I had fully intended to join in with Beyond Eden Rock’s Margaret Kennedy day – and read and review this in time for last Monday. I just didn’t remember in time, plus the week has turned out busier than I had realised – my evenings taken up with other things. This is only the third Margaret Kennedy book I have read – but I knew already that it would be rather different to The Ladies of Lyndon and The Constant Nymph.
Margaret Kennedy won the James Tait Black memorial prize, in 1953 for Troy Chimneys which some people have called her finest novel. Margaret Kennedy was a prolific novelist and playwright. Her first novel, The Ladies of Lyndon, was published in 1923, although it is probably for her second novel The Constant Nymph that she is best known.
An historical novel, Troy Chimneys is set in Regency England, it concerns the two different sides of one man’s personality. Miles Lufton M.P is a self-made politician. He comes from a large, loving family. His father, an Anglican priest, his mother seemingly loved and respected by all. Miles is a second son, so needs to make his own way in the world, and has been doing a pretty fair job of it. Miles appreciates the countryside around him, he is a reliable, trustworthy young man, often driven to rail against injustices, happy in the company of a local farmer, the humble friend of his childhood. However, increasingly Miles feels that he is in fact two men; Miles Lufton, and his alter ego Pronto.
“Nor did we fall out. Though accomplices, we were never friends enough to quarrel. Each meant, at some time to be rid of the other. Miles was content to let Pronto take the lead to a certain point: he did not mean to put up with fellows like Crockett for ever, but he was anxious to secure an income of £3000 a year. Having got that, Pronto was to be dismissed; a pretty little property in the country was to be rented where Miles could retire and listen in surroundings, to the nightingales.”
The novel in fact opens with a short framing piece from the late nineteenth century, with some correspondence between some future descendants – discussing the finding of the ‘Lufton papers’ – part of a journal and the memoir of Miles Lufton covering the period of 1782 – 1818.
Miles recognises that it is Pronto – a nickname coined by some acquaintance that stuck, who is the ambitious, M.P, the man about town, society diner-out, weekend guest and flirt. Miles Lufton is not Pronto. Pronto is not the Miles, who dreams of a quieter life one day, he is not the man who meets Harry Ridding, farmer and childhood friend on an almost equal footing. It is certainly not Pronto who spends a night in the cottage of William Hawker; an American who had helps Miles when he got into difficulties while out sailing. Miles is impressed by this humble, educated man, and his gentle wife. So when Hawker finds himself taken by the press gangs, Miles is determined to help. However, while in Dawlish in Devon, the more disreputable Pronto seems to get the better of Miles. It is Miles who falls for the wrong woman as a young man, a spiteful jealous, controlling woman, from who he has a lucky escape. Later it is Miles who realises the woman he loves has been right under his nose, for years.
“When not obliged to think of other things, last summer, I thought of Caroline Audley. She haunted my imagination. I fancied conversations with her, in which she should revise a little her opinion of Lufton, – should allow him to be more manly than she supposed. In these interviews he played the man in a very determined fashion, and she most obligingly played the woman, – refrained from those cool, friendly jibes which might have brought him down to earth. This fancied Caroline was softer, more pliant, than the actual Caroline; her superiority though warmly acknowledged, was not allowed to obtrude.”
Having found and fallen in love with his house Troy Chimneys – Miles installs a tenant there for ten years, planning to eventually leave public life behind him and settle down there quietly. Miles longs to get rid of his alter ego permanently, but the peace and retirement he craves, and the woman he loves seem beyond his grasp.
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.