Not in the Calendar by Margaret Kennedy

I’m delighted to see that Vintage will be reissuing lots of Margaret Kennedy’s novels, and when those titles are added to the others available as Faber Finds that means that nearly all her novels but one are readily available.

All of novels but one – this one – and I am so sorry that it seems to have slipped through the net.

‘Not in the Calendar’ was Margaret Kennedy’s final novel, published in 1964, and it tells the story of a friendship that lasted a lifetime with all of the subtlety, understanding and grace that I have come to expect from her writing.

Not in the calendarCaroline was the tenth of twelye children of the Knyvett family; the family could trace its history back to the Doomsday book, but it had fallen into decline and to send to many sons out into the world, to find good marriages for so many daughter out into the world would not be easy. But the children had been brought up to be proud of their heritage, to be aware of their status, to take their rightful places in the world ….

Wyn was the deaf- mute child of a family who all worked at the big house. she and Caroline played together so happily. They ran, they played with dolls, they examined the things they found. And they found ways to communicate with each other, through pantomime, through gestures through signs. Wyn began to copy Caroline’s lip movements and to make the signs of speech, and she showed a gift for art when Caroline brought her coloured chalks.

It was a lovely friendship, and it gave so much to each girl.

But Caroline’s family saw none of that. They just saw an ungainly child making ugly sounds, and they took steps to separate the pair.

And then life took them in different directions.

Wyn was spotted by the governess to the deaf-mute daughter of a wealthy family, and she was quick to see now bright Wyn was, how much potential she had, how much the two girls might learn together.  And learn together they did! They learned sign language, they learned to read lips, and in time they learned to speak.

She wrote to Caroline; Caroline wrote back; their friendship was quickly re-kindled,

She found success as an artist, and an inheritance from her adoptive parent gave her independence.

Meanwhile, Caroline’s elder sisters were marrying well, while she was left behind to look after Lallie, the youngest sister who was an invalid, who needed her.

But, in time, Lallie found her own path in life, and found the strength to take it. And that allowed Caroline to follow her own calling; to build on what she learned as she played in the kitchen garden.

Margaret Kennedy tells the story of a friendship that would last a lifetime beautifully. The perspective changes; Wyn’s governess speaks of her charges, a brother’s visit to Caroline is observed, letters between the Knyvett sisters are opened. Each chapter on its own is effective, but the structure works a little less well than a more traditional narrative.

Because Margaret Kennedy observes everything so very acutely, but she doesn’t push too hard, she leaves space for her readers to think. And I think that this story needed just a little push.

The other thing that didn’t quite work for me was the suggestion – out forward in the title, the introduction, and the text –  that Caroline was saintly. She was undoubtedly good, but I saw her as a woman who had come to understand what was truly important in life, who wanted the best for those she loved, and who knew that sometimes it was best to quietly wait and hope.

What I loved though was the give and take in the different relationships; the two little girls in the kitchen garden, the governess and her two little girls, the teacher and her pupils, and, of course, the artist and the teacher who had played together in the kitchen garden when they were so very young.

I loved the eccentric household that grew around Caroline, and watching one of her nieces step into it.

All of the characters, all of their worlds, are so very well drawn. Margaret Kennedy is wonderfully clear-sighted and unsentimental, and that works particularly well with the story and the ideas in this book.

But it was so sad that Caroline’s sisters could never see how much Wyn had achieved, could never  appreciate what Caroline was doing or what she was doing it.

Their stories made a nice backdrop, and caught the changes that the twentieth century would bring for families like the Knyvetts.

This Margaret Kennedy’s best work, but it is profound, it is moving, and I know that Caroline, Wyn, their lives and their relationship will remain close to my heart.

* * * * * * *

And now I must mention an idea that’s been floating around my mind for a while now:

If I was to host a Mararet Kennedy Reading week, say in the start of October when all of the reissues are with us, would anyone join me?

I’d love to do it, but I’d hate to be here banging the drum on my own ….

A Box of Books for 2013

I have a love-hate relationship with year-end lists.

I have loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child. And yet I find it difficult to sum up a year of reading in a list or two. I know that it’s for the best of reasons: I have learned that there are so many wonderful books out there, and so I have learned to read the books that call; the books I want to read, rather than the books I ought to read.

So I’m going to do what I did last year. I’m going to assemble a virtual box of books to capture all of the things that I’ve loved in this year’s reading. It might sound like a list, and maybe it is, but to me feels like I’ve pulled some great books from the shelves because those are the books I want to pull from the shelves right now. It’s not quite so definitive.

