Last Month’s Reading and Next Month’s Reading

I found a lot of books to love in October.


I loved both of the books I read for Margaret Kennedy Reading Week – The Wild Swan and A Night in Cold Harbour.

‘The Provincial Lady Goes Further’ by E M Delafield was exactly the right book to ‘change gears’ after a week absorbed in one author.

I read the opening chapter of The Adventurous Lady by J C Snaith a while ago, I meant to go back and finish it, and this month I did. The story didn’t quite live up to the lovely set-up, but it was readable, it was entertaining and it fills a year in my poor neglected century.

I’ve pondered shifting the century, giving up on the century – I’ve done it before so I know I can do it – but in the end I decided that my reasons for starting out were still good, but I needed more tie for digressions and to read some of those very big Victorian novels I’ve always meant to read. And so my century is open ended – no more deadlines – It’ll be done when it’s done.

Anthony Trollope has been one of those digressions – I only allow one book per author in the century but I’ve read three of his and I plan to read more. I found much to love in The Eustace Diamonds but it isn’t my favourite, and so I decided to have a little break with another Victorian before I go back to ‘Phineas Redux’, ‘The Prime Minister’, ‘The Duke’s Children’ ….

I turned to Charles Dickens and ‘Bleak House.’ The change of style was a shock – Dickens paints pictures where Trollope introduces people – but Dickens did what he did so well in this book that I was very soon absorbed and involved. And I will be for quite soe tie, because it’s one of those big Victorian novels I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

That’s my audiobook of the moment.

My traditional book of the moment is ‘The Shuttle’ by Frances Hodgson-Burnett. It’s lovely, the grown-up equivilant of her children’s books, and I don’t want it to be over but I think I may finish it tonight.

Frances Vernon is my best discovery of the month, Privileged Children will be one of my books of the year, and I already have her next book lined up and ready to go.

I’ve read just two recent books. I had mixed feelings about  ‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters, but I loved a book that slipped out much more quietly –  The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding.

And that was October!


In November I want to finish all of the books I have in progress.

That includes ‘Folle-Farine’ by Ouida. I hadn’t meant to start reading but I had to because I was captivated by a lovely story wrapped up in pages and pages of description.

I have a copy of ‘The Hotel’ by Elizabeth Bowen lined up for a readalong. I’ve been meaning to read her fiction in order – reading some for the first time and re-reading others – and so this was a very well-timed push in the right direction.

And I have a few books in mind for Australian Reading Month. ‘My Career Goes Bung’ by Miles Franklin and ‘The Three Miss Kings’ by Ada Cambridge are possibilities from the Virago bookcase. And I have ‘The Idea of Perfection’ by Kate Grenville, which was highly recommended by last year’s Virago Secret Santa.

The year’s Virago Secret Santa is underway, so my only book-shopping between now and Christmas will be for other people.

And that’s not a bad thing, because I want to read more of the books I have already, I want to read the books that call.

What books are calling you? What are your reading plans?

One Book Leads to Another ….

One lovely thing about reading old books is the lists of other books you find, sometimes on the back cover and sometimes on the final pages. It was a lovely way of for publishers to show off there wares, and I noticed that whoever had the job of writing those little advertisements in the back of ‘None-Go-By’ by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick was particularly enthusiastic about the books he had to show off.

I was intrigued to see J C Snaith described as a ‘teller of enthralling tales.’ I had never heard of that author, and when I went to look for him I found that he was very obscure, but I found a book titled ‘The Adventurous Lady’ that promised so many things I love – a train, a governess, a country house, a play – and so I had to start reading.

In November 1918, days after the Armistice was signed, two young women were travelling by train to the same small town in the west of England.

9781165797066_p0_v1_s260x420Lady Elfrida Catkin was the youngest daughter of the Marquis of Carabbas, and she was an aspiring actress. That was gave her father the idea sending her to a house party, to take part in a friend’s amateur production, and maybe to find a husband among the distinguished company. Lady Elfrida was unimpressed; the play was terrible and there were lots of things she wanted to do before settling down with a husband. But she couldn’t wiggle out of this particular obligation, and so she was off, with an old family retainer in tow.

