‘Copy Lyndon?’ … My dear girl, I couldn’t! It can’t be copied, that’s just it. One man didn’t make it; it’s been the work of generations!…. Pity it should go…’
“Why do you talk of it going? Nobody wants to burn it down.”
“A house dies with its family. Lyndon has come to an end.”’
The fiction of Margaret Kennedy suggests a fall/winter kind of mood for me, so tonight, with the wind sculpting crispy piles of leaves into undulating drifts, (hold off rain, please, just one more night!) a warm fire going and a glass of amber scotch in hand, I finished up The Ladies of Lyndon.
Generally, I enjoy a good ‘English country house novel’. The Ladies of Lyndon is that, but this engrossing story is really much more than the appealing romance of setting. Perhaps what is suggestive to me of fall/winter reading is that the world Kennedy creates reminds one of a heavily embroidered tapestry to burrow into. There are warm depths and lavish layers and unexpected sheen and a richness of texture; a faintly exotic perfume has been woven in with the silken strands, no detail is too slight, no stitch is wasted.
Other reviewers have commented on the warmth and richness of Kennedy’s style; her lovely heroines remind us of a Rossetti painting, some of her scenes created as ‘extravagantly grand’ as a Watteau composition.
‘A house dies with its family… Lyndon has come to an end.’
We can’t stop thinking about that passage. Besides the fact that The Ladies of Lyndon is an engrossing novel of plot and excellent characterizations, and can be enjoyed on that level alone, there is something Margaret Kennedy was trying to say with this, her first novel. She does seem to have moral underpinnings to her stories that I have read so far. Yet there are no judgements passed with heavy hand, ladling on the gravy of philosophy, as it were; her characters are not drawn in clear black and white tones, good and evil; her eye for folly is keen, still she is sympathetic to all, and renders her conflicts with beautiful subtlety.
Even her buffoons can engage your sympathies, in a curious way. (Sir Thomas Bragge is quite a lavish creation!)
But Margaret Kennedy does explore probing questions, through the dialogue and difficulties of her characters. The period she grew up in, and the period she writes from, was one fraught with change; politically, morally, socially, economically.
The scene set, in this case, is a gracious country house and its wealthy inhabitants. The time period is the close of the sleepy, decadent Edwardian age, just before the first World War. If this makes you think of Downton Abbey, it’s a good comparison; both in time period, and the ‘remains of the day’ aspects of life for the privileged classes in England.
At the apex of these kinds of stories, there is always the big house, the country house; for life under the roof of the English country house was considered a microcosm of all England.
‘There’s nothing in England so English as a house like Lyndon.’ — (Hubert)
Margaret Kennedy, with a mix of irony and pride, lovingly describes this piece of England she created.
“Lyndon, architectural and complacent, gleamed whitely against the somber green of ilex and cedar. Its classical facade stretched in ample wings to East and West. The grounds, originally laid out by the famous “Capability Brown” and improved upon by successive generations of landscape gardeners, were admirably in keeping with the dwelling house they guarded. They maintained its note of assured artificiality: they belonged to an age which had not read Wordsworth and which took for granted that nature could be improved upon. The measured, decorative mind of man was everywhere apparent.’
This ‘assured artificiality’ provides the perfect setting, like a velvet jewel box, for the lovely Agatha, the newly installed Lady Clewer. Her beauty is described in terms that make you think of the afore-mentioned Rossetti painting, as, ‘a siren’….
… ‘lovely, indolent, and exotic; [she had] achieved that air of expensive fragility which is beauty’s most precious setting.’
The family name attached to Lyndon is Clewer, and at one point, there are three concurrent Lady(s) Clewer. Quite cleverly, for her purposes, Kennedy has drawn them from three different strata of English life.
The eldest Lady Clewer, the widowed Marian, is from the manufacturing class; a.k.a. trade, middle class, wealthy. She is brisk, efficient, and takes a practical view of what is involved in the managing of a great house. She has her flaws, but is not unlikeable.
Agatha, young Lady Clewer, as mentioned, has been groomed for nothing else but to grace such a home as Lyndon. She has a kind, sympathetic nature, and wants to see herself serving some greater purpose in life. In spite of this, she has no concept of work, or, for that matter, has the least idea of how to manage a large house. There is always someone to do things for her.
