Margaret Kennedy, The Outlaws on Parnassus

Preparing for reading The Constant Nymph in my Somerville Novelists seminar, I was intrigued to learn that in her Times obituary Margaret Kennedy was accorded little significance as a novelist while her book on the novel, The Outlaws on Parnassus, was considered her greatest literary contribution. I promptly ordered it from interlibrary loan, and it arrived just in time for me to take a look at it before we wrap up our discussions on Friday.

First published in 1958, The Outlaws on Parnassus harks back to works like E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel rather than anticipating the more theoretical wave of criticism to come. It’s an idiosyncratic book, including  taxonomies of forms and styles along with reflections on the role of the novel and of the critic. Kennedy begins from the point that the novel is a “late arrival” and thus does not have a clear, established place among the other older arts. The relatively low and ill-defined status of the novel is one factor, she proposes, for the dearth of serious criticism of the novel; the other is the perceived redundancy of such criticism given the apparent ease of both reading and writing novels: “The other arts strike the average man as being much more mysterious and as making more strenuous demands upon him.” Novelists, too, she thinks, are uneasy about where they fit and what their work is worth.

I enjoyed her analysis of the fundamental problem confronting the would-be critic:

It is a great misfortune for any human activity if the Greeks, as was seldom the case, had no word for it. The chances are that it will stagger through the ages shackled by ambiguities, since it never got itself thoroughly defined at the start. The most useful words in which to discuss it are missing, and there is no original debate to which any dispute can be referred.

In a discussion of the drama, for instance, it is always possible to ask what Aristotle meant by irony, pathos, the unities, and the protagonists. Since he never deliberated upon the novel we do not know what meaning he would have attached to a plot or a story save in relation to tragic drama. If he did not define these things, who can? Who should?

Who should, indeed? The Outlaws of Parnassus is, of course, Kennedy’s own contribution to defining “these things” plot, story, narrative voice all get some attention, with examples drawn from Homer to Austen to Scott to Tolstoy to Joyce. Kennedy’s approach is pluralistic: she focuses on what different strategies enable, or on when and why various trends emerged, rather than declaring any of them preferable. A sample from her chapter “The Language of Thought”:

Scott, when he wrote this passage [from Waverley], would not have maintained that it was an accurate transcription of thought. He had taken some trouble to convey the state of mind. The soliloquy is addressed to the victim, which is obviously right. We are told that the dying man’s whisper rang continually, like a knell: “Ah, Squire! Why did you leave us?” The paternal fields have been identified as a boyhood memory for both of them, and a picture conjured up of a cottage and bereaved friends: “old Job Houghton and his dame” to whom the penitent has promised to be kind if he ever gets home. In 1814 no novelist would have thought it necessary or possible to do more. Few would have done as much.

By 1914 it was felt to be necessary, and possibilities were therefore explored. Writers using an orchestra of minds to tell their story for them were obliged to consider, not only the exact language of the mind, but the variety of language, as used by different minds. A technical device developed which has sometimes been called “interior monologue.” It is a soliloquy purporting to be bounded entirely by the thinker’s character, idiom, vocabulary and range of expression.

As a device it bristles with problems. . . .

After discussion of, among other things, Molly Bloom’s “reverie at the end of Ulysses,” Kennedy returns to Scott to note that when most fully possessed with a character, as she thinks he was with Jeanie Deans, exceeds “the conventions of his age” and “indicates those small, subtle changes of style and vocabulary,dictated by mood, which are the essence of the whole business; he indicates them with a certainty for which many a writer in this century, grinding out interior monologue, might envy him.” That’s the kind of moment that made The Outlaws on Parnassus winning for me–it’s not that Scott is good only insofar as he anticipates later fictional priorities, but that he’s not to be underestimated because these were not routinely his priorities.

Kennedy gets kind of snarky when she gets to the more self-conscious era of the modern novel, especially when talking about novelists who focused making the novel “professional” or “serious.” About James, Moore, and Conrad, she notes,

All three were tremendously interested in the theory of the novel; they believed that a writer ought to be able to determine in advance what a good novel should be, instead of writing one, as their forbears had done, in the hope that it would turn out to be good.

Things only got worse as novelists decided that their watchword, their measure of good, serious art, should be “integrity”: “The fact that bad artists can have it too was not so generally recognized.” Shes impatient with attempts to distinguish on this basis between potboilers and real novels, or between art and non-art, an effort she sees as a diversion from the critic’s real task, which is “to distinguish between bad art and good art, and, above all, to help us to understand why good art is good.” Attempts to delimit the field of art a priori, on the basis of intentions, are fundamentally mistaken; as she says with admirable understatement, “It is not by a yard-stick of intentions that we can measure the distance between East Lynne and Middlemarch.”

