….’They crept slowly northward, while new songs like little birds flew out into the world….’ (Margaret Kennedy)

There are clear images etched in my mind that the prose of Margaret Kennedy has bequeathed to me. My thoughts still linger over some of the more dynamic moments from my recent read of her novel The Fool of the Family. IMG_7557 Described as ‘hauntingly beautiful’, described as ‘light and charming‘, it is an unusual story that continues the fortunes of the brilliant Sanger family, a saga that was begun with Kennedy’s wildly successful novel The Constant Nymph.

Who? What? It’s Margaret Kennedy week! Find out more about this enigmatic author here, where Jane of fleurfisher blog is hosting this reading event. I enjoy discovering new writers, and new ways of creating the fascinating world of fiction. (Kennedy  has written several works of non-fiction, as well, see below.)

The Fool of the Family takes place in 1920’s Europe, and delivers to the reader a rich tapestry of experience; everything from Venetian gondolas to luxury spas in the Italian alps to a Bohemian ghetto in London.

via pinterest

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Some of my lingering images?…picture yourself in a gondola on a starlit canal in Venice…shouting, operatic gondoliers on boats laden with colorful vegetables go punting wildly past….no, now we are in the towering Dolomites…the bleating of sheep and the tinkling of shepherd’s bells in the valley below…threatening ‘blackshirts’ roam the narrow roads like thugs, rich people bask unawares in luxury mountain villas….an overburdened gypsy’s donkey dies on the long trek up the mountain carrying the gear for a theatrical puppet show…while careening around hairpin bends in a little sporty Lancia comes the lovely blond Fenella driving too fast because risking her life is all she has left to do….now we are in a London ghetto, where the fog and soot mingle thickly with the stench, where the haunting strains of an opera are hurriedly pencilled out on scraps of paper…in the same cold room a baby has just died….

There is handsome, conflicted, talented Caryl Sanger. ‘The Fool of the Family’, he feverishly writes second rate operas then tears them up in bitter despair.

There is the charismatic younger brother Sebastian Sanger making eyes at Fenella, whenever he has a chance—which is oftener than it should have been, because Fenella and Caryl are in love. Or–Caryl is in love; Fenella is young and suffused with the ambition to ‘live dangerously‘.

There is scrappy, world-weary Gemma, making eyes at both Sebastian and Caryl as they all sleep outside under the stars in the thickly wooded Italian alps.

There is a bag of hand painted marionettes tossed ruthlessly over a steep cliff….heartbreaking.

The richest imagery was a scene close to the beginning of the novel, when we meet Madame Giulietta Rovere….and when the true difference between the two Sanger brothers is artfully played out in the most dramatic of settings.

’She was old, and miserably poor, and half paralyzed. Many years had passed since she had left the stage. But a glory still lingered about her name. The legend of her beauty, her misfortunes, and her “golden voice” lived on.’

I was intrigued at once by this description, as the grande dames of the theater in the Edwardian era brings a few famous names to mind. These women were all opulent, lush, lovely, and could be counted on to leave a trail of scandalous amours in their wake. Madame Giuletta Rovere, in her heyday, might have looked like one of these lovelies, when, as she so boldly expressed it to the Sanger brothers; “Your father loved me.”

[A side note: writer Angela Thirkell (of the same era as Margaret Kennedy) also wrote with a near reverence of actresses of this period, as though, as a class, they had become their own sort of royalty. The name of Mrs. Patrick Campbell is particularly linked with the Thirkell family. ’Mrs. Pat’, as she was called, was romantically and scandalously linked with Thirkell’s grandfather Edward Burne-Jones, resulting in this famous painting.]

Margaret Kennedy gives us rich visuals as we enter the house of Madame Rovere.

‘Going into La Rovere’s house was rather like the first scene in a play. ‘


‘An intrinsic aroma of the theatre hung about the dark Canal and the high garden walls and the creepers that looked so like property creepers. A very small door led into a dim, ruined courtyard full of ilex, cyprus, and rose hedges run wild. They shut in the crumbling house, accosting an eternal shade most fitting for the vanished glories of its mistress.’

‘She lived always in one room, a vast chilly salon, looking out upon a terrace and a fountain that never played. Everything in it was old, and broken, and dusty, and everything had once been magnificent. The tarnished gilding, the moth-eaten tapestries, the stained brocade were all relics of the past, of the days when La Rovere had herself been magnificent.’

‘Now she sat, like an old spider in the midst of her dusty web,… a mummy swathed in ragged, priceless shawls, tags and ends of dirty lace, with here and there the gleam of incredible, sham jewelry. Only the eyes remained alive, enormous, flashing, stored with all the power of greatness. They looked out, undefeated, over her ruined domain, and when she spoke the faded room heard once more that voice at which kings had wept.’


‘Her parties were dim and magical, as though each guest, as he stepped through the little door in the wall, had stepped back into the past.’

In spite of this lush description of shabby grandeur, it was when Sebastian entered the room that things became really interesting for me. Sebastian is clearly a favorite character with the author. He is flawed, certainly–but brilliant, mercurial, and as charismatic in appeal as she could make him.

In the two Sanger brothers, she has created a kind of Mozart/Salieri conflict; the genius who is careless with the lives, hearts, and money of those around him, contrasted with the tormented impotent (musically speaking) whose destiny is to hunger after a muse who is indifferent to him. Caryl’s inability to fan the flames of his passion for music into a spark of genius is a personal agony. Worse, Sebastian is searingly critical, mocking, even, of his older brother’s efforts at composition. Yet Caryl knows that Sebastian is a genius, and for his admiration of that genius, his love for the music Sebastian creates, and the love, at times hostile, for his brother, he allows himself to be used again and again.

There is heartbreak in the character of Caryl—he is ‘the fool of the family‘.

Meanwhile, Sebastian has entered the room at Madame Rovere’s and has immediately secured the attention of everyone there, including, most importantly, that of ‘La Rovere’, herself. Caryl had arrived much earlier and, far from being noticed, was wishing he hadn’t come, and was hoping no one would ask him to perform on the dusty old relic of a piano.


‘Sebastian’s way of getting into a room was infinitely more successful. He did not slink in at the heels of an introducer. He simply made an entrance, with an air of such pleasant gravity, such, composure, that nobody could have guessed that he had not been invited. Without pausing to stare he took in the whole circle instantly, and advanced at once to make his bow to La Rovere. Everybody surveyed him with a quickened interest.

“But who are you, then?” she demanded.

“Sebastian Sanger, madame. Permit me to kiss your hand.”

“Aha…” The old eyes fairly blazed.’

Sebastian is eager to perform music for his rapt audience. When he is in a mood to captivate, he does it well.

‘And then, when he had made sure of his audience, he left off playing Sanger. He gave them instead something quite new, quite strange. It was smooth and gay and oddly formal, so that it wooed its hearers into accepting strange dissonances which, being old, they ought to have resented. It gave them all the shock of a new pleasure, that shock which becomes so rare and so treasured as we advance through life.’

It was that paragraph made me more forgiving of Sebastian, as the story continues and his insensitivities begin to mount. I would have loved to have been there to hear his ‘strange dissonances’. I’m sure I would have fallen under his spell, too, at least for that moment.

Fenella, on the other hand, never did charm me as a character. It was difficult to reconcile the ending for this reason. She, of course, is the ‘Inconstant nymph’.

There were unrealized hopes for me from this novel, in terms of character, and where the narrative took me. The various pendulum swings of emotion were exasperating, at times. It was interesting to me that all of Kennedy’s female characters were shallow, unstable, or driven by pure emotion. But there were some brilliant characterizations, as well. The intense bursts of lucid, fresh prose often kept me thinking about what I had just read. As a musician, there were many elements of the novel that resonated with my own perspective.

If I had written the ending? Since my sympathies were with Caryl, I hoped he would realize that Fenella’s vacillating heart was not worthy of him. The tragedy of lost love has ever enriched the cause of art! For Caryl, I had hoped it to be the catalyst, that spark he so longed for. I would have had him writing a masterpiece, finding his true voice.

But perhaps in the end, he was actually happier than my little future I had all laid out for him of noble loneliness, and soul-cleansing brilliance, sending ‘new songs like little birds out into the world’. You think?

Perhaps he was not a ‘fool’ at all.


Additional notes: As mentioned, Margaret Kennedy has written some non-fiction on a variety of topics. From Jane’s blog we find the following list:

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.

The book by Kennedy on Jane Austen’s life and work has been reviewed here. Her perceptions regarding Jane Austen’s ‘troubled child of a novel’ Mansfield Park are quite astute and differ from other writers of her time:

… ‘the most important of the novels, the most ambitious in theme, and the best example of her powers’.

This alone makes me want to find a copy of her work on Jane Austen and read what she has to say about the rest of the novels. For a fascinating series from other authors who would agree with Margaret Kennedy’s assessment of Mansfield Park, visit Sarah Emsley’s blog where she is hosting Your Invitation to Mansfield Park. The discussions featured here have opened up entirely new vistas with which to view this complex novel.

Margaret Kennedy’s The Outlaws on Parnassus, described here as ‘lively, provocative, and original‘, is a critical approach to the art of writing a novel. Highly recommended.

Faber and Faber is in the process of re-issuing several of Margaret Kennedy’s novels.

Clearly, my Margaret Kennedy reading ‘week’ is going to extend through the long winter!

13 thoughts on “‘Strange Dissonances’: Reading Margaret Kennedy

  1. Fascinating! I haven’t read anything by Margaret Kennedy, but I agree with her assessment of Mansfield Park (which won’t surprise you at all). Thanks for this post, and for drawing my attention to her work.

  2. First, I so enjoyed the post and your writing style. Second, I haven’t read Ms. Kennedy but have seen a movie version of “The Constant Nymph” with Joan Fontaine, I believe. Thanks for the detail and background information.

    • Garry, that is so kind of you! And I am glad you reminded me of the movie The Constant Nymph–I love Joan Fontaine. I am going to see if I can track it down to watch.

  3. A lovely post which I really enjoyed reading. I’ve just finished reading The Ladies of Lyndon for MK week , loved it, and looking forward to more of her work.

  4. This is a deliciously evocative and yet scholarly review of the book which really drew me into the world her characters inhabit. After reading this I intend to purchase the book. After reading your review I wonder how it was that I missed this book in the first place

    • Thank you, Peter…and I agree; how did I miss reading this author all these years? However, I plan to make up for it, and like a busy squirrel, I am beginning to stockpile a little stash of her books for the long winter ahead! :o)

  5. Thank you for introducing us to Margaret Kennedy. Thank you also for a very beautifully written review of “The Fool of the Family.” Your excerpts of Kennedy’s descriptions of Venice brought back vivid images of our time there.

    • Thank you–I appreciate that! I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I love it when I find a ‘new’ author whose work keeps me thinking about imagery and ideas well after the book is done.

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