Lucy Carmichael, Part Two

‘She is incautious and intrepid. She will go to several wrong places, and arrive at the right one, while I am still making up my mind to cross the road. She is my opposite in character. She is cheerful and confident and expects to be happy.’ Lucy Carmichael, by Margaret Kennedy

lucy-carmichaelIf this description makes you think of Elizabeth Bennet, then you will enjoy noting several such Pride and Prejudice references throughout this novel.

I enjoyed reading Lucy Carmichael. (This is Part Two of my review of Lucy Carmichael, Part One is here, and for more on the Margaret Kennedy reading event hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, click here)

I think, perhaps, that I enjoyed it more because of knowing the little tidbit given by Violet Powell, in her biography of Margaret Kennedy:

‘Margaret dedicated it to her daughter, Julia. Suitably, as it is a book about the troubles of young girls in coming to terms with life and love.’

This gave me insight into the overall tone of the novel—a loving mother wrote this, with her daughter in mind.

Lucy Carmichael is strong young woman–‘cheerful and confident’, as mentioned at the outset–with many winning character traits. She doesn’t really need a man, but doesn’t realize this until the end. In spite of the fact that she begins rather shockingly as the poor jilted bride, Lucy has a number of men who want to offer her consolation.

‘This,’ (mother might be saying to her daughter), ‘is not the kind of relationship you want. You’re better than that.’

The crux of the matter is quickly given at the outset, so it’s not a spoiler to point out that Lucy is left at the altar. Thus we begin with a once-vibrant young woman, crushed and brought low.

It’s where Lucy Carmichael goes from here that makes the story interesting.

To some extent Kennedy distances the reader from Lucy’s extreme suffering. When Lucy moves away to get a fresh start, we learn of her new life via letters. In this, we are given more side helpings of insight and the notion that she is doing her best to put on a brave face. Still, we are kept at a distance. Some examples:

Oct. 4
‘This letter is so sour I think I had better finish it. I had meant it to be sparkling with wit and humor but it hasn’t turned out that way. I’m not sorry I came, and I think that Slane Forest looks most enticing. I mean to explore it.’

Nov. 1
‘On Sundays I explore Slane Forest on a bicycle or go to read to Mr. Meeker who is blind and has nobody to read to him. I am quite all right, only my hair is falling out. Do you know of a good tonic?’

‘A letter from you has just arrived. What on earth has my mother been saying? I have not been ill. But my hands and feet went numb. I couldn’t feel anything in them. So Emil said I had pernicious anaemia and would die. I pointed out that people don’t die nowadays; they take liver extract.’

Dec. 24
‘I can’t go home for Xmas. I have got shingles. What do you know about that? I didn’t know anybody my age could have them, but they can for I have, or something of the sort. It came on at a horrible party they have at the end of term, after a most depressing Nativity play.’

But we feel for Lucy, very keenly, with these little revelations. And the brilliant aspect of this method results in us wanting to know more of her thoughts and feelings. The reader welcomes the slow revealing of Lucy’s inner world, as the heartache begins to ease. She is a kind, dynamic, ‘can do’ sort of person. As she begins to heal and grow into her new life—indeed, to regain her former brilliant sparks of life—we enter more of her direct conscious thought, experience more of her life as it is happening, and are no longer at one remove by means of secondhand information or letters.

It was almost as though Kennedy (once again, in a kind motherly fashion) kept us at a polite distance from this strong-minded young woman and protected her while intensely vulnerable.

As mentioned, there are many delightful references to Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice, for we have none other than a brooding, supercilious Mr. Darcy character sketched for us, under the name of Charles Millwood. He is quite above Lucy in social station—a girl he barely notices at first and then describes as ‘unabashedly middle class’—but he cannot help but be moved by her fresh beauty and strength of character.

‘She lifted her eyes to Charles, who was asking her some question. He thought that he had never in his life seen such beautiful eyes, though he could not put a name to the light which shone in them. The turn of her head, her smile, and this luminous tenderness of her glance, made him feel quite giddy; they tingled through his nerves like a shock.’

I can only quote (as Margaret Kennedy actually did in the book), ‘Are the shades of Pemberley thus to be polluted?’

