Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Kennedy’

Red Sky at Morning is the third Margaret Kennedy novel I’ve read this year, I really like her novels often depicting large, slightly chaotic families over a period of time. Of the three I have read this year, I would have to rank this one in last place, though that isn’t to say it’s not well worth reading. It’s only fault perhaps is that it is a little baggy, and could have done with a bit of tightening up.

At the end of the nineteenth century, twins Emily and William Crowne are born into a life of glamourous, London privilege. They are the children of a successful poet. However, their mother dies when they are very young, and their father is scandalously caught up in a big murder trial. At the start of the twentieth century, still very young children, they are taken in by their aunt, Catherine Frobisher, the widow of another minor poet. Mrs Frobisher’s two children Trevor and Charlotte are just a little older than Emily and William, and so the four children are able to grow up together, almost as siblings.

Although the four generally get along reasonably well, tensions and jealousies are rife between them. When William and Emily grow up, they will inherit a fortune, the Frobisher siblings will not be so fortunate. As Catherine Frobisher awaits news of the children’s father, they are innocently at play, little knowing what the future might hold.

“The telegraph-boy from Ratchet had lost his way in the darkness and had missed the front door, which was among the farm buildings at the back of the house. He wandered round in the grey sheets of rain, amid the groaning of hidden trees, till he found the garden porch. Seizing the huge old knocker with both hands, he struck a ringing blow which drowned the howling of the wind. Philip and Catherine wrestled with bolts and locks. A wild draft of rain blew into the hall, and some wet dead leaves came floating in from the darkness. Catherine took the telegram into the light, while Philip fought with the wind, and got the door shut again. The children, startled by this sudden incursion of excitement into a safe world, glanced up from their play.”

In an early chapter a fabulous toy puppet theatre is delivered to the house for the twins, but Trevor makes sure that only he and Charlotte play with it, the twins deemed ‘too young yet’ and so Emily and William grow up, with a vague memory of a beautiful toy theatre that they wish they had owned, never realising it had been bought for them. In this childish act of early spite, we begin to see something of the character of Trevor – who is quick to feel resentment, and happy to manipulate his cousins to suit himself, as he will do again when he is much older.

In this novel there are quite a lot of characters, the majority of whom are deftly explored. Mrs Frobisher is particularly well drawn, a woman who had married a man much older than herself is described as a woman ‘more conspicuously successful as a widow’ than she had been as a wife. That short phrase brilliantly conveying exactly what type of woman Catherine Frobisher is. A woman with a strong sense of what is right – and wanting always to be seen to do what is right. She seeks counsel regularly from a young rector Philip Luttrell, a neighbour and squire of Water Hythe. Philip rather allows himself to be dominated by Catherine, always managing to be on hand whenever she calls. Philip takes an interest in the young Crowne siblings, always on hand to watch them grow up.

Mrs Frobisher’s brother Bobbie Trevor is away in India at the time Emily and William come to live with her, and she eagerly awaits his return. Only when he does, she is scandalised that he brings his mistress with him, a woman still married to someone else. Catherine cannot bring herself to recognise the woman living at Monk’s Hall with her brother. It’s the former family home, she has fond memories of. So, for several years she barely sees anything of him, merely nodding to him outside church and passing by. Philip, who is good friends with Bobbie and Lise (who Bobbie later is able to marry) tries to intervene, but Catherine Frobisher is a stubborn woman, though as we come to see, not without heart, she very much loves her family.

The shadow that passed over Emily and William’s lives when they were too young to understand what had happened, will follow them into their adult lives. Their father’s notoriety is never forgotten, everyone knows whose children they are and they know themselves to looked at with curiosity and gossiped about.

“William, without turning, had thrust a hand backwards through the bars of the seat between them. She did the same, and very secretly they crooked their little fingers together. This they always did when they came to places, carried, as they often were, unwillingly, by a horde of kindly relations. It was a sign that the Crownes also were a family, a solid unit in the midst of a world which, for some obscure reason, was always just a little too benevolent towards them.”

They rely on one another, and are very close. As children they are very caught up in their own little world, and don’t realise that being the children of the infamous Norman Crowne will continue to haunt them into adulthood.

