Lucy Carmichael: A Preamble

The book of the moment is another gem by Margaret Kennedy — Lucy Carmichael, published in 1951. 

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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.
Nobody cooks.’

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.

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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.

 

Clematis Bower

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‘A rural portico was seen,
Aloft on native pillars borne,
Of mountain fir with bark unshorn
Where Ellen’s hand had taught to twine
The ivy and Idaean vine,
The clematis, the favored flower
Which boasts the name of virgin-bower,
And every hardy plant could bear
Loch Katrine’s keen and searching air.
An instant in this porch she stayed,
And gayly to the stranger said:
‘On heaven and on thy lady call,
And enter the enchanted hall!”

— excerpted from The Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott

Of bloom and blossom, blur and bliss… finding a bit of all of the above in my clematis bower on this beautiful Saturday. Of the blur effect, for the photography suggestion of ‘focus‘ this week, I was trying out my new portrait feature on the iPhone, as there are power lines just beyond that cross the background, disrupting my lovely Lady of the Lake ambience. The blur effect, in turn, created the illusion that a clematis bloom had catapulted itself away from the pack and was on its way to some wild adventure.

(go little clematis, go!)

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Cultivation

‘I found quite quickly that nothing bored people so immediately and completely as botany.’ — Nan Fairbrother, An English Year

 

 

 

At the risk of being boring… botany and macro-photography of the plant world is something I enjoy. I am just a keen amateur, of course, but when the photography suggestion for the week was ‘Order‘… I immediately thought of seed pods. These are some recent pictures I took of my faded peony. The flowers were stunning–and I did get many pictures of those–but, to me, the seed pods are even more fascinating. (They suggest to me fuzzy slippers, strewn with the limp confetti of spent petals and popped balloon detritus, and a warm and cozy morning after a really good party the night before, which can now be endlessly discussed at leisure and over several cups of coffee while we ponder Who Came and What Was Said.)

But what, I wondered, was inside? So I sliced one in half to peek into the busy command central of future flower production.

Within these tiny packets is an irony. There are few things more DIS-orderly than an untended garden. Yet seed production in the world of plants is an example of order in the most breathtaking sense of the word.

Where the seeds go, and how they are tended is where the hand of man comes in.

‘Each family of flowers—rose, daisy, buttercup—is like a theme of music, and the different species are variations on it.’ — Nan Fairbrother

FairbrotherEnglishYearI am currently re-reading excerpts from Nan Fairbrother’s An English Year.  I return to this book often, actually, as it’s the sort of book not easily absorbed in just one sitting.

When it comes to plants, we connect quite sympathetically:

‘It was on these days that I came to know and love the country. I travelled for miles around, for an active child can go a long way on a bicycle in eight hours. I became so familiar with the trees and flowers that they were nearer and far dearer than any people. I saved up and bought Johns’s Flowers of the Field… I learnt to run down in a flora the flowers I did not know. I struggled with botany books on osmotic pressure and the history of flowering plants and the difference in structure between monocotyledons and dicotyledons.’

And perhaps, if she were alive today, she might also be slicing seed pods, arranging them in the best light, (perhaps while balancing them on her knees) and holding a little phone camera as steadily as possible to best capture an interior world and glimpses of a colorful future.

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Nan Fairbrother

Legal Tender

When tender is legal
It becomes less interesting
As the history of the novel
Might suggest


Next up, Barsetshire–Angela Thirkell’s version–where marriages abound, and romance is given the funniest treatment ever.

410oowhkegl-_sx322_bo1204203200_‘Mr. Downing, slightly intoxicated by talking about himself and the delightful evening he was having, had a curiously empty feeling in the arm nearest to Mrs. Turner and was vaguely conscious that the one thing that it needed was something exactly the right size to go round, say something about the size, shape and consistency of his hostess, but this thought did not get beyond a very nebulous and unpractical stage.’ — from Northbridge Rectory, 1941

A tender moment, as only Angela Thirkell could write it.