And here it is – in the order that I read them:


Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard

“What a wonderful idea: the story of the sixty something years when Queen Victoria reigned, told through the experiences of the men and women who served her. The experiences of high-ranking courtiers, who were close enough to see how the queen and her family lived, who were not overawed by the world they found themselves in, and who, of course, left letters and diaries to speak for them.”

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

“I must confess that, though I loved the recent film adaptation of The Painted Veil, I have been circling my copy of the book for a long, long time. Because for years Maugham lived in my box marked ‘A Great Author But Not For Me.’ Wrong, wrong, wrong!”

The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

“I was smitten with ‘The Love-Charm of Bombs’ from the very first time I read about it. The prospect of seeing London in the Second World War through the eyes of five remarkable writers – Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (who wrote under the name Henry Green) – was simply irresistible.”

A Pixy in Petticoats by John Trevena

“Some people look at a hedgerow and see just that. A hedgerow. But others see more: a network of different plants, signs of the wildlife that live there, evidence of what the weather had been doing. John Trevena saw those things and he was able to bring that to life on the page, to pull his readers into his village and over the moors.”

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow

“In 1869, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, staying with friends near Carlisle, reported in a letter to his mother that he had come across ‘some most remarkable architectural works by a former Miss Losh. She must have been really a great genius,’ he wrote, ‘and should be better known.’ She should.”

Mariana by Monica Dickens

“Now it has to be said that Mary is not the most sympathetic of characters. She is often awkward, thoughtless, selfish even. But she was real, and for all her failing I did like her, I did want her to find her path in life, her place in the world. Sometimes fallible heroines are so much easier to love.”

Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof by E.A. Dineley

“It’s a lovely period piece, full of lovely characters, pieces of history, references to beloved books, clever plotting, well-chosen details … and it’s utterly, utterly readable.”

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

“Barbara Pym constructed her story so cleverly and told it beautifully. There is wit, intelligence and insight, and such a very light touch and a natural charm. A simple story, but the details made it sing. It was so very believable. It offers a window to look clearly at a world that existed not so long ago, but that has changed now so completely.”

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter

“In ‘The Sea Change’, Joanna Rossiter spins her story around a mother and daughter, both caught up in life changing events – real, historical events – that are very different and yet have similar consequences. She does it so very well that I can scarcely believe it is her debut. But it is.”

The Young Clementina by D E Stevenson

“I was so sorry to have to say goodbye to Charlotte and her world, after being caught up in her life and her world from start to finish. That points to very clever writing and plotting. Charlotte’s world, the people in it, all of the things she lived through were painted richly and beautifully. Her story lived and breathed.”

The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait

“That I felt so deeply for these three siblings, that I was so upset, is a measure of what Rebecca Wait has achieved in her debut novel. I never doubted that she really knew, that she really understood, and that her accounts of depression, of bereavement, of grief, were utterly, utterly credible.  And the simplicity and the clarity of her story and her writing allowed that understanding to shine.”

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson (re-read)

“Lady Rose was the only child and the heir, thanks to the good graces of Queen Victoria, of the Earl of Lochule. She was pretty, warm, bright,  and her open heart, her boundless curiosity, her love of life, charmed everyone she met. And she grew into a proud Scot and a true romantic, inspired by the writings of Walter Scott, the history of Mary Queen of Scots, and, most of all, her beloved home and lands.”

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

“Best of all, the story of the golem and the djinni spoke profoundly of humanity, of its strengths and weaknesses, and of what it is that makes us human.”

No More Than Human by Maura Laverty

“She set off for Madrid,  to become a ‘professora’ – a free-lance tutor and  chaperone. It was an independent lifestyle that suited Delia very well, but it wasn’t easy to establish herself when she was so young, and maybe her reputation would follow her. But Delia was determined, and soon she was setting her sights even higher …..

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

“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.”


The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (re-read)

“Barbara Comyns tells all of this so well, at times painting pictures with every sentence, and balancing the commonplace and the highly improbable so well that I was completely captivated by a story that was somehow dark and colourful at exactly the same time.”

The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb

“I was captivated by ‘The Misbegotten’, a wonderfully readable, utterly compelling story, set early in the eighteenth century. It is story of dark secrets, terrible losses, devastating lies, of the lives that they affect, and of truths that may be brought to light at a very high price.”