William grows up to be a playwright, and he and his sister set up home together in London, looked after by their faithful nurse Mattie. Only, William’s play is a disaster, he becomes a laughingstock, and is devastated by the failure. He is ripe for manipulation by his cousin, and by an actress set on helping to spend his fortune. Emily takes refuge in a marriage to a much older man she has known since childhood (I expect you can guess who – I saw it coming a mile off- all very Constant Nymph). With Trevor convincing William to buy Monk’s Hall and set it up as some sort of artists commune – the stage is set for potential tragedy.

In this novel we see the conflict between those traditional values of the Edwardian age and those of a more modern bohemian world inhabited by the artists and writers who find refuge at Monk’s Hall.

As ever, with Margaret Kennedy, this is a hugely readable novel, although perhaps not her best, it is worth seeking out for fans of her work. The world depicted here is recognisably hers.

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If nothing else, with a Margaret Kennedy novel you get a damn good read – although that is to undersell her a quite a bit. In April I reviewed Together and Apart, reading that – after quite a break from Margaret Kennedy – had served to remind me how good she is. She recreates a family perfectly – showing the modern reader how little has changed in families in seventy, eighty years or more. A Long Time Ago is another novel from the 1930s that Vintage reissued a few years ago.  It’s a really clever novel – showing how the same events can be interpreted differently by different people – how memories can’t always be relied upon, and neither can first-hand testimonies.

As the novel opens in the present time (1930s) Ellen Napier is flitting around her house, seeing to a few small household tasks. She has been a widow for seven years and still misses her husband Dick badly. Later her daughter Hope, and brother Kerran come to visit. Both Hope and Kerran are aware of and concerned with a new memoir that has just been published – in fact Hope is reading it. Ellen – not much of a reader – is as yet unaware of it – and her brother for one hopes to keep it that way. Kerran has been sent by the rest of the family, horrified by the memoir – indignant on Ellen’s behalf – that a family scandal is about to be shown to the world.

“Amid so much that was startling, where so many famous names were involved, it was likely that the chapter called A Summer in Ireland would be overlooked. But the family would never take that view of the matter. They talked about Ellen’s feelings and enjoyed themselves, just as they had enjoyed themselves twenty-five years ago, when it all happened. They had put up Ellen’s feelings as a kind of stalking horse for their own pleasure and excitement.”

The memoir is by Elissa Koebel – who had once been a celebrated singer – the memoir is said to be a scandalous record of her life. For Hope, and for her uncle one chapter stands out – ‘A Summer in Ireland.’ It is a time Hope remembers well – or thinks she does – for she was just a child, most of her time that summer spent with her siblings and cousins, strictly controlled by Muffy – the family nanny.

Elissa Koebel’s flowery account of that summer, when she, so young, beautiful, and rather infamous disrupted a family holiday – throws up a few surprises for Hope. As a child she had perhaps unsurprisingly been fascinated by the exciting, free spirited woman who was allowed to join their family party.

“Even now, when she thought of these things, Hope could not quite escape from an odd little pang of envy and regret. For as a child she had confidently expected to be just like Elissa when she grew up. She too had meant to be a great woman, ravishingly beautiful, to flout the world and to live a free, adventurous life. She had never asked herself how this was to be managed, and she never knew at what moment the fantastic expectation began to crumble.”

What Hope could not have possibly guessed at the time, was that others, including her own father – shared that fascination, and had acted upon it. Can Elissa’s account be entirely trusted? Hope can’t understand how her mother could have simply accepted such a betrayal and carried on afterwards as if nothing had happened.

The large family of adult siblings their husbands, wives and children had spent that summer in the early 1900s on Inishbar – a small island in rural Ireland. The family usually holidayed in Devon – but this holiday, in a castle on an island was dreamt up by Louise – Ellen’s sister. Married to an unexciting Oxford don, Louise was bored stiff of suburban North Oxford society. Louise’s enthusiasm for the project hadn’t been shared by everyone – but they all arrive, in dribs and drabs – with Ellen’s doctor husband, Dick one of the last to arrive – having had to stay behind in London to deal with a difficult case.

By the time Dick arrives with a family friend, Elissa Koebel – who no one had ever met before – is an established member of the party. Staying in a tiny cottage alone – to recover her strength, she had been intrigued by the island and the castle and rowed across the lake – whereupon she had met Louise and the children. Louise and her husband Gordon are instantly charmed by their unconventional visitor – and soon Elissa is spending every day at Inishbar – only returning to her cottage late each night.

