Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

Troy Chimneys

Troy ChimneysSince I am still in catching-up mode I am trying to cobble together a hasty review on Margaret Kennedy’s Troy Chimneys, so I can take part in Margaret Kennedy Day over at Jane’s blog, Beyond Eden Rock. I must admit I know nothing about Margaret Kennedy, and I’ve never read anything by her, although this has been languishing on the bookshelves for years. I bought it it because:

a) It is a green-spined Virago, and you know how much I love them.

b) I liked the cover. It is, apparently, a detail from Captain Robert Orme, painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1756, and is held by the National Gallery in London. For some reason it made think of DK Broster’s Flight of the Heron, and I guess I’m not far out in that, because the Jacobite Rebellion was just 11 years earlier.

Anyway, the novel tells the story of Miles Lufton, who is, as the blurb on the back explains, a self-made politician in Regency England. His father is a clergyman, and his mother is generally regarded as an Angel. The couple have learning, taste and high moral principles  – but no money. They are poor relations of the great family at the nearby Park. However Miles is brought up alongside his cousin Ned (heir to the house and fortune), learns to ride, hunt and shoot, and acquires a taste for luxury that is way above his station, though he does not realise this at the time. It must be said that Miles has a very high opinion of himself.

“There was not a single activity in which I could not count myself superior to Ned,” he tells us. “I could out-ride him, out-shoot him, bowl him at cricket and beat him at cards. That I rode his ponies, and shot his fathers coverts did not occur to either of us. For Ned admired me almost as much as I admired myself.”

His education enforces that sense of superiority, for he is sent to Winchester, by the good offices of an altruistic gentleman who admires his mother at church … such things happen in novels, especially in the early 18th century. At school he learns that however clever and good-looking he may be, without money and position he is no-one, and will never get on in society.  So he sets out to make himself charming and amenable to the people who matter. He’s a very honest narrator, and makes no effort to dissemble, or disguise his behaviour and motives.

“… I worked and played, cultivated popularity, studied the foibles of the masters, and strove to recommend myself myself in that quarter where the most powerful influence was likely to be felt.”

At Oxford he is just as canny, and his friendship with the rather peculiar Ludovic (more correctly known as Lord Chalfont) provides a springboard for him to launch himself into society. With his charm, wit, intelligence and , with pleasing manners, he becomes the darling of the fashionable and wealthy – but the class distinction is always maintained. He is never their equal: he may flirt with their daughters, but marriage would never be allowed, and he knows this. He becomes what we would call a gofer, running errands for his new ‘friends’. Nothing is ever too much trouble and he’s always willing to arrange something, or fill an empty seat at the theatre or a dinner party. He is, basically, enjoying the good life by sponging off people. But he remains very clear-sighted about himself.

“I liked to stay with people who had nothing to do save amuse themselves. I liked that kind of life very well. I had no wish to be rich; I only wanted enough money to dress well, travel post, and purchase civility from the servants. Had I possessed an income of a thousand pounds per annum I don’t believe that I should have sought any profession. But I had not a hundred pounds, and it was clear I must do something.”

That something turns out to be politics. His friends help him find him a place in Parliament and, as an MP, he has ample opportunity to sybaritic lifestyle and promote his own self-interest.

Somewhere along the line he has acquired the nickname Pronto (after a character in a play, we are told) and develops a kind of split personality, in which Miles stands for decency and goodness, the opposite of his alter ego Pronto. He talks about himself largely in the third person (or perhaps I should say third people), almost as if he doesn’t exist, and he is telling a story about someone else. And as Pronto, the created character,  begins to take over he is very aware of what is happening to him, though he tends to blame others for the changes which bring out aspects of his character which always been there, but to a lesser degree. Talking about his society friends, he says:

“They liked me for my interesting poverty, my sensibility, my freshness, my innocence. They were therefore in great haste to destroy in me every quality which they had praised and found delightful, to corrupt Miles and conjure up Pronto in his stead.”