Miss Girlie Cass was on her own in the world. She had dreamed of becoming a writer, like Mrs Humphrey Ward, like Mary Cholmondeley, and maybe even like Charlotte Bronte; but her solicitor father’s had died, suddenly and unexpectedly, and so she was on her way to her first job as a governess. Understandably she was nervous, and she was more than a little flustered.

They shouldn’t have met – one had a ticket for first class and the other had a ticket for third class – but meet they did.

Lady Elfrida had swept down the platform as Miss Cass peered into compartments, struggling to find a seat on a ridiculously crowded train. She saw her, she instinctively instructed the porter to help Miss Cass in her compartment. The porter protested, but Lady Elfrida overruled him, telling him he could come back when he had found Miss Cass the seat she had paid for. He disappeared, never to be seen again.

Once thanks had been offered and accepted the party in the first class compartment settled down for the journey.

Lunch-time came and Miss Pike, Lady Elfrida’s chaperone produced a lovely picnic for the two of them. Miss Cass’s mouth watered, and she realise in her haste she had left her own lunch behind. Again Lady Elfrida came to the rescue, proffering a sandwich and a smile, It might have been a genuine act of kindness, but it was also a chance for her to start a conversation and satisfy her curiosity about the quiet young woman sitting opposite her. She teased out Miss Cass’s story, and a plan began to form in her mind.

Miss Cass would take her place at the house party. It would be an adventure, it would give her lots of material for the novel she wanted to write, and it might just give her a happy. That terrible play ended with a governess marrying a lord, and surely that was a sign. Meanwhile Lady Elfrida – who had seen off lots of governesses – would enjoy playing that role for a while.

It was madness, but Lady Elfrida was so persuasive, and she had plied Miss Cass and Miss Pike with the very good bottle of wine from the picnic hamper. She switched coats and cases, she steered people to the right places, and then it was too late to turn back ….

That was a brilliant beginning: it was beautifully observed, the characters were well drawn, and the story was told with just the right balance of wit and empathy.

It was difficult to follow.

Miss Cass was smitten with the lovely clothes she had to wear, with the deepest bath she had ever seen, and with the sheer luxury of it all. But she was terrified that she would do something wrong, or that the deception would be uncovered. That was understandable – she had no money and nowhere to go. She struggled to hold her own in company, and she proved to be a terrible actress.

The other guests took against her – they decided she was stuck-up, a judgement so often made against shy people in error – and the play was a disaster.

Meanwhile, Lady Elfrida was struggling to cope with two unruly children, and she often forgot her place in the household. Governesses were not expected to make sparkling conversation at the dinner table, to have such poise, to answer back ….

It was entertaining, it was credible, and I appreciated that the characters were sustained beautifully.

The problem was that they weren’t entirely sympathetic. Lady Elfrida was a little too assured; Miss Cass was a little too timid. They didn’t learn.

Each attracted an admirer: an elderly lord was charmed by a quiet, rather old-fashioned young lady, and a young man about to set out on his travels was impressed by a governess who was ready to stand up to his troublesome relations .

But would they still be admirers when they found out that they had been deceived?

What would happen when Lord Carrabas, hearing of the failure of the play, decided to look into what his daughter had been doing?

Disaster seemed inevitable, but it was averted, lessons were learned, and happy endings were dispensed all round.

The story suggested that characters were set, but social mobility was possible. That’s not a bad thing, but I was a little disappointed that Lady Elfrida’s dreams of the stage and Miss Cass’s dreams of life as a writer seemed to have been forgotten.

‘The Adventurous Lady’ was a very readable book, I appreciated lots of lovely details, but it wasn’t really the enthralling tale that I was promised.

I’d suggest that it was a book of its time, nearly a century ago, and it can be safely left there.

There’s sometimes a good reason why you haven’t heard of the books listed in the back of other books.