In the present Hope’s uncle gives her access to a trove of letters, written at the time, mainly to his mother from various members of the house party. A picture of that summer emerges from this collection – a picture Hope attempts to complete. Which version of the past is the true one?

At the time Elissa was favourite with certain members of the party – others regarded her less favourably. Family gossip was rife – and it seemed everyone wanted to protect Ellen who was expecting a child from the possibility that her husband had been unfaithful. When Louise decides suddenly that Elissa is not to be trusted, she makes sure she is excluded from the party as soon as possible – but the damage may already have been done. There’s a lot of speculation about who knew what – assumptions are made about what people knew or didn’t know – and Kennedy presents this confusion very cleverly. How within a household everyone can be talking about one thing, quietly, but one person remain wholly ignorant of it – or can they?

As ever Kennedy’s family dynamic is perfect. Petty arguments and irritations are reproduced, children’s squabbles and long, lazy summer days. A large family house party in the early part of the twentieth century on an Island in Ireland – is a gorgeously evocative setting.

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Karen and Simon’s #1936club starts today, and as always I am delighted to join with some interesting reads. Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy is the first of three 1936 books I hope to review this week – but whether I manage to do so is another matter. It was easily my favourite of the books I read in March and reminded me what a brilliant writer Margaret Kennedy was.

The subject matter of this novel may not sound especially compelling initially, but Margaret Kennedy captivates her reader instantly. The story centres around the breakdown of an upper middle class marriage and how it affects the couple’s children, wider family and friends.

The couple in question are Betsy and Alec Canning, they have been married for some years and have three children. When Betsy married Alec, he had been a perfectly respectable civil servant and Betsy had been quite content with the life that brought with it. Only, Alec is now a fairly well-known librettist, one half of a very successful writing partnership. Their lives have changed, and so has Alec. Betsy is no longer content, despite the wealth that her husband’s success has brought them.

“It was day to lie on the beach and hear the lazy mew of a gull, the indolent flop of a wave, and see the horizon lost in a shimmering haze; not a day to think and scheme and bustle, but just to lie in the sun, and lie in the sun, and go into the sea, and feel cool water on warm flesh, and come out, and feel the hot sun on cool flesh, and lie dreaming until time came back with the shadows. Outside the house it was that sort of day. But not inside, where so much had to be done. In every room a clock was ticking. Do this! Do that! Hurry! Make up your mind! So that she never dared to stop, not for a minute.”

As the novel opens, it is summer and the family are living in their beautiful Welsh coastal summer house. From here Betsy writes a letter to her mother who is holidaying abroad. She thinks, that if she can explain herself fully her mother will understand and lend her, her full support. However, Mrs Hewitt doesn’t react as Betsy expects, pausing only long enough to send a telegram urging her daughter to do nothing final – she races home. Arriving back in the UK, and before travelling to Wales Mrs Hewitt calls in on Alec’s mother Mrs Canning – where poor Mrs Hewitt in a state of almost nervous collapse is taken ill. Mrs Canning travels to Wales in her stead determined to put a stop to any talk of divorce.

In Wales Alec is already starting to wonder whether a divorce isn’t going to be all too much trouble. The affair he has been having and which Betsy knew something about is over – he thinks perhaps he can talk Betsy around.

“A divorce seemed to be very like a marriage in many ways; relations would be hurt unless they were warned of it beforehand. But it was too soon to write about that, and he could not think of anything else to say. So he gave up the idea, and wrote instead to one or two people who had asked for his autograph. Then he went on to the terrace to smoke a last pipe.”

The children Kenneth, Eliza and Daphne are happy on the nearby beach with no idea of what’s in the air. Kenneth at about fifteen has a school friend staying, Mark is a couple of years older and Kenneth idolises him. Betsy is busy being irritated by the Blochs a Jewish refugee family who Alec has allowed to stay in a cottage in the grounds and is glad of the help of Joy Benson, a beautiful young woman who has spent her last few summers as a sort of mother’s help when the Canning family are in Wales. When Mrs Canning snr arrives, Betsy almost immediately leaves to be with her own mother in a London nursing home. Her relationship with her mother-in-law has often been prickly and is almost glad of the excuse to get away. Mrs Canning is sure her presence in the house will smooth everything out – but of course it transpires that her interference only makes things worse.

