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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June 20, 2016

Lucy Carmichael, for Margaret Kennedy Day

      'What is she like? Is she pretty? Is she at all like you, I mean?'
      'Not a bit. She is tall and slender, while I am short and dumpy.'
      'You are not. You aren't dumpy.'
      'I would be, if I wasn't as light as a bird. She has short, light-brown, curly hair. Very attractive.'
      'So have you. I mean your hair is dark but it curls.'
      'I'm glad you think so. Lucy's nose is aquiline, not retrousse, and her eyes are grey. She has a very delicate skin, too pale, but that's easily remedied. I wouldn't  call her pretty. When she is well and happy she is extremely beautiful. When she is out of sorts or depressed she is all nose, and dashes about like an intelligent greyhound after an electric hare. She has a natural tendency to vehemence which is unbecoming to one so tall, but under my influence she occasionally restrains it. She believes me to be very sophisticated -- a perfect woman of the world. She admires my taste beyond anything and does her best to imitate me. She is incautious and intrepid. She will go on to several wrong places, and arrive at the right one, while I am still making up my mind to cross the road. ... Until I knew her I had always been convinced that I must be destined for misery. ... I don't expect I'd have had the courage to marry you, to marry anybody, if it hadn't been for Lucy.'
      'In that case,' said John, 'I shall have no difficulty in loving her.'
      'You will oblige me by trying to do so. She's not everybody's cup of tea.  My mother is very supercilious about her, simply because her father , who is dead, was only a chartered accountant, and her mother is a woman doctor in Surrey. ... And in some ways she is still rather childish. It is her ambition to be suave and mondaine, which she will never be. When she remembers this she undulates about with a remote smile. When she forgets, which is pretty nearly all the time, she prances along and roars with laughter.'
When you're only on a novel's twelfth page, and you've already been introduced to seven characters you're longing to spend more time with, you probably know you're in for a good thing.  Even if you're meeting most of them for the first time through someone who strikes you as a not-very-reliable narrator (not that you'd want her any another way).  And especially if you've been introduced to the author, and to this particular book, by our lovely friend Jane. {She sent me this book after Margaret Kennedy Day last year, and I'm embarrassed and sorry that it has taken me until Margaret Kennedy Day this year to read it. Thank you, Jane; I'm grateful for the book and the author. :) }

It's unusual (but perfect here} that we first meet the title character {surely, the heroine} only through her great friend, Melissa.  When we do see Lucy at first hand, it's the day before her wedding to an older man, a handsome explorer and writer.  I won't tell you what happens next {because I hope you'll have a chance to read this book yourself,  though you can probably guess} but it shifts our focus to Lucy, as she moves away from the life she expected to the village of Ravonsbridge, and 'that mausoleum of good intentions,' its faltering Institute.
John was sent to talk to her and he pumped her hand up and down a great many times and said that she must come and stay with them as soon as ever they were settled in Lincolnshire.  He was saying this to everybody, but he said it six times in succession to Lucy because he was so sorry for her. He, like everybody else, was determined to remember her trouble just when he had every excuse for forgetting it. There was to be no escape. Where she was known, she must take it about like a label which nobody would allow her to remove. She had thought that she would remember long after everyone else had forgotten, but it seemed as though things might turn out the other way. She herself could now go for days at a time without any painful recollection, while to all these people she was permanently an object of compassion.
Still, Lucy comes into her own there. There's a wonderful scene at the Institute's tradition-bound Christmas celebration, when Lucy, in a rose-colored dress, dances with Charles, the handsome, reserved son of Lady Frances and her late husband Matt Millwood, the auto tycoon who built the village and the Institute. As they dance, Lucy realizes that she is 'causing emotion' ,,,
... that anguished agitation which, by Melissa's creed, and her own, must never be deliberately excited unless it could be returned. ...
      ... She could not pretend to herself that she entirely disliked it. ... She reflected, as she had reflected before on like occasions, that it must be fun to be a bitch. But, since she was not, she must take steps to quench this ardour. She must not dance with him again, and it would be as well if she put him off a little by romping noisily with Robin.  Both Melissa and she were adept in the art of making themselves a trifle unattractive, if kindness and common sense made that necessary.
But Lucy feels better when Charles continues to address her as 'Miss Carmichael' {'From a man who emanated emotion like a power station.'}, enough to be his willing partner for a waltz, with everyone watching, including his aunt and his interesting mother.
      Lady Anne crossed the hall and sat down by her sister. With Ravonsclere bluntness she asked if Charles was in love with that 'gairl'.
      'Penelope thinks so,' said Lady Frances tranquilly. 'And I don't think it was her fault that they danced alone in that conspicuous way. The others were stupid and hung back. I think she was quite right to go on, it would have looked foolish to stop. I was a little annoyed ... but not with her.'
      'You like her?' hazarded Lady Anne.
      'I like her very much. Charles isn't happy or contented, you know. To fall in love and get married might be very good for him.'
      'I don't see why not, if they like each other.'
      'But, Fanny ... her background isn't at all the same as his.'
      'Not as different as Matt's and mine were. And anyway,' said Lady Frances, 'there is too much background about Charles, What he needs is more foreground.'
A remark that makes Lady Anne {and of course, me} wonder about 'those shocking rumours which the family had been so sedulous to keep from her ears.' {And ours, unfortunately. :)} And a waltz a deux that leaves Charles bewildered at what he has done wrong, and Lucy regretful, because she has 'forgotten the danger of being in tearing spirits.' {'So I've been through all that, she mourned, all that misery and loneliness, and learnt no sense at all.'}