However, the twentieth century saw the rise of “dogma” about “the only possible and permissible way” of writing novels. She looks at “naturalism,” for instance, which she sees as having given novelists new tools and ways “to say some things which had not been said before” (a good thing) but which, taken as dogma, could also lead novelists into error: “at length it became clear that there is no intrinsic magic in the formula . . . a formula can beget nothing on the imagination.” The alternative to the dogma of naturalism or realism is what she calls “the novel of egocentric perception.” Here her touchstone text is Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction,” which she quotes at length, including the “gig lamps symmetrically arranged” bit. Rather than insisting on scrupulous fidelity to external details, the novelist wedded to this dogma “bases all on the writer’s own feeling . . . [and] shuns the external.” This too is an enabling dogma in the right hands (“by its first advocates [the Bloomsbury Group] it was regarded as a formula for the rare, the gifted, the chosen few”). But as with realism, egocentrism — however excellent in theory –could be only as good  in practice as the individual novelist:

Amongst novelists the good news spread that they need no longer provide plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest, nor catastrophe in order to get top marks. Many adopted the new method who had never got nearer to Bloomsbury than Clapham Junction. They did not see why they should not be as rare and gifted and chosen as anybody else.

The failures of “writers who should never have attempted the method” incited a backlash and “the dogma collapsed so suddenly that those who had put their shirts on it had no resource save to declare furiously that the whole art of the novel must be, in such cases, defunct.” Yet Kennedy believes that “frontier land between the novel and poetry” which “the novel of egocentric perception” had explored was worth the risks and rejoices that such experimentation had made it possible for novelists such as Elizabeth Bowen and Eudora Welty to have “a large public.” Pluralistic, as I said, a point that is reinforced by her chapter “The Choice” which surveys formal options available to novelists (with examples from Richardson, Fielding, Homer, Bennett, and Bowen) and concludes:

In making a possible list for the attic these questions can be put: Why was the form chosen? Did it suit the material? Did the author appear to understand it? Had he the gifts required by those who use it? Is any departure from it deliberate, an experiment, or merely an indication that he did not perceive its limitations? Upon the answers will depend the sheer readability of the book in thirty years’ time. Whether, even it is readable, it will be read, is another matter. That depends upon content. He need not sign his own death-warrant in advance. If he does so sign it, however striking the content, to the attic he will go.

One way this commentary seems relevant to the reading I’ve been doing for my Somerville seminar is precisely that point about choosing the form to suit the material: one of the most useful critical pieces I’ve read is an essay on Winifred Holtby and Woolf (previously discussed here) that points out that by the time Holtby wrote her novels, there were clear stylistic and formal alternatives to the social realism she chose.

There’s much more of interest in this little volume, including a chapter on didacticism in fiction (charmingly titled, “Anyway, I think so!”), another on ethics, another  on “Faking” (including a bit on famous writers who produce a “Reputational Novel,” one written only “because he thinks that his reputation demands another addition to literature”). But I’ll take my last excerpts here from her concluding chapter on “The Goosefeather Bed,” in which Kennedy takes up arms against “the appearance of a new critical term: the serious novelist.” In this chapter she laments the tendency of critics to set aside “the labour of identifying and defining the good” in favour of guaranteeing a writer’s seriousness, defined largely in opposition to his commercialism. “Seriousness” used to be a meaningful term, she says, but now is little more than a good conduct prize, indicating “a miserable decline in critical standards.” In fact, Kennedy argues, there ought to be no such distinction between types of novels, all of whom “share the great goosefeather bed of General Fiction.” What seems to bother her most, again, seems to be the idea that you can or should discriminate between kinds of novels or novelists, rather than between good and bad novels. She urges as broadminded a concept of fiction as possible, on the grounds that it is ultimately the freedom from rules, constraints, and categories that

enabled novelists in the past to write as they pleased, under a label which might be inadequate but which never quenched those who had no mind to be quenched. It never fettered or silenced the giants who won for the novel a whom on Parnassus, and to whom it owes liberty and dignity.

This Week In My Classes: More Margaret Kennedy

We had another session on The Constant Nymph today, and I think it’s safe to say we are getting more comfortable with it–which is not to say we have worked out our interpretations of it, but that we have a sharpening sense of what is interesting about it, of what critical conversation to have about it.

Today, for instance, we focused a lot on art, or more specifically, music, in the novel. Kennedy said herself that she meant the novel to focus on the conflict between “art” and “culture.” In the middle section we’re reading, we see this conflict embodied in the characters of Lewis Dodd, a composer, and his wife Florence. Florence fell for Lewis in part because she knows and admires Lewis’s “Symphony in Three Keys.” But she doesn’t know Lewis as we know Lewis from the first part of the novel, when we seem him to be single-minded and cruel, and also in love (in a slightly creepy, slightly idealized and otherworldly way) with the eponymous “nymph,” 14-year-old Tessa. Lewis represents, or at least stands for, art as an end in itself. In a revealing exchange with Florence, who is trying to use her social connections to further his career, she challenges his “arrogant” attitude:

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

“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 . . .”

“You want to use it like electric light,” Lewis scoffs. He abhors the very idea of music that is commercial, consumable, even pleasurable. “Why do you write music?” asks Florence; “Don’t you want to give pleasure to people?” “No,” is Lewis’s blunt response.

Florence, as this dialogue shows, stands up for what it seems Kennedy means by “culture” (“My father’s cultured,” Lewis says scornfully). She wants her art, and her husband, domesticated: a major part of this installment focuses on the suburban home she establishes for them, which means nothing to Lewis (who literally can’t find his way around the rooms and is unable to describe it to his friends) and everything to her.