Penmarric by Susan Howatch (re-read)

“The story is told in six volumes, by five different narrators: Mark Castellack, his wife, one of his illegitimate sons, and two of his legitimate sons who would, in their turn, be master of Penmarric. Sixty years pass – from the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign to the end of World War II full of every kind of family drama you could imagine. In the wrong hands it would be a mess, but Susan Howatch made it work.”

Nearest Thing to Crazy by Elizabeth Forbes

“It was all so horribly believable. And it was unsettling, seeing how easily a life could be knocked off course, a mind knocked off balance. The story built , slowly and steadily, never losing it’s grip, towards a very clever ending. An ending that I really didn’t see coming, but an ending that made perfect sense.”

Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll

“Frost Hollow Hall is more than a ghost story; it’s a story that lives and breathes, and paint wonderful pictures, and it’s a story about love, family, loss, regret, and learning to let go, told beautifully, with both subtlety and charm.”


The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman (re-read)

“The story begins with Richard as a small child and follows him through the course of his life, in exile when the House of Lancaster is in the ascendancy, and at court when the House of York rises. He becomes a formidable battlefield commander; he becomes a trusted lieutenant of the brother, Edward IV; he becomes the husband of Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, who he has loved since child; and eventually, of course, he comes king.”

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (re-read)

“Now I find myself wanting to do what Alice did at the end of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I want to throw you in the air and say, “You’re just a fictional character!” But I can’t. Because you are so utterly real; not a heroine, not a villainess, but a vivid, three-dimensional human being, with strengths and weaknesses.”

The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

“I loved the way that the story of Shiva and Pravati, and stories of her family, were woven into Alice’s own story. The contrast between India and England was very, very effective, and there were so many lovely things to notice along the way: bookish references, period details, real history – everything you could want.”

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

“It’s a simple story, but it plays out beautifully, because it is adorned with so many lovely dialogues, so many interesting incidents; and because everything works beautifully with the characters and their situations.”

Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

“It is a wonderful adventure for three young women  – Nanette, Emma and Charity – all from conventional, middle-class backgrounds, who have completed basic training and have been dropped into the very different world of the boating fraternity.”


And that is very nearly the end of my reading year.

All that remains is to tell you about the very last book I read for my Century of Books, and to wind up that project …..

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

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.

Lucy CarmichaelIt’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 …

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

The FeastI might describe The Feast, Margaret Kennedy’s ninth novel in many ways: a character study, a morality tale, a social comedy, an allegory. But, above all of that, I would describe it as very readable novel.

The setting is a cliff-top hotel on the north coast of Cornwall, not long after the war. It is a hotel that will be destroyed when the edge of the cliff crumbles. These things happen: there’s coastal erosion, and in this case there was a washed-up mine too. I knew all of this because two clergymen, meeting for their annual holiday, told me so in the prologue.

And so this is the story of the last seven days of the hotel at Pendizack Point.

There’s not much plot, but the story is driven very well by the disparate band of characters: visitors, hoteliers, and locals.

Mr and Mrs Siddal are the proprietors, and she’s nearly worn out trying to keep things going, because her husband is bone idle. She couldn’t manage without her boys, but they’re grown now, and ready to strike out on their own once the season is over. They do have a housekeeper, an impoverished gentlewoman, but Miss Ellis is a terrible snob, a vicious gossip and very selective about what she will and will not do. But they also have Nanciblel, who comes in daily from the village, and is a lovely girl, a real treasure.

Lady Gifford had sent very details before she arrived with her husband and her four children in tow. She was in poor health, the kind of poor health that required comfort, fine food, attention, and having everything her own way.  Mrs Cove had no time for such things. She had lived through the blitz, she had kept her three children by her side, and now she was going to give them a good holiday. She presented herself as a paragon, but she was quite the opposite, and before the week was over she would reveal her true colours.

And then there was a quiet couple who had survived a terrible tragedy; a militant clergyman and his downtrodden daughter; and a hack novelist, accompanied by her very sociable secretary.

Margaret Kennedy had a wonderful talent for presenting characters simply, clearly, objectively, just showing them and leaving you to draw your own conclusions. She does that perfectly here, slowly revealing details and true natures, and her style and the ideas she is exploring in this book work together beautifully.

I loved the way that Lady Gifford and Mrs Cove were both revealed as monsters.