In her book Jane Austen, Margaret Kennedy gives high accolades to Jane Austen’s premier creation of fiction, Pride and Prejudice, while admitting:

‘Darcy exists only to play in scenes with Elizabeth….Nor can we believe that rude young men of good family, met at balls, turned out later to be as amiable as was Fitzwilliam Darcy.’

Kennedy does not make this mistake with her fictional Charles Millwood.

In the end, we know Lucy has found happiness with herself, that all-important inner self worth that no one can take away.

‘Her restlessness was all gone. A bliss, an ecstasy, came to her, which she had known constantly in childhood but which she had thought to be lost. It came again, the overpowering joy, from the fields in the yellow winter light it came, from the huge sky, from the hard ice beneath her singing skates.

‘She wanted nothing more of life than the moment held…’

Now would be a very good time for Mr. Right to show up, just when he’s not needed, and looks all the better for it. Does he?

‘To create an entirely charming girl is one of the rarest achievements in fiction.’ 

So wrote Margaret Kennedy, in her comments on Pride and Prejudice. In Lucy Carmichael, she created a very charming, very believable heroine. And gave her happiness. Which is always nice to have, in the end.

 

 

Lucy Carmichael: A Preamble

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

lucy-carmichael

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.

ForestofDeanpainting

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.

 

The Ladies of Lyndon: Margaret Kennedy

‘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.”’

My own idea of a modern book cover

My own idea of a modern book cover, created with Canva app, from a Rossetti drawing

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.margaretkennedyvignettephoto

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.

via wiki commons; an example of Capability Brown in landscape design

via wiki commons; an example of “Capability Brown” in landscape design

“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.

via wiki commons, Dante Gabriel-Rossetti

via wiki commons, Dante Gabriel-Rossetti

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:

richardgillbookcover‘…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

ladies-of-lyndon


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:

Troy Chimneys
The Fool of the Family
The Feast

Novel, But Not Original

 

We all know what ‘original recipe’ means. It means a recipe that has been passed down from someone’s momma to someone’s momma until it passed to someone’s son who figured out how to patent it and start a chain of fast food restaurants.bookshop

A recipe involves a formula, a pattern, which would appear to contradict the idea we have formed of ‘original’.

But is there an original pattern for a novel? Is there even an original novel, widely recognized as such, from which sprang the seminal pattern?

These are the sorts of things I wonder about before my life gets more orderly with a plate of scrambled eggs.

To unlock, in a scholarly way, the mysteries of a term such as ‘original novel’, that would appear to be both contradictory and redundant at the same time, is a question I would defer to James Harbeck of sesquiotica, a brilliant blog on word origins. A professional editor, the creator of ‘word tasting notes’ he even manages to make the subject entertaining.

And to unlock the the mystery of what actually qualifies as ‘the original novel’, as in the first novel ever written, you would soon find yourself in a morass of conflicting opinions and ideas that would take you everywhere from The Sumerian Shakespeare to eighteenth century political satire.

In the meantime, my eggs are getting cold, so…Curious Word devotees, here you go:

Original: Comes from the word we know as orient, oriental, meaning East. To the ancients, the east was the source—the origin—of both light and life.

FullMoon

In an interesting connection to our word novel—novel in the modern sense of a structured story with written words—we have the ancient Hebrew word qdm, which also meant east, or ancient.

Who was Cadmus, according to the Greeks? The originator of their alphabet and writing. The original writer, as such.

From wiki:

 

‘Cadmus’ name is of uncertain etymology. It has been connected to Semitic qdm “the east” and Greek kekasmai (<*kekadmai) “to shine”.

Did our original writer write novels?

Novel: comes originally from ‘nova’ meaning new star. This provides an interesting link to the Greek word above, kekasmai, ‘to shine’.

Our current use of it, however, comes via Latin, from the word nouus, and nouellus, and finally to novella, a short or middle length story…which the English took and shortened novella into novel and increased the length of the story. Funny how they did that.

All of this still keeping the meaning of ‘something new’, something born.

Linked to the ancient origin of novel is ‘novelty’, and this is, as some argue, why the novel has never been given proper credence as an art form. The Greeks dismissed it as such, giving a Muse to Poetry, Music, Art, and the like. To the novel there has been given no star-like brilliance.