It’s easy to imagine a novel in which Florence’s belief that art can and should be commodified and incorporated into a suburban lifestyle of concert-going and outreach efforts at “bringing music to the people” would be ridiculed as tediously bourgeois, and there is something off-putting in the conventionality of her ideas. But Kennedy hasn’t set us up for quite such an easy call. The first part of the novel takes place in the chaotic home of Albert Sanger, Tessa’s father, an eccentric musical genius who lives with his family not only outside of England but conspicuously outside anything like ordinary English (or just ordinary!) morality. It’s not a pretty sight! Though the entire family has an unwavering devotion to music, which “was a sacred thing; perhaps the only sacred thing,” it’s hard to see this as very much in their favor when they are otherwise undisciplined, amoral, and just plain mean.

We had quite an animated discussion about this particular dialogue and how its terms help us think about the other parts of the novel. We also considered it as potentially reflecting on the novel itself: apparently Kennedy was quite self-conscious about the status of her own novel, which was initially received as high art (compared to Forster, for instance) but downgraded critically as it became a commercial success, so it’s odd that her characters almost anticipate the conflict between different ways of valuing art. And we talked about Tessa and tried to figure out where, if anywhere, she fits into this particular conflict in the novel. One of my students plausibly suggested that she’s a muse figure to Lewis, and I think we mostly agreed that she is at the center of the storm but not herself a part of it. She starts to get “civilized” by her time in England, which bothers Lewis in ways that reminded us of his dislike of having music packaged for a conventional audience: he likes her hair loose and wild, not plaited, and doesn’t like the way she starts to seem “sturdier.”

My favourite scene from today’s assigned reading is one in which Tessa, given a little money by her uncle and told to buy herself “something pretty,” comes back with a bowl. This too offends Lewis. “Tessa doesn’t want a bowl,” he states; “she oughtn’t to want one.”

“Why on earth not?” Florence was indignant. “It’s really an exquisite thing.”

“She has no house,” explained Lewis, taking the bowl and balancing it on one hand. “People with no houses ought to know when they are well off.”

“Take care! You’ll break it!”

“Bowls lead to houses. Houses are mainly to keep bowls in. If Tessa had a house she could buy as many bowls as she liked. She’d be done for. As it is, she should beware.”

And then, of course, he drops the bowl: “the lovely, brittle treasure lay in shivers on the floor.” Florence is more upset than Tessa.

This Week In My Classes: Meetings, Deadlines, Poems, Mysteries, and Nymphs

This past week was very busy, which is why I didn’t manage to post this during the week. For one thing, one of the committees that I’m on had to do a series of consultations, which involves both the actual meeting times and a fair amount of correspondence and negotiation getting things set up. Another committee I’m on got an announcement that had extremely worrying implications for our department’s MA program, and until the details got sorted out and corrected, that generated a fair amount of worried conversation and debate. These are important things, even if sometimes they seem, or turn out to really be, tempests in tea pots: one of the things most academics value highly about their work environment is self-governance, and that takes both time and concern to do well.

Then, it’s getting to be reference letter season, for grad school applications and for academic jobs, and I came up on my first few deadlines this week. Just as one example, it took me about two hours to complete a satisfactory draft of one of these letters and then print, scan, and email it according to the directions. Because every single place has a different process , some of them including forms to be downloaded and/or filled in, others requiring hard copies, and still others scanned versions, it’s very hard to create efficiencies: ten letters for the same candidate may all need to be done differently. Also, students have started taking me up on my urging to come and see me in my office to talk about their assignments. I believe very strongly in the value of such one-on-one meetings, but it’s a good thing that so far only about 10% of my 140 students this term have set them up, only because I couldn’t possibly take care of my routine class prep, not to mention my marking, if they all did. I also did some graduate advising work, responding to a revised thesis chapter while also thinking hard about and then trying to address appropriately some really important questions my student is struggling with about her degree program. These are not the kinds of things people outside the academy think about, in my experience, when they talk about our workload: everyone focuses on hours spent in the classroom, and specifically the undergraduate classroom. But taking care of our students (at all levels) involves a lot more than just showing up for class.

Last but not least, I have been working on a review for the November issue of Open Letters Monthly, and although editors get a little leeway in our usual submission deadlines, I really wanted to get it to my colleagues before the end of the week so that I would be sure to have time for revisions. I sent it off late Wednesday night: hooray! And I already have their thoughtful comments back and can tidy it up easily enough in time for the new issue. It’s mostly because I was using all my spare time to do that reading and writing project that there hasn’t been any blogging going on: for the last couple of weeks I really haven’t read anything of substance besides the book for the review (Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s newest, Two-Part Inventions) and the books for my classes. What did I think of Two-Part Inventions? You’ll have to wait for November 1 to find out!

