. This gives the impression that you are entering a real world–warts and all–and a social environment that, while not one I have actually experienced, is still believable as though I know these types of situations and the personalities that give them life.”

The Oracles (1955)

I said:

“Margaret Kennedy’s twelfth novel is dark and clever. It is set in a small town close to the Bristol Channel, not long after the war; and it spins around the family of a Bohemian artist, a more conventional young married couple with a new baby, a number of their friends and neighbours, and its catalyst is a remarkable work of art.”

The Forgotten Smile (1961)

Ali said

“The Forgotten Smile is a later Margaret Kennedy novel – one offering the reader a wonderful escape to another world. The majority of the novel takes place on Keritha, a tiny Greek Island, largely forgotten by the rest of the world. A place of Pagan mysticism and legend, where the cruise ships don’t stop and aren’t really welcome. It’s a place out of step with the modern world and is perfect for an escape.”

* * * * * * *

BadgeI think that’s everyone, but if it isn’t please let me know so that I can put things right.

I’m looking forward to seeing who reads what next.

I should tell you that this was the last day of celebration of this kind. But it isn’t the last celebration, because I have something a little different in mind for next year ….

* * * * * * *

A Book for Margaret Kennedy Day: The Oracles (1955)

Margaret Kennedy’s twelfth novel is dark and clever.

It is set in a small town close to the Bristol Channel, not long after the war; and it spins around the family of a Bohemian artist, a more conventional young married couple with a new baby, a number of their friends and neighbours, and its catalyst is a remarkable work of art.

The story begins as an apocalyptic thunderstorm rages over the town. The residents, horribly reminded of wartime bombings, huddle in their houses; but when they look outside only one thing has changed. A huge tree near the home of abstract sculptor Conrad Swann has been struck by lightning and is split in two.

When his wife died, leaving him with three young children, the sculptor had ran away from London to the country with the wife of his agent and his oldest friend, Frank Archer. Elizabeth, the mother of twins who came along with her, had been an actress, but her beauty was faded and she was drawn to of alcohol and idleness. Ten year-old Serafina Swann was left to manage the house and the four younger children as best she could. Serafina was bright, she did her best, but the the family’s new home was beginning to decay.

The tree had been the children’s refuge, where they hid from their fathers work, which they saw as malevolent ‘artifaxes’. Imagine their horror when they saw that it had been struck, and that in his branches was a horrible new creation. Serafina took charge, hauling the strange form of distorted arms and legs and hiding it in the shed, pushing a new work of her father’s that was to be collected for an exhibition well out of the way.

Only Joe, the youngest of the children realised what it was – the remains of the chair they had used to climb into the tree – but when he shouted at it nobody seemed to be listening.

Meanwhile, Christina Pattison was happy with her new home, her new baby, and her role as the perfect housewife. She was only a little worried that her husband Dickie might feel a little left out, might be a little less than happy. She was right. Dickie hadn’t really wanted to come back to his home town after the war, but his mother had died and so he felt that he had to, for the sake of his elderly father.

Dickie, eager for new experiences and new friends, was glad to accept an invitation to a party to celebrate the completion of Conrad Swann’s latest work. Christina was reluctant. She clung to convention, she worried about the children in that most unconventional of households, and she had no taste for modern art. Dickie went to the party alone, and rolled home the next morning with a hideous hangover.

Conrad Swann had disappeared. It was said that he was going to Mexico, but Frank Archer, who had come to face his friend for the first time since he absconded, pointed out that he didn’t have the means to get very far from home at all. He was right, but that’s another story. Elizabeth wept and wailed, and Frank enlisted Dickie to keep the party going, with the help of a crate of brandy that he found in the kitchen. The supposed next artwork – actually the children’s artefax – was unveiled, and the company was astounded by the sculptor’s radical new direction.

Martha Rawson, Swann’s would be patron is eager to celebrate and promote the wonderful new work. Architect, Alan Wetherby, who bought an earlier work in unconvinced, and eventually he will uncover the truth.

While that is happening Elizabeth abandons her household, Conrad finds a new life in the country, Serafina struggles to look after herself and the younger children, and – as sides are drawn in the dispute over the new artwork – the Christina becomes more conventional and Dickie more determined to explore new possibilities.

The satire is lovely – and I was pleased that Margaret Kennedy was satirising the people rather than the art – and there is much more here to appreciate.

The plot is cleverly and elaborately constructed, and the outcomes are unexpected.

