The story of Lucy Carmichael, written and set in the early 1950s, opens with high drama. Lucy is getting married to the man of her dreams, and Margaret Kennedy captures her excitement, her nerves, her energy, her joy, quite beautifully.
I was inclined to love Lucy just as much as her best friend Melissa did. This is how Melissa describes her friend to her own fiancé:
“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 cheerful and confident and expects to be happy. She taught me how to enjoy myself … Lucy forced me to believe that I might be happy. I don’t expect I’d have had the courage to marry you, to marry anybody, if it hadn’t been for Lucy”.
There was no wedding: Lucy was jilted, and of course she was devastated.
She knew she had to carry on, and she knew she had to get away. She hated watching people being tactful, knowing she was being talked about, seeing reminders everywhere. And so, when she saw on opening for a drama teacher at an arts institute, she grabbed it with both hands.
Lucy made a wonderful success of the job, she built wonderful relationships with students, colleagues and townspeople, and she became part of a community with principles and values that she really admired. But she soon found that she was in a minefield, having to deal with the machinations of one or two ruthlessly ambitious individuals, and aspersions cast by certain individuals who thought she was rather too friendly with the aristocratic patrons. Lucy fought the good fight, but in the end she realised that it was a fight she could not win.
She found another job, revitalising a community centre, and she made a success of that too.
It’s a relatively simple story, but Margaret Kennedy tells it so very well. A quarter of a century after her greatest success – The Constant Nymph – her understanding of characters and relationships was in full bloom. She understood that Lucy would hide her heartache, that she would tell the world that she was alright, but of course she wouldn’t be. Every aspect her character was just a little muted, and there were certain things, certain situations, that she found difficult to deal with. She understood that the friendship between Lucy and Melissa would be strong, but that the would both be treading warily as Melissa made her own wedding plans. She understood every character, every relationship, every nuance, and that made this book a joy to read.
Along the way Lucy was offered a second chance of love and romance, but her experiences had made her realise that she wanted more. She still wanted to be married, she still wanted a family, but she wanted a life and she knew that she should not, could not, accept second best.
I do wish that Virago had published Lucy Carmichael along with the four books by Margaret Kennedy that they republished. She is out on the world again as a Faber Find, which is lovely, but I can’t help thinking that she could have – should have – been in the first rank of Virago heroines.
When I began reading Lucy Carmichael I thought that I would be writing that this is my favourite of the four books by Margaret Kennedy that I’ve read over the last twelve months. I’m not sure that it is now. That drama at the start of the story was so very, very well done that what followed couldn’t quite live up to expectations that were raised sky-high. The rest of the book was a quieter, more subtle, pleasure.
I can’t help thinking that Lucy’s story would dramatise beautifully, and make wonderful Sunday evening television.
Though they were apart for most of the story, exchanging letters and meeting just occasionally, the friendship between Lucy and Melissa was the finest, most beautifully wrought aspect of this story.
And Melissa wrote about Lucy to her brother, Hump. He wasn’t sure that he liked the sound of her, but when they finally met, by chance, towards the end of the story he thought he might change his mind. Though I was inclined to think that Lucy changed it for him.
There was the suggestion of a happy ending, but no more than that. And that was exactly right.
And now I’m thinking that this might be my favourite Margaret Kennedy novel after all. Though I think that same when I recall The Fool of the Family and The Feast. I just know that the book that was by far her greatest success – The Constant Nymph – is my least favourite.
But thank goodness I liked that enough to want to read her other books. And that I have a good few more still to read …