And speaking of the books for my classes, what were they, you ask? In my first-year class we’re moving through our ‘introduction to poetry’ unit, gearing up for the first essay assignment. We read ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ and ‘God’s Grandeur’ for Monday, which gave me some reference points for a later discussion of how to develop a comparative thesis for a close reading poetry essay. For Wednesday, we read Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish.’ I’m not sure I’d read that poem before this year! I really enjoyed it, both as a poem to read and as a poem to work on in class; there are a lot of striking word choices that were good for provoking discussion–one of my major ‘talking points’ for them so far is “Don’t take the words on the page for granted,” and that’s just easier to do when the words are really unexpected ones! And then on Friday we worked explicitly on how to write essays about poetry. I’m trying to demystify the critical process by focusing on straightforward tasks like note-taking and pre-writing strategies. I have ended up talking a few times about my own writing strategies, including the things I find difficult and some of the ways I try to get past them. As I had a deadline of my own to meet, how to get the writing done was very much on my mind! I hope it’s useful to them to realize that writing is something I do, and struggle with, too.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we’ve just finished The Maltese Falcon and started An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I really have nothing new to report about these books or the experience of teaching them, except that I think that this time I’m finally done with The Maltese Falcon, at least for a while. I’m starting to tune out when re-reading it for class, which is not good.

In the Somerville seminar, we’ve finished with South Riding, which generated lots of very lively and interesting discussion right to the end. I’ve been so encouraged by the response to it, and also so engaged by the novel myself, that I’m feeling frustrated that I can’t quite think of another course in which I could reasonably assign it. We used to offer a year-long class called ‘The Novel to 1900,’ which was fun, if challenging to those of us not altogether at home in the 18th century, but even if that was still on the books, which I don’t think it is, 1936 is even more of a stretch than 1908, the date of A Room with a View, which was the novel I used to close the course with. We now have a class called ‘Fiction of the Earlier 20th-Century,’ but it’s not specific to British fiction, and a class called ‘British Literature of the Earlier 20th-Century’ which is, obviously, not just novels. Both of these would be a real stretch for me! And also they are usually offered by the people in our department who do specialize more or less in these fields…though technically I think we do not currently have anyone whose research area is ‘earlier’ 20th-century British literature. The easiest thing to do with anomalous interests such as mine in this cluster of ‘Somerville’ texts is to offer a special topics seminar at the upper level, which is what I’m doing now: to some extent that relieves you from the burden of really wide or deep knowledge. Maybe I’ll put in for one of the more general courses one day, though, just to shake things up.

After South Riding, we started Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph. It doesn’t seem quite as odd to me this time as it did when I first read it, which I hope is a consequence, at least in part, of the work I’ve been doing for this class. But even in the context of my seminar, it’s an anomalous book, not obviously related in theme, style, or structure to our other readings. We have come up with some ideas about ways it relates to them, including its interest in women’s roles and women’s education, and also its attention to the potentially destructive force of sexuality. Each of our other novels, though, at least arrives in front of us with some obvious critical frameworks; each of them belongs to a critical conversation that’s more or less familiar, even if our specific examples are not the most canonical ones. The Constant Nymph does not. Scrounging around for explicit commentary on the novel, I have come up with a few ideas: there’s a lengthy discussion of it in one book on literature of the 1920s as a “sex novel,” for instance, meaning (in the context that book establishes) a novel focusing on a young female protagonist and on female sexuality. That does fit with our general impression that the book is a bit like Lolita–the “nymph” of the title is fourteen when the novel begins and the love interest of a much older man, though he doesn’t exactly act on, or even quite acknowledge, his feelings for her at first. Kennedy herself said the book was meant to explore the conflict between “art” and “culture,” so we’ve been kicking that around a bit. It is unnerving in some ways not to know where I want our discussions to go, what patterns or priorities to pursue. But the class is full of smart, curious people and I think we are doing well trying out ideas and seeing where they take us.

One thing we talked about right away is how obscure this novel is now compared to how famous and popular it was in its early days. One sign of its popularity is that there were three different movie adaptations of it, including one in 1943 starring Joan Fontaine. I was amazed that the trailer for this version turned up on YouTube. Watch it and see if you don’t suddenly want to read The Constant Nymph for yourself! Except that you might end up surprised at just how little the book resembles what you get here.

I hope to get some good extracurricular reading done in the next week or two. I have to, in fact, as both of my reading groups have meetings coming up! For Slaves of Golconda we are reading Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train (remember, you can join in if you want!) while for my F2F group we are reading Wide Sargasso Sea, which is one I really should have read before now. I also have to read a PhD thesis for a defense on November 16, and keep up with the books for my classes … should be another couple of busy weeks.

The Summer of Somerville

Now that the dust has mostly settled from the teaching term, I’ve begun organizing my plans for the summer. One of my top priorities is preparing for my new seminar on ‘The Somerville Novelists,’ which is the first official academic manifestation of the reading I’ve been doing about Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, and Margaret Kennedy. Oh, and Dorothy Sayers, except that my interest in her goes back longer and I’ve taught Gaudy Night several times before, so there I don’t feel I am starting so much from scratch.

As I wrote in a previous post about the way reading changes when it becomes research, I am having to think now not just about what I’m interested in but also about what I need to know to do the job. But since there’s no pre-existing definition of “the job,” this early phase has to be both open-ended and creative: ‘there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.’

I’ve actually been thinking that I’d like to preserve that lack of definition going into the course, rather than trying to get everything under control according to a template of my own. I’m enjoying the sense of discovery as I read in this new (to me) material, and ideally that’s something the students will feel too: that together we are finding things out, rather than that they are trying to catch up with my expertise. I don’t think my seminars are usually stifling, but they do often focus on material I know very well and have gone through often with students. This has the advantage that I can steer our discussions in what I know will be significant directions and give guidance on research and assignments that I feel confident about, but it has disadvantages too, not least of which is that there aren’t a lot of surprises, and the level of personal commitment from students isn’t that high. I don’t mean that students don’t work hard and aren’t often very engaged, because I’ve had some great seminar groups and usually the students are enthusiastic about them (at least judging from their course evaluations). But I’d like to see them working together on something they think is important–on something they feel collectively responsible for, rather than accountable to me for.