Margaret Kennedy draw her characters so well, and she is at her most clear-sighted in this book. Some are lightly sketched, others are drawn with much more detail, but all are real fallible human beings. That made it easier for me than I expected to believe this rather improbable story.

The portraits of Christina and Dickie as their marriage reached crisis point, and Christina finally realised that she had to learn to change and make compromises, was wonderful.

Serafina Swann, who was thrilled when a lady at church described her as ‘a little mother’, who had to cope somehow when the adults abandoned the children of her family, who was so worried when she thought that her next home might not have enough books, was a marvellous creation, and one my favourite Margaret Kennedy characters. I should love to spend a little more time with her, and know rather more about her future.

My disappointment with this book was that it spent a little too much time with the characters I couldn’t care for and focused a little too much on the weaknesses of the characters I liked. That meant that I couldn’t feel quite as engaged with this book as I did with many of Margaret Kennedy’s other works.

I was disappointed that neither Conrad nor Elizabeth were ever held to account for abandoning their children.

The way that the story played out made me realise why much of that had to be though.

And when I look back at this book as a whole, I realise that I found much to love and much to admire.

* * * * * *

Now, please do tell me if you’ve read  – or if you’re reading – a book for Margaret Kennedy Day.

I’ll post a round up in a few days.

And please don’t worry if you haven’t found a book or haven’t been able to read for this particular celebration  – Margaret Kennedy posts are welcome on any day of the year!

Margaret Kennedy Day is just a week away …. so I pulled out some of my favourite books ….

…. because I’d realised that I had read twelve of them and that I only had four left.

It felt like time to take stock, and to decide if I should re-read one of the twelve or read one of the four for the first time.

That inspired me to write a list of favourites, to share descriptions and reviews of those books, and to try to explain what makes them special. It’s not a definitive list, because I still have books to read, because the margins are very fine, and because I always reserve the right to change my mind.

The first two books picked themselves, but I had to shuffle the books that followed quite a few times and expand the list from five to six before I felt that it was right, and that it showed all of the different qualities to be found in Margaret Kennedy’s work.

* * * * * *

ONE

The Feast (1950)

“The germ of the idea for The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s ninth novel and perhaps her most ingenious, first published in 1950 – came to the author in 1937 when she and a social gathering of literary friends were discussing the Medieval Masque of the Seven Deadly Sins. The talk turned excitedly to the notion that a collection of stories might be fashioned from seven different authors, each re-imagining one of the Sins through the medium of a modern-day character. That notion fell away, but something more considerable stayed in Margaret Kennedy’s mind over the next ten years, and so she conceived of a story that would gather the Sins all under the roof of a Cornish seaside hotel managed by the unhappy wife of Sloth…”

There was no question in my mind that this book had to come first. It really is the most accomplished, most engaging and most intriguing of Margaret Kennedy’s novels, and it should be much better known and widely read.

I said:

“I might describe The Feast, Margaret Kennedy’s ninth novel in many ways: a character study, a morality tale, a social comedy, an allegory. But, above all of that, I would describe it as very readable novel.”

Kaggsy said:

“Reading “The Feast” was a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience and I’m so glad I chose it. In fact, I think it will benefit from a re-read as I was so anxious to reach the conclusion that I’m sure there are many profound little bits I’ve missed.”

* * * * * *

TWO

Lucy Carmichael (1951)

“This work by a mature novelist at the height of her powers – opens on an unforgettably disastrous scene, as the novel’s eponymous heroine, preparing to savour her wedding day, is instead jilted at the altar. Lucy Carmichael’s recovery from this calamity forms the substance of the story that follows. She takes a job in the rural Lincolnshire village of Ravonsbridge, at an educational institute established by a wealthy manufacturer for the cultural benefit of the local community. This employment will come to offer Lucy a second chance at romance, but it also brings her unexpectedly into contact with a host of remarkable characters who will influence how she sees the world.”

Lucy’s story is a little uneven, but she is the most wonderful heroine, and you really should meet her.

This is how her best friend describes her:

“She is incautious and intrepid. She will go to several wrong places and arrive at the right one, while I am still making up my mind to cross the road. She is cheerful and confident and expects to be happy. She taught me how to enjoy myself … Lucy forced me to believe that I might be happy. I don’t expect I’d have had the courage to marry you, to marry anybody, if it hadn’t been for Lucy”.

And this is the very perceptive review that Audrey wrote for last year’s Margaret Kennedy Day.