For all her ample, serene beauty, she is ‘fragile’; a word continually used to describe her. She is unable to produce a living heir to continue the Clewer traditions. (This increasing sterility of the privileged class is a familiar one in literary works from this period.) She marries John Clewer for what she thinks is love, but upon consideration, and after a few disappointing years, she realizes she loves her cousin Gilbert even more, and should have married him. She agonizes, through much of the book, over her failed marriage, over what to do, and what is ‘right’. We soon tire of Agatha; she becomes dreary, self-serving, and predictable in the choices she makes.
Her comments, toward the close of the book, are revealing of the overall thrust of the book:
“Dolly, I think you are much too feudal. You want to put the clock back. You want to revive a state of things which is past and gone for ever. What did I do for Lyndon when I had it? I enjoyed it very much; it suited me to live in it, but I did nothing for it and in the end I disgraced it. I know I belong by race to the ‘Bless the Squire and His Relations’ galley, but it’s out of date, all that sort of thing. I never made the smallest attempt to uphold it. It’s [Marian], with all her modern activities, and her dairies, and her laundries, and village institues, who is ready to shoulder responsibility. I know she domineers, but think how she works! Think of all the dull hard work she’s done since she came to Lyndon! She’s what is called middle class, but she’s ready to take on all the unpaid public work, she and her like. Lyndon’s hers. I belong to a class which is of no account now.”
“They do say that these people, what made their money in trade, are getting into all the old houses nowadays,” agreed Dolly.
The last Lady Clewer—Dolly— is the dark horse; enter the new, up and coming working class. Dolly was a maid whose family had served at Lyndon for decades. She marries James, the ‘slightly queer in the head’ brother of John Clewer. It turns out, in the course of things, that James isn’t really mentally deficient, he’s a gifted artist…..which conveniently explains his bursts of brutality, his extreme anti-social behavior, his sardonic unconcern for hurting people he doesn’t respect, and his unexpected acts of kindness toward those he does. (If you have read any of Kennedy’s other books, like The Constant Nymph, you know she gives a unique and yes, exasperatingly exalted status to artists. They live outside the common bounds of societal rules and graces in order to create art that all common people avert their eyes from, because they don’t understand its significance. See The Moon and Sixpence for a similar treatment of this subject.)
But we’re talking about the Ladies here, so back to Dolly. She becomes the next Lady Clewer, which the reader saw coming. Dolly is eminently likeable—she is self-assured, unselfish, and has a kind of practical wisdom and moral grounding that will ensure the survival of her and ‘her kind’. As she immediately begins producing healthy, robust Clewer children—something Agatha has been unable to do— it is clear that types like Dolly are seen as stabilizing the future of the privileged class with an infusion of new life, new thinking, work ethic, morals, and permanence.
‘”Well, I don’t know, Agatha…. It seems a pity…Sort of like this. The way we go on now, people act silly and then find out new ways so as not so suffer for it. They don’t study not to be silly. That isn’t going to make the world any better, not in the long run.” — Dolly
The rest of the women of this novel, all of them related to each other by birth or marriage, are all powerful characters in themselves. Kennedy does not create wimpy sketches of character. They all feel real, authentic, with lives of their own. John Clewer is an exception to this; but he is clearly meant to be ‘a type’. The wealthy squire, who soon ‘thickens in the neck’ and becomes more ruddy by the day; this is a kind of personality that Kennedy apparently feels is already well-known through literature. He needs no ‘fleshing-out’, he is already well-fleshed. So, beyond a few descriptions, such as his prize cattle, his desire for a beautiful, compliant wife, and his one explanation of himself, we are left to surmise about John Clewer.
‘“I’m not an aristocrat who has left off being really useful. I spent most of today in a stuffy court-house fining people for riding their bicycles on the pavement, don’t you know. And what do I get for it? Somebody has to do it.” — John
(Poor John. The world is too complicated for him.)
There’s a fair number of marriages that happen, and you might think you were in Barsetshire for a day. But each union is thoroughly intriguing on its own, and each relationship between the pairs is much more complex than those in an Angela Thirkell novel.
Lois and Hubert are particularly engaging and believable as a couple. Lois is John Crewer’s step-sister, so she is one of the lesser ladies of Lyndon. Lois longs to escape Lyndon, and her knight errant is the self-consciously adorable Hubert.