I’m going to be thinking through the summer about how to organize the course to create this kind of atmosphere, and especially about what kinds of assignments and course requirements to include. I’ve been thinking in terms of class projects – a wiki, perhaps, to go public at the end of term, or a collaborative Prezi (I’ve seen some that cover an enormous amount of content in really interesting ways). I’m also thinking less about critical essays or research papers of the conventional academic kind and more about writing projects that show off the class material for a general audience. If anyone has suggestions, especially of assignment sequences that have worked well when exploring non-canonical material for which there simply aren’t a lot of academic resources, I’d be very interested!

In the meantime, I’m brainstorming lists of things I need to know about that will probably become part of our class discussion, including historical, biographical, and literary contexts and connections. Here’s the list so far, in all its unpolished open-endedness:

  • Individual writers from our list (Brittain, Holtby, Sayers, Kennedy)
  • Core readings (Testament of Youth, South Riding, Gaudy Night, The Constant Nymph)
  • Other books by them not officially assigned to class (perhaps for student projects or presentations)
  • critical / theoretical approaches and contexts
  • History of Somerville / women at Oxford (perhaps women in Canadian universities?)
  • Boer War
  • WWI, especially women in the war (nursing)
  • Suffragist movement
  • Women’s / feminist press, e.g. Time and Tide
  • Other contemporary writers–Olive Schreiner, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, Robert Graves, maybe D H Lawrence?
  • Genres, e.g. autobiography
  • Literary movements, e.g. modernism, in relation to our writers
  • Virago Press

I’m thinking in terms of a giant Venn diagram, with all these topics overlapping in different ways. The central artifice of the course is that there’s something coherent about our group of four, but part of what’s so interesting is that there isn’t, really, except that they all went to Somerville at roughly the same time and all became novelists. I’m used to organizing courses that are much more strongly unified by some kind of internal logic, usually thematic (the one I’ve offered most often is ‘The Victorian “Woman Question,”” for instance). Probably (though it’s too early to be sure) we will return regularly to the question of whether we’re doing something that makes any sense, and whether that matters. The diffusion of topics could lead to confusion in the course, so one of my jobs this summer is to bring it under control without spoiling the fun. You can expect lots of updates as I explore.

I’ve started, because it seemed pretty fundamental, with the history of women at Oxford, which has been really interesting to learn about. One of the first things I realized was that this aspect of the new class actually follows much more closely than I had realized from my usual teaching, including the  ‘Woman Question’ seminar, because an instigating factor in the movement of women into Oxford was the pressure to educational reform stimulated by the difficult situation of governesses in the mid-Victorian period (Jane Eyre!) and the statistical imbalance between men and women highlighted in the 1851 census and of increasing concern towards the end of the century (The Odd Women!). Many of the names of early advocates for women’s education are moderately familiar to me from my 19th-century studies: Emily Davis, Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon), Matthew and Thomas Arnold, Mary (Mrs. Humphrey Humphry) Ward. George Eliot donated to the founding of Girton College, Cambridge — a modest £50 only, but evidence of the precedence she gave to education over political rights.

And on that note, it’s back to the Oxford History of Oxford!

Margaret Kennedy, Together and Apart

The Constant Nymph was the first of Margaret Kennedy’s novels that I read; I described it at the time as “fairly odd” with a “flat affect,” and mentioned having trouble getting “my interpretive bearings.” A bit later I read The Ladies of Lyndon and it too “left me perplexed.” “Is it possible,” I wondered at the end of that post, “that my Margaret Kennedy project will lead me to the conclusion that she is justly forgotten as a novelist?” It has only taken me a year (!) to read another of her novels–and this time I find my interest buoyed rather than deflated (am I mixing metaphors here?).

Together and Apart (1936) is a more concentrated domestic novel. It tells the story of Betsy and Alec Canning, whose marriage has flat-lined: it’s not terrible, but it’s not great either. He’s casually unfaithful, she’s restless and bored, especially with the company they keep on account of Alec’s work–he’s a lyricist who, partnered with a composer friend, has turned out a number of hit operettas. “I never imagined,” Betsy writes to her mother, “that they were going to turn into the Gilbert and Sullivan of this generation.” In the same letter, which opens the novel, Betsy announces to her mother that she and Alec are getting divorced. She hopes to preempt a family crisis, but of course that’s just what her letter initiates, as her mother rushes over to Alec’s mother with the news and the next thing you know Mrs. Canning Sr. turns up at their cottage scheming to keep them together. She fails, because (and the novel is quite good at dramatizing this) people are complicated and perverse and act on motives that aren’t always clear to themselves, much less to other people. As a result, it’s not as easy to manipulate them as she hopes. And from there, the novel follows the effects of the Cannings’ break up on them and on two of their children, Eliza and Kenneth. None of what happens is the stuff of high melodrama: the situation is messy, with no clear villains or victims (though, and again the novel is canny about this, both those involved and those observing try to sort it out so as to assign these roles distinctly).