He is unable to let one or the other take over completely, and equally unable to merge the two halves of his personality into a complete whole. He cannot decide who, or what, he wants to be be, or what kind of life he wants to lead. And because of this, I think, he never fulfills his potential, and never achieves his goals. Late in the novel he meets up with Caroline Audley, who he knew years before. In those days, we learn:

“Her good graces might be valuable to Pronto, and he set himself to secure them. He paid her a good deal of attention, – not so great as to arouse expectations, he was too sharp for that, – but he certainly took more notice of her than other people did (… ). He may have indicated a little more admiration than he felt; most women expect that and like it. And he had a genuine regard for her, so that Miles was not entirely banished from the scene…”

But his regard is not great enough for a proposal of marriage. When they meet again he falls in love. He is haunted by Caroline, and dreams of making her his wife, so they can together at  Troy Chimneys, the beautiful house in the country which he has bought, but never lived in. However, the dream is unattainable, because he hurt Caroline so badly in the past.

I loved the way Margaret Kennedy writes, her portrayal of the characters, the delicate balance of their relationships, and the snippets of period detail.I had no idea what to expect, but I really enjoyed this book, and liked the structure, which had an early 19th century feel to it, very much in keeping with the period in which it is set, and epistolary novels were very popular. It opens with letters written some 50 years later, by which time Miles/Pronto has become a skeleton in the family cupboard, and is never spoken of. Then his memoirs come to light, and it is these that form the main part of the novel. Part diary, part reflection on life, they reveal his inner conflict, his hopes and fears, his desire to be something more than he is, and his bitterness that man of ability should be considered nothing and nobody if he has no money or position. At the end are more letters, in which you find out what eventually happened to Lufton.

Actually, he is much more likable than I’ve made him sound. He does have some very unattractive traits, but I ended up feeling sorry for him. In her introduction Anita Brookner gives the impression that he is a gifted man, from a loving family, who through some fatal flaw in his character wastes his talents and cannot push anything through to its conclusion. However, I’m not sure I agree with that, because he does seem to be so self-aware, and there are moments when he knowingly makes decisions which could have gone the other way. And I keep wondering whether the duality in his nature was always there, or whether it was something he created.

The obvious comparison, from a psychological viewpoint, would be Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but I think it would be more interesting to look at Margaret Kennedy’s novel alongside something like Edith Olivier’s The Love Child, or Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves, where imaginary people become real and take on a life of their own. Miles’ alter ego is like that, but within himself, rather than an external manifestation.

Now I’ve finished I’m not at all sure that I’ve done justice to this novel – there are so many aspects I haven’t mentioned, and other people will probably take issue with some of the things I have commented on, and really I should go through it again and whittle it down, but I’m going to leave it as it is.

margretknnedyday

 

 

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

The Constant Nymph

constant nymph

I’m not quite sure what to make of The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy, and I’m not even sure I like it – but despite my reservations I sat up until 3 am to finish it, so it can’t be all that bad! It is, I think, a difficult book for modern readers. For a start there’s the vexing question of the relationship between a 14-year-old girl and an older man, not sexual, but disturbing nonetheless. Equally unsettling is the casual anti-Semiticism, which was surprisingly widespread when this novel was published in 1924. And the racism extends to a more general xenophobia, where foreigners are viewed with great suspicion by all true Englishmen – and Englishmen who consort with these strangers are the subject of even greater distrust. Additionally, there’s a pervasive ‘classism’ which I find very distasteful; for example, working class characters and peasants are regarded as stupid and hardly human, and are treated accordingly. To be honest, I feel a little mean highlighting class and race issues because they are not themes within the book – this is just the way people are, part of everyday life, and no-one questions it.

The story itself gets a little convoluted. Albert Sanger is a brilliant, tempestuous, avant garde musician living out the final years of his life in the Austrian Alps, with his mistress, a collection of children by various mothers, and a motley crew of  hangers-on. The children are known collectively as ‘Sanger’s Circus’ because of their:

“…wandering existence, their vulgarity, their conspicuous brilliance, the noise they made, and the kind of naptha-flare genius which illuminated everything they said or did. Their father had given them a good, sound musical training and nothing else. They had received no sort of regular education, but, in the course of their travels, had picked up a good deal of mental furniture and could abuse each other most profanely in the argot of four languages.”

