‘Strange Dissonances’: Reading Margaret Kennedy

….’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

via pinterest

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!

All That Resonates

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“It’s a piano.”

It was one of those upright monstrosities many of us remember. Full of creaks and groans, with ivory keys like aged teeth, all tobacco stained and chipped. The toothy, gapped leer it gave me upon entering the house was more interesting than fearful. It took my dad and a few of his bulky friends powered by pizza and beer to move it into its prized location. The new arrival took up precious real estate in a shabby living room that was already bulging with the paraphernalia of five boisterous children.

I loved it instantly. (I should mention that I was only four years old at the time, but that is an age when impressions are formed with astonishing vividness.)

It had Presence.

It emanated something new. Something of old worlds and ancient wisdom, of gnarled hands and craftmanship, and somehow…the singing of stars. Naturally I could articulate none of this at the time. I only sensed within it an innate power to do something wonderful.

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It was a thing, but such a mighty thing it was. We couldn’t afford it we didn’t have space for it the dining table had to be moved to accommodate it no one in our family could play it but its greatness had just been heaved, shoved and groaned into place against the wall. And my father was smiling. The tough ex-Marine ex-boxer ex-dancer of uncommon grace was smiling with pure joy.

Something significant had just happened. My father rarely smiled with pure joy.

At first, there was cacophony. When piano keys are struck by eager childish fingers, much more happens than a frightening eruption of noise. There are amazing vibrations. I could feel this curious phenomenon because I had squeezed my little four year old body between the back of the piano and the wall.

As the instrument was for my older sister at that point no one was interested in me or my reaction to it. No one noticed I had disappeared in to the piano. I wanted so desperately to understand this new thing. I pressed my flushed, excited cheek against an old wood rib at the back and let the piano twang into my head. It resonated thunder, and was horribly out of tune. What did I know? What did I know of vibrational energy? Or of tight bundles of string tension that can exceed twenty tons? Did I know that piano strings must be made from the toughest steel; not only because they endure constant high tension, they are subject to repeated blows? What did I know?

In the late nineties scientists discovered a black hole that was singing. That was the best description they could think of for the sonorous pulse it had been emitting for millions of years. We could detect this ancient ‘singing’ only recently, and it was in something like the key of B flat. Is there an echo here of Pythagorean music of the spheres? Do the planets and stars form a type of celestial clockworks that chime out colossal tones?

My next piano, like my teen years, was a product of the seventies. Newer was supposed to be better so we bought a lusterless Kimball, of no particular vintage or story. It was just new. It possessed a particle soundboard of indifferent quality. I have no idea what sort of wood it was. Nothing exciting ever happened on that piano. Still, it was an important box with strings. I kept playing, wondered about boys, wrote some bad poetry, and started to explore Bach. And somewhere the empty spaceless voids were still singing while no one listened.

Then I married. Even in the honeymoon of sweet distraction, I knew something was terribly wrong. One month went by, then two. A sickening dread came to me, but I knew. I had to confess. I had no piano. I had to have the singing box with strings.

My father had just died. On the dance floor. He simply dropped out of my mother’s arms. In mid step. And that was that.

Anguish lingered in slow motion aftermaths. A small inheritance of possibilities rippled past. I took my share—oh the hateful money.

I bought a piano. A cherrywood console of consolation. A box of rich warm tones.

Now the city apartment had The Box. Impassioned, liquid sonorities flowed out on to the street; I turned grief into sound.

The power of the box was at work.

I could dispel a crowd of pot smoking thugs by playing Rachmaninov louder than their angry babble; a cluster of loitering latte-sippers would coalesce on the street below while listening to a Chopin nocturne drift out our opened windows. I could play my father’s smile and give a call out to anti matter in the frightful void in case it was listening.

In time we moved to a small town, into a vintage house that sat within view of the resonant sea. There were gardens and scented roses, and always the sound of the sea. For my piano, I ‘inherited’ a wonderful old blind tuner and his faithful Labrador. My piano was never better cared for, and my acoustics had never been so sublime.

The stage was set for something exciting to happen.

It started with a want ad, and a bit of casual conversation over white wine and margarita shrimp.
“Did you see the ad for the Steinway?”
“Oh yeah. Crazy.” Said I. “Like a dream but not. You don’t dream about things like that.”
“We should go look.”
“Why?…I don’t want to.”

