‘A Night in Cold Harbour’ is set in the 19th century, it was published in 1960, but it explores a problem that is still very real, with compassion and concern.
How very easy it is for a man to lose everything ….
The story opens in a cold harbour: a refuge for travellers and for the homeless. Margaret Kennedy paints a wonderful picture of the people who pass through, people who have built a community and who support one another. And then she introduces an old man who has been brought to the cold harbour by a much younger man. He was an educated man, a parson, and yet he was dying there, alone.
The story that follow explains how that came to be.
It is the story of a young man who was the heir to a fine estate, who was loved by his family, and who was terribly, terribly spoiled. He could not appreciate what he had and what others gave to him; he could only see what he did not have and he would not accept that his position carried any responsibilities.
He broke with his childhood sweetheart, because she wanted to stay close to her widowed father.
He abandoned another woman after a brief dalliance, leaving her to give birth to his child alone.
And then he left his father, his mother and his sisters, to travel and to love that life of a gentleman. That forced his father to sell part of his estate, to a pottery owner who wanted to build a factory.
His abandoned love was a lovely young woman; she refused to become bitter, and she continued to love and to want the best for him. She stayed home with her father, and she picked up the threads of the work that her mother had done in the community.
She even helped his illegitimate child to find a place in the world. A better place than the factory, when she knew the child workers were treated cruelly.
Her father, the parson, saw what was going on and he spoke out, but he found that nobody was willing to listen. When his daughter died he was heart-broken; his sons thought that he was mad – it suited then to think he was mad – and he lost his living and his home.
He faced a stark choice: he could flee or he could be sent to an asylum.
The spoiled young man learned lessons, and in time he would gain maturity and he would see the error of his ways. He would try to put things right but he would fail; it was too late.
Margaret Kennedy’s clear-sightedness suited this story wonderfully well. There’s a clarity of purpose too; she knew the period, she knew the history, but that was the setting for the story and the chain of consequence that is threaded through it.
It’s a story driven more by plot and less by characters than her other novels that I have read.
There are sub-plots, and there are lovely details along the way; they echo the themes, helping to make the point that virtue in not always rewarded, that sins are not always punished, that humans are horribly fallible, and that mistakes cannot always be put right; everything comes together in one elegantly constructed plot.
The central storyline holds the attention. The structure is a little like ‘The Feast’ in that you know what happens at the beginning and you read on to find how and why and to understand the real significance of that thing that happened.
There were moments when I saw the influence of Thomas Hardy, there was prose that might have been Jane Austen telling a story unlike any of her own; but what makes the story sing is a depth of feeling that belongs entirely to Margaret Kennedy.
I just wished that there had been a little more space; there was almost too much story for one short book; but the impression that story leaves is exactly what it should be.
A dramatization of ‘A Night in Cold Harbour’ could be amazing; but, for now, I am happy to have read a story that will stay with me.