Happily, Lucy realizes {a little later than we do} that her experiences have made a difference to her. And even more happily, for us, when she insists that she has 'learnt to master her emotions,' we know her better than she does.
      'I can see that we aren't suited, in a way. You are very talented, very gifted; you have a great career ahead of you. A conventional marriage would never be enough for you. You'd loathe having to live at Cyre Abbey, for instance.'
      'I don't know that I should,' said Lucy, surprised. 'If that were all, I should like to live at Cyre Abbey.'
      'Oh, no, you'd be stifled there,' Charles assured her.
      I should go into the glass-houses and eat the peaches, thought Lucy. And then she remembered that the Millwoods never ate the peaches, which were reserved for the Poor when they had shingles.
There's romance, and then there's not {and then there is, and then...} Soon we're with Melissa again, now married and holding court in Drumly, the dreary little town where her husband works as a research chemist, and the story lags a little. Back in Ravonsbridge again, there's a shattering tornado of  intrigue at the Institute, and after Lucy resigns, she finds herself in Drumly, too. {'Of course, the job isn't nearly good enough for her. But we hope she will marry. Drumly is well-stocked with unmarried chemists, all of whom are very brilliant and sure of a future of a future, and never was anybody like her seen here before, except myself, for looks, wit and chic.'} It's interesting, and perfect,  that now we start to see Melissa through Lucy's eyes, instead of the other way around; Lucy senses that 'She is not quite as happy as she was... she has become very fastidious and Jane Austen-ish again.'

Lucy Carmichael isn't perfect. There's a mishmash of points of view and writing techniques that would have probably driven me crazy in a different book. And I was so fond of this one that I'm just going to decide that the ending isn't what really happens.

No matter. There are spots of brilliance {the scene in Slade forest where Ianthe unknowingly invents a past for herself that really belongs to Lucy}, and, as you can probably tell from all the quotes, an irresistible bit on almost every page.
John was unfairly prejudiced against Charles and even snorted at the tea, though he had some every morning himself before he got up. Melissa made it from an electric kettle beside their bed. But to share a wife's tea, he felt, is one thing; it is quite another when a bachelor solemnly orders it the night before and causes a chambermaid to bring it up to him. He was so contemptuous over the tea that he was not very compassionate towards the anguish which accompanied it.
And is it my imagination, or is the whole book just a little Jane Austen-ish?  Once I had imagined some Emma-and-Harriet-Smith in the relationship between  Melissa and Lucy, I found a Willoughby, a Colonel Brandon, a Bingley, a little bit of Elizabeth ad Darcy, and all the references in passing. The connection might be wishful thinking, but it's lovely either way. Jane's list of books by MK includes a biography of Jane Austen, and I can't wait to read it, along with all the other novels that are being written about today.

{The painting is 'Paige Practices Poise,' by Janet Hill, found on Pinterest.}


Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock said...

It's a long time since I read this book, and back then I couldn't find anyone else who had met Lucy. It's lovely that you and others have now. Objectively I know that this isn't Margaret Kennedy's best work, but emotionally I love it.

I'm so pleased that you were able to be part of Margaret Kennedy Day.

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

Oh I love this book. It is so weirdly structured and has lots of flaws but is so very lovable nonetheless, right from those first pages. And it contains my favourite literary etiquette lesson: getting drunk on champagne with your family is really the only reasonable response to being jilted.

Cosy Books said...

Kip arrived home when I was on page 104 of The Ladies of Lyndon...guess which page I'm on now? And smiled when I saw your image by Janet Hill! Her work is just so cheery, isn't it.

mary said...

I thought she was going to be such a delicious heroine -and she is, but the book slumped for me with far more than I wanted to know about arts institute politics.

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