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.