The Feast, by Margaret Kennedy

‘They told a lot, but of course they didn’t tell everything.
Nobody will ever know the whole truth.’   — [The Feast]

When beginning a novel, and you are given the dramatic conclusion in the first few pages, how is it that the reader keeps reading with growing intensity, to ‘see how it is all going to come about?’

This is the magic of a superb storyteller.

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Margaret Kennedy’s novel The Feast (1949) spins a web of taut suspense that captures a reader from the outset. The atmosphere is lightened at times by some humorous moments, some sardonic wit, yet the unfolding human drama—revealed via letters, journal entries, and some ‘real-time’ scenes and dialogue— builds irresistibly.

‘The book moves with speed and there is amazing suspense — the reader knows what will happen, but not to whom.’ (from the dust jacket)

The coast of Cornwall, and a picturesque old seaside manor house-turned-hotel is the setting. The house sits atop a bluff overlooking a Pendizack Cove. The tide coming in, going out, is the one constant…

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In the beginning it is reminiscent of an Agatha Christie mystery. The guests begin to arrive; they come by train and car…all burdened with dreary baggage of one kind or another, all hoping for a summer escape. It is the kind of scene setting that I love, when a variety of characters are assembled under one roof, and they begin a sort of psychological journey together.

Soon enough the potentially explosive dynamics and the often heart-breaking complexity of human interaction begins to play out, muddled along with the daily routines of emptying slops, burning the toast or serving cold haddock. There is even a romance that begins to brew from an unlikely pair.

The victims, the heroes, the villains start taking shape.

There are sweet children, there are kind people, industrious people, there are some louses and human detritus, but from the beginning we know that seven of these people will die. The cliff that towers so magnificently over the house will tumble down, and seven people will be trapped inside. The house becomes their tomb.

The rest? They will be safe, at The Feast.

‘They dined on mince, and slices of quince
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon….’ [Edward Lear: The Owl and The Pussycat]

I particularly loved the almost Hitchcockian way that Kennedy employed the natural world to heighten the sense of crisis. The widening cracks in the bluff above; the sudden lack of nesting gulls in the cliffside; the mass exodus of scurrying mice across the patio, the intermittent fall of rocks from above…all tell the reader that the disaster is imminent. The household though, at least until the very last, remains pitifully unaware.

It has been described as ‘allegory turned social comedy’ . This was by Margaret Kennedy’s granddaughter, Serena Mackesy, who also described The Feast as her favorite story. (Full interview here.)

The novel is, indeed, well-laced with allegory; but because the story is so absorbing, and the characters so real, their interactions so life-like, the allegorical underpinnings do not distract. Rather, they give you cause to keep thinking about the book after it is concluded.

Reading a novel like this reminds me of what it felt like reading fiction in ‘the old days’; that state of being completely engrossed in the characters and their stories. The feeling that you cannot put down the book until you have finished it. These days, that’s a rare treat.

Thanks to Jane and her lovely reader’s blog for sharing her appreciation for the works of Margaret Kennedy. I have really enjoyed discovering this enigmatic author’s work, and the good news is–I have a lot more books to go!

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Further (long-winded!) notes of interest:

The allegorical spine of the story is, according to the author’s own comments, The Seven Deadly Sins. As the story develops, each of the seven who die in the collapse can be readily tagged with the ‘sin’ that they personify. These characters, we are given to understand, could have changed, could have bettered themselves, but did not. Their character and principal negative attributes harden as the story progresses, and by the end, we have a pretty clear idea who will be the seven who die.  (we actually know one identity from the beginning of the story, it is the other six we are left to surmise).

Their deaths are to be viewed as retributions. Their bodies are utterly buried in rock; unrecoverable. What could be conceived of as ‘an act of God’, is also, the author makes clear, something that could have been avoided. No lives needed to be lost. There were clues as to what was happening to the hillside, and there was even, we find out, a letter from a Government official warning that the cliffside was unstable. The warning went unheeded.

On the other end of allegory there are the Seven Virtues. In the religious thought apparently being referenced by the author, these seven virtues can prevent the seven sins from flourishing. These virtues are represented by the children—there are seven youth staying in the hotel— and principally would apply to the three innocent Cove sisters. They are tragically neglected by their mother, (what a horrible woman….! perhaps a bit exaggerated for effect, but effective for the storyline)…but the girls maintain such a positive, happy spirit, and generous nature, they are truly the heroes of the story. Faith, virtue and love would be my assessment for Blanche, Maud, and Beatrix. Of the other four children, the strong-willed Hebe and her outlandish bravado surely represents Courage.