I didn’t want to look. Who wants to get a glimpse of perfection only to have ‘access denied’?

I looked. I was overcome. Of 1879 vintage, it sat and glowed in innumerable shades of incandescent beauty. Of old worlds and old woods; of grain and resonance not just any tree of yesterday possesses. And the strings…almost six feet of big, shining percussive potential that rippled out to the murmuring ocean and returned in lilting waves.

Its current home, when I first saw it, was a concrete garage; reminiscent of an abandoned airplane hangar that had become a glue factory for castaway piano relics. There was only one tiny wood stove for warmth, and it was surrounded—guarded by—several chain-smoking ex-cons. The experience was as incongruous as seeing an aging diva trapped in a dumpster.

We brought her home. The diva. The chain smoking ex-cons expertly moved her and lovingly set her up. (they were a motley crew of soulful music lovers, as it turned out). For the how of the rescue, I refer you to my Ways and Means Committee.

Steinway piano

Home–where there is always a piano, lots of books, and plentiful dog toys

But with this new piano came my next tuner—a slouching hulk of a gentle giant who played Debussy, Brahms and Chopin with the delicacy of a puff pastry. His tiny dog Minuet accompanied him every time he came to tune, and, when he was finished, he would play Clair de Lune while I stroked Minuet’s silky ears.

In the garden roses bloomed and baby deer frolicked.

I’m not exaggerating. I’ll even mention Charlie, my dog. He loved music. Absolutely loved it. Sitting at my feet while I played, looking much like this. This was Charlie’s signature pose. Sometimes he would place his big clumsy paw on my foot that worked the damper pedal. His sighs and snufflings of contentment became part of the resonance.


Must I leave this picture? Yes, I must, for then came darkness and so much that followed is blank.

Strange hands, lifting hands, then my own hands resting awkwardly on hospital sheets. I recognized none of them. My ears rebelled against the ugly beeps of monitors; chronic, cankered beeps that I couldn’t shut out. Unnatural sounds that formed a hateful chorus from a Greek tragedy chanting “die”.

The music went silent. The piano movers came and I was not there. That was the good thing. I was not there to watch it go. But I was going, too. It didn’t matter.

Somewhere anti matter was singing in deep booms of awful reverberation.

If the sound from the singing black holes is just now reaching us after millions of years, where did my sounds go? The sounds from the old upright in the sixties and the Kimball and the cherrywood console and big diva from 1879 that reflected back the flickering light of the ocean…are they still resonating? Have they reached another type of sounding board, where the old songs, the old laughter, is still being heard?

Light did return. So did the music. The hands regained some, but not all, of dexterity. Music came back to the inside of my mind. I gradually awoke to a new reality. I had lost Rachmaninov, Chopin, and so much more, but something of their sounds were still there. I could still play. I was still a flushed and eager four year old with my body pressed against the sound board.

The Box with strings, however, was different. It was so very different. There was no replacing my beauteous 1879. But I went and sampled pianos; the replacement options. I played by inches. Life came back by inches. I went for as many inches as I could. Why not? I finally found one that was just right. Lovely crystalline tones.

She’s a vintage beauty from 1920, with a ‘story’. Story is important when you’re trying to fit a 5’9” mahogany box of sound in a cramped living space. Our new life. Life. What a sweet resonance that word has.

I play gratitude now, along with memories of other music. I play in the key of B flat. Usually minor. Gratitude is always in a minor key, for gratitude can only come at a price. That is my key. Mine and the black holes in space.


Our home in the city is four stories up. There are tops of trees outside the window, and when I play, the birds sing in answer.  A flock of finches will begin to gather–perhaps a few sparrows– there are certainly twitters in little undulations aplenty as the music begins. The chickadees hang upside down from a limb and peer inside with a sweet curiosity that makes my heart ache for their innocence.

If this sounds like a scene from Snow White—well, perhaps. If you can imagine Snow White with a Steinway. And scars.

I am beginning to resonate again. And somewhere a black hole is playing in the key of Bb. It finally found me. It’s playing my father’s smile and the glint of light on the ocean. I’d like to think it’s playing for Charlie, too. He would love that.

Yes, it’s just a box, a wooden box on three legs. Inside it bears scars and strings of the toughest steel.

It’s the world to me.

[You asked me what is my most precious Thing (as in object), and I can tell you it’s a piano.]

[And you asked me about my experience with a favorite instrument. This is the long version.]