Novelists still are aching to shine.

Margaret Kennedy, in her fascinating little diatribe on the subject of novels, called The Outlaws on Parnassus, writes:img_6383

‘There is…very little demand for genuine criticism of the novel. Expert advice in this field is not felt to be necessary. It is a very easy kind of book to read. The other arts strike the average man as being much more mysterious, and as making more strenuous demands upon him. When delighted by poetry, music, or painting he is inclined to ask why he should be thus affected. He is aware of some complicated process of statement and response. Endeavouring to understand this experience he turns to critical comment for elucidation. He is less likely to feel all this when he enjoys a novel; that pleasure strikes him as simple, natural, and familiar. He cannot remember a time when he did not enjoy stories; his pleasure has blossomed from very early roots and from the days when his mother used to tell him about The Three Bears at bed-time. He has been so long and so well acquainted with this kind of satisfaction that, when he encounters it as an adult in an expanded form, he takes his response for granted, as he did as a child.’

Therefore the origin of story-telling, and eventual novel writing…is as old as the first baby being rocked at a cradle. Something new, something born…

In other words, the original novel came from someone’s momma. (Thanks, mom.)

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.

MargaretKennedyphoto

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…

TheFeast

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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Miss Bates: In Praise of Thick Shoes

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‘It is the ambient air of Highbury which most charms us in this book. The little town and its inhabitants are so real, so actual, that it is hard to believe we have never been there. The very cobbles, glistening after a sharp shower, are nearly solid enough to walk on….Miss Bates is somehow a vehicle of this ambience.’  —Margaret Kennedy, ‘Jane Austen

In my reading life, I am never far from Jane Austen. Even when reading the works of other authors, there she is. While reading a novel that might seem completely unrelated to Jane Austen—she appears. The hero or heroine is reading her, or refers to her, and the narrative device thus employed is almost always used as a character statement of approbation. That last word, by the way—approbation—entered my vocabulary by way of Jane Austen.

In social media, there is Jane, looking fresh and updated. This morning my newsfeed greeted me with the happy declaration that a movie adaptation of Sanditon is currently being filmed. Lady Susan is on its way to a theater near me. I am very excited about Sanditon—with the usual caveats and hoverings of motherly concern. How will they cast the indomitable hypochondriac Diana Parker? Or the robustly sickish Arthur? Sidney with an ‘i’ had better be good…we’ve waited a long time to meet him. (It’s very important to get it right; this is the novel Jane was working on just before she died.)

Were I inclined to be interested in zombies and vampires, there too, even so, I would find Jane.

“One man’s style must not be the rule of another’s.” Mr. Knightley, Emma

Most prefer finding Jane via the usual routes. Her words. As if millions didn’t already know this…her words are superb.

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Recently, I’ve been revisiting her novel, Emma, in both annotated and abridged forms. The annotated was by treating myself to this beautiful edition, pictured here. (published by Harvard University Press.)IMG_1095

Plus I’ve just finished the absolutely stellar audio version of Emma read by Jeremy Northam. This is an abridged version, (sad to say) but so worth feeling cheated! His rendering of Mrs. Elton, …“Maple Grove…” “….barouche landau…” gave me many laugh out loud moments.

A very good reason to brush up on my Emma is the lovely series going on right now at sarahemsley.com. Called Emma In The Snow, it is in celebration of the fact that this year marks 200 years since the publication of Emma. There are fascinating angles from a wide range of authors being discussed on Sarah’s blog, and even a diehard ‘Janeite’ will find new insights and reasons to love her novels.

For me, Emma has many attractions. One of them seems undervalued by many, and that even goes as far back as Austen’s lifetime, when Emma was first published.

‘…the faults [of Emma] are said to lie in the minute detail of the plan, and in a certain tedium in the presentment of such ‘characters of folly kind simplicity ‘ as Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates.’ (Quarterly, Jan. 1816)

While Austin Dobson wrote, in his forward to the novel:

‘Yet a genuine admirer may perhaps allow that some of the excellent Miss Bates’s speeches, even though they should be taken by the reader in double-quick time, would no be the worse for curtailment.’