So much happened n in those seven days: two romances develop, a theft is uncovered, two daughters defy a parent for the first time, a dramatic intervention in at mass in the village church, the ground shifts in more than one marriage, a secret society recruits new members …

Margaret Kennedy understood the time, the place, and the people, and she  handled everything – from the big dramatic scenes to the small but significant moments – with aplomb.

Everything was significant,  everything worked together beautifully, and I found much to appreciate.

Most of all, I was caught up with the characters; loving some, infuriated by others, wishing and hoping for so many things.

On the seventh day … there was a feast!

The Cove children had dreamed of a feast, and some of the adults, who had seen how good they were and how dreadful their mother was took it upon themselves to organise one. It would be the grandest beach party you could imagine. There would be food, drink, balloons, fancy dress, and the Coves were so lovely that they invited absolutely everybody. Though, of course, not everybody came.

They were having a lovely, lovely time.

And then the cliff crumbled.

There were fatalities and there would be survivors.

But that was the end …


It was Jo’s idea last year, and we’re doing it again this year.

Celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

It’s not quite as easy as it looks. I tweaked the categories last year to suit my reading style, and I’ve tweaked them a little more this year to make sure that the right books got in.

Here they are!


Six Books that tugged at my heartstrings

The Night Rainbow by Claire King
The Lonely by Paul Gallico
A Perfect Gentle Knight by Kit Pearson
The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The Young Clementina by D E Stevenson
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole


Six books illuminated by wonderful voices from the twentieth century

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
The Fool Of The Family by Margaret Kennedy
A Pixy in Petticoats by John Trevena
Mariana by Monica Dickens
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton


Six books that took me to another time and place

Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard
This January Tale by Bryher
The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel
In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda
The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow
A Commonplace Killing by Siân Busby


Six books that introduced me to interesting new authors

Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof by E.A. Dineley
The First Book Of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz
Telling the Bees by Peggy Hesketh
The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter
Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes
The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait


Six books I must mention that don’t fit nicely into any category

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
Yew Hall by L.M. Boston
Orkney by Amy Sackville
A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens
The Asylum by John Harwood
Perfect by Rachel Joyce


Six Books I started in the first six months of the year and haven’t quite finished … yet …

The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland
The House on the Cliff by Jon Godden
Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox
The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton by Diane Atkinson
Warpaint by Alicia Foster
The Rich House by Stella Gibbons


Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.

The Fool of the Family by Margaret Kennedy

In The Constant Nymph, Margaret Kennedy spun a story about love, music, and the relationship between the two, around the family of the brilliant bohemian composer, Albert Sanger. In this, the sequel, she tells another story of that family, considering the same themes. A more conventional love story.

Caryl was the eldest son of the great composer. He had looked after all of the practical issues that his father hadn’t wanted to be bothered about. Because he loved music, he knew what music could do, but he also knew that while he had inherited some of his father’s talent he had not inherited his genius, or anything else that would set him apart.

The Fool of the FamilyAfter his father’s death, when his family scattered Caryl found himself in Venice. And he found himself engaged to play popular songs on his violin, to entertain visitors. He knew he was lucky to live in such a place, to live a musician’s life, but he yearned for more. And one day he seized it, and played the music he felt in his veins, the right music for a place of such timeless beauty.

That lost Caryl his job. But he had caught the ear, and the eye of Fenella McClean, the nineteen year-old daughter of a wealthy London family on her first visit to Venice. She loved music, in her heart and in her soul. She fell in love with Caryl. And he with her.

It was wonderful to be young and in love and in Venice. But then disaster struck. A young woman appeared in the McClean household, carrying a baby and asking for Mr Sanger. Naturally Fenella’s parents were horrified, and they decided that the young lovers must be separated. They left immediately, with Fenella protesting vehemently; their destination a grand hotel in the Alps.

Caryl realised that his brother, Sebastian was in town. Sebastian who had inherited his father’s charm, his father’s singlemindedness, and his father’s genius. And he would discover that the young woman was Gemma, Sebastian’s muse, who cared little for music but accepted it because she loved Sebastian.

Now for all his failings Sebastian had a good heart, and he suggested that they travel to a certain hotel in the Alps and offer their services as musicians, so that Caryl and Fenella could be reunited. It was a hare-brained scheme, but Caryl had no job, no money and no better idea, so the party set out.