The description seems more than a little unfair on Caryl and Kate, the children of Sanger’s first wife (who died) as they are by far the

Margaret_Moore_Kennedy_(1896-1967)
Author Margaret Kennedy.

most sensible members of the household, doing their best to keep things running smoothly and care for everyone else. Antonia, Teresa, Paulina and Sebastian are the offspring of Evelyn, his second wife (also dead), while Susan is the daughter of his current mistress, the stunningly beautiful but enormously fat Linda, who spends all her time in bed or in a hammock.

When Sanger dies unexpectedly, the children are left penniless, but the family of Evelyn, Sanger’s second wife, step in to help, and Cousin Florence is dispatched to bring the four orphans to England so they can be sent to school. Florence is beautiful, wealthy, well educated, and well dressed. Gentle, polite and sensible, she’s a devoted daughter – she’s looked after her father since her mother died. However, there are hints that Florence is not quite the paragon of virtue she appears to be, and her father’s reflections on her behaviour do not bode well for the future:

“From infancy she had always done exactly what she pleased with a persistance which belied the sweet placability of her manner. In the face of criticism or protest she exhibited none of Evelyn’s flaming defiance, only a pleasant disregard which had always vanquished him. Sometimes, viewing her unswerving pursuit of a chosen course, he was compelled to liken her to something slow, crushing, irresistible – a steam-roller.”

Florence, at almost 28,  is on the verge of becoming an old maid but she falls in love with composer Lewis Dodds, a friend of the Sangers. The couple marry, and back home in England Florence packs the children off to boarding schools (with the exception of Antonia, who marries another family friend, Jacob Birnbaum, a wealthy Jew, who has seduced her, on the grounds that if he doesn’t someone else will). Florence determines to to establish a kind of musical salon, using her connections to further Lewis’s career. But Lewis doesn’t want his career furthered. And, having opted out of polite society, he has no intention of rejoining it. A battle of wills develops, and to make matters worse the children run away from their schools, and the schools refuse to take them back…

the delphic oracle michaelangelo
At one point in the novel Tessa is described as looking like Michelangelo’s  Delphic Sibyl.

In fact, the marriage is doomed to failure, as everyone except Florence realises, for not only are their values and outlook on life very different, but Lewis is in love with Teresa, and Teresa (or Tessa as she is generally known), is in love with him, although she is only 14. As I said earlier, there’s no sexual element – their relationship is a a kind of pure meeting of minds. They are soul mates, destined to be together (think Cathy and Heathcliff rather than a conventional love story).

When the two are together even Charles, Florence’s father (and one of the nicest characters in the book) can see that Tessa and Lewis are a perfectly well-matched couple with the kind of rapport that Florence and Lewis can never achieve. Considering the situation he tells us:

“Teresa was, probably, the only woman in the world who could manage this man; she would respect humours without taking them too seriously, she would never require him to behave correctly, and, if he annoyed her, she would reprove him good-humouredly in the strong terms which he deserved and understood. How could they have failed to see it? Lewis was a fool! If he had married little Teresa she would have made a man of him, whereas mated with Florence he was nothing but a calamity.”

 

It’s a clash of worlds as much as a clash of personalities: natural versus artifice; conformity versus rebellion; order versus disorder; outsiders versus those who belong… Lewis, Tessa, Tony, Lina and Sebastian are wild, anarchic, passionate creatures who know no rules and trail chaos in their wake. Set against them is the conventional, well ordered society created by Florence and her friends, where appearance is everything, and talking about feelings is more important than the feelings themselves. The difference is shown in their approach to music: for Lewis and the Sangers music is part of the air they they breathe or the food they eat, and is every bit as necessary, but for Florence it is something to be taken up and enjoyed on special occasions, like a best dress. And there’s a poignant moment when Lewis recalls a magical moment in his childhood, when he heard a bird’s wings, and the response of the two women is very different, for while Tessa can feel the beat of the wings, Florence can only ask about the location.