Oh, but we could not have it so! The charms of Miss Bates are certainly more appealing given the distance of 200 years and the fact that she’s not in my living room right now swallowing up all breathable air. Yet, she is, for all that, ‘a loveable creature’. When Emma hurts her in a fit of spite, we feel it keenly.

But in terms of plot device? Miss Bates is extraordinary. In her, Jane Austen has created an efficient information delivery system. The kindly old spinster is to the ordinary chatterbox what the diesel engine is to the electric toy train. With rushing speed, a lot of ground is covered. Much vital information is conveyed, to those who are actually paying attention. This is the secret to Miss Bates. She is a brilliant contrivance and her effect cannot be reduced by a single syllable.

“So very obliging of you!—No rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes.”

On a side note, this style of running conversation, which is honed to perfection in Emma, Jane Austen also gives to Mrs. Augusta Elton. In Augusta’s case, though, it is more of a self-congratulatory rodomontade, and she reveals mostly her own self in ways that do not flatter her. Again, a brilliant device for helping us get to know the ‘charms’ of the new bride in the briefest possible time.

Miss Bates is all about other people and her lively interest in the goings on of Highbury. A useful person for the narrative, indeed, when you have clever little deceit mongers afoot like Frank Churchill, or the murky, convoluted doings of the superbly self-deceived Emma.

To be honest, the first time I read Emma, I was inclined to read over these verbal passages swiftly, anxious to get back to the ‘action’. I have had real life talkers in my family that could give Miss Bates a run for her money, so I am used to the exasperated tune outs one must resort to in an effort to keep things moving. It’s only in recent years and retrospect that I have begun to appreciate this clever literary device used by Austen.

Recently, while enjoying Margaret Kennedy’s discussion of Jane Austen’s works, I was delighted to read of her own thoughts in this regard. Margaret Kennedy calls Miss Bates ‘a vehicle’ of the marvelous ambiance Austen has created in Highbury.

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Kennedy took the time to list some of the information that Miss Bates conveyed during her two monologues at the Highbury ball. An impressive feat. Miss Bates, we’ll remember, comes in excitedly talking: (I’ve left Ms. Kennedy’s intensively worded paragraph as is because it is something of a marvel, in itself!):

‘[Miss Bates] is frequently used by Austen to convey the scene and to tell us what everybody else is doing so that her speeches are highly informative although a general impression of triviality and incoherence is preserved. One monologue from her saves pages of narrative. She makes, for instance, two long speeches during the ball at the Crown, during which we learn that: It is raining. That the landlady of the Crown is standing in the passage to watch the guests come in. That Mrs. Weston is probably expecting a baby. That Miss Bates’s mother is spending the evening with Emma’s father. That it is in order to hold an umbrella over herself and Jane Fairfax that Frank Churchill has been hanging round in the passage all this time. That he has spent much of the day with them under the convenient and standing excuse of mending old Mrs. Bates’ spectacles. We learn also the names of many of the guests and that Mr. Elton is not the only clergyman present, the names of Jane’s partners for the first four dances and that none of them has been Frank Churchill because he means to secure her for supper and must not be dancing with her too often. That the long passage to the supper room has been covered with matting and a draughty door nailed up. That Frank Churchill is so eager to put Jane’s tippet on her shoulders and march her off to the corner he has selected in the supper room that he nearly takes her out before anybody else. That Mrs. Elton will have none of this and firmly takes place of everybody. That Mrs. Elton is still wearing her bridal lace and consequently claims a brides’ privileges. That Frank does maneuver Jane into his chosen corner at supper. That the Hartfield supper has consisted of tea, baked apples, biscuits, wine, and a fricassee of sweetbreads with asparagus which poor Mrs. Bates has not been allowed to eat because of Mr. Woodhouse thought it indigestible. That the two old people played backgammon. That Miss Bates herself for all her chatter has managed to slip out unobserved after the first four dances, has run through the rain in thick shoes to Hartfield, taken her old mother home, put her to bed and returned without disturbing anybody.

‘If people had ever listened to Miss Bates they would have known a great deal more of what was happening at Highbury.’

You see how useful Miss Bates is?

Margaret Kennedy concludes her marvelous summation with the opinion:

‘Emma is not a better book than Mansfield Park but it is a worthy successor. It has a smaller canvas, a less ambitious theme, but it has this almost miraculous reality.’