But there are plenty of lost gems out there, so I’ll still take a chance, from time to time ….

The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding

A year or two ago I read a book called ‘Florence and Giles.’ It was a deliciously gothic tale; a reimagining, a distortion, of ‘The Turn of the Screw'; and the centre of it all was the most wonderful character.

Florence was trapped in a gothic mansion, she was forbidden to read, but she found a way to learn and to keep that secret, and she loved reading and words so much that she developed the language she read, making nouns into verbs, joining words in unexpected ways to make gloriously expressive expressions, and twisting the English language into something magically new and strange.

When I learned that there was a sequel I rushed to order a copy from the library.

This isn’t Florence’s story, but she has a pivotal part to play.

In New England, in the 1890s, Doctor John Shepherd arrives at an isolated women’s mental hospital to begin work as assistant to the owner, Doctor Morgan. He is shocked by what he sees, he realises that things are not right, and his mind fills with questions:

  • Why are so many of the patients treated do very harshly?
  • Who is the woman who wanders the corridors by night with murderous intent?
  • Why does the Nurse O’Reilly so hostile, and why does she have so many privileges?
  • Why are only Doctor Morgan and Nurse O’Reilly permitted to visit the third floor?

The new doctor wants answers, but he has to tread carefully. Because it is clear from the start that he isn’t John Shepard. And that he isn’t a doctor at all.

Can he keep his secrets? Can he uncover the secrets of the hospital?

The possibilities were intriguing, the setting was so evocative, and then there was Florence ….

9780007324231Doctor Shepherd was intrigued by a patient known as Jane Dove. That wasn’t her real name. she said that she couldn’t remember that. She couldn’t remember anything of her life before she was found at a railway station and was admitted to hospital.

She knew that she wasn’t allowed to read but she so loved stories, and she had a distinctive way of speaking, making nouns into verbs, joining words in unexpected ways to make gloriously expressive expressions ….

Doctor Shepherd persuaded Doctor Morgan to him take charge of her an attempt, to let him try to prove that there were  humane alternatives to the hospital’s harsh treatments.

He was sure that he could persuade Jane to learn to read, that he could restore her memories. And he thought that maybe she would offer him the chance of escaping from the hospital and from his own troubled past.

Maybe he could. Maybe she would. But of course it wasn’t as simple as that.

The story moves like a thriller, written in language that is clear and direct, concise and urgent; it is the perfectly evoked setting, the well-drawn characters, and the intriguing questions hanging in the air make it enthralling.

The plot grew nicely, with lovely echoes of a certain other story, and as it accelerated to a conclusion all of the promise that I saw was realised, and the echoes of that story grew louder.

The plotting was so well done, with twists nicely scattered, and the strand of bookishness threaded through was lovely.

The finale was pitch perfect.

And I think there is an opening for a third book.

I do hope there will be a third book ….

Privileged Children by Frances Vernon

This was such a fortunate discovery.

I was looking up another Faber Finds author when the name ‘Frances Vernon’ and some interesting book titles caught my eye. I read that she won the Author’s Club Award for Best First Novel in 1982, with a book that she wrote when she was just seventeen years-old; and that she wrote five more novels that were very well received before her tragically early death, a little less than ten years later.

Now that I have read that first novel, ‘Privileged Children’, I am captivated. To make such a debut, at such a young age, was extraordinary, and I am quite sure that had she lived, had she continued to write, her new books would be anticipated as we anticipate new works by writers like Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters ….

I’m maybe being a little reckless, saying that after reading just one book, a book that isn’t a mature work, a book that is a little gauche, but there is something about it, something I can’t quite explain, that says to me that Frances Vernon was a very special author.

n333839The story opens in London, in Bloomsbury, in the spring of 1909. A child was struggling home with two heavy baskets of shopping. It was clear that her family had fallen on hard times, that the child knew that she had to play her part in the household.  And then more became clear. Alice’s mother was a high class prostitute; the household was supported by wealthy men who supported Diana with the understanding that she would be available and she would be discreet.