An added complication is that Joy has been harbouring feelings for Alec for some time – when she hears rumours of divorce talks from the Bloch’s she starts to wonder where she might be able to fit in. Alec is weak and a pretty young woman easily turns his head, it becomes clear to Alec that he must leave and in her infatuation Joy leaves with him. Alec leaving with Joy unleashes a terrible scandal – the pair are spotted together at the local railway station. Poor Kenneth takes things particularly badly, always rather ashamed of his father he is primed to instantly take his mother’s side. She can do no wrong in his eyes, and he has a huge argument with Eliza when he thinks that his sister isn’t as fully supportive of their mother as he is. Eliza is more torn than Kenneth, she wants a relationship with her father too, she was always his favourite.

Sides are taken by the Cannings friends and family, Alec’s painted as the villain, and his life is the one most affected in the early days. However, it soon transpires that Betsy is seriously considering re-marriage with a titled cousin who has loved her from afar for years. Max St Mullins is a funny little man, who people often find ridiculous but he is kind, generous and adores Betsy. Betsy’s supporters are rocked just a little when they hear that a marriage with Max might be on the cards. The only one really happy at the idea is Betsy’s youngest child Daphne who rather likes the idea of a Lord as a step-father. Everyone it seems has an opinion, and letters fly between these interested parties for months. Meanwhile everyone must get used to a new way of living.

Margaret Kennedy writes about the disintegration of this family beautifully with great understanding. The stories of the elder two children pulled between their parents is especially well done. Even in the 21st century where divorces are ten a penny, I think we can appreciate how whenever a breakdown like this occurs it ends up involving many other people – and its effects are felt for long afterwards.

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The librarything Virago group are reading Margaret Kennedy novels during October, and so last month I went in search of something to read for it. I bagged myself a 1955 edition of The Oracles. I was delighted when it arrived, to find it was absolutely pristine. I couldn’t help but wonder whether it had even been opened at all, in the past sixty years. It turned out to be quite an unusual story, but one that is very engrossing.

The Oracles tells the story of the small community of East Head, somewhere off the Bristol channel, and the chain of peculiar events that are visited upon its inhabitants in the wake of a large storm. The storm came on a Saturday night, returning on the Sunday, causing damage to the power station and extinguishing lights all over the small town. The ferocity of the storm caused fright and unease among the people of the town, bringing back memories of the air raids during the war. The only damage was to an old tree in the middle of a field behind the town.

The tree was the playground of a group of neglected children – the children of artist Conrad Swann and his girlfriend Elizabeth – five children, two families brought together in what the locals consider scandalous circumstances. Here the children built dens among the branches, hid themselves from the strange forms that Conrad created, made believe and fought the demons of their fertile imaginations that they called the ‘artifaxes’. Serafina is the eldest and has tried to be the little mother to them all – but it’s all getting too much for a child of ten. An old garden chair that the children had used to mount the tree, was twisted into a strange and unrecognisable shape by the lightning strikes, and when the children unknowingly move the strange object to the shed where Conrad had previously stored his much-awaited new sculpture, the stage is set for all kinds of misunderstanding and artistic snobbery.

A young local couple’s marriage is at the heart of the story, Dickie married pretty Christine two years earlier, and they now have an infant son. Dickie has recently become an admirer of artist Conrad Swann, and has even received an invitation to his much talked about party. Christine’s concerns are different to Dickie’s she rather enjoys gathering in the town Pavilion for tea and gossip, her horizons are smaller. Dickie has begun to find her conversation rather limited and has to stop himself from wincing whenever she calls the sitting room, the lounge (nothing wrong with lounge!). Their young marriage is put under severe strain when they find themselves on opposite sides of an artistic wrangle, not really helped when Dickie accuses Christine of being provincial. Christina is hurt, but she isn’t faultless either. Her friend the vicar’s wife tries to talk to her honestly but Christina isn’t quite ready to hear it.

“ ‘You never seem to grow up. You’re still the same complacent little thing you were in High school. It quite shocks me to hear the way you order Dickie about. No wonder he snaps! I don’t want to be disagreeable. But I do think you’re making a terrible mistake. When people marry they… they both change a little, and grow up together, and help each other to face life. But they must be ready to alter their points of view to suit each other. A married couple… they aren’t just two people. They can be one person, in a sort of way; a kinder, wiser person than either of them could have been alone, because two people’s experience has been put in to it…’ ”

The Oracles of the title are a group of provincial art appreciators and intellectuals who pounce upon the former chair, mistaking it for a piece of modern art by Conrad Swann, and set about bullying their fellow townspeople into buying it for the town with public money. The group are led by Mrs Rawson – who is terribly blind in her artistic snobbery.

