The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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October 12, 2014

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week: The Ladies of Lyndon

On his way to Chelsea Hubert's brain was busy with this new development of affairs. Ought he to tell anybody who inquired tonight that Agatha was now back in London? And what on earth was going to happen next? Of one thing he was certain, knowing the family; there would be scenes and indignant letters and diplomatic discussions. What a confounded nuisance it all was.

Oh! There's so much so say about this book, and the nicest thing is that I didn't expect that. As I mentioned, I bought three Margaret Kennedy novels many years ago, when a green Virago cover could be all the recommendation that a book needed, and left them lingering on the shelf.  With Margaret Kennedy Reading Week, not only did I finally get to know this writer, but I read a book that was wonderfully different from what I thought I'd be reading.  So, thank you so much, Fleur/Jane, especially for that!

On the surface, The Ladies of Lyndon is part family saga, part country house novel {two country houses!), and part social commentary.  Because of that, and since it is set before and after World War I, irresistibly Downton-Abbey-esque. {A more complicated family, and more upstairs than downstairs.}  There's a sudden, interesting and slightly jarring shift in time in the middle of the book; it took me a page or two to realize that it was suddenly a few years later and some of the characters were feeling the after-affects of the war which happens only in  hindsight.

Lyndon is the beautifully-appointed, comfortable, definitely wealthy ancestral home of the young Sir John Clewer and his beautiful and very young wife, Agatha, the daughter of the devastating Mrs. Varden Cocks from the opening sentence. The other ladies of Lyndon include (let me see if I can keep all of this straight) the proper, family-position-conscious dowager, Marian, who is actually John's stepmother, her prickly, not-as-beautiful daughter Lois, and her younger daughter, Cynthia, who is not yet 'out.'  When she was as young as Cynthia, Agatha had a brief flirtation with her cousin, Gerald Blair, an aloof young doctor, and their ongoing feelings for each other are central to the story. There is also Hubert, Lois' love interest and eventual husband, and Sir Thomas Bragge, Marian's cousin and a coarse, blundering war profiteer who is set in contrast with his classier neighbors. 

But the central figure among the men is James, John's younger brother, who is ugly, blunt and a little frightening; his family has always considered him to be mentally defective, but he is also, possibly, a brilliant artist. {In the introduction to my edition, Nicola Beauman wrote that M.K. expected this to be a book about James.} We're sometimes shown the true character of the rest of the family through their ways of coping with this 'inconvenient' relative:  Angela's acceptance, Marian's care tinged with shame, Lois' fear, John's dismissiveness, Hubert's anger over their inability to cope with him, Gerald's fascination.  James also impetuously proposes to, and then happily marries, Dolly, the family's solid, sensible housemaid {I did mention Downton Abbey... :) }

The very, very, very well-drawn characters are what make this book so wonderful. {I was thinking about this when I was still also reading a book which didn't quite accomplish that.} It's hard to resist a writer who tells us that one of her characters is someone who 'always strained at gnats and swallowed camels.' :)  The story line might be a little less successful. There's a wonderful bit about what happens when James is commissioned to paint frescoes in the baronial dining hall of Sir Thomas's newly built mansion {The Bragges merely proclaimed blatantly an ideal of life which, in [Angela's] own household, was discreetly and beautifully intimated.'} There's a family secret, and an 'abyss of irritation, suspicion, veiled criticism, secret conclaves, helpful hints and plain speaking,' and at the end, some melodrama. It wasn't as much what happens, but how the characters (especially Agatha and John} enact it, that seemed a little forced, or it's that the gap in time leaves things unexplained. But then again, the very ending was very well (if oddly) done.

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. I remember reading somewhere that even when J.A. drew characters who were meant to be comic {Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, the Palmers in Sense and Sensibility, etc.}, or even of her villains (Mrs. Norris, Wickham, the Crawfords, Willoughby} she was never vicious or entirely negative; there was a sort of kindly amusement in her view of them. M.K. seems to have a little more of a malicious gleam in her eye when she draws characters like Cynthia, who is 'plucked' from Lyndon by Sir Thomas Bragge.

      Later in the evening Sir Thomas sought his lady in her bower and testily began:
      'Now perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me what was the matter with your mother at lunch. You've been sitting with her long enough to find out, I should hope. Is there anything serious wrong with Clewer's heart?'
      Cynthia, who had been rubbing orange stick on her nails, replied:  'Yes. A good deal is wrong according to Mother. She seems to be quite upset about it. He may die at any moment, or something like that. Anyhow the specialist took a very gloomy view of him. But mind you don't talk about it, for nobody is supposed to know.'
      'Good God!' exclaimed Sir Thomas in deep concern. 'You don't say so!  Is it his heart?'
      'Yes, I think so. It leaks or does something. I've really forgotten what. But you'd better ask Mother, if you want to know. She's bursting with details. I never can remember that sort of thing.' ...
      'Perhaps it's just a scare,' said Sir Thomas hopefully.
      'It might be,' replied his wife without emotion. 'You  never know. But Mother seems to take it pretty seriously.'
      'You're a cold-blooded little woman, Cynthie! You don't seem a bit upset about it.'
      'I am very much upset. I think it's most harrowing and all that.'
 A little Lydia Bennet-ish, but Elizabeth's exasperation with her sister is tinged with acceptance. Once the contrast was on my  mind, it was just fun to think about as I read.

Definitely one of my favorite books for this year.  Thanks again, Jane, for introducing me properly to this author. I know I'll read more of her novels,  but I've already also noted that the college library has two other books that Jane listed for us:  M.K.'s book on Jane Austen, and a biography called The Constant Novelist.  Nothing could be nicer for me. :)


Unknown said...

Hooray for another convert!! argaret Kennedy definitely grew as a writer and I think you are going to enjoy any more of her books you come across.

Lisa said...

I haven't read this one yet, though I have a copy. So I am not even skimming your post, though I've marked it to be read. Wasn't it a fun week, which added to the TBR lists!

Cosy Books said...

You had me at 'country house novel' and were it not for the fact that a whopping nine books have come into the house since last week I would be loggin into a book site this very minute!
I've had to put down Together and Apart for a few days but I really think you would enjoy it, Audrey.

JoAnn said...

Excellent review, Audrey! I just know I would love this book... time to start looking. There isn't a copy in my library system and it's not readily available through amazon. The hunt is on!

Cat said...

I'm glad you loved it too! Some readers don't seem to be as enthusiastic as we are.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

This looks like a great read!

Bellezza said...

I've never even heard of Margaret Kennedy. Can we still be friends?

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I enjoyed this book as much as you did. I declared it 'unputdownable' when I read it in 2012.

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