The movement of the novel’s attention among the family members  suggests that the togetherness and separation of the title are meant to refer more broadly than just to Betsy and Alec. They all muddle along, moving sometimes closer together, sometimes further apart. Towards the end, Eliza observes that “the Cannings were not a family any more. They were five individuals with no corporate existence.” Both her tone and the overall tone of the novel make this movement seem inevitable, though there’s certainly more resignation than celebration of it–no expectation that people doing what they individually want will necessarily bring them any greater happiness. Both Betsy and Alec do end up in new family arrangements, for instance, but this is not a story of true love winning out over convention or anything so conveniently romantic. What they have is just different, not better.

The novel is written mostly with the same flat affect I observed in the other ones, with no overtly literary language, nothing showy like the prose of, say, The Return of the Soldier. It’s very straightforward, very conventionally realistic. Having said that, though, I should note that there are some interesting features to the novel’s form, including an epistolary section that puts the actions and feelings of the main characters into wry perspective. There’s also something artful about the shifts from one character’s story to another. Two sections really stood out for me, too, for their emotional intensity. One is the fictional rendering of what Kennedy’s daughter tells us, in the introduction, was the real-life moment that started Kennedy thinking about the story of the novel:

Together and Apart was conceived one sleepy afternoon on an escalator of London’s underground. A man was coming up and a woman going down. She could not read their expressions, only that, as they passed, there was a movement of recognition, then each turned and held the other’s gaze as long as they remained in sight.

That’s a perfect image, of course, for the way lives intersect and affect each other, and Kennedy fills that moment in her novel with all the poignancy you’d expect when two people have been, for a time, integrally connected and now find themselves irreparably separated. Then there’s the death of Alec’s mother, who is not at all a sympathetic character but whose final illness, seen through her son’s eyes, becomes another powerful moment for meditating on what it means to be together and then apart:

There was so much to which he had no clue–things that had happened long ago, before his own life began; the fears, the hopes, the joys of a young girl, of a child. There was a whole world which had lived in her memory alone and which would vanish with her. To know so little, to have cared so little, to have left so much locked in her heart forever unsought and unvalued, was to be a partaker in her death. He felt now that he might hold her back from oblivion if he had known all, everything about her, all that she had felt and heard and seen so as to make her memory his.

Maybe it’s the more familiar territory of this novel that made it read so much more intelligibly. Maybe in the dozen years in between The Constant Nymph and Together and Apart Kennedy had learned something about her craft. Whatever accounts for it, Together and Apart made me rethink my readiness to give Kennedy up as justly forgotten. I own one more of her novels, Troy Chimneys. This looks to be something else altogether, again: it’s a historical novel set in Regency England, first published in 1953 and the winner, I see from the blurb, of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. I guess that’s next up! My exploration of the “Somerville novelists” continues.

Margaret Kennedy, The Ladies of Lyndon

Despite being endlessly distracted by the continuing coverage of the Egyptian protests on Al Jazeera as well as by finishing up a review of Sara Paretsky’s Body Work for the February issue of Open Letters Monthly, I did manage to finish my second Margaret Kennedy novel (her first), The Ladies of Lyndon, in time for the end of Virago Reading Week. Perhaps because of those distractions–though I don’t rule out the possibility that the book itself is at fault–I don’t feel I have really grasped what ideas or interests are at the center of this novel. Like The Constant Nymph, it has left me perplexed, and I actually found The Constant Nymph (odd as it was) more emotionally involving, though both are written with the same flat affect or understatement. Nobody in The Ladies of Lyondon is developed very deeply, including the putative main character, Agatha Clewer, whose marriage frames the novel. As in The Constant Nymph, our attention is spread across a range of other characters and subplots, and my expectation in such a case is that (as would happen in a Trollope novel) these will turn out to be related like some kind of theme and variations–but I can’t seem to see through the miscellany of this novel to that central theme. Perhaps that is the wrong model, and the unity (assuming for now that the novel is unified) arises from contiguity rather than coherence, which I suppose is how most aspects of people’s real lives are in fact related. In any case, I admit to not finding it a very compelling novel on this initial read. Perhaps as I write a bit more about it I will find my way to something more interesting. Also, I expect to find my bearings as I read more by and about Kennedy–there is often a kind of disconnect between my expectations and a new flavor of novel, after all.

One aspect that I think deserves further consideration is Kennedy’s emphasis on art and her interest in artists. The value and integrity of art is a major concern of The Constant Nymph too, though in that novel music matters most, whereas in The Ladies of Lyndon the artist character is a painter. We never get a detailed account of what his work looks like, but we are repeatedly told that people don’t like to look at it. At one point someone wonders if he might be a cubist, I think. Yet it can’t be significantly experimental, or at least it is representational enough that one major plot sequence turns on his incorporating portraits of family members into a classically-themed mural he has done (a satirical gesture at the expense of the nouveau riche brother-in-law who commissioned it). The artist, James, is also “mentally deficient”–0r is he? He is introduced this way initially and treated this way by most of his family, but by the end it isn’t clear that there was ever anything really amiss with him beyond noncomformity and an inability (or a refusal) to meet social expectations (if the novel had been first published this year, he would probably be counted in the small but growing group of “Aspie” characters). In The Constant Nymph dedication to art stands as an honorable (if often uncomfortably idiosyncratic) alternative to social conventions and materialism. There’s something of that in The Ladies of Lyndon too. For one thing, James makes the only good marriage we see–and he does so by marrying ‘outside’ his class (he marries a servant) and establishing himself at his wife’s level rather than raising her to his: they both accept this as the more natural and comfortable plan, and the moral and social independence it gives them is refreshing compared to the posturing of most of the other characters. There’s no sign that they influence anyone or anything, though: they just go off and do their thing, and also (again unlike the other characters) they reproduce energetically, which I suppose is one way of endorsing their unassuming radicalism, or at least hinting that it is the way of the future.