* * * * * *

THREE

The Fool of the Family (1930)

“The fool of the title in this charming light-hearted Margaret Kennedy novel is solid, reliable, put-upon Caryl, one of the innumerable offspring of the eccentric musician Sanger. He too is a musician and to save money to put on a concert, he works in the evening as a cinema pianist on the Lido in Venice. Within the space of one summer week, two fateful meeting disrupt his calm and ordered life: that with beautiful Fenella and, much less welcome, with his handsome, amoral half-brother Sebastian.”

‘The Constant Nymph’ was a huge success in the 1920s, and it is a very good book indeed; but I am fonder of its rather less successful sequel, and I had a lovely time wandering through.

Here is a lovely review at GenusRosa, explaining the charm of this book much better than I can.

* * * * * *

FOUR

A Night in Cold Harbour (1960)

“Romilly Brandon was heir to a fortune and the handsomest and liveliest young man in the county. But in his twenty-first year, the pretty daughter of the local parson, Jenny Newbolt broke his heart, and he left to live a dissipated life in London. Returning years later, Romily finds many surprises – his one-time sweetheart grown old and withered, and in possession of a great secret that shakes him to his core. When Romily finally learns the truth, is it too late to atone?”

This a rare thing – a perfectly pitched historical novel with something to say that still resonates today.

I wouldn’t often reference an Amazon review, but this one catches the book perfectly, and I am so glad that I saw it and it inspired me to pick up one of Margaret Kennedy’s most obscure works.

* * * * * *

FIVE

The Midas Touch (1938)

“A young Welshman, Evan Jones, arrives in London towards the end of the 1930s. Attractive and agreeable to outsiders, he has the power to sell anything to anyone; and he sees other people as an opportunity.Across the city, Mrs Carter Blake sells her psychic powers, mixed with a healthy dose of charlatanism. Desperate to maintain a respectable life, though ashamed of her work, she preys upon the superstitious and susceptible rich. And the self-made capitalist, Corris Morgan, is one of the richest men in Europe, with the power to destroy anyone who crosses him. But even Corris has his weak points – and as he struggles to escape the fate he fears, both Mrs Carter Blake and Evan are drawn into his orbit and inexorably swept along with him.”

One thing that Margaret Kennedy does particularly well is bring together curious mixtures of character, plot strands and themes to make a fascinating and thought provoking story. This is said to be her favourite of her own books, and my review is here.

* * * * * *

SIX

Together and Apart (1936)

“Betsy Canning is dissatisfied with life. She has always taken pains to be healthy, popular and well-treated, but despite her wealth, her comfortable homes and beautiful children, happiness eludes her. The problem must lie, she thinks, in her marriage to Alec, and a neat, civilised divorce seems the perfect solution. But talk of divorce sparks interference from family and friends, and soon public opinion tears into the fragile fabric of family life and private desire. Alec and Betsy’s marriage will not be the only casualty, and in this newly complicated world, happiness is more elusive than ever.”

I wrote about this very recently and so I won’t repeat my own thoughts.

I’ll just say that I agree with Darlene, who said:

“There is so much more to this book than initially meets the eye … This story delivers far more than the light read I initially bargained for and is almost epic in scope; it’s a book buyer’s dream.”

It would be an interesting first book for anyone who has read the works of Margaret Kennedy’s contemporaries.

* * * * * *

Do tell me which Margaret Kennedy novels are your favourites.

If you haven’t read her, please do.

And remember that Margaret Kennedy Day is just a week away.

It’s really quite simple.: all you need to do to take part is read a book and post about it on the day.

* * * * * *

Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy (1936)

I love Margaret Kennedy’s writing, but I didn’t rush to pick up this book because I wasn’t that taken with the subject matter. The disintegration of a marriage, and all of the fallout from that, in upper middle-class England between the wars ….

When I finally picked the book up – thinking of Margaret Kennedy Day, which is only a couple of weeks away – I was hooked from the first page. It is a wonderfully engaging human drama; beautifully written and rich with understanding and insight.

It all begins with a letter.

Betsy Canning wrote a long letter to her mother, explaining why her marriage was much less happy than it appeared, why her husband’s rise from suburban civil servant to successful librettist and the changes that it brought to their lives hadn’t suited her; and why, therefore,  they had agreed to divorce.