Meanwhile Conrad goes missing as people gather for a party at his house, on the Sunday evening of the storm. One of the guests is Elizabeth’s husband – Conrad’s best friend and art dealer Frank Archer. It is perhaps surprising that Frank Archer is one of the most level headed, measured characters in the book. It is perhaps less surprising that several of the characters are really quite unlikeable. However, as I have said before – I do rather like, an unlikeable character.

With Conrad nowhere to be found, and without a thought for anyone else, particularly her children, Elizabeth decides to take herself off to London, leaving a bit of money in a drawer for Seraphina. The abandoned children are happy enough to start with – but it isn’t long before they begin to long for someone to come, someone who will look after them, they are hungry and dirty and all alone. Seraphina is eventually forced to take action – if only the grownups arguing and posturing over a piece of art can be made to stop long enough to hear her cries.

“she had little trust in grown-up people but she still retained some crumbs of faith in certain natural laws. Children, so she believed, were never left alone, quite alone, in a house. She had never heard of that happening. There was always some older person, of very little use perhaps, but a symbol of responsibility. Orphans were put into orphanages because it was impossible that children should be in a house alone. Conrad had gone. Elizabeth was going. Somebody, therefore, was bound to come.”

It is the plight of the children – for whom, naturally we feel for most, the lack of care and concern by Elizabeth and Conrad is horrifying – and they never really answer for it either. The story of a piece of old storm damaged debris being mistaken for modern art is one that should be quite funny – but Kennedy makes this a much more complex story than that. One which shows us that she really understands how people work, and how small communities can operate.

The Oracles was an excellent read, a slightly unusual story perhaps, suffused with tension, it’s one I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Well I am sorry – I really had intended to get this review written and posted a little nearer to Margaret Kennedy day – but it appears to have been one of those weeks.

The Forgotten Smile is a later Margaret Kennedy novel – one offering the reader a wonderful escape to another world. The majority of the novel takes place on Keritha, a tiny Greek Island, largely forgotten by the rest of the world. A place of Pagan mysticism and legend, where the cruise ships don’t stop and aren’t really welcome. It’s a place out of step with the modern world and is perfect for an escape.

The title of the novel is explained thus:

“I believe that is why our ancestors, who never supposed themselves destined for felicity, have left so many memorials, in this part of the world, to human happiness and to the spectacle of men rejoicing. In the earliest sculpture they are smiling. It is this forgotten smile, sometimes called ‘mysterious’, which I have sometimes seen on Keritha. We have preserved it because, in the eyes of the world, for many centuries, there has been nothing of note to be sought on our island.”

The novel opens with an unexpected meeting between pompous Ancient Greek scholar Dr. Percival Challoner – and Selwyn Potter – one of his former students – on the Greek island of Thasos. Selwyn (by far my favourite character) is a man who is only dimly aware of his own inability to fit in, his waist line is too thick, his hair is too curly. At first, to Selwyn’s confusion, Dr Challoner doesn’t seem to remember his former student – this is a man who is pretty disparaging of everything. However, the two are destined to be thrown together, and Dr Challoner forced to remember Selwyn Potter, as he finds he needs his help. Dr Challoner has no interest in any field of study other than his own, to the extent that he can’t even speak modern Greek – just the ancient. Wanting to travel to the mysterious Keritha, where he has a legacy waiting for him in the form of a house which belonged to an uncle and aunt (whom he resented simply for their being younger than he – Dr Challoner dislikes such unconventional oddities) – he enlists Selwyn’s help as translator. The pair find themselves on a small boat for the trip to Keritha – which they share with crates of Coca-Cola and a goat.

“The boat was small. The cargo included several crates of Coca-Cola and a tempestuous Billy goat. At the sight and smell of this creature Dr Challoner would have cancelled the trip had he been able to retrieve his suitcase which were stowed away under the crates. Nobody listened to his protests. He was pushed aboard amidst a terrific altercation carrying on between the crew and some people on the quay. In the course of it they put out to sea but the volleys of invective between ship and shore went on as long as any shout would carry on across the water.
‘What was all that about?’ he asked as silence fell.
‘Just the time of day,’ said Selwyn. ‘Who’s dead, and who’s married. Also some important citizen has bought a refrigerator. You needn’t keep your feet tucked up like that. The goat won’t bite.’”