The title to the novel, and the introduction in the Virago edition, both point to Lyndon as an important symbol in the novel. Here’s a bit from the introduction (by Nicola Beauman):

And it is Lyndon which is the symbol of the change which creeps over both Agatha and the world: after the war it represents the sloughed-off skin of England’s past. It can no longer be the greedy, devouring ‘shring of ease’ it had once been. It can either disintegrate, adjust to the ‘sensible’ values of post-war life or become a Braxhall. . . . The war is shown to have wrought enormous, totally unexpected changes. Lyndon has to change, Agatha changes, the Sir Thomas Bragges of this world are in the ascendant. . . .

OK, in retrospect that sounds plausible (I read the introduction after the novel) but to be honest, I didn’t pick up on the significance of the house at all. I would have put the emphasis on the other key word in the title, ‘Ladies’: the novel surveys the personalities and choices of a motley collection of women related, one way or another, to each other. But the survey strikes me as cursory, and though there is some talk of what makes a good marriage (really, the only substantial choice any of them makes is of a partner), none of the women, and none of the marriages, and not even the adulterous liaison that gives just a little scandalous momentum to the novel, was drawn out enough for me to care particularly. Flat, as I said, and just a little dull, except for the eccentricity of its bits and pieces.

One sign of my difficulties making The Ladies of Lyndon meaningful is that I couldn’t focus on any particular passages to flag: my trademark post-its are stuck in sort of perfunctorily, mostly at what I took to be key developments in the plot–to help me find them again!–whereas usually I use them to trace interesting patterns or themes that emerge.  I also can’t settle on any passage worth quoting, though as I flip through once more I don’t see anything specifically wrong with the book either. Is it possible that my Margaret Kennedy project will lead me to the conclusion that she is justly forgotten as a novelist? Well, that hardly seems a fair prediction based on just two of her sixteen books, and early ones at that. Tomorrow I’ll read the chapter on her in Susan Leonardi’s Dangerous By Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists, and maybe that will help me frame her writing in the way that brings out its significant qualities. I’ve also taken a later novel of hers, Together and Apart, off the shelf. If at first you don’t succeed…. In the meantime, if any of you out there have given any thought to Margaret Kennedy in general or The Ladies of Lyndon in particular, I’d be interested in hearing from you!

Recent Reading: Atkinson, Greene, Kennedy, Simonson

I have been reading quite a lot, thanks to being on sabbatical, but the irony is that I feel a little overwhelmed and unfocused now, sitting down to try to say something about the books! It may be not so much the quantity of reading, which isn’t really overwhelming; it’s more the motley assortment. But I’m already moving on to the next ones, so if I don’t write at least something now, these ones will recede into the mists of my increasingly imperfect memory. So.

Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog. I enjoyed reading this instalment in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series almost as much as I enjoyed the first three–almost. Atkinson is fiercely good at characterization and scene setting, and she takes a theme-and-variations approach to plot, so that the overlapping or intersecting stories she tells relate to each other thematically as well as chronologically or historically. The result (as Miriam Burstein explains better and in more detail in her post on this novel) is a book that tests and even refuses some of the conventions of mystery fiction as a genre. This time I found myself starting to get impatient with Atkinson, though: the book seemed to me to lack a certain tautness and the plot served so conspicuously as a vehicle for presenting her cleverly conceived characters that I wondered why she didn’t let go of the pretense of the genre altogether. I realize there may seem to be a certain inconsistency in this, as I have been known to complain about the dully formulaic nature of a lot of mystery novels, and my own reading preference is certainly for those that let go of the constraints of the ‘puzzle’ form and raise the literary stakes–as, for instance, P. D. James and Ian Rankin do. But James has always been explicit that she likes the basic form of the detective novel because of the clear structure it provides, which enables and supports elaboration. I thought Started Early, Took My Dog, with its diffuse attention, nearly fell off the scaffolding.

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. I’ll write more about this after my book group meets tomorrow night to discuss it. It certainly follows on in an interesting way on our last reading, Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved: both books are about priests struggling to express and act on their faith according to their own principles when circumstances conspire against them. But the tone of Greene’s book is altogether darker and I founds its idea(l) of religion altogether more elusive. Where is God, in this novel? What are we to make of the whiskey priest, who hardly seems to have a calling or a vocation–indeed, it’s not clear what, exactly, he still believes in–and yet cannot turn his back on what he believes to be his duty, even when he knows it will cost him his life? Are we to read him as a martyr? What kind of a faith is it that glorifies an existence so squalid and pathetic? Where is the power, or the glory?