Diana had seen no other way to keep her home and her child when her husband died, and she hoped that what she did would give Alice the chance of a better life. She wanted Alice to know that women could be strong and capable; the wanted Alice to be able to achieve her ambition, to become an artist.

That was a very fine start to a novel; it was beautifully written, it was perfectly paced; and I wanted to say that this is wrong but I had to concede that Diana was doing the best that she could, and that she was doing it for the best of reasons.

It was a very clever piece of writing.

Diana died of tuberculosis when Alice was just fourteen years-old, and Alice was sent to live in the country with a distant relation. She hated it, she wanted to get back to her mother’s bohemian circle of friends in London, and she succeeded. Because Alice hadn’t learned more from Diana than she had been taught. She had learned to manipulate people, and she had learned to use her sexuality to her own advantage.

Alice established herself in a bohemian household, she took up painting and she sailed through life, quite oblivious to conventions like fidelity in marriage and  involvement in raising her children. She was a little like Margery Sharp’s Martha, though she was a very different woman in a very different age. I couldn’t say that I liked her, but I was fascinated by her, and I have to acknowledge that she was consistent, that she lived by her own rules.

She taught her children to live the same way.

Frances Vernon caught the age and its concerns, and the artists and writers in Alice’s household, quite beautifully.

The pace is brisk and the dialogue is straightforward – what must have been long debates summarised in a few exchanges, but it works. There’s a wonderful clarity and colour in the writing, and the storytelling is lovely.

The introduction of a schoolgirl, who has run away from boarding school to become an artist, who Alice takes in, gives structure and direction to the latter part of the story, illuminating characters and relationships, and eventually bringing the story full circle.

That’s more clever writing, and it’s so very engaging.

I believed in all of the people; I believed in everything that happened.

The theme, that years many pass, that the world many change, but that people will always be the product of their past and their upbringing was woven in very well.

Frances Vernon would have sat very well in the Virago Modern Classics list, and I suspect that she might have read a few of those green books when she was very young and they were very new. She was born just three months before me, we would have been in the same school year, and I am quite sure that we would have read and many of the same books.

I was sorry when this book was over; but now I have five more novels by Frances Vernon to find.

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

Oh, what a maddening book!

As I read there were moments when I thought this might be my favourite Trollope (to date) and there were moments when I thought it would be at the bottom of the list.

In the end I did like it. But ….

The story spins around Lizzie Greystock, who will quickly rise to become Lady Eustace.

Lizzie was the only child of the disreputable Admiral Greystock,  who died leaving her nothing but debts. Fortunately his daughter had learned to live by her wits, and she realised that to marry money to make her way in the world. And so she chose to live with a rather difficult elderly relation, because that put her in the right location and the right strata of society to catch a wealthy husband.

She caught Sir Florian Eustace. He was exceedingly rich, but he was in poor health, and Lizzie was a widow before her first wedding anniversary. She was wealthy, she would soon be the other of the Eustace heir, and she was in possession of the Eustace Diamonds; a fabulous diamond necklace, valued at ten thousand pounds then, which equates to around half a million now

73954 Lizzie said that they were hers; the Eustace family insisted that they were part of the estate and must be returned to the trustees. Though Lizzie knew her claim was shaky she held her ground, she spun a very good story, and she began to look for a husband who she hoped would protect her and look after her interests.

Lord Fawn proposed, but he tried to back out when he realised that dispute over the diamonds might have consequences for his own reputation for her. Lizzie didn’t want to marry a an like that, but she wasn’t going to let herself be jilted. She had to be the victor, she had to have the final word. Always.

She was fond of her cousin Frank, the only one of her relations who had stood by her, and Lizzie knew that, as a barrister and a member of parliament with very limited resources, he needed a wealthy bride. She didn’t understand why he didn’t propose. She didn’t know – he didn’t tell her – that he was engaged already.

Lucy Morris had been left alone in the world, just like Lizzie, but she had dealt with the situation rather differently. She accepted that she had to earn her own living, she became a governess, and she had the qualities she needed to make her a very good governess. She loved Frank, she knew that he loved her, but because she worked for the Fawn family she found herself in a rather awkward position.