The death of the seven people in the end is balanced by the life that is now given, is essence, to the deserving, the innocent, who are at ‘The Feast’ when the disaster strikes.

The feast enjoyed at the end is itself allegorical, referencing the Feast of Fools. This is strongly suggested by the tone of childish amusements, the concept of the humble and downtrodden asserting temporary power, and certainly the costumed buffoonery of the Cove children’s party, which makes no sense otherwise!

By this time in the novel, the reader is well aware that this is the most vital scene. Everything has led us to this feast. Nothing, from food to drink to songs sung, was left to chance—not with an author so clever as Margaret Kennedy. She is weaving her strands together into one final, decisive knot.

The tone of the ‘feast’ is styled for a reason. Everyone is to come dressed as an Edward Lear character; even the very modest Mrs. Paley dons an impossibly ridiculous hat, to the scorn of her husband.

“What are you?” he shouted.
“A Quangle Wangle,” she quavered.
“A what? I can’t hear!”
“I’m a Quangle Wangle.”
“And what may a Quangle Wangle be?”
“I don’t know. Nobody knows.”

The oddity intensifies; the singing and dancing spirals to a rowdy crescendo; it all begins to feel increasingly bizarre, yet you know one thing for sure.

Margaret Kennedy is leading you to a very clear moral destination.


Curious about ‘a runcible spoon’? An attempt at definition here:

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Wandering Counterparts of Dissimilar Genius

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Thomas Hardy:

‘We may wonder whether at the acme and summit of the human progress these anachronisms will be corrected by a finer intuition, a closer interaction of the social machinery than that which now jolts us round and along; but such completeness is not to be prophesied, or even conceived as possible. Enough that in the present case, as in millions, it was not the two halves of a perfect whole that confronted each other at the perfect moment; a missing counterpart wandered independently about the earth waiting in crass obtuseness till the late time came. Out of which maladroit delay sprang anxieties, disappointments, shocks, catastrophes, and passing-strange destinies.’ 


Anita Loos:

‘Fate keeps on happening.

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Perhaps no two writers could be any more different than Thomas Hardy and Anita Loos. However, this morning as I contemplated the strangely slanting sunlight through my windows as it fell on a stack of books, I was struck with the curious circumstance of Thomas Hardy and Anita Loos looking good together.

Not Golden Ratio perfection sort of good, not ‘two halves of a perfect whole‘ kind of good, but just nice….stacked cosily together on a pile of ‘works in progress’, basking together in the warm sunlight like contented kittens.

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Thomas Hardy needs no introduction, but the very phrase ‘gentleman prefer blondes’ summons to most minds images of Marilyn Monroe.

However, before the movie with its iconic star there was a book by that name. The author was Anita Loos, a zany, talented, comic–yes, brilliant–writer who makes me laugh within seconds of reading her.

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Thomas Hardy, in contrast, never makes me laugh. Stella Gibbons’ parody of Hardy’s novel genre in Cold Comfort Farm makes me laugh, but Thomas Hardy is not amusing. Nor was it his intention to amuse.

His fate-driven, somber novels of rural England are a world away from the glittering, jet-setting world of Loos’ diamond-clad, steel-toed and stiletto’d Lorelei from Little Rock.

An interesting contrast between these writers is even found in the subtitles:

Tess of the d’Urbervilles, (‘A Pure Woman’), and Gentleman Prefer Blondes (Diary of a Professional Lady.) 

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I’m throwing in to this already dichotomized discussion a few pictures illustrating the Golden Ratio.

Where does the Golden Ratio fit in? It probably doesn’t, unless you want to open up the topic of ‘what is a classic proportion?’, but I haven’t had enough coffee for that one. Besides, it brings us back to Marilyn Monroe.

I think many of us have a favorite object that is never far. A fair and lovely shape, a thing, that pleases us. We keep it around for reference, visual continuity, or comfort.

Books, certainly. But when the light is right, intriguing, or stark, I bring out The Shell. I never tire of looking at it, and have taken countless pictures of it. In this devoted pursuit I ruefully recall Daphne du Maurier’s reference to a fictional character in one of her books (yes, that’s the one…) the father of the missing-a-first-name-but-not-Rebecca Mrs. de Winter.

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The blonde creation of Anita Loos, Lorelei–a hard driven materialist with a talent for fictionalized innocence, had a favorite object, as well. Diamonds, generally; a diamond tiara, specifically. How to achieve what she wanted formed her own obsession, and the story of her quest makes for a surprisingly humorous read.

