The Feast by Margaret Kennedy    

Part morality tale, part family saga/social comedy, Margaret Kennedy’s delightful novel, The Feast, has recently been reissued by Faber in a beautiful new edition – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. This very cleverly constructed story – which features a large cast of memorable, idiosyncratic characters – unfolds over the course of a week, culminating in the titular ‘feast’, an event that proves to be momentous in more ways than one!

The novel – which is set in Cornwall in the summer of 1947 – opens with a short prologue, in which Reverend Bott of St. Sody’s is deliberating over a funeral sermon he has to write. The previous month, a local cliffside hotel, The Pendizack, collapsed into the sea, killing all those who were inside the building at the time. Those who perished in the tragedy remain buried under the rocks and rubble, with no possibility of recovery – hence the need for a ceremony as an act of remembrance. Luckily, however, several of the hotel guests and members of staff escaped with their lives, having been out on a picnic – the titular feast – at the time of the cliffside collapse. Their stories, and the events of the week leading up to the disaster, are revealed in the remainder of the book. Tantalisingly, Kennedy only reveals the name of one of the seven dead at this point – Dick Siddal, whose wife Barbara managed the hotel – leaving the reader in the dark about the identity of the other six victims until the very end…

At this point, Kennedy takes us back to the Saturday before the tragedy, introducing us to the main players in the story: the staff and various guests. The hotel, it seems, is home to the Siddal family, who have turned the property over to paying guests for financial reasons. Dick Siddal, a former lawyer, lives in the boot-room behind the kitchen, only to emerge now and again to pass commentary on the state of the world. Mr Siddal has a sharp, perceptive mind, but offers nothing in the way of practical help in running the hotel. That operation is left to his wife, Barbara, who has settled into the role of a martyr, helped considerably by her eldest son, Gerry, whose heroic efforts to assist with all manner of jobs go largely unnoticed. The Siddals’ other sons, Robin and Duff, are the apples of their mother’s eye, with the money to finance their education being a major priority.

Also living at the hotel is the housekeeper, Dorothy Ellis, a lazy, spiteful woman who cannot resist poking her nose into everyone else’s business. One gets the sense that her loyalty to Mrs Siddal is pretty thin, especially given her opinion of The Pendizack (as revealed in a letter she writes to a friend).

Well this is not a hotel at all, only a boarding house—all falling down and the roof leaking, you can see there has been nothing spent on it for years and only one bathroom. They have lost all their money, so she got the bright idea to turn this into a boarding house because of course her darling boys have got to go to posh schools just the same—but she does not know the first thing about running a hotel and can’t cater for toffee. (pp. 15–16)

Of more practical use to Mrs Siddal is the housemaid, Nancibel, a sprightly, intelligent girl who worked in the ATS during WW2. Nancibal – who has the full measure of Dorothy Ellis – is nursing a broken heart, determined to move on after class differences scuppered her chances with former sweetheart, Brian. 

Much of the novel’s engaging humour is provided by the hotel guests, particularly through the clashes in social class and attitudes to life this environment throws up. Lady Gifford writes ahead to Mrs Siddal, laying out her extensive list of dietary requirements, despite the difficulties posed by rationing. 

I see I’ve said nothing about fish. I’m allowed everything except kippers, but I don’t think plaice agrees with me very well, nor haddock, unless cooked with plenty of butter. Crab and lobsters are not verboten which is very convenient, as I expect you get plenty of them and so many people can’t eat them. (p. 13)

There is definitely a whiff of scandal surrounding the Giffords’ financial affairs, especially given Lady G’s desire to move to Guernsey for tax purposes. As Kennedy’s omniscient narrator observes, the Giffords are ‘the kind of people who feed in the Black Market,’ and ‘who wear smuggled nylons…’. The Giffords’ four children – three of whom are adopted – are led by Hebe, a rather bossy, selfish child who proves to be a dangerous influence over other youngsters in the Pendizack’s orbit. More specifically, the three Cove girls, whose desperately mean mother confiscates their sweet rations and other ‘valuables’ to sell on to the highest bidder. Mrs Cove, a seemingly impoverished widow, ultimately reveals herself to be a nasty piece of work – so much so that one cannot help but hope she perishes in the hotel’s collapse. 

Also staying at the Pendizack are Paleys, a middle-aged married couple who tragically lost their daughter in heartbreaking circumstances. Consequently, an air of profound sadness surrounds this couple, particularly Mr Paley whose sense of pride clouds any decisions.

The Paleys always gave off this suggestion of a violence momentarily suspended. They would eat their breakfast every morning in a sombre, concentrated silence, as though bracing themselves for some enormous effort to be sustained during the day. (p. 24)

Further amusement is provided by Anna Lechene – a capricious writer – and her chauffer-secretary, Bruce, who also aspires to write. Last but not least, we have the formidable Canon Wraxton and his timid daughter, Evangeline. As Mrs Siddal reveals to her son, Gerry, the Wraxtons have already left another hotel in the area due to dissatisfaction on the part of the Canon.

‘They’re all right as regards money. They paid for a week in advance, though they only stayed two nights. But she says he has the most awful temper; he quarrelled with everybody and objected to cards and dancing in the lounges. And he was very rude to the staff.’

‘Oh Mother…don’t let’s have them.’ (p. 42)

Poor long-suffering Evangeline is reduced to grinding up glass in her room, storing it in pill box, possibly with the intention of slipping it into her father’s food. Only then can she hope to be free of his tyrannical influence.