One night, when she was travelling between her Scottish home and her London home Lizzie’s room was broken into, and the metal chest that kept her diamonds secure was stolen.

Who was responsible? Who had the diamonds?

The answer was surprising, and it seemed inevitable that Lizzie’s lies would be revealed and that she, and anyone close to her, would be ruined.</.

How ever could Lizzie rise above that.

The way the story played out was wonderful.

But I couldn’t help thinking that it didn’t suit its author, that there were other authors who might have handled this particular story rather better.

most of all, I was disappointed that Trollope, who usually had understanding for all of his characters, had none for Lizzie. He said at the start that he didn’t like her and he took every chance he could to point out that she was manipulative, dishonest, a compulsive liar, a thief …..

Yes, she was all of those things, but I understood why. I couldn’t warm to her, but I appreciated that she was taking charge of her own life, that she strove to be successful and to find her ‘corsair’ – the dashing romantic hero who would sweep her off her feet.

She was all those things, but she was so much more than that.

Others are judged less harshly.

Consider Frank, who proposes when he knows his financial situation makes marriage impossible, and who neglects his fiancée because he must look after his cousin’s interests.

Consider Lizzie’s friend Mrs Carbuncle who is determined that her niece Lucy must marry, who pushed her towards an engagement with a horrible man, and who fails to understand that her niece feels only revulsion, so that in the end her mind snaps.

Both of those stories were neglected; they felt secondary, and they are fatally compromised; Lucy would have been much more at home in a Dickens novel; I’d love to see what Wilkie Collins could do with Lucinda’s story.

A lot of this book just didn’t feel like Trollope; it feels like an attempt to do something a little different. There’s an early reference to ‘Vanity Fair’ and though this is a very different story I think that’s telling.

I still have to say that there was much that I loved.

I loved Lady Fawn, who was both warm and gracious, and who did her very best for Lucy.

I loved watching first Lizzie and then Lucy deal with the rather difficult Lady Linlithgow, in very different ways and with very different consequences.

I loved the sojourns – and the incidents – in the Scottish countryside.

I loved watching Lizzie outmanoeuvre Lord Fawn, who was ever bit as wishy-washy and self-serving as I remembered from ‘Phinneas Finn’

Most of all I loved watching Lizzie and following her progress.

Yes, I found much to enjoy, but I’m afraid that the book as a whole didn’t quite work.

There has been Writing – There has been Shopping – There has been Reading

Time to catch up!

The Writing:

I’m quite sure that you’ll have heard about it already, but I must mention the fabulous new autumn edition of Shiny New Books.

There are far too many wonderful things to mention, but I pick out just a few:

  • Simon has written about one of my favourite books, that has just been reissued, and about one of my favourite authors.
  • You will find me revisiting two of my favourite books, both now available in paperback, in Annabel’s Fiction pages.
  • You’ll also find me writing about The Good Companion by Una L Silberrad. It’s a wonderful book, I’ll be looking out for more of the author’s work, and I found a heroine – from an earlier era – who I’d love to introduce to Lucy Carmichael. Yes – that good!
The Shopping

Our annual day trip to Truro resulted in a very fine haul of books from its two used bookshops and its charity shops.


I loved ‘The Lonely’ when I read a library copy, so I was very pleased to find a copy to keep. I’m not too sure about ‘Ludmilla’ – described as ‘a charming pastoral legend set in old Lichtenstein’ but as it’s by Paul Gallico I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

‘The Use of Riches’ by J I M Stewart (who also wrote under the name Michael Innes) is a story of art and intrigue, and so I had to pick it up.

I read ‘Bright Day’ by J B Priestley years ago, I loved it, and it has a Cornish setting, so that one had to come home to be re-read.

I saw a pile of books by Mazo de la Roche, and her name rang a bell but no more than that. I brought home ‘The Building of Jalna’, which on the first book (chronologically) in a long series. I liked the look of them all, but I thought it would be tempting fate to bring home more.

