In the middle of the 1920s ‘The Constant Nymph’, Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, was a huge critical and commercial success. It would become one of the best-selling books of the decade, it would be adapted for the stage and for the cinema. It was against that background, in the face of all the demands that success brought, that the her third novel came into the world.
And that may be why, while I found much to enjoy and admire in ‘Red Sky at Morning’, I couldn’t help thinking that the story didn’t come together quite as well as it might have, and that with a little more time and work it could have been so much more.
The story begins with Catherine Frobisher, who carried the keeper of the flame of one of England’s finest writers and the mother of two children destined to be the leading lights of their generation. She wasn’t: she was the widow of a minor poet and the mother of two wholly unremarkable children. But she was a wonderful character, who loved her family, who wasn’t quite as blind to their failings as she at first seemed, but could never quite see that there were other ways to love; I could quite easily believe that she could have been sent down from heaven by Jane Austen.
Catherine was not best pleased when her brother defied convention and moved his mistress into her family’s ancestral home.
And she wasn’t happy that her sister had also married a poet; a rather better poet than her husband. But she knew that it was her duty to take in their two children when their mother died, when their father was caught up in the most scandalous of criminal trials.
That cast a lovely gothic haze over the story; it would be recognisably Margaret Kennedy, but it would also be a little different.
William and Emily Crowne were the loveliest of children. They were attractive, they were imaginative, and they played so happily together, caught up in their own world and oblivious to the world around them. They didn’t see how jealous the Frobisher children, Trevor and Charlotte, were. They didn’t know that their father’s notoriety would follow them into their adult lives.
The world was watching when William grew up to be a playwright, and he attracted a great following. He had no idea that they weren’t really interested in him or his play, they were watching to see what Norman Crowne’s son would do.
Opening night was a disaster; William’s play was pretentious and overblown. The laughter and derision scared the sensitive Emily and she drew back, into a safe marriage to an older man who adored her. And then, feeling her loss keenly, William married an actress. He didn’t know that for her the marriage was driven by ambition, to use the Crowne fortune, to use the Crowne name.
The satire in the chapters set in London, in the theatre had been glorious, but it was time for the story to move on.
Catherine’s brother, Bobbie, had been able to marry his mistress when her estranged husband died. They were blissfully happy together, but they ran the family estate into the ground. Trevor, seeing an opportunity for himself, persuaded William to buy the property. William agreed, because he thought it would be a wonderful home for all of his family, for his struggling friends from the theatre, for a very nice family who needed somewhere to live …..
Catherine was horrified. Emily was worried. And something broke in the end; it had too.
It was a wonderful ending, but it felt just a little contrived. It should have come naturally from the characters but it didn’t, not quite.
That was a shame, because all of the characters were so wonderfully drawn, the writing had been wonderful, and there was so much potential in mixing together traditional Edwardians and modern Bohemians.
The changing times were caught beautifully, and the things the story has to say about the nature of fame and celebrity still hold true.
There were so many wonderful conversations, so many lovely moments. There was cleverness, there was wit, and there was real human understanding. I loved watching Catherine’s reactions to the changing world. I loved watching the evolution of Emily’s marriage. I loved the warm, natural relationship of Bobbie and Lise. But so much of William’s straggling household seemed like clutter, a distraction from the heart of the story.
The potential was there for a wonderful novel but, though there were moments of greatness, the story doesn’t quite come together.
If this had been a story by an unknown author I would be calling it a wonderful literary curio. But, because it’s a book by Margaret Kennedy, I can’t say that.
I can say that if you have read her books already this is well worth reading, to see her handling themes she would use in other books in a very different way, to see the many good things in this book, to see what she wrote and how she reacted at the height of her fame ….. just don’t set your expectations too high.
If you haven’t read any of her fiction before, I’d say start somewhere else. But come back to this book if you come to love her too.
It was well worth reading, and it would have been worth it for the final sentence alone. It’s loaded, and it confirmed to me what a very fine writer Margaret Kennedy was.