Tess Durbeyfield’s favorite object was a man named Angel Clare. Fate, as Loos would say, “kept happening” to blight the hopes of poor Tess. Thomas Hardy said much the same thing, in considerably more words.

One moves through a Hardy novel with a growing sense of doom. It is almost a Baedeker Guide to Doom, with helpful landmarks along the way, just in case we might have been starting to relax and get attached to a character, or lose ourselves in the lush descriptions of scenic beauty.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order….As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: “It was to be.” There lay the pity of it….’

Ah. There lay the pity of it, indeed. Poor Tess can’t even receive a bouquet of roses from an admirer without getting pierced and spilling a bit of her life blood, giving us one more harbinger of her fate.

‘Thus the thing began. Had she perceived this meeting’s import she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and coveted that day by the wrong man…

‘…she fell to reflecting again, and in looking downwards a thorn of the rose remaining in her breast accidentally pricked her chin. Like all the cottagers in Blackmoor Vale, Tess was steeped in fancies and prefigurative superstitions; she thought this an ill omen—the first she had noticed that day….’

Ah, yes, only the first ‘ill omen‘. We must number the harbingers, so we don’t lose track.

My recent re-read of Tess of the d’Urbervilles gave me a new appreciation for Hardy’s writership in various ways. But I still can’t forgive him for what he did to his beautiful, thoughtful character creation of Tess. He gave her a blooming, sensitive consciousness as much as he gave her bewitching lips and rosy cheeks. And then he destroyed her, with all her fond wishes and gentle hopes, while letting us know with methodical efficiency all along her path that she is headed for Doom.

Still we read on. Indeed, we soldier on, donning a uniform of readiness in case we can rush to her aid. Perhaps the truth of our writhing, tortured fascination with ‘and thus it began‘ does more to highlight the mystery of Thomas Hardy’s enduring mastery as a writer rather than explain it.

Remember Harold Crick?

Gentleman Prefer Blondes is a book that, for all its comic lightness and delightful daffiness, did have some serious undertones. Anita Loos glossed over it, and the Hollywood production certainly never breathed a hint of it, but Lorelei Lee in Gentleman Prefer Blondes had shot (killed? we’re not sure…left purposely vague) a certain Mr. Jennings. The hint is that an unwanted seduction occurred, similar to Hardy’s Tess, but of course the ultra canny survivor Lorelei was acquitted by a tearful, sympathetic jury, a kiss from the judge, an eventual diamond tiara, and marriage to a wealthy man in the end.

Tess Durbeyfield, as we know, was hung. It was left to her sister–‘a more spiritualized version of Tess‘–to enjoy the embraces of Tess’ beloved Angel Clare.

A few more comparisons between these two characters:

It is interesting that Angel Clare, Tess’s eventual husband, could not believe that Tess had actually killed Alec d’Urberville. For some days he allowed himself to live in blissful disbelief.

Thus I was amused to observe a similar disconnect in Lorelei’s encounter with a ‘Dr. Froyd’… [note: I left the spelling in Lorelei’s diary notes as the author wanted us to think Lorelei spelled]:


‘So he seemed very very intreeged at a girl who always seemed to do everything she wanted to do. So he asked me if I really never wanted to do a thing that I did not do. For instance did I ever want to do a thing was really vialent, for instance, did I ever want to shoot someone for instance. So then I said I had, but the bullet only went in Mr. Jennings lung and came right out again. So then Dr. Froyd looked at me and looked at me and he said he did not really think it was possible…So then Dr. Froyd said that all I needed to do was cultivate a few inhibitions and get some sleep.’

Sleep…? As did Tess, when she fell asleep on a sacrificial stone at Stonehenge? This being another of Hardy’s landmarks along the way–‘the towering monoliths and trilithons began to be blackly defined’…The sleepy Stonehenge nap on a heathen altar was but a prelude to Tess’ execution.

Anita Loos, in words she chose to give her pragmatic character Dorothy simply would have said: “What a fool she was to get up that morning.”

I’ve included, for your delectation, more of the hilarious bit of chatty Lorelei and Dorothy on tour in London:

‘So now I must really get dressed as Major Falcon is going to take Dorothy and I to look at all the sights in London. But I really think if I do not get the diamond tiara my whole trip to London will be quite a failure….I mean London is really nothing at all. For instants, they make a great fuss over a tower that really is not even as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock Arkansas and it would only make a chimney on one of our towers in New York. So Sir Francis Beekman wanted us to get out and look at the tower because he said that quite a famous Queen had her head cut off there one morning and Dorothy said “What a fool she was to get up that morning” and is really the only sensible thing that Dorothy has said in London. So we did not bother to get out.’