She hoped that her mother would understand and support her; but  Mrs Hewitt was terribly shocked and rushed back from her holiday in Switzerland, pausing only to send a telegram:

” … horrified … ‘do nothing irrevocable till I see you …”

Mrs Hewitt went immediately to Mrs Canning, her ‘fellow mother-in-law’, so that they could work together to set things right. But by the time she arrived she was in a state of nervous collapse, and the formidable Mrs Canning set out for her son’s Welsh holiday home without any real understanding of the crisis she was going to have to resolve.

Alec had persuaded Betsy to think again about divorce, they had agreed to go away for a while alone to talk it over, but Mrs Canning’s arrival and her efforts to reconcile the couple didn’t help at all. The peace talks collapsed, there were bitter arguments, and the mood of the house changed.

Alec decided that he has to go away.

Joy, his wife’s mother’s help, followed him. She was infatuated, he was charmed, and so they left together.

And so the stage was set for a terrible scandal and an acrimonious divorce.

Margaret Kennedy managed all of this drama beautifully. She drew her characters and relationships quite simply but so well that it was easy to understand why events played out as they did. I saw that Betsy and Alec could have been happy together, that their relationship could have been beautifully balances; but I could also see that it so easily unbalance and break.

The stories of what Betsy and Alec do next are fascinating. His career is damaged by the scandal surrounding is divorce and when he learns that Joy is expecting a child he realises that they are irrevocably bound together. She had liked the idea of independence but she is flattered by the attentions of Lord St Mullins and finds the lifestyle that marriage to a peer could bring her rather appealing.

The stories of the effects on their elder two children are more profound. Kenneth  sides with his mother, and says that he will never speak with his father again; but he is troubled and that makes him easy prey for school bullies who will lead him into a great deal of trouble. Eliza would rather go to her father, but she fears losing touch with her siblings, and she is disturbed when she finds that there is a new baby in her fathers home.

Margaret Kennedy weaves a wonderful plot from these and other threads; drawing in enough to give a clear picture of the world around the different members of the Canning family as they spilled out of the family home.

She spoke clearly about how quickly events can run out of control, about how decisions can have so many repercussions, and about how vulnerable children are, even – and maybe particularly -when they are very nearly grown up.

Her characters are not always likeable, but they are real, fallible human beings, and their stories are full of real and varied emotions.

Everything rings true.

Some characters learn and grow; some characters don’t.

I loved the use of letters in this book, and this passage from a letter written by a family friend really struck me:

“I don’t see how any of them can ever be happy again. You say it is love gone bad. Do you think that is because they are all denying the truth? Love doesn’t go bad, however unhappy it makes you, unless you poison it yourself. It isn’t the injuries and wrongs that they can’t forgive; it’s because they know, Alec and Betsy know, and Joy does too, that in spite of everything, in spite of all they’ve done and said to hurt each other, they can’t bear to be apart.”

I loved that while this book is very much of its time there is a great deal about it that is timeless.

There were interesting details and points to ponder. I wondered if Joy, who became rather down-trodden, was suffering from post-natal depression. I noticed that she and Lord St Mullins had many shared interests and concerns. I wondered what would happen to the family of German refugees granted a home on the Cannings’ estate in Wales,

I’m inclined to agree with Margaret Kennedy’s daughter, Julia Birley, who writes into the introduction to the Virago edition of this book that this was one of her mother’s best half dozen.

It’s not my favourite, but it is a very good book, I’m very glad that I finally picked it up, and I think that Margaret Kennedy did what she set out to do very well indeed.

* * * * * * *

Circumstances mean that Margaret Kennedy Day will be a little more low key than usual this year, but it will work just as these days usually do.

If you need a reminder, last year’s introduction is here.

If you need inspiration, you can see what we read last year here

But it’s really quite simple.

All you need to do to take part is read a book and post about it on the day.

* * * * * * *

 

A Thank You Letter after Margaret Kennedy Day

cdaa230926c3c007c899c288598042e5I want to say thank you to everyone who played a part in this celebration of the lovely legacy of books that Margaret Kennedy left to the world.

I found some summer flowers for you all.

Thank you to everyone who found a book to read, and everyone who spread the word.

We covered a wonderful range of titles between us.

The Ladies of Lyndon (1923)

Brona said:

“Young ladies, sisters, domineering mothers, widows, martyring step-mothers and maids. Kennedy gives us time inside all of their heads, and although we may not necessarily sympathise with all of them, we can empathise.  And that’s where the secret to Kennedy’s success lies – her authentic dialogue and believable characters.”