What Kennedy does so well here is to weave an immersive story around the perils of the seven deadly sins, skilfully illustrated through the loathsome behaviours of her characters. In the week leading up to the feast, we see examples of pride, wrath, envy, greed, gluttony and sloth on display -possibly lust or wantonness too, although that’s perhaps a little more tenuous than the other sins. Interestingly, each individual seems to be nursing a disappointment or difficulty of some sort, which Kennedy reveals as the narrative unfolds.

In terms of action, there are plenty of developments to entertain the reader including various romances, the theft of a potentially valuable object, an outburst in church and a dramatic coastal rescue. The novel’s finale is a fancy-dress party of sorts, an evening picnic feast to give the impoverished Cove girls a holiday to remember.

In summary, The Feast is a wonderfully clever, engaging novel with some serious messages at its heart. At certain points, Kennedy encourages the reader to consider how strengths can sometimes become weaknesses when pursued to the extremes. Mr Paley is great example of this, a man whose self-respect has tipped into a crippling sense of pride. Similarly, for Evangeline, a heroic degree of patience with the domineering Canon Wraxton has inevitably given way to submission. There is much to contemplate here as the reader races towards the denouement where the survivors’ identities will be revealed.

33 thoughts on “The Feast by Margaret Kennedy    

  1. MarinaSofia

    Perfect read, especially since at the moment I am getting an idea for a crime novel set at a retreat centre in the Yorkshire Dales, with all sorts of eccentric characters oddly connected to each other. It sounds like I could learn a lot about characterisation from Margaret Kennedy.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      In that case, you definitely need to read this book! The characterisation is excellent, really vivid and memorable. I think what Kennedy does so well is to use these individuals, and the interactions between, to illustrate some meaningful points about the unpleasantness of human behaviour. There are some kindnesses too, of course, but its the wickedness that really cuts through.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely! That’s part of the fun of it as you’re always trying to work out who’s going to cop it in the cliffside collapse, hoping that it will be the ‘sinners’ and not the ‘innocents’.

  2. madamebibilophile

    This sounds fab! I love a boarding house setting and the tension about the deaths sounds compulsively readable. I’ve really enjoyed the Kennedys I’ve read and this is a very tempting reissue.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Same here with the hotel/boarding house settings. There’s so much potential for great fiction when an ill-assorted group of individuals have to rub shoulders with one another, as they do here. One to look out for in that gold mine of a charity shop across the road from you, I think!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Oh, wonderful review, Jacqui, and I’m so pleased you loved this. It’s such a brilliantly constructed book, isn’t it, and so readable and so much tension at the same time! She creates a wonderful set of characters and you end up rooting for some and hoping (rather cruelly!) that others will be amongst the victims! It’s the only Kennedy I’ve read, if I recall correctly, and I must admit I’ve been a little nervous about reading any of her other books just in case they don’t live up to this one for me…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly that! You’re cheering for Gerry, Nancibel and the Cove girls while hoping that some of the others (Canon Wraxton and Lady Gifford in particular) get their just desserts. And I completely understand your nervousness about reading anything else by Kennedy after thge highs of this. Much as I liked certain elements of The Constant Nymph, I did have a couple of reservations about it. The Feast, however, is an unmitigated delight, and it’s lovely to see it back in print!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very much so! The opening chapter, with Reverend Bott worrying away over his sermon, really sets the tone. This is only the second of Margaret Kennedy’s novels that I’ve read, but I’d be open to trying more. She’s probably best known for The Constant Nymph, which the Backlisted team covered a year or so ago, although there’s quite a sizeable body of work to explore.

  4. inthemistandrain

    Thank you, that’s gone on my list, I’ve seen it in the bookshops recently, haven’t felt tempted but you’ve persuaded me.

  5. Julé Cunningham

    This is a book that is high up on my reading list and I’m very much looking forward to it. The whole premise sounds wonderful as do the characters. This is a post that is getting bookmarked to come back to after the book.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! I’ll be fascinated to see your take on it, Jule. The major characters are very well fleshed out, which is quite an achievement given the size of the cast.

  6. heavenali

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this. It’s a brilliant novel, with lots of fascinating characters. The set up is so clever, keeping the reader in the dark as to the fate of the other characters. So glad this has been reissued. I have read three other Margaret Kennedy novels this year, and enjoy her writing, but this one is particularly good.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I loved that aspect of the story, and it’s interesting how the knowledge of something (but not everything!) about the ending made it all the more intriguing. I must take another look at your posts on Kennedy’s work, mostly for ideas on where to go next. Jane (at Eden Rock) recommended Together and Apart to me several years ago, partly because it reminded her a little of Elizabeth Taylor (and she knew I was a fan). Have you read that one. Ali? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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  8. buriedinprint

    That’s such a striking cover. My Kennedy copies are either well-worn VMCs or dust-jacket-less second-hand finds with verrrrry well-worn spines (which means someone loved reading them, of course, so there’s that). Funny how a reissue can get you thinking differently about an author (although I’m committed to the idea that I’ll enjoy her work when I get to it, so the cover wasn’t exactly persuasive, just intriguing).

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just? These British Library Women Writers editions are so beautifully produced. I agree with your point about smartly turned-out reissues and how they can make us think differently about particular writers. It’s hard not to be seduced by such beautiful covers, as much as we’d like to think otherwise!

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