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.

* * * * * * *


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.

* * * * * * *


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:


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.


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.


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.

The Midas Touch by Margaret Kennedy (1938)

It seems such a long time since I read anything by Margaret Kennedy, and so I was delighted that when I perused my shelves looking for books for The 1938 Club I found that I had a copy of one of her lesser known books that was published in that very year.

I had almost forgotten quite how much her books had to offer: beautiful writing, elegantly drawn characters, interesting details, subtle allusions, and timeless themes that echo through the stories she told.

I remember reading somewhere that ‘The Midas Touch’ was her own favourite of the works. I can understand that and though I don’t consider it her best work – and if you haven’t read her before it isn’t the book to read first – but I was captivated.

The story begins as a young man named Evan Jones arrives in England for the first time. He had been born in China, the son of Welsh missionaries, and since they died he had travelled the world, living off his wits and his charm. Now he was coming home, to see the place that his parents had always called home, and he was very taken with what he saw. He had no money, he had nowhere to go, but fortune favoured him again and he prospered.

$(KGrHqIOKiYE3jt7pfM1BN+(PLH1Kg~~_12He had charmed Lydia Jekyll when they met on the way to London. She was the wife of an impoverished country gentleman, but she planned to stay with wealthier friends in London before she went home to her husband. While she was there, she and Evan met again.

Bessie Carter Blake was a medium. She had a gift, and when her solicitor husband died she used it to support her family; she could think of no other way to support her family. The trouble was that her very real gift wasn’t quite enough and that she had to exaggerate and invent too. That worried her, and it got her into trouble.

She was thrown out of the house of business tycoon Corris Morgan, when he found that his wife had been consulting her. It had been Ellie’s inheritance that had started him on the road to success, and that was why he had married her, but he had forgotten that a long time ago.

Bessie saw danger ahead for Corris Morgan, and even though he had dismissed her she knew that she had to warn him. He was impressed by her tenacity, and when something happened that made him believe her he kept her close.

And when Corris Morgan met Evan he saw his potential, he saw that they had something in common, and he offered him a very special job …..

When I write this all sounds a little flat, but Margaret Kennedy made these people live and breathe, and she filled their stories with just the right amount of colour and incident.

Her story raises many questions, about money, about power, and about class. She raises those questions very gently, leaving her readers space to think about them if they chose, or to simply enjoy spending time with her intriguing band of characters.

I loved watching Lydia visiting Anny, who used to be her maid. She hadn’t expected Anny to be quite so proud of her home, her husband and her new baby; and to have no nostalgia for the house where she used to live or the people she used to know.

I was startled at what happened to Corris on a trip to Scotland with the son who was such a disappointment to him.

And I was wonderfully entertained as I watched Evan introduce some new business practices at a struggling art gallery and turn it into a must-visit attraction.

It was Evan who was the star of this show – though Bessie Carter Blake gave him a run for his money – and the subject of this story’s most intriguing questions.

Did he really have ‘The Midas Touch’, or was the secret of his success a gift that been given the chance to blossom?

This is what Lydia thought:

“It came continually as a surprise to her how little he had read, how much he hated reading. Quotations or references to books meant nothing to him. Yet he was often surprisingly well informed. He thought a great deal and his ideas were not those of a man who has had no education. He questioned everybody he met, demanding from them a first hand account of their experience, knowledge and conclusions ….

And would love and the home that had never known win out over money and success?

I hoped that this gave me the answer:

“The unit of thought, sense and passion that had been Evan Jones disintegrated: his feet were the crushing of beech nuts, his eyes were the October sunlight spearing down through the branches, his ears the faint music of water over stones, his mind and heart were the stillness of the quiet afternoon. He was without desire and utterly contented.”

But I didn’t know.

Margaret Kennedy kept those and other questions in the air until the very end of the story.

The ending came as a surprise, even though Bessie Carter Blake had predicted it.

Well, she hadn’t seen all of the details!

I was a just a  little disappointed with the end of Lydia’s story, and that I didn’t have a little more time of with some of the characters.

I had a lovely time though.

I’m still thinking about some of those questions that were left up in the air, and I’m still wondering what else might have happened in this world that Margaret Kennedy created so cleverly and wrote about so well.

* * * * * * *

I am declaring 20th June 2016 to be Margaret Kennedy Day.

But the details will have to wait until next week, because this week Margery Sharp books are marching back into the world ….