Katrina said:

“James is far and away the most interesting character in the book but he is really only on the periphery which is a real shame. As I said, I enjoyed this but this is the first book by Margaret Kennedy that I’ve read and I’m sure her writing must have developed and improved as her writing career advanced. I’ll be reading more of her later books anyway.”

The Constant Nymph (1924)

Arpita said:

 “The beauty and spirit of this book lies in the Tyrolean chapters, where the children roamed free and uninhibited in the bosom of nature. Teresa, whilst described as being far from beautiful by Kennedy, is always described in the most loving terms by Lewis. Teresa’s constancy of heart can be witnessed at every step of the story, proving to us that this  blessed trait can be found in the very young too. It is a valuable lesson to be reminded of.”

Red Sky at Morning (1927)

Cirtnecce said:

“Margaret Kennedy captures the childhood and the post World War 1 era marvellously. You can so picture the brilliant countryside in spring as well the glittering parties of London, especially the gentle mockery of the London social and theatre scene . You can see the grotesque Monk Hall and you can see Emily’s bedroom in London….the word pictures are completely clear and absolutely delightful.”

Return I Dare Not (1931)

I said

“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.”

Together and Apart (1936)

Anbolyn said:

“One of the amazing things about the book is that it hardly feels dated. I felt I could have been reading about a modern family – the same struggles, fears, financial concerns, and child custody and neglect issues as written about in contemporary family dramas appear in this novel.”

The Feast (1950)

Lucy said:

“This author grabbed me by starting with the catastrophic ending.  Because you see, there were survivors.  Some of the guests were enjoying an outdoors party on a nearby cliff when the horrific event happened.  Their flashback stories, along with diary entries of other guests and various letters paint a colorful picture of the lodgers and the week leading up to the disaster.”

Genusrosa said:

“I particularly loved the almost Hitchcockian way that Kennedy employed the natural world to heighten the sense of crisis. The widening cracks in the bluff above; the sudden lack of nesting gulls in the cliffside; the mass exodus of scurrying mice across the patio, the intermittent fall of rocks from above…all tell the reader that the disaster is imminent. The household though, at least until the very last, remains pitifully unaware.”

Lucy Carmichael (1951)

Audrey said:

“When you’re only on a novel’s twelfth page, and you’ve already been introduced to seven characters you’re longing to spend more time with, you probably know you’re in for a good thing.  Even if you’re meeting most of them for the first time through someone who strikes you as a not-very-reliable narrator (not that you’d want her any another way).”

Kirsty said:

“Whilst there is a lot to like in Lucy Carmichael, it perhaps was not as well plotted or constructed as it could have been, and for a tenth novel by such a formidable author, this surprises me somewhat.”

Troy Chimneys (1953)

Helen said

“I was so impressed by the writing and by Margaret Kennedy’s grasp of the period (or periods, as there are really two) in which the story takes place. The Victorian letters felt authentic and Miles Lufton’s own narrative style felt so much like the voice of a Regency gentleman that I could easily forget I was reading a book written in the 1950s and by a woman.”

Christine said:

“I loved the way Margaret Kennedy writes, her portrayal of the characters, the delicate balance of their relationships, and the snippets of period detail. I had no idea what to expect, but I really enjoyed this book, and liked the structure, which had an early 19th century feel to it, very much in keeping with the period in which it is set, and epistolary novels were very popular.”

Ali said:

“Troy Chimneys is a poignant exploration of one man’s inner turmoil, and the lost opportunities that dominate his life. This was a much more engrossing and compelling read than I had possibly expected. The structure is a little unusual as is the subject matter – but I found I quickly got drawn into the narrative of Miles’s story.”

The Wild Swan (1957)

Lyn said:

“‘The Wild Swan’ is a novel that reminded me of other books about writers & their literary afterlives. Like A S Byatt’s Possession & Carol Shields’ ‘Mary Swann’ the central conceit of a writer from the past whose life has been misinterpreted & taken over by modern academics is one that has always fascinated me. The idea that we can ever really know a person from another age, no matter how much material they leave behind is fraught with danger.”

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I think that’s everyone, but if it isn’t let me know and I’ll put things right.

I’m looking forward to seeing who reads what next.

And maybe thinking of other underappreciated authors who deserve special days of their own  ….

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!

Margaret Kennedy Day is just two weeks away – and so I thought that it was time I met The Ladies of Lyndon

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.

lyndon 1Now 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.

lyndon 2(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 ….

Margaret Kennedy Day is Coming

A year or two ago, at my old home on the internet, and around the time a number of her novels were reissued, we had a lovely celebration of the literary legacy of Margaret Kennedy.

