Red Sky at Morning by Margaret Kennedy

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.

red skyThe 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.

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week

I have come to love and admire Margaret Kennedy’s writing over the last few years, and I know that others love her too, but even though her books have been coming back to print, even though there are more on the way, I want to do everything I can to steer others towards her work.

Hence MARGARET KENNEDY READING WEEK!

I find it difficult to explain what makes her special but you can find a lovely piece written by her granddaughter, novelist Serena Mackesy here and all of my posts about her books here.

So what so we have?

We have dates:

6th to 12th October.

Because I want to read Mary Stewart with Anbolyn in September, because I want to give anyone whose waiting for the last few reissues at the very end of September time to get their books, and because I don’t want to delay things any more than that.

We have a badge:

kennedy Badge

I’m quite pleased with it, though making such things is not my talent and there are not too many images of the author out there. Please display it and please spread the word!

We have a bibliography:

I couldn’t find one definitive source, but I’ve pulled a list together from a number of sources and I think I have pretty much everything that was published in book form.

All of the novels except the last one are in print – or will be in the weeks to come.

Some are published as Faber Finds and others by Vintage Books.

None of the others are, but because Margaret Kennedy was hugely successful in the 1920s, and well regarded after that, libraries may well have copes tucked away and there should be used copies out there.

Novels

The Ladies of Lyndon (1923)
The Constant Nymph (1924)
Red Sky at Morning (1927)
The Fool of the Family (1930) sequel to The Constant Nymph.
Return I Dare Not (1931)
A Long Time Ago (1932)
Together and Apart (1936)
The Midas Touch (1938)
The Feast (1950)
Lucy Carmichael (1951)
Troy Chimneys (1953)
The Oracles (US Title – Act of God)(1955)
The Heroes of Clone (US Title – The Wild Swan)(1957)
A Night in Cold Harbour (1960)
The Forgotten Smile (1961)
Not in the Calendar: The Story of a Friendship (1964)

Non Fiction

A Century of Revolution 1789-1920 (1922), history.
Where Stands a Winged Sentry (1941), wartime memoir.
The Mechanized Muse. P. E. N. series (1942), on the cinema.
Jane Austen. Novelists Series No. 1 (1950), biography/literary criticism.
The Outlaws on Parnassus. On the art of the novel (1958), literary criticism.

Shorter Fiction

A Long Week-End (1927), novella – published as a limited edition.
Dewdrops (1928), novella – published as a limited edition.
The Game and the Candle (1928), novella – published as a limited edition.
Women at Work (1966), two novellas – The Little Green Man and Three-Timer.

Plays

The Constant Nymph (1926), written with Basil Dean.
Come with Me (1928), written with Basil Dean.
Escape Me Never! (1934), a dramatisation of The Fool of the Family.
Autumn (1937), written with Gregory Ratoff.
Happy with Either (1948)

And there is one biography – The Constant Novelist by Violet Powell.

And we have some reviews to tempt you – ten different readers on ten different books:

A Girl Walks into a Bookstore on The Ladies of Lyndon
Geranium Cat on The Constant Nymph
Fleur in her World (me) on The Fool of the Family
TBR 313 on A Long Time Ago
Stuck in a Book on Together and Apart
The Captive Reader on Jane Austen
Furrowed Middlebrow on The Feast
Another Look Book on Lucy Carmichael
Vulpes Libres on Troy Chimneys
Novel Readings on The Outlaws on Parnassus

I do hope that you have found something to tempt you to join in.

Do tell me, and please ask is you have any questions at all.

Sixes

It was Jo’s idea a couple of years ago, and now it’s become an annual event – celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

Not quite as easy as it looks. I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and because I wanted to push disappointments to one site and simply celebrate some of the books I’ve read and the books I’ve discovered.

Here are my six sixes:

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Six books illuminated by wonderful voices from the twentieth century

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield
The English Air by D E Stevenson
The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goodge
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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Six books from the present that took me to the past

The Visitors by Rebecca Maskell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey
Turning the Stones by Debra Daley
The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray

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Six books from the past that pulled me back there

Wired Love by Ella Cheever Thayer
Esther Waters by George Moore
Griffith Gaunt by Charles Reade
Nine Pounds of Luggage by Maud Parrish
The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

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Six books that introduced me to interesting new authors

Wake by Anna Hope
Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin
The Lie of You: I Will Have What is Mine by Jane Lythell
Mr Perrin and Mr Traill by Hugh Walpole
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
None-Go-By by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick

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Six successful second meeting with authors

The Auction Sale by C H B Kitchin
The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson
A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon
Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell
Mrs Westerby Changes Course by Elizabeth Cadell
Her by Harriet Lane

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Six used books added to my shelves

The Heroes of Clone by Margaret Kennedy
The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken
Portrait of a Village by Francis Brett Young
The West End Front by Matthew Sweet
The Stag at Bay by Rachel Ferguson
Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Boorman

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

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:

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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 …