‘The End of Childhood’ by Henry Handel Richardson is the sequel to ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney’, which Cat loved and I know my library has.

‘The Old Ladies’ by Hugh Walpole was a book I had to rescue from a 50p table.

I know that the library has ‘Sissinghurst’ by Adam Nicholson and ‘Millions Like Us’ by Virginia Nicholson, but I also knew that I wanted copies of my own to keep and read at leisure, at the right time.

I know nothing about Mrs Henry de La Pasture, except that she was E M Delafield’s mother and that the Folio Society saw fit to reissue ‘The Unhappy Family’, and that was enough reason to bring the book home.

The Reading

This hasn’t been a great week for finding the time and the clarity of thought that I need to write, but I have been reading:

  • ‘The Provincial Lady Goes Further’ by E M Delafield – the perfect way to change gear Margaret Kennedy Week.
  • ‘The Adventurous Lady ‘ by J C Snaith  – the report will be mixed.
  • ‘Privileged Children’ by Frances Vernon – I was very impressed by I have to track down her other books now.
  • ‘The Eustace Diamonds’ by Anthony Trollope – I liked it, but not as much as my first two Trollopes

I’ll elaborate, I’ll get back to writing, very soon ….

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week: A Look Back – and a Winner

kennedy Badge

The first thing I must say thank you, to so many of you who banged the drum for Margaret Kennedy Reading Week, who were ready to take a chance on a new author, and who took the time and trouble to write about the books that they read.

It really has been lovely to watch.

All that remains is to look back at what we’ve read.

And to give away a prize ….

The Ladies of Lyndon (1923)

Kirsty said: “Whilst ‘The Ladies of Lyndon’ is nicely written on the whole, it does feel rather dated ….”

Jo said: “The book captures I think a snapshot of a period in history and if you were researching this era, then this would be a book which would give you quite an insight.”

Audrey said: “When I read the wonderful opening sentence, I knew I was going to love this book. My second thought was that this could be Jane Austen, writing 100 years later.  But looking back, while there are some Jane-ish echoes here, there’s much more snark and bite.”

Cat said:  “I would call The Ladies of Lyndon a domestic and social comedy. The plot is minimal and it’s the interrelationships, the actions and dialogue between the characters that brings the pre and post-war eras to life. “

 The Constant Nymph (1924)

Ali said: “I absolutely loved it, at once fully involving myself with the characters, as I became immersed in the world of ‘Sanger’s Circus’. I think Margaret Kennedy might be an author whose work I will have to read much more of.”

Helen said:  “I loved the setting, the characterisation and the elegant, engaging writing style and am looking forward to reading more of Margaret Kennedy’s books. “

 The Fool of the Family (1930)

GenusRosa said: “The intense bursts of lucid, fresh prose often kept me thinking about what I had just read. As a musician, there were many elements of the novel that resonated with my own perspective.”

Together and Apart (1936)

Kirsty said: “Kennedy discusses familial relationships and their breakdown throughout the novel ….. Together and Apart, even all these years later, is still an important novel, just as relevant to our society today as it was upon its publication.”

The Feast (1950)

Kaggsy said: “Reading “The Feast” was a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience and I’m so glad I chose it. In fact, I think it will benefit from a re-read as I was so anxious to reach the conclusion that I’m sure there are many profound little bits I’ve missed.”

Cirtnecce said: “More than anything else, Ms. Kennedy understood both the most noble and the very base instinct of the human heart and her characters brought them forth with force and unerring honesty!”

Troy Chimneys (1953)

Elaine said: “Troy Chimneys is an odd and appealing Regency historical novel with a quiet, studious hero who creates a dashing alter-ego as his public persona ….. I really enjoyed this short novel. I have not read anything quite like it.”

 The Wild Swan  (or The Heroes of Clone) (1957)

I said: “Margaret Kennedy is wonderfully clear-sighted and unsentimental, and not at all judgemental. She just presents that characters and tells the story, and yet I knew that she knew. And I agreed.”