Audrey read ‘The Ladies of Lyndon’ and said:

“When I read the wonderful opening sentence, I knew I was going to love this book. My second thought was that this could be Jane Austen, writing 100 years later.  But looking back, while there are some Jane-ish echoes here, there’s much more snark and bite.”

Ali read ‘The Constant Nymph’ and said:

“I absolutely loved it, at once fully involving myself with the characters, as I became immersed in the world of ‘Sanger’s Circus’. I think Margaret Kennedy might be an author whose work I will have to read much more of.”

Kirsty read ‘Together and Apart’ and said:

“Kennedy discusses familial relationships and their breakdown throughout the novel ….. Together and Apart, even all these years later, is still an important novel, just as relevant to our society today as it was upon its publication.”

Kaggsy read ‘The Feast’ and said:

“Reading “The Feast” was a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience and I’m so glad I chose it. In fact, I think it will benefit from a re-read as I was so anxious to reach the conclusion that I’m sure there are many profound little bits I’ve missed.”

Lisa read ‘The Wild Swan’ and said:

I chose this one because I remembered it had something to do with a film production in a small town. As I discovered, that’s true, but it’s rather like saying ‘War and Peace’ has something to do with a battle “

And I could go on, but that was then and we need to talk about now.

Originally it was my intention to celebrate Margaret Kennedy – and a number of other authors – on their birthdays, but when I started to look I found that the birthdays of the authors that I had in mind were clustered together in small periods of time.

Margaret Kennedy’s birthday fell one day before the date shared by Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Goudge; and I knew that Lory had a celebration planned for Elizabeth Goudge around that time and that April was quite busy with reading events. So that was out.

When I was looking at her biography and wondering what to do another date caught my eye – the date when she was married.

So this is your invitation to Margaret Kennedy Day on  Monday 2oth June 2016.

There’s no need to RSVP – though it would be lovely to know if you might come –  all you need to do is to read a Margaret Kennedy book between now and then, and post about it on the day!

Now, to practicalities.

We have a badge:

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We have a bibliography:

I couldn’t find one definitive source, but I’ve pulled a list together from a number of sources and I think I have pretty much everything that was published in book form.

All of the novels except the last one are in print; and most, but not all, of those titles are print-on-demand.

None of the others are, but, because Margaret Kennedy was hugely successful in the 1920s – and well regarded after that – libraries may well have copes tucked away and there should be used copies out there to be found.

Novels

The Ladies of Lyndon (1923)
The Constant Nymph (1924)
Red Sky at Morning (1927)
The Fool of the Family (1930) sequel to The Constant Nymph.
Return I Dare Not (1931)
A Long Time Ago (1932)
Together and Apart (1936)
The Midas Touch (1938)
The Feast (1950)
Lucy Carmichael (1951)
Troy Chimneys (1953)
The Oracles (US Title – Act of God)(1955)
The Wild Swan (previously published as The Heroes of Clone) (1957)
A Night in Cold Harbour (1960)
The Forgotten Smile (1961)
Not in the Calendar: The Story of a Friendship (1964)

Non Fiction

A Century of Revolution 1789-1920 (1922), history.
Where Stands a Winged Sentry (1941), wartime memoir.
The Mechanized Muse. P. E. N. series (1942), on the cinema.
Jane Austen. Novelists Series No. 1 (1950), biography/literary criticism.
The Outlaws on Parnassus. On the art of the novel (1958), literary criticism.

Shorter Fiction

A Long Week-End (1927), novella – published as a limited edition.
Dewdrops (1928), novella – published as a limited edition.
The Game and the Candle (1928), novella – published as a limited edition.
Women at Work (1966), two novellas – The Little Green Man and Three-Timer.

Plays

The Constant Nymph (1926), written with Basil Dean.
Come with Me (1928), written with Basil Dean.
Escape Me Never! (1934), a dramatisation of The Fool of the Family.
Autumn (1937), written with Gregory Ratoff.
Happy with Either (1948)

And there is one biography – The Constant Novelist by Violet Powell.

Her novels are quite diverse, so please don’t be put off of you don’t like the sound of one; there may well be another that you’ll love.

And, just is case I haven’t convinced you, here is a lovely piece by her granddaughter, novelist Serena Macksey.

I think that’s everything.

I do hope that you will find a book and be part of Margaret Kennedy Day.

Do tell me, and please ask is you have any questions at all.