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Continuing:

Tess wanted to improve her mind.

So did Lorelei.

From Thomas Hardy:

“Why do you look so woebegone all of a sudden?” he asked.
“Oh, ’tis only—about my own self,” she said, with a frail laugh of sadness, fitfully beginning to peel “a lady” meanwhile. “Just a sense of what might have been with me! My life looks as if it had been wasted for want of chances! When I see what you know, what you have read, and seen, and thought, I feel what a nothing I am! I’m like the poor Queen of Sheba who lived in the Bible. There is no more spirit in me.”

From Lorelei:

‘So I told Mr. Montrose that it made me feel very very small to talk to a gentleman like he, who knew so much about Bulgaria, and all I knew about Bulgaria was Zoolack.”

Both young women had eager men willing to ‘improve’ them.

From Thomas Hardy:

“Bless my soul, don’t go troubling about that! Why,” [Angel Clare] said with some enthusiasm, “I should be only too glad, my dear Tess, to help you to anything in the way of history, or any line of reading you would like to take up—”
“It is a lady again,” interrupted she, holding out the bud she had peeled.
“What?”
“I meant that there are always more ladies than lords when you come to peel them.”
“Never mind about the lords and ladies. Would you like to take up any course of study—history, for example?”

From Anita Loos:

‘[He] is the gentleman who is interested in educating me, so of course he is always coming down to New York to see how my brains have improved since the last time.’

Both were conscious that something had gone ‘wrong’:

From Thomas Hardy:

“Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul – had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently?”

Anita Loos:

‘So then I had to tell Mr. Spoffard that I was not always so reformed as I am now, because the world was full of gentlemen who were nothing but wolfs in sheeps clothes, that did nothing but take advantage of all we girls. So I really cried quite a lot. So then I told him how I was just a little girl from Little Rock when I first left Little Rock and by that time even Mr. Spoffard had tears in his eyes….So I told Mr. Spoffard that I thought a girl was really more reformed if she knew what it was to be unreformed than if she was born reformed and never really knew that was the matter with her.’

On material goods:

Thomas Hardy:

‘Beauty to her, as to all who have felt, lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolized.’

Anita Loos:

‘And I told him that if he could not tell the difference between a real square cut emerald and one from the ten cent store, that he had ought to be ashamed of himself.’

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On family:

Thomas Hardy:

‘Don’t you really know, Durbeyfield, that you are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles, who derive their descent from Sir Pagan d’Urberville, that renowned knight who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror, as appears by Battle Abbey Roll?”
“Never heard it before, sir!”

Anita Loos:

‘I often remember papa back in Arkansas and he often used to say that his grandpa came from a place in England called Australia, so really, I mean to say, it is no wonder that the English seems to come out of me sometimes….So I told him how I came from a very very good family because papa was very intelectual, and he was a very very prominent Elk, and everybody always said that he was a very intelectual Elk.’

On life:

Thomas Hardy worried his way through life’s cruel disorder and irregularities via the minds and speech of his characters. Often this was an unwieldy burden for the hapless creations, and led to many passages that did not quite ring true….

“The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?” [said Tess].

Hardy, himself, was aware of this, and offered a bit of explanation, through the ponderings of Angel Clare:

‘He was surprised to find this young woman–who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates–shaping such sad imaginings.’

Anita Loos, via Lorelei:

“I mean champagne always makes me feel philosophical because it makes me realize that when a girl’s life is as full of fate as mine seems to be, there’s nothing else to do about it.”

Thomas Hardy:

‘Tess’s passing corporeal blight had been her mental harvest.’

A different sort of mental harvest for Lorelei:

‘So then I had to figure out how to get rid of Henry and at the same time not do anything that would make me any trouble later.’

And about that Golden Ratio:

‘Phi is more than an obscure term found in mathematics and physics. It appears around us in our daily lives, even in our aesthetic views. Studies have shown that when test subjects view random faces, the ones they deem most attractive are those with solid parallels to the Golden ratio. Faces judged as the most attractive show Golden ratio proportions between the width of the face and the width of the eyes, nose, and eyebrows. The test subjects weren’t mathematicians or physicists familiar with phi — they were just average people, and the Golden ratio elicited an instinctual reaction.’ (from Live Science)

Why do we keep coming back to Marilyn Monroe? I bow to science and the laws of proportion.

I suppose that is enough philosophical fun for one day….I’ll conclude with one last quote from Loos:

‘She always believed in the old adage, “Leave them while you’re looking good.”

Anita Loos