Lisa said: “I chose this one because I remembered it had something to do with a film production in a small town. As I discovered, that’s true, but it’s rather like saying ‘War and Peace’ has something to do with a battle “

Cirtnecce said: “The plot is wonderful, you are plunged write into the truth of Dorothea Harding’s life right at the start, but in a distinctive narrative style, it takes a while for the readers to actually put the whole jigsaw puzzle together.”

 A Night in Cold Harbour (1960)

I said: “There were moments when I saw the influence of Thomas Hardy, there was prose that might have been Jane Austen telling a story unlike any of her own; but what makes the story sing is a depth of feeling that belongs entirely to Margaret Kennedy.”

The Forgotten Smile (1961)

Simon, in Shiny New Books, says: “ Kennedy has created an evocative, moving, and – somehow – transfixing location, and peopled it with fascinating characters.”

I think that’s everyone, but if it isn’t let me know and I’ll put things right.

And so to the winner. The random number generator tells me that:

AUDREY has won a copy of – well, I’m not going to say, because she asked to be surprised, if she should win.

I’ll just say, Audrey, please send me a mailing address via the email in the side bar so that I can send you a lovely Margaret Kennedy novel.

I’ve loved Margaret Kennedy Reading Week, and so  I just have to say thank you again, so much.

A Night in Cold Harbour by Margaret Kennedy

‘A Night in Cold Harbour’ is set in the 19th century, it was published in 1960, but it explores a problem that is still very real, with compassion and concern.

How very easy it is for a man to lose everything ….

The story opens in a cold harbour:  a refuge for travellers and for the homeless. Margaret Kennedy paints a wonderful picture of the people who pass through, people who have built a community and who support one another. And then she introduces an old man who has been brought to the cold harbour by a much younger man. He was an educated man, a parson, and yet he was dying there, alone.

The story that follow explains how that came to be.

It is the story of a young man who was the heir to a fine estate, who was loved by his family, and who was terribly, terribly spoiled. He could not appreciate what he had and what others gave to him; he could only see what he did not have and he would not accept that his position carried any responsibilities.

He broke with his childhood sweetheart, because she wanted to stay close to her widowed father.

He abandoned another woman after a brief dalliance, leaving her to give birth to his child alone.

And then he left his father, his mother and his sisters, to travel and to love that life of a gentleman. That forced his father to sell part of his estate, to a pottery owner who wanted to build a factory.

His abandoned love was a lovely young woman; she refused to become bitter, and she continued to love and to want the best for him. She stayed home with her father, and she picked up the threads of the work that her mother had done in the community.

She even helped his illegitimate child to find a place in the world. A better place than the factory, when she knew the child workers were treated cruelly.

Her father, the parson, saw what was going on and he spoke out, but he found that nobody was willing to listen. When his daughter died he was heart-broken; his sons thought that he was mad – it suited then to think he was mad – and he lost his living and his home.

He faced a stark choice: he could flee or he could be sent to an asylum.

The spoiled young man learned lessons, and in time he would gain maturity and he would see the error of his ways. He would try to put things right but he would fail; it was too late.

Margaret Kennedy’s clear-sightedness suited this story wonderfully well. There’s a clarity of purpose too; she knew the period, she knew the history, but that was the setting for the story and the chain of consequence that is threaded through it.

It’s a story driven more by plot and less by characters than her other novels that I have read.

There are sub-plots, and there are lovely details along the way; they echo the themes, helping to make the point that virtue in not always rewarded, that sins are not always punished, that humans are horribly fallible, and that mistakes cannot always be put right; everything comes together in one elegantly constructed plot.

The central storyline holds the attention. The structure is a little like ‘The Feast’ in that you know what happens at the beginning and you read on to find how and why and to understand the real significance of that thing that happened.

There were moments when I saw the influence of Thomas Hardy, there was prose that might have been Jane Austen telling a story unlike any of her own; but what makes the story sing is a depth of feeling that belongs entirely to Margaret Kennedy.