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph. This is the first in the cluster of novels by Margaret Kennedy that I’m reading for my little Virago Modern Classics project (mentioned here). I knew almost nothing about Kennedy when I started it, and at this point I feel I know hardly any more now. It’s a very odd novel, nothing like what I expected. For a long time I couldn’t figure out who was the nymph of the title–I was only certain at the end, and then after I went back and looked up the blurb on the Virago website, as my library copy has no jacket information, no introduction, nothing at all to help me figure this weird thing out. The novel’s plot centers on the eccentric family of Albert Sanger (his “circus,” as everyone calls it). Convinced he could not flourish in England, Sanger has exiled himself to Europe and raised his miscellaneous offspring quite free of the inhibitions and values of “civilized” life. The one value they all recognize is music, or perhaps art more generally; they take really nothing else seriously at all. On Sanger’s death his second wife’s relatives step in to act as guardians to the younger children; the cousin who comes out to collect them falls in love with one of Sanger’s friends, another misunderstood musical genius, and their marriage creates the tensions that carry the novel along to its conclusion. Love, in this novel, is not a mutually beneficial or fulfilling relationship but seems to manifest itself almost entirely through a peculiar kind of worship directed by women towards brilliant, creative, anti-social men. Kennedy’s take on this is satirical, I think, but I’m not entirely sure because I found her tone difficult to interpret: she writes with a fairly flat affect, and the only times she rises into anything like compelling language is when she writes about music, which suggests she may, in fact, be aligned, or align the book, more with those who worship the muse than with those who seek worldly compromises. Reading more of her novels may help me get my interpretive bearings better. There’s hardly any critical work on her to help me out, but I have a book coming through interlibrary loan on the Somerville College novelists (of which she was one).

Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I really enjoyed reading this novel but in the end I think it’s a near miss. It prompted lots of wry laughs, and approaches questions of cultural difference and misunderstanding in a nicely muted and nuanced way, allowing its characters to make fools of themselves rather than setting them up as targets for the novelist’s (or protagonist’s) rebukes–at her best, Simonson handles this much as, say, Jane Austen does, allowing us to enjoy our superiority as we root for the happiness of Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali. The lead up to the dinner/dance–the theme of which, the ladies of the club decide, is to be “An Evening at the Mughal Court”–and then the calamitous events of that night, are beautifully handled. Here’s a little excerpt that will give you an idea of the artfully artless style of the book:

“We were reminded of the story of your father and his brave service to the Maharajah. We’ve decided to do it in three or four scenes. It’ll be the perfect core of our entertainment.”

“No, no, no,” the Major said. He felt quite faint at the idea. “My father was in India in the thirties and early forties.”

“Yes?” said Daisy.

“The Mughal Empire died out around 1750,” said the Major, his exasperation overcoming his politeness. “So you see it doesn’t go at all.”

“Well, it’s all the same  thing,” said Daisy. “It’s all India, isn’t it?”

“But it’s not the same at all,” said the Major. “The Mughals–that’s Shah Jehan and the Taj Mahal. My father served at Partition. That’s the end of the English in India.”

“So much the better,” said Daisy. “We’ll just change ‘Mughal’ to ‘Maharajah’ and celebrate how we gave India and Pakistan their independence. Dawn of a new era and all that. I think it’s the only sensitive option.”

“That would solve the costume problem for a lot of people,” said Alma. “I was trying to tell Hugh Whetstone that pith helmets weren’t fully developed until the nineteenth century, but he didn’t want to hear it. If we add an element of ‘Last Days,’ they can wear their ‘Charles Dickens’ summer dresses if they prefer.” […]

“Partition was 1947,” said the Major. “People wore uniforms and short frocks.”

“We’re not trying to be rigidly historical, Major,” said Daisy.

At the event itself, Mrs Ali’s deadpan responses offset the absurdity perfectly:

“The Maharajah’s wife throws herself upon the protection of the British officer,” said Daisy’s voice again. “He is only one man, but by God he is an Englishman.” A round of cheers broke out in the audience.

“Isnt’ it exciting?” said Mrs Jakes. “I’ve got goose bumps.”

“Perhaps it’s an allergic reaction,” said Mrs. Ali in a mild voice. “The British Empire may cause that.”

The relationship between the upright, stiff, but good-hearted Major, with his old world courtesy and literary inclinations, and the astute but reticent outsider Mrs Ali is developed at once believably and sympathetically. Simonson does well with her secondary characters too, particularly the Major’s insufferable son and his American girlfriend–who is, thankfully, redeemed from reductive stereotypes after a scene or two. But I didn’t understand the turn towards melodrama at the end of the book, or why, if some kind of crisis was felt to be necessary, it took quite the form it did. Perhaps Simonson felt she should balance her satirical treatment of the shallow English villagers with some equal opportunity mockery (if that’s what it is) of the values that lead to ‘honor’ killings, but I felt that this very troubling episode threw the book off balance. I was interested that Simonson chose Kipling as the author who drew the Major and Mrs Ali together. I haven’t read any Kipling beyond snippets of (jingoistic) verse, but the part he plays here, along with Ahdaf Souief’s allusions to him in her novels (including the title of In the Eye of the Sun) make me think he’s worth taking a closer look at.