When they arrive on Keritha, Selwyn Potter is amazed to meet someone else he knows. Kate Benson, whose daughter Selwyn had known slightly years earlier – Selwyn is remembered for breaking a small table when he visited the Benson house. Kate, it transpires has been staying on Keritha for the last two years. From here the narrative jumps back a couple of years to reveal how it was that Kate Benson, wife and mother, ended up in such an unlikely place.

Kate a woman of around sixty, fed up with being under-appreciated and ignored by her adult children and her husband, Kate decides to take an Aegean cruise. She selects a cruise that doesn’t take the usual route, making stops in less well-known places, that are a little off the usual tourist track. The ship makes a stop at Keritha, where Kate runs into childhood friends; brother and sister Edith and Alfred Challoner (who in the present have died within months of each other). The Challoners; Kate learns, came home to the island of their birth years earlier. The Challoners had not had a happy time in England, never quite fitting in, they returned to a place where they felt they belonged, here Alfred is revered by the locals and called ‘Lord Freddie.’ With her childhood friends Kate finds a home a world away from the one she left – with all the family arguments that have recently so unsettled her.

Back in the present and with Edith and Alfred recently dead, Kate has stayed on in the house – at least temporarily with the mysterious Eugenia. She comes forward to meet Dr Challoner – the new Lord of the house – and is mildly irritated to meet Selwyn again. Kate is not the first person to overlook the poor, bumbling Selwyn, never wondering what it is that has brought a once brilliant scholar to life as a school-master.

“The more we love people the more we have to change when they die. If the dead could come back, those who loved them most would seem to them the most changed.”

In retrospect, we hear Selwyn’s story – as well as Kate’s – as the story of these people slip back and forth from past to present. Gradually the island works its magic on this group, casting each of them in a new light in the eyes of the others. Keritha shows those who need showing, that the world hasn’t quite finished with them yet – that perhaps there is a place for them back in the world.

The Forgotten Smile was such a lovely read for Margaret Kennedy day – perhaps one year I will actually post a review on the correct day.

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It is Margaret Kennedy day today – hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock

I quickly bought myself a copy of The Forgotten Smile – which is one of the titles re-issued by Vintage. It kept me wonderful company on Friday evening and on Saturday as I burnt myself in the garden. I finished it on Sunday afternoon – but I haven’t got around to starting my review yet – so it will pop up a few days late. Still I thoroughly enjoyed The Forgotten smile – the fifth Margaret Kennedy novel I have read and one of her later novels. In some ways, it is a slightly lighter novel than a couple of the others I have read, but it was a delight, a lovely escape from the here and now too as I was transported to a tiny Greek Island suffused with mystical legends.   IMG_20170617_120342_727

Margaret Kennedy was born in 1861, and became a very prolific writer – she adapted her second novel The Constant Nymph for the theatre, which was also made into a film. What I have only just discovered is that there is a sequel to The Constant Nymph, The Fool of the Family  – has anyone read it? There are some copies on ebay for around £13 – but unfortunately it isn’t one of the novels re-issued by Vintage – perhaps in time (*crosses fingers*).

So in honour of Margaret Kennedy day and because my review isn’t ready yet, here are some links to my previous Margaret Kennedy reviews. The books are each quite different – which I see as a really good thing – and each of these posts have been quite popular ones on my blog. The Constant Nymph is probably my favourite, although The Feast runs a close second.

So, in the order which I read and reviewed them:

The Constant Nymph
The Ladies of Lyndon
Troy Chimneys
The Feast

I am looking forward to seeing what other people have read for Margaret Kennedy day – and I am so glad I joined in and reminded myself what an excellent writer she is. As a reader, it is always exciting to know that there are lots more books by a particular writer to enjoy.

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troy chimneys

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 mkdaycalled 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.

margaret kennedy

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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.


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the constant nymph

The Constant Nymph was Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, and probably her most successful and well known. 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.