I just wished that there had been a little more space; there was almost too much story for one short book; but the impression that story leaves is exactly what it should be.

A dramatization of ‘A Night in Cold Harbour’ could be amazing; but, for now, I am happy to have read a story that will stay with me.

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week: Updates and a Book to be Won

kennedy Badge
So, what are we reading?

I’m going to work through the novels chronologically, but I may be distracted along the way ….

Cat and Audrey are both reading ‘The Ladies of Lyndon’ and they both – quite independently – highlighted a wonderful opening paragraph.

I believe that My Book Strings is reading this one. And that Jo has read it too.

Kirsty has finished reading and she had mixed feelings, saying:

“Whilst ‘The Ladies of Lyndon’ is nicely written on the whole, it does feel rather dated ….”

Ali was very taken with ‘The Constant Nymph, saying:

“I absolutely loved it, at once fully involving myself with the characters, as I became immersed in the world of ‘Sanger’s Circus’. I think Margaret Kennedy might be an author whose work I will have to read much more of.”

Helen is reading this one too.

GenusRosa has written a lovely piece about ‘The Fool of the Family.’

She says:

“The intense bursts of lucid, fresh prose often kept me thinking about what I had just read. As a musician, there were many elements of the novel that resonated with my own perspective.”

I know that Darlene is reading ‘Together and Apart’, because it says so in her sidebar, and I am very curious to know what she thinks of it.

Kirsty had words of praise for this book:

“Kennedy discusses familial relationships and their breakdown throughout the novel, and everything which she touches upon is shown in mind of the impending divorce.  Together and Apart, even all these years later, is still an important novel, just as relevant to our society today as it was upon its publication.”

Tina was planning to read this too.

Kaggsy was very impressed by ‘The Feast’ and she said:

“Reading “The Feast” was a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience and I’m so glad I chose it. In fact, I think it will benefit from a re-read as I was so anxious to reach the conclusion that I’m sure there are many profound little bits I’ve missed.”

Cirtnecce has also read ‘The Feast’, and she told me that she loved it.

Cynthia is reading ‘Lucy Carmichael’ and I’m sure she is going to be one of the many who have fallen in love with that particular book. I think its still my favourite Margaret Kennedy novel.

I was very taken with The Wild Swan, I know that Lisa is reading the same book, and I’m looking forward to comparing notes.

I’ve read ‘Night at Cold Harbour’ too, and I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.

You’ll find Simon‘s review of ‘The Forgotten Smile’ in  very fine new edition of Shiny New Books.

He says:

“One of the unexpectedly appealing things about The Forgotten Smile is the way that Kennedy plays with structure. It feels a bit as though the novel were a jigsaw puzzle that had fallen apart and been haphazardly reassembled, as the sections of the story are not given in either a linear order or any particularly logical one. It shouldn’t work, but it does.”

Eliza is reading ‘Outlaws on Parnassus’, Margaret’s Kennedy’s non-fiction work about the art of the novelist, and she described it thus:

 “Dated but full of excellent points. Also dry wit.”

And that reminds me that Claire has three of Margaret Kennedy’s works in her library pile: ‘The Feast’, ‘Lucy Carmichael’, and ‘Where Stands a Winged Sentry’.

I think that’s all I have. I hope I haven’t missed anyone, but if I have just let me know and I’ll add you to the list.

* * * * *

And so to the giveaway.

It’s very simple. You could win any in-print Margaret Kennedy novel in print. Just tell me which one you’d like to have if you win, and at least one very good reason why.

Some books are available already, and some of the reissues have been delayed and are now expected on 16th October. So the choices are:

Available now:

The Ladies of Lyndon
The Constant Nymph
The Fool of the Family
The Midas Touch
The Feast
Lucy Carmichael
The Oracles
The Forgotten Smile

Coming soon:

Return I Dare Not
A Long Time Ago
Together and Apart
Troy Chimneys
A Night in Cold Harbour

Now tell me, which book would you like to win?


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