Tag Archives: Margaret Kennedy

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

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.

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph (1924) was Margaret Kennedy’s most commercially successful novel, spawning both a play featuring Noel Coward and a film starring one of my favourite actresses, Joan Fontaine. As a book, it shares much with another of my recent reads, Edith Wharton’s 1928 novel, The Children: a man who enters into a relationship with an underage girl; an unconventional family living a bohemian lifestyle; and a brood of rather engaging, precocious children to name but a few. While the Wharton explores these issues from the male perspective, Kennedy’s novel places a young girl at the centre of its narrative. The individual in question is Tessa, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Albert Sanger, a brilliant yet difficult composer who lives in a rambling chalet in the Austrian Alps.

As the novel opens, Lewis Dodd, a young English composer of some promise is travelling to Austria to visit the much-feted Sanger, whom he views as something of a mercurial genius. With his rather conventional upbringing, Lewis finds himself attracted to Sanger and his ‘circus’ – an assortment of children from various marriages, Sanger’s current wife, the beautiful but lazy Linda, and various hangers-on. Their lifestyles are free-spirited and unconventional with little regard for the customs of the broader society at large. For instance, it is Sanger’s eldest daughter, Kate, who manages the household, her desire for some degree of organisation far outweighing that of Linda.

Young Tessa is the constant nymph of the novel’s title, a wonderfully unfiltered, warm-hearted girl, who at fourteen is already wildly in love with Lewis and his passion for the arts. Lewis, for his part, is also attracted to Tessa with her wild, unfettered innocence, viewing her as the most interesting of Sanger’s daughters.

He has always thought her the pick of the bunch. She was an admirable, graceless little baggage, entirely to his taste. She amused him, invariably. And, queerly enough, she was innocent. That was an odd thing to say of one of Sanger’s daughters, but it was the truth. Innocence was the only name he could find for the wild, imaginative solitude of her spirit. The impudence of her manners could not completely hide it, and beyond it he could discern an intensity of mind which struck him as little short of a disaster in a creature so fragile and tender, so handicapped by her sex. She would give herself to pain with a passionate readiness, seeing only its beauty, with that singleness of vision which is the glory and the curse of such natures. He wondered anxiously, and for the first time, what was to become of her. (p. 68)

Tessa longs for a time when she is grown-up, a point when it will be possible for her to enter into a more fulfilling relationship with Lewis; and while nothing is explicitly said, there is a sense that Lewis understands this too, casting an air of destiny over their connection.

Nevertheless, when Albert Sanger dies, this idyll is fractured, and the family is at risk of being split up. The two eldest children, Caryl and Kate, are old enough to fend for themselves, leaving their younger siblings – Tessa included – to be catered for elsewhere. As a consequence, Florence and Robert Churchill – who are related to Sanger’s second wife, now deceased – travel to Austria with a view to bringing the children back to England.

With her traditional breeding and refined lifestyle, Florence is enchanted by the young Sangers. Nevertheless, their wild, unconventional existence proves something of a surprise, prompting Florence to decide that the children should be sent to boarding school where they will receive a proper education.

In a further unexpected twist, Lewis is drawn away from Tessa by the beautiful Florence with her sophisticated lifestyle and strong standing in society. Florence, for her part, is seduced by Lewis’s artistic temperament and role as a musician. However, their sudden marriage is not a great success, primarily as a consequence of unrealistic expectations and subsequent frustrations for both parties. While Lewis feels constrained by the conventions of London society, Florence finds her new husband rather challenging to fashion. It’s a conflict captured in the following passage, which touches on the balance between art and civilisation/humanity – one of many sets of opposing forces in the novel.

[Florence:] “Your attitude is completely wrong. You put the wrong things first. Music, all art…what is it for? What is its justification? After all…”

[Lewis:] “It’s not for anything. It has no justification. It…”

“It’s only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully. You can’t put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilization, as your precious Sanger seems to have done. Human life is more important.” (p. 209)

Meanwhile, Tessa and her siblings are also finding it difficult to adapt to a new life, highlighting the tension between an ordered, conventional lifestyle and an unstructured, bohemian one. The constraints of boarding school prove unbearable for Tessa and her sister, Paulina, prompting them to run away with their brother, Sebastian. The relationship between Lewis and Tessa is rekindled when the latter returns to the Dodds’ London home, a move that reveals the intensity of Florence’s jealousy towards her young cousin.

As the novel’s denouement plays out, Tessa must try to reconcile her love for Lewis – something she views as her destiny – with other complicating factors, most notably her ties to the family and the constraints of a conventional society. By the end of the narrative, Tessa is only fifteen, a factor that dictates society’s view of any sexual relationship she may wish to have with Lewis.

While Kennedy has created a very interesting moral dilemma here, I feel she could have gone a little further in exploring the psychology of her characters, particularly in the case of Lewis. It’s something Wharton delves into quite deeply with The Children, probing Martin Boyne’s state of mind in her characteristically incisive style. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s central characters are recognisable, believable and beautifully drawn, factors that add an extra layer of poignancy to the novel’s ending which I would rather not reveal.

There is some terrific humour here, too. Kennedy has a sharp eye for an amusing scene, highlighting the absurdities of the Sangers’ unfettered existence and the moral outrage of Florence’s family at the prospect of her marriage to Lewis.

[Robert:] “I can’t think what her father will say. If he’s got any sense, he’ll forbid it! He’ll forbid it! But I suppose he’ll blame me. How could I have prevented it? How could I have foreseen it? Who could have thought that Florence, FLORENCE, a sensible woman like Florence, not quite a young girl either, would dream of doing such a thing. A delicate-minded, well-bred girl, to take up with a wretched mounteback, a disagreeable, ill-conditioned young cub, with the manners of…of…well, he hasn’t got any manners. And goodness knows if he ever washes.” (p. 154)

Tessa’s siblings are another source of joy, especially Paulina, whose wonderfully unfiltered letter to Lewis on the trials of boarding school life is one of the book’s most amusing highlights.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this novel, the marvellous Backlisted team covered it in one of their recent podcasts, which you can find here. It’s well worth a listen to hear more about some of this novel’s rather controversial elements, particularly the depiction of an underage relationship and the anti-Semitic sentiments the book contains. (Very much a reflection of the era in which it was written, but it’s certainly something for contemporary readers to bear in mind.)

The Constant Nymph is published by Virago Press; personal copy.