It was an eventful journey, and an unfortunate incident with a fellow traveller left Caryl, through no fault of his own, unable to show his face at the hotel. Sebastian offered his services as emissary, to bring the lovers together. Fenella, who had nearly forgotten her Venetian interlude, was charmed, by the romance of it all. And by Sebastian.

And then the story moves to London. Where Caryl finds a job with a music publisher, as the first step towards his dream of offering Fenella a fitting home. Where Gemma, who had an unhappy past, tired to make a home for her lover and her child. Where Sebastian continued to write, knowing that a brother in music publishing would be very useful when his finished his ballet. And where Fenella pondered the nature of love and what she really wanted from life, torn between Caryl and Sebastian and their different qualities.

All of this, of course, had consequences, as the story grew from a romantic comedy into something deeper and richer.

The way that Margaret Kennedy used her characters and their relationships with each other to create a story was wonderful, and she told that story beautifully. Her writing is subtle, understated, and yet every scene, every setting is alive, filled with exactly the right details.

Her characterisation is not quite so strong – or perhaps it would be fairer to say that she does not trouble overly to make her characters sympathetic.

I loved Caryl and his attitude to life, though I wished I’d seen a little more of the spirit that made him ditch the popular songs, and made his take drastic action rather later in the story.

At first I loved Fenella too, but as the story progressed, as she tried to decide whether her feelings for Caryl or her feelings for Sebastian were true love, she became more and more annoying. This was the weakest strand of the story, and the only strand I couldn’t quite believe.

But as Fenella fell Gemma rose. She started off as a simple bohemian girl, but as life tested her she grew up. There was a very obvious way this story could have played out, and it is to Margaret Kennedy’s great credit that she didn’t take it.

And finally, of course, there’s Sebastian. The simplest way to describe him is as a little boy who never grew up, but he’s rather more complicated, rather more charming than that. I never gave up hoping that he would do the right thing.

And maybe he did. He was there at the perfect ending of a novel that wasn’t quite perfect, but was always entertaining and thought-provoking.


Venice in February 2013This is my first book for Venice in February. It’s been on my library pile for a while, but when I saw where it was set I decided to save it. I was sorry that the story didn’t stay in Venice for long, but finishing in London feels right, because I have a book lined up that starts there and then moves to Venice …

In Which The Classics Club Poses a Question and I Put My Books in Order …

classicsclubAt the beginning of the month The Classics Club posed a question:

“What is the best book you’ve read so far for The Classics Club — and why? Be sure to link to the post where you discussed the book! (Or, if you prefer, what is your least favorite read so far for the club, and why?)”

I usually struggle with this sort of question, because I love many different books for many different reasons, but as I thought about it I realised that I could put the 5 books from my Classics Club list that I’ve read into order.

I loved and appreciated them all, but I know in my heart that some had greater claims than others …


In first place:

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters“All life is there, from quiet domesticity to grand events, and through everything in between. And lives are lived. A broad cast of characters – no not characters, people, because everyone is so perfectly drawn – live, love, make mistakes, learn, enjoy good or bad fortune, feel every emotion under the sun ….and so completely realised, real lives are reflected in the pages of these book.”

This was heaven: a fully realised world that pulled me right in, a story that captivated me, and a book that I know I will pick up again. I could quite happily go and live in Wives and Daughters.


Very, very close behind, in second place:

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

the-home-maker“The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary. The Home-Maker is one of those novels. It was published in the 1920s, it is set in small town American, and yet it feels extraordinarily relevant.It is the story of the Knapp family – Evangeline, Lester and their children, Helen, Henry and Stephen. A family that was unhappy, because both parents were trapped in the roles that society dictated a mother and a father should play.”

A significant statement, an extraordinary book, I can only say that it wasn’t quite as profound or well written as the book that preceded it.


And the book that comes third:

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White“I was held from the first page to the last and, though this is a big book, the last page came very quickly. Because there were so many twists, so many questions, that I had to turn the pages quickly. It’s lucky that Collins writes maybe the most readable prose of all the Victorian greats!”

I can’t quite believe that Wilkie Collins is down in third place, but although he’s a wonderful storyteller and this is a wonderful story, but I do think that the books that came before are greater works.


Some way behind that in fourth place:

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

Constant Nymph“The Constant Nymph was wildly successful in the 1920s. A bestselling novel! A popular play! A Hollywood film! And yet it disappeared. Fell out of print, until Virago picked it up and made it a Modern Classic – number 121!”