As the novel opens Lewis Dodd a gifted English musician arrives in the Tyrol to stay at the home of unconventional bohemian composer Albert Sanger and his unusual family. Lewis is already an old friend of the family, a family known as ‘Sanger’s Circus’ by their many friends and acquaintances across Europe, whose hospitality they frequently take advantage of. The family consist of six of Sanger’s seven children – the fruit of several marriages and mistresses, – and Sanger’s current mistress Linda. The Sanger family living in a rambling chalet high in the Austrian mountains is a retreat for all sorts of people who land on them with little or no notice.

“Few people could recollect quite how many children Sanger was supposed to have got, but there always seemed to be a good many and they were most shockingly brought up. They were, in their own orbit, known collectively as ‘Sanger’s Circus,’ a nickname earned for them by their conspicuous brilliance, the noise they made, and the kind of naptha-flare genius which illuminated everything they said or did.”

Teresa, the fourteen year old second daughter of Albert’s second marriage, is Lewis’s particular little friend – her devotion to him constant and unwavering. Tessa never questions her love for Lewis, she awaits the day when she will be old enough to take her place at his side. Lewis is all too aware of this, and although neither of them ever speaks of Teresa’s feelings it is an excepted thing within the whole family.

Teresa’s older sister Antonia has already entered into a relationship with a business man friend of her father’s, despite only being sixteen, happy that her future will be that of the wife she feels destined to be. Teresa is delicate, warm and irrepressibly untaught, there are moments when like her sister Toni, she seems older than her years, and at other times fragile and childlike. Teresa spends much of her time with her younger sister Paulina, the two looking out for one another amid the chaos of their home. At just ten Sebastian is the youngest of Teresa’s full siblings, another gifted musician of the future. Sanger’s eldest two grown up children are Caryl and Kate, Caryl about to find his own way in the world, and Kate who capably and quietly runs the household while Linda lies around not doing very much, while her child Suzanne spies on her half siblings and runs telling tales at the least excuse.

Very shortly Albert Sanger dies unexpectedly, leaving no money for his family to live on. Florence Churchill, the children’s cousin, and her Uncle Robert travel to the Sanger’s high Austrian home, and begin to make arrangements to take the family home to England. Florence is twenty eight, beautiful and pretty certain of what she wants, and that very soon turns out to be Lewis. Florence is captivated by Lewis, and Lewis is quickly drawn to her too. Florence has little understanding of Lewis and his ways, she fails to see that the two of them are really not very well suited. Their rapid engagement and marriage is greeted with some shock by everyone, and Teresa is particularly pained, though her love for Lewis remains undimmed. The Sanger children, feel drawn to their beautiful graceful cousin, wanting to impress her, and with prompting from Lewis, agree to go to England and be sent to school.

After a honeymoon in Europe, Florence and Lewis settle down to life in a house that Florence had set her mind on in London. Cracks appear, Florence and Lewis begin to argue over family matters, and the marriage is soon seen to be in some trouble. Meanwhile, Toni married now to Jacob Birnbaum, is living in London too, but her younger siblings are not so happy. Teresa and Paulina run away from their school and Sebastian flees his own school – the three turning up, inevitably on Lewis’s doorstep while Florence is away visiting her father. This begins the trouble between Teresa and Florence, Teresa so certain of her right to feel the way she does, and Florence, suspicious and jealous, soon finds herself hating her young cousin and never really trying to hide it. A s Florence starts to feel more and more excluded from the world of ‘Sanger’s Circus’ and Lewis draws further away from her – Teresa, although still only fifteen is made to feel her rightful place is with Lewis. Like Albert Sanger before him, Lewis is a creative genius, and a man not always easy to live with, Florence has not had time to learn how to handle him, whereas Teresa it seems has always known.

“[Teresa] was, probably, the only woman in the world who could manage this man; she would respect his humours without taking them too seriously, she would never require him to behave correctly, and if annoyed her, she would reprove him good-humouredly in the strong terms which he deserved and understood.”

The stage is set for drama, and Margaret Kennedy certainly gives us that, quite unexpectedly, although I had a funny feeling which direction we were headed. However I wondered if Margaret Kennedy’s choice of ending reflects perhaps the times in which the novel was written, I doubt we would have such an ending written today. (I am being quite deliberately vague; I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone)

Margaret Kennedy week coming along has given me the perfect opportunity to read the work of an author I feel I really should have encountered before. The writing is superb, Kennedy handles her characters with understanding and skill, their world is perfectly drawn. I am hoping, to get to read The Ladies of Lyndon after my current read, it looks very good too.


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