It’s difficult to like the characters. On the whole they are not kind people – they are insensitive, thoughtless, and cruel to each other and to other people, and they are contemptuous about anyone they regard as less clever, or of a lower social order. But they drag you into their story whether you will or not, and although I didn’t enjoy this as much Troy Chimneys, there’s a lot to enjoy and admire, and Kennedy can be wonderfully satiric about people and situations.

I read this a while ago, but posted it today so I can take part in Margaret Kennedy Day, which takes place today, and is being hosted by Jane, at Beyond Eden Rock. 

Margaret Kennedy Day

Posted in Uncategorized

There Will be No More Books…!

For various reasons I haven’t been online much for the last week, but here I am again, not exactly firing on cylinders, but reasonably bright and raring to go. I am sitting here considering the To Be Read Pile and have resolved not to buy, borrow or download any more books until I have completed all volumes which are waiting to be read – or have at least whittled them down a bit. How long my good intentions will last is another matter, because I seem to be constitutionally incapable of going to town without popping into the library, and if I’m volunteering in the Oxfam bookshop in Lichfield I have to support them by buying books, and it would be wrong to ignore a bargain I may never see again. As for the Kindle, the books I download aren’t taking up any space and, since they’ve mostly come from Project Gutenberg, they haven’t cost anything… As you can see, I’m wavering already…
Anyway, the charity shop finds include:
Troy Chimneys, by Margaret Kennedy: I was actually looking for The Constant Nymph, which I still haven’t found (but I daresay it will turn up sooner or later) but I spotted this and thought it looked interesting, plus it’s a Virago Modern Classic, with a lovely detail from Joshua Reynolds’ Captain Robert Orme on the front, so how could I resist?
The Magic Toy Shop, by Angela Carter, is another VMC, but with a vile cover from the TV production – I am sure there are better looking editions available, but never mind. I read this when it was first published, and it’s not one of my favourites (I much prefer Nights and the Circus and Wise Children), but thought I would give it another go.
Wilful Behaviour, by Donna Leon: this was an absolute must, because I’m a great fan of Commissario Brunnetti who appears to be a well adjusted policeman with a happy home life. It’s nice to find a detective who is not dysfunctional, and I love the Venetian settings, and Leon is a very intelligent writer.
Farewell Victoria, by TH White: blame Karyn at A Penguin a Week for the fact that when old Penguins come into the Oxfam shop I now pounce on them. Her review of this novel made me want to read it, as I only really know White as the author of The Once and Future King – but in any case, I couldn’t ignore the lure of the dancing Penguin on the front.
Man Meets Dog, by Konrad Loenz: this is another Penguin, published in 1964, so it’s not that old, but the margins are illustrated with the most delightful line drawings by Annie Eisenmenger and the author, and having picked the book up I just couldn’t put it down again.
In Search of England, by HV Morton: this is an account of the author’s travels around England in the 1920s, which was republished by Penguin in 1960, with an introduction by Morton hiself, who resisted the temptation to revisit any of his destinations and wisely left his account as it was originally written, offering a glimpse into what now seems a bygone world. I’m looking forward to reading this – I may be the worst traveller in the world, but I adore travel books.
The House in Paris, and The Last September, by Elizabeth Bowen: I’ve not read any of her work, and have no idea what to expect, but since I am currently trying to fill the gap in my reading by acquainting myself with authors from the first half of the 20th century (more or less), I thought I would read these.
The Good Earth, by Pearl S Buck: This is in a really bad state, and I bought it for  a few pence (not from the Oxfam shop, I hasten to add – their books are always in excellent condition) out of curiosity because she was enormously popular in her day, but now seems to be virtually forgotten.
Katherine, by Anya Seton: Again, Seton was very popular, but now seems to be dismissed by many. This is her version of the story of Katherine Swynford, the long-time mistress of John of Gaunt – they were eventually married. It’s a fascinating period of history, and I’ve read other novels covering the same events and characters, and wanted to see how this compares.
Some of the books that are waiting to be read… there are others,
and there are more on the Kindle!