‘[Hubert] was seized with a tremor of panic as his car turned off the high road, with its flanking hedges and telegraph poles, through lodge gates into Lyndon Park. It was the first time in his life that he had ever felt shy and he did not like it at all. He tried to key himself into the temper of bold and daring raider snatching a bride from a hostile stronghold. This descent upon Lyndon ought to have a sort of “Young Lochinvar” swoop in it. But the illusion was destroyed by his slow and spasmodic progress down the park. The swoop was barred by innumerable gates, for Sir John, who bred pedigree cattle, had divided the park into a series of fields…’
Lois and Hubert are well-matched in love and talk endlessly together—Kennedy’s novels are nothing if not rich in dialogue—and by the end of the novel these two are still talking. They are quite useful in conveying information important to the flow of the story, but by the end the (impatient) reader is ready to distill the intensity down into brief, simple narratives, minus dialogue and interruptions to dress for dinner, in order to trundle along more quickly to the inevitable conclusion.
Of the male characters, the most interesting is James Crewers, previously mentioned. He is another product of the same class Agatha is from, and just as helpless in many ways, but for different reasons. He needs Dolly to take care of him, keep his clothes clean and pressed, raise the children, decide what knick-knacks go on the mantel, and even choose where they’ll live. She knows nothing of art, but she just knows her husband is an artist and a gentleman and as such, must be given every possible space in life to create something that the world must need. The endearing thing about these two is that they are devoted to each other.
‘Agatha’s heart was as bleak as the skies outside and she wanted to escape from Dolly and James, and their insufferable security in each other.’
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Gilbert Blair, the ‘brilliant cousin’ of Agatha. He is not meant to be an attractive character; merely an enigma, a tantalizing shadow to Agatha of what might have been. The amusing thing about Gilbert—although he himself is rarely amused by anything and takes his seeming lofty views much too seriously—is that he is considered by everyone else a Socialist. He’s an ‘unruly element’. (That makes Kennedy’s choice of how to deal with Gilbert all the more piquant, and surprisingly current.) He despises the opulent way of life that Agatha and the Clewers live, but is often there enjoying their generous hospitality. He likes to be known as one who provides health care to the poor and needy, but makes no secret of how he despises the filthy ‘scum’. He is morose, and seems to only take pleasure in pointing out how everyone else is living their lives all wrong.
“You can’t do what you think wrong,” [Agatha] said doubtfully.
“Oh, yes I can,” he assured her.
“But it must be right,” she argued. “We were meant for each other. It was my marriage that was wrong.”
He agreed, but said that he would, he thought, condemn behaviour like theirs in anyone else. He reminded her, a little shamefacedly, that he had accepted John’s hospitality and was returning it by stealing his wife.’
Although this novel explores relationships a great deal—what works and what can go wrong, what leads to happiness and what does not—I think of this more as a country house novel in the overview. Perhaps not in the grand tradition of writers such as Henry James, or Aldous Huxley, or Elizabeth Bowen, or Evelyn Waugh, but it should at least be on the list.
In considering The Ladies of Lyndon in this light, it is worthy of note what Richard Gill wrote in his book Happy Rural Seat: The English Country House and the Literary Imagination:
‘…We may conclude that the gravitation of a number of Edwardian novelists toward the country house for their themes and symbolism was neither arbitrary nor coincidental. In a changing world, the country house offered to some, like Wells, and Galsworthy, the possibility of dramatizing the failures of a whole social order; for others, like Forster and Ford, it provided an emblem of what might be restored or at least a clue to what might be conserved.’
Margaret Kennedy’s The Ladies of Lyndon, though written in 1923, on the other side of the war, fits more closely in intent, I believe, to the latter category of Forster and Ford. In the strangely cobbled together Clewer family, and their varying fortunes and walks of life, she attempted to posit a future, not just for houses like Lyndon, but for England itself.
“I do love Lyndon. Living in this house makes me realize how much I love it. When I’m at Lyndon I have a feeling sometimes it doesn’t matter what follies we perpetrate because it will survive us. It was made by more sensible people than we are. And sensible people will live there again some day.” — Agatha
For further reading on Margaret Kennedy, please see Jane’s blog where she has introduced Margaret Kennedy to a new audience; there are links to excellent reviews from her site. As well, the Kennedy novels I have reviewed so far on this site can be found by using the search box. Or: