The Ladies of Lyndon was Margaret Kennedy’s first novel, coming a year before her best known work The Constant Nymph. In this novel Margaret Kennedy explores themes she would revisit later in The Constant Nymph; unsatisfactorily matched partners within a socially conventional marriage, fidelity and artistic temperaments.
The novel opens as charming, innocent Agatha Cocks prepares to marry Sir John Clewer, a man twelve years her senior – who has satisfactorily swept the eighteen year old Agatha off her feet. The two have spent very little time together alone, and their knowledge of one another is limited. Agatha’s mother, who approves of young girls marrying early, before they have had time to form their own independent opinions, is delighted, particularly as Agatha had a brief aborted romance with her cousin, Gerald two years earlier, and whom she hasn’t entirely put behind her.
“He wished that she would not look at him so sorrowfully. Too intolerably reminiscent, she was, of the woman he had lost. He must either fly from her or challenge her. If he held his ground an instant longer he must attempt some master word which would bring this ghost to life.”
In marrying John, Agatha will become Lady Clewer, and mistress of the great country house of Lyndon. She will also become part of a large and complex extended family, which includes John’s stepmother Lady Clewer, his brother James, stepsister Lois and half-sister Cynthia. Before meeting James, Agatha has been told how difficult to manage John’s brother is. Both Agatha and the reader is given to understand that James is dreadfully ugly, of limited intelligence and unpredictable behaviour, that the family have to manage him the best they can, and that Lady Clewer has been an angel at ministering to the needs of her poor unfortunate stepson. However it is soon apparent that though James may not be particularly good looking, there is nothing wrong with him barring a certain unconventional, eccentricity, and his sometimes unpredictable behaviour stems from his artistic temperament and the treatment he is subjected to by his family. (Today I suspect James may be seen as suffering from Asperger’s syndrome).
“Too tired to think, she smoked several cigarettes and fell into a sort of chilly doze. Her childish mind, straying unhappily through the void like a lost bird, circled inevitably towards the thought of Lyndon. It was an ark, a shelter of comfort and solace. “
Three years after her marriage to John, Agatha finds she loves her home of Lyndon, but following the death of her baby becomes less and less able to settle into her role as a conventional aristocratic wife. John is simply the wrong husband for Agatha, he is not an unkind or unpleasant man, he is a little reserved, and like several minor characters we don’t get to know him all that well. Overall though it is the characters and their stories that are absolutely at the heart of this novel, I particularly liked James and Dolly as well as Agatha herself, who is portrayed with great sympathy. The two matriarchs Mrs Cocks and (the dowager) Lady Clewer are also brilliantly portrayed, their societal expectations, snobberies and competitiveness are wonderfully drawn.
Lyndon, with its beautiful, indolent mistress, is a favourite haunt of several society people, among them, the man Agatha’s sister-in-law Lois will marry, James, and even Agatha’s cousin, Gerald. Agatha and Gerald’s friendship is re-kindled, and they spend a lot of time together during Gerald’s visits. James meanwhile sets his sights on Dolly, a housemaid, the niece of the woman who had helped care for him, and with whom he had played when he was a child at Lyndon, he now can’t see why society should keep them apart.
James and Dolly marry and set up home in a cottage, with a studio for James in a small workshop, but with Agatha and John not having had any more children James remains John’s heir. Agatha flouts convention by making a friend of Dolly and under the influence of Gerald’s left wing principles enjoys visiting the couple in their simple, happy home. After the war, Agatha’s friendship with Gerald has become the subject of much family gossip and speculation, with a visit to Cynthia and her husband Sir Thomas’s home bringing everything to a head.
Margaret Kennedy skilfully brings the Edwardian aristocratic world to life with acute observation, some humour and superbly realistic dialogue. As a first novel; The Ladies of Lyndon is very impressive indeed.
Following Jane’s wonderful Margaret Kennedy reading week, I am definitely ripe for more, how lovely it is to discover a new author.