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.
There 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!