The book of the moment is another gem by Margaret Kennedy — Lucy Carmichael, published in 1951.
I am always happy for a chance to explore a Margaret Kennedy book, and Jane at Beyond Eden Rock is hosting a reading event for Margaret Kennedy today.
This is a warm-up to my own review of the book, and likely the best way, as I am sure this review would need to be a Part One and Two, anyway!
There are always riches to be had in a Kennedy novel, so I am trying to linger over it and not rush through to the end. Margaret Kennedy builds her stories in delicious layers, each one needing to be savored.
That being said, at first I was a bit put off by the distance I felt from the main character Lucy–learning of her story secondhand or in a quick rush that felt a bit choppy; and then only hearing of her inner world via letters to her friend. (I’m not always a fan of the epistolary novel) However, this resolves itself beautifully, and there is more to be said on that score, for I was soon left in awe of Kennedy’s sleight of hand. She is a superb technician when it comes to structuring her novels!
Like The Feast, Lucy Carmichael begins with a climax. You know the worst at the outset, so to speak, then it is aftermath, sifting through rubble, and building character, finding what people are made of, or what choices they will make when affliction strikes.
I really enjoy this aspect of Kennedy’s novels–how she creates character. Even seemingly unimportant characters are built in with a solid foundation and story. This gives the impression that you are entering a real world–warts and all–and a social environment that, while not one I have actually experienced, is still believable as though I know these types of situations and the personalities that give them life.
Even as I say that, I have to make an exception of her ‘Bohemian’, characterizations, which I find to be rather over-stated and overblown in their amoral drama and lifestyle, with their larger than life talents and inability to be true to anyone other than themselves and their ‘Art’. And they talk ‘like zis‘. She has included a colorful one in this story as well, and he is slightly more sensible than her characters in The Constant Nymph. At least he offers Lucy a bit of kindly wisdom now and again.
‘He opened the door when I arrived, clutching a frying pan in
his hand, I can’t think why, for he can’t cook. And he looked at
me very, very sadly and said: ”Zis is terrible!”
It was, rather, because they had made no attempt to get my
room ready, though they knew when I was coming. Mrs. A. is The
Bottom as a housekeeper. She is an apple-cheeked little ninny with
humble brown eyes and a blue plastic hair slide in the shape of
three daisies. They have a baby which she calls *’baby” and he *’ze
child.” It is a dribbly object; I wish I was a womanly woman and
could think it sweet.
Well so I cleaned this room I am to have, for the first time in
its life, and wrote home for some bed linen as the A.s have not got
any— their other pair is at the wash. It’s not a bad room; a big attic
with a view east over Slane Forest, which stretches all the way be-
tween here and Severn ton. And at about 9 we had a meal in the
kitchen: tea, stale Swiss roll, 5 sardines, 4 tomatoes, and some cold
porridge. Why this house should reek of cooking I cannot think.
But that’s a small quibble, and one that reminds me of reading Angela Thirkell, with her various and amusing ways of rendering ‘foreigners’. Kennedy obviously had a fascination with ‘the artiste‘ who lived outside the rules of society, not to mention basic standards of cleanliness.
In The Constant Novelist, Violet Powell’s biography of Margaret Kennedy, she gives some interesting background information to Kennedy’s writing of Lucy Carmichael.
‘Lucy takes her broken heart to teach at a cultural Institute situated in an approximation of the Forest of Dean. This is the first book in which Margaret used that part of the country for the background of a novel, and also the first in which she introduces the rotting manor house of Slane St. Mary where the family of Knevett had once lived for several unlucky generations. Both house and family reappear in two later novels.’
The setting is beautifully portrayed. The scene in Lucy Carmichael that involves this rotting manor house and the weirdly neurotic Ianthe–a ‘grisly picnic‘–was very dramatic and a turning point for Lucy. In real life, Margaret Kennedy must have been deeply moved by a similar setting in the actual Forest of Dean, (that she calls the Forest of Slane) for she returns to this ancient Knevett family, and enlarges upon the story, in her later novels Night in Cold Harbor and Not In The Calendar.
Violet Powell also writes:
‘Lucy Carmichael was a Book Society Choice, which still carried some distinction, if less that it had before the Second World War. It was praised by the late Daniel George, and by Marghanita Laski, who found that the flashbacks to the Oxford life of Lucy and Melissa recalled her own career at Somerville…..Her daughters had brought her up to date with contemporary Oxford, and [Margaret] had used the knowledge to good effect in Lucy Carmichael.’
As I was writing this, I found that there is an online version of the novel here.
Thanks to Jane for hosting a Kennedy reading event, and if you would like to read more reviews of Margaret Kennedy’s books, click here to visit Jane’s site. As well, some of my own reviews can be found here.
The Constant Novelist, a biography of Margaret Kennedy by her friend Violet Powell, was published by William Heinemann, 1983.