‘I like to think that when I am dead, as long as the house stands, the sun and water will write these chronicles upon the ceiling—the same sun, the same river—only the current gives an illusion of change.’ (Miles Lufton — Troy Chimneys)
How to describe Margaret Kennedy’s strange and lovely novel? Troy Chimneys, written in 1952, is a book that keeps you thinking about it long after you’ve reluctantly finished the last page.
Have you ever had an ancestor who was shrouded in mystery? Or a black sheep of the family, with stories told in whispers, and you wondered what the real story might have been? If only there were letters; if only there were memoirs, found in the back of an old cupboard…if only we could really know why they did what they did…
If you find such things appealing, then you will enjoy Troy Chimneys.
“What you say about family skeletons is very true. I know nothing about the great uncle Miles Lufton who seems to have written these papers. I once asked my mother about him and she protested that she didn’t either, but with a little blush which she always sports when she tells a fib. I believe she does know something and that he was not quite the thing…I don’t see why he should have vanished into complete obscurity like this. I only took a very hasty look at the papers, but by his own account, he seems to have been very much the thing, and M.P. and all that, went everywhere, knew everybody, and cut quite a dash. And he owned property, too, a house in Wiltshire called Troy Chimneys….”
The story opens: A gentleman in the England of the Victorian age receives some letters and the hastily composed memoirs of a distant family connection named Miles Lufton. Lufton had lived several decades previous—in what is known to us today as the Regency era, the Jane Austen era—and he had risen from somewhat humble roots to be become a successful Minister of Parliament. In concert with his rising fortunes, he secured what he thought was his future of gentlemanly retirement, in the form of a house in Wiltshire known as Troy Chimneys.
‘How curious that your great uncle once owned Troy Chimneys! I think I have seen it. At least, I have seen a house in Wiltshire answering to that odd name, and I can’t believe there are two. A local antiquary told me that it is probably a corruption of Trois Chemins, and three roads do certainly meet at its front gate. I saw it when I was staying at Laycock, and we all agreed that it is a pity such a striking old house should not be properly kept up. It is a mere farmhouse now. There is a manure heap by the front door and half the windows are boarded up. I rememember it chiefly for a very pretty stone dovecote and a great old mulberry tree in the rough grass in front.’
Yet this is not a ‘great house’ novel. Troy Chimneys is about the illusion of such a place, and the sometimes tragic results that come from self-deception.
The appeal of what Troy Chimneys has to offer is immense, but like a wisp of a dream, it is ever held just outside the bounds of the story. This is hinted at by the beautiful patterns of shadows that flit across the parlour ceilings, reflected from the river that flows below. The dream begins to glow in the reader’s own imagination as a sweet oasis, the potential fitting end to a what is, essentially, a coming of age story.
Miles Lufton, in spite of my best intentions to stay aloof, soon begins to matter. Perhaps it is, in part, because he tells his own story to us in the first person narrative, through the device of the memoirs. In fiction I can easily keep a sort of detachment; my interest is sparked by fascinating interactions, the historical settings, realistic, dynamic dialogue that is expressive of inner conflicts; I often read from a writer’s viewpoint, with an analytical assessment of details. Margaret Kennedy, though, with an unseen sleight of hand, a mastery of subtle technique, made me care about Miles Lufton as a character. His voice, his at times amusing self-deception, his desire to help the oppressed, sometimes acted on, sometimes not, and his dreams of the life he wanted to live in spite of the life he had been born to–all of this resonates back to our own heart, and the reader feels his disappointments keenly.
At first appraisal, one might think the house, Troy Chimneys, is an insubstantial part of the novel—the house doesn’t appear until well into the novel, by the time Lufton can afford it, and Miles Lufton, sadly, never even gets to live there. But it is the house that tells us so much about Miles. For one thing, he loves it exceedingly.
‘I sat in the window seat of the larger parlour and watched the slow, liquid play of the sunlight upon the ceiling, with its reminder of the constant current passing below. This particular has always delighted me in Troy Chimneys. I try to go there upon a sunny morning, so that I may see it. The passing of time never presents itself in a more agreeable fashion; I like to think that when I am dead, as long as the house stands, the sun and water will write these chronicles upon the ceiling—the same sun, the same river—only the current gives an illusion of change. I already saw myself live there and beholding it daily…and the stream of time, rolling ever past us, might carry away all that I wished to forget.’
Is there a woman he dreams of sharing this with, you ask? Oh, yes. Caroline Audley…and she is all the more romantic as a heroine because of how their relationship develops. This is so skillfully done, and the recounting of their belated courtship is a delight.
Of all the vain, self-concerned, ambitious, faithless women that move about in artful dance on the perimeters of Miles’ rise to success, Caroline suddenly emerges into the narrative in ripe, glowing, believable life. Although he has known her for eleven years, he begins to ‘see’ her for the valuable human being she is. Miles falls deeply in love.
He takes her to see Troy Chimneys, before he has declared his feelings. This is not done as a sort of litmus test, to evaluate her reactions to it, and therefore add to her worth in his eyes or reduce it. He simply, trustingly, knows that she will love it as he does. He is already convinced that she is the only woman worthy enough to live in his beloved house, and the most fitting recipient for the life his heart is set on living.
‘I insisted that we should set off very early. I wished the morning sun still to be upon the river, so that they might see the reflection in the house though I had not mentioned this beforehand. It was a surprise which I was saving for Caroline. The ladies were driven and I rode beside them, ecstatic in the prospect of seeing my beloved girl walk into my beloved house. For some reason I pictured her walking all alone up the path to the door, and vanishing into the shadows of the long room…’
Oh, he is such a romantic soul. So vulnerable. We love how he calls her ‘my beloved girl’. It is through the eyes of Caroline that we begin to really understand Miles. For she, a deeply intelligent, observant woman, has seen through him all along.
I haven’t mentioned the oddest part of the novel because, in retrospect, it really wasn’t that odd to me. But some might find it off-putting. Miles Lufton—quiet, retiring, idealistic young man—knew that none of those qualities would gain him the world he sought; the ambitions he dreamed of. So he adopted a protective ‘persona’; one that came to be known as Pronto. Having Pronto at hand kept the ‘real’ Miles in a sort of incubation, to be called for when needed. Although an exaggerated effect, it is not that far from what many of us do when we need to put on a public face, or set ourselves to achieve something that feels beyond our scope. When the private person must become a public person, a sort of ‘Pronto’ mechanism is engaged.
Pronto was not only ambitious, he could be ruthless and selfish, as well. Pronto knew how to work the system, and he makes sure he knows the right people. He could ride over others in his way—they applaud his brilliance—or he could charm a crowd with stories and skillfully entertain party guests with song. It was said he had a ‘voice like an angel’. Pronto gets Miles where Miles wants to be, and once the dream is realized, Pronto will be discarded like the sham he is, and Miles will settle in comfortably to enjoy the rewards.
And Caroline? Well, she was just the sort of woman he was keeping Miles safe for. Just the sort of woman who would appreciate the true character of Miles Lufton.
In the end, it didn’t go quite like that. Pronto had begun to grow into his role. He was a rebel with a cause—he knew how to get things done, and was a brilliant leader. As such, in spite of his obvious flaws, he could be devastatingly attractive. Caroline—a strong-minded woman, herself, saw in Pronto the kind of man who, with guidance, could accomplish a great deal of good for those in the world who needed an advocate. Miles? He was a babe, a dreamer. He wanted to hide away from the world because he found it distressing. And he had inadvertently given Pronto the power to destroy Miles.
Could it be that Caroline actually loved Pronto?
‘Fool, do not boast. Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind’ — Comus, John Milton
I don’t want to tell more of the story, or give away the ending. And I left out many things about the novel that are fascinating—choosing to focus on Caroline, Pronto, and the house. I really hope you will want to discover it for yourself. Apparently the novel is out of print—although Virago issued a newer edition in 1985, there has been nothing else since. So used copies, it is. But I had very little trouble getting a decent copy for a fair price.
It is, in some respects, a difficult novel to follow. It takes concentration, you could say. As the Kirkus reviewer wrote of it, back in 1952, when Troy Chimneys was first published:
‘A novel that may baffle some who count on a straightforward job of story telling- but that others will find refreshingly new and different.’
I do hope that someday there will be more appreciation for this enigmatic novel. It is unusual, to be sure, and not quite like anything I have read before. At first description I thought I would be reading something of a fantasy, and set my mind accordingly. I thought I knew a little bit about where the book would take me—perhaps a Virginia Woolf Orlando of shifting sands of time and gender, or a Georgette Heyer-esque romp where masks and balls and cross-dressing deceptions abound. Perhaps a little like Dorian Grey, where the hero lives the life he wants without immediate consequences?…but it was none of those things.
Troy Chimneys is really in a class by itself.
First published in 1952. In 1953 it was the winner of the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Margaret Kennedy first came to my attention as an undervalued novelist from the lovely book blog BeyondEdenRock, hosted by Jane. Her ‘Margaret Kennedy Reading Week‘ was a great success, and brought many new readers to the work of this fine author.
My other Margaret Kennedy review thus far is of Fool of the Family, published as ‘Strange Dissonances: Reading Margaret Kennedy.
A terrific review of Troy Chimneys by Hilary is here at vulpes libres, and her skillful appraisal of the novel is the reason I chose Troy Chimneys as the next Kennedy book to explore. (actually, truthfully….I was ready to drop everything and read it right then…and that was over a year ago! So many books, so little time…)
One element I was fascinated by was the reference to Comus by John Milton. Margaret Kennedy was a historian, in addition to being a novelist and playwright. Her own granddaughter called her ‘a blue-stocking’. Erudite, to be sure. Therefore, Margaret Kennedy’s introduction of the poem Comus, when Miles offers to do a reading of it, is of note.
“If you please, you will read what you prefer yourself, for you will read that best.”
‘I accordingly found a volume of Milton and read Comus to them. This poem has always been a favourite with me, but Milton is quite out, just now, and Pronto is seldom invited to read him…’
Kennedy’s assertion that, during the Regency era—with a known debauch like the Prince Regent at the helm—a poem by reformationist John Milton that extolled virtue would not have been considered ‘the thing’ was certainly correct. Nor was it likely to be clamored for to be read at some of the parties that ‘Pronto’ frequented in his quest for political advancement.
Kennedy’s historical grasp of this period she writes in is impeccable, but she doesn’t hit you over the head with details at every turn so you know exactly what era you are in and what everyone is wearing. It is just embedded naturally in the narrative, as a fine tapestry might be encrusted with a subtle texture of pearls stitched carefully in.
As I thought about it further, more details about Milton’s poem began to appear to suggest that some of Troy Chimneys owed a debt to Comus and the history behind its creation and performance. Perhaps it was subconsciously done, but the names of the real life families of Audley and Egerton—both used in the novel—are linked to the story of Comus, and the tragic, appalling circumstances surrounding it.
Perhaps, someday, a scholar might take a closer look and solve many of the enigmas that are part of this novel.