I loved Margaret Kennedy’s writing, and I shall be seeking out more of her work. I loved much of the story, but I was just a little disapponted in the way it played out in the end.


It’s a cliche I know, but it really is a case of last but not least:

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Bel-Ami“I have been to 19th century Paris, but I barely knew it. Because I have read a book with a style, with themes, with a story, that felt so very, very contemporary. This is a story of journalists with dubious ethics, of politicians who use their position for personal gain, of men and women caught up in the quest for power, money and social status.”

It was a wonderful story, and I’m glad I read it, but I did’t miss it or wish for a copy of my own when I had to give it back to the library.


So that’s five books read, 10% of my list behind me, but still lots of wonderful classics to come.


The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph was wildly successful in the 1920s. A bestselling novel! A popular play! A Hollywood film! And yet it disappeared. Fell out of print, until Virago picked it up and made it a Modern Classic – number 121!

There was an intriguing love triangle at the centre of the story, set against a colourful backdrop.

Lewis Dodd was a young composer, hugely promising and already enjoying a degree of success. He came from a conventional English family but he was drawn to a freer, more bohemian way of life. And he was particularly drawn to ‘Sanger’s Circus.’

Albert Sanger was a musical genius, a feted composer, but a difficult man. He expected attention, expected the world to revolve around him, and he had the charm, and of course the success, to make it so.

He lived high in the Alps with the six children of his two marriages, an idle mistress and her baby, and a stream of visitors to pay court to the great man.

The two children of his first marriage were virtually grown up. Caryl was a gifted musician who was beginning to follow in his father’s footsteps, and Kate was a capable young woman who brought order to the chaotic household and had musical and theatrical talents too. Their futures were assured.

The children of his second marriage were just a little younger, but much less grown up. They were children still, bright, free-spirited, open, honest, and completely unfettered by convention.

Toni knew that she was destined to be an adored wife, or failing that a courtesan.

And Tessa was the constant nymph of the title. She hads loved Lewis for as long as she could  remember and was waiting to grow up and into an adult love with him. And though nothing was said he knew that too, understood that it ws right, and what should and would be.

Tessa was young and yet that didn’t seem wrong, because she had seen and heard so much of life in her father’s household, and because both she and Lewis tacitly recognised that their love was something still to come. something in the future.

And then there was Pauline, younger, more forthright, and still very much a child. And Paul, younger again but wiser, secure in the knowledge that he would be a musician one day and that he would work towards that.

A wonderful cast, a wonderful setting, and there could have been a simple, classical romance set against that colourful background.

But Margaret Kennedy did something different and took her story on a much more interesting direction.

And at this point I should say that she told her story beautifully. I appreciated her clear understanding of character, her mix of intelligence and empathy, her lovely way with metaphors, and her ability to move her plot at a steady pace.

Albert Sanger died. Suddenly, unexpectedly, and leaving not a penny.

Caryl, Kate and Toni find their own paths, leaving Tessa, Pauline and Paul to be ‘rescued’ by their mother’s family. Because, of course, a conventional English family will do the right thing for their young relations.

Florence Churchill, a bright, educated, modern young woman was despatched to sort things out. She was charmed by her young relations, but she was shocked by their bohemian lifestyle. And it was quickly decided that the children must be sent to school to prepare them for the future.

And Florence fell in love with Lewis, and he with her. They marry, but their marriage is not a success. Each had been drawn to an idea of the other but neither had really understood the other’s way of life, what that meant, what compromises might have to be met.

The viewpoint shifted between them and I found that I could understand both, though I found both infuriating and wished that I could make them see the reality of their situation.

But their lack of sight, lack of understanding, set off Tessa’s clarity perfectly.

And though Tessa remained in the background, the perspective moving between Lewis and Florence, I found that I understood her perfectly.

She was desperately unhappy. She hated school, she missed her home, she didn’t know where she was going. Though still believed that she and Lewis were meant for each other.

When Tessa’s younger siblings persuaded her to run away from school that cat really was put among the pigeons. Florence said they must go back, but Lewis said no. It was easy to find alternatives for Paulina and Paul, but not for Tessa. She had one ambition but she knew she could not say what it was.

And so the stage was set, for a most unexpected ending.

It left me not knowing what to say.

Except that I liked the book, I can understand its success, but I was sorry that I didn’t see a little more of Tessa’s siblings in the second half of the story.

Good though it was I can’t help thinking that there was a bigger, richer story that might have come out of ‘Sanger’s Circus.’