I was forced to read this lovely novel quite slowly, I was very, very busy last week and my reading time was frustratingly limited. The only upside of that was I got to spend far longer with The Feast Margaret Kennedy’s eighth novel, set in a Cornish hotel in 1947 – than I may have done otherwise.
The novel opens with a prologue, two clergymen settling in for a few days’ holiday together, one is paying a visit to his old friend Revd Bott of St. Sody, North Cornwall. The Revd Bott has a sermon to write – despite having supposed to have taken time off to entertain his friend. The sermon is for a funeral service – a funeral service with a difference. A dramatic cliff fall recently swallowed up a local hotel, burying everyone inside in a pile of rocks. The dead were unable to be recovered. There were however some survivors, those fortunate enough to be attending a picnic – and the story which follows is the story of the final week of life in that hotel, of all the people who were staying or working at the hotel at the time of the disaster. Who died? who survived?
“The fallen cliff had filled up the entire cove, like stones in a basin. No trace was left of the house, the little platform of land where it had stood, or of anything else that had ever been.”
There are a lot of characters – the family who own the hotel – formerly a private family home – their guests, locals and the servants who work there. There are over twenty characters and their stories are woven together brilliantly, the selfish, bullying, damaged and cruel. In the personalities of her characters Margaret Kennedy explores the seven deadly sins. I’m not sure I would have immediately picked up on this though, had it not been for some very handy scribbled notes by a former reader in the back of my old edition. One of the reasons I love old books – the notes and inscriptions left behind by readers of the past.
We meet several of the hotel guests as they are preparing for their journey – setting out for a holiday, squeezing into an overcrowded train. The two main families staying at the Pendizack hotel – the Giffords and the Coves. Lady Gifford, her husband Sir Henry, their daughter Caroline, and three other adopted children will be holidaying in the hotel the children despatched by train, Lady G and her husband driving down. Sharing the train, and vying for seats with the Gifford children are the Coves, a widow and her three daughters. Mrs Cove – it is soon apparent is not a particularly nice woman, unsmiling and dour, she observes her children with a weary unaffectionate eye. The Gifford children kept safe in America during the war, have been somewhat indulged by their mother – though they are generally nice children – and this indulgence is evident to their fellow passengers.
“Sentiment among their travelling companions had been on the side of the widow, and nothing about the Giffords was likely to change it. They had an unusually well-nourished look, and no family could have been so faultlessly dressed on its legal clothing coupons. They belonged quite clearly to the kind of people who feed in the Black Market, who wear smuggled nylons and who, in an epoch of shortages, do not scruple to secure more than their share.
But mankind is strangely tolerant, especially to children, and the sins of their parents would not have been visited upon the Giffords if they had not behaved as though they owned the train.”
Already installed at the hotel are the Paleys, a married couple, their lives and marriage stilted by a tragedy years earlier, which Mr Paley particularly seems unable to speak about or get past. The hotel owners are the Siddals, Mrs Siddal who occupies the worst room in the house – her husband who is dreadfully lazy, mostly conspicuous by his absence – and their three adult sons. Gerry, despite being a qualified doctor, works hard, his big heart and great capacity for love is not rewarded as his mother favours his handsome brothers. After this season is over, Gerry and his brothers must decide on their future. Snobby, gossip, Miss Ellis, the housekeeper, believes emptying slops is beneath her, pretty good hearted Nancibel formerly of the ATS, and young Fred must prepare the way for the guests’ arrival. Ten guests due to arrive – with two already in residence, and not enough bathrooms means a lot of work for the hotel staff.
Lady Gifford sees herself as something as an invalid, taking to her bed soon after her arrival. She insists upon a very rich diet – despite the strictures of rationing – and there is a rumbling discontent between her and her husband over things which happened during the war. Mrs Cove, pleads poverty, presents herself as a good little martyr – we soon enough see her true colours. Collecting all the sweets coupons together she sends her children to different shops for marshmallows and other hard to get treats – which she will sell to Lady Gifford. Both of these women are slowly revealed to be different kinds of monsters.
The hotel is further rocked by the arrival of Canon Wraxton, and his nervous, bullied daughter Evageline. The Canon is a very difficult, unpleasant man, who having caused great upset, refuses to quit the hotel until his week is up.
Writer, Anna Lechene is installed in the garden room, while her chauffeur/secretary Bruce must sleep above the stables, their relationship raises eyebrows, especially as Bruce seems to have taken a bit of a shine to Nancibel.
The feast of the title takes place on the last day, the day of the disaster. The feast has been dreamed about by the children, planned for and finally brought to fruition by the kind, affectionate grown-ups who have taken the seven children to their hearts.
This is definitely my favourite Margaret Kennedy novel to date, she deftly weaves together these various stories, gradually revealing the secrets of the past, the deficient personalities. There are romances, and transformations, hope for the future and Margaret Kennedy’s very own brand of biblical style retribution to those deserving of punishment.