God Bless Margaret Kennedy

In a recent article I outlined just how much I enjoyed Margaret Kennedy’s 1950 novel ‘The Feast’. It is a book that continues to haunt my thoughts, not least for its Cornish setting in the fictional village of Porthmerryn. The lovely cover illustration for Faber and Faber’s recent reissue shows St Ives, from a 1930s poster design by Robert Borlase Smart. You wouldn’t know that from the cover though, as the picture credit is only to The Mary Evans Picture Library. One assumes the designers simply searched the archive for ‘St Ives’ and dug through the myriad results to find one that most appealed. I dare say I might have done exactly the same.

The Mary Evans Picture Library is a marvellous time machine and easy to get lost in. Amongst the St Ives images are some real treasures, such as photographs of John Martyn playing there in 1980; various artists captured in their studios, amongst them Barbara Hepworth, Bryan Winter and Sir Terry Frost; a 1956 photograph of Patrick Heron and his daughter Katherine in the garden at Eagle’s Nest; Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and David Lewis caught smiling on Porthmeor Beach in 1953 and a delightful picture made by Gilbert Adams from just after WW2 of two young women chatting outside what must be one of many little buildings in Downalong called ‘The Cabin’. Adams’ photograph captures figures basking in the light from the beacon of peace, with the welfare state hovering over the horizon poised to bring equality and prosperity for all. Twenty years ahead of Donovan and his merry troupe arriving to ‘discover’ the town it is clear from Adams’ picture that the bohemians are already well and truly ensconced, living cheek by jowl with the fisherfolk and part of the very fabric of the place. With all the cottages in Downalong now owned by wealthy property developers and used as holiday lets to avoid paying local taxes, one cannot help but quietly despair at how badly the UK seems to have lost its way in the 70 or so years since ‘The Feast’ was first published and Adams made his photograph. And with a recent poll showing a disturbingly high percentage of young (18-34) people favouring a “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament/elections”, one suspects that Margaret Kennedy would find the future as much a foreign country as we might find the past.

The past might, then, be a foreign country, but almost anywhere foreign is surely better than the present reality. Perhaps this explains my willingness to immerse myself in old detective novels and pictures made before I was born. How dearly I would like to step into that 1905 watercolour of St Ives by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, grey and melancholy as it is, or to walk amongst Camilla Blackett’s sunlit Porthmeaor Beach attractions. But only if I was wealthy, of course. In truth, Blackett’s picture may well have been painted after I was born, for she appears to have worked in the 1960s and 1970s. Some rather basic research shows that she was living and working in Kirkcudbright in the 1960s, which makes for an interesting parallel to St Ives, for Kirkcudbright was for a time perhaps a Dumfries and Galloway precursor to the Cornish town. It is years since I last visited Kirkcudbright but I suspect that even if it has also managed to create a tourist trade built on its artistic and fishing foundations it must be immeasurably more enjoyable in the summer months than fighting through the crowds in Downalong.

Downalong, for those still looking on confusedly, is the term historically given by locals to St Ives’ centre of closely clustered cottages and shops. Kennedy does not use the term in ‘The Feast’, but it crops up several times in her evocative WW2 memoirs ‘Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry’ when describing the town to which she evacuated herself and her children from London at the start of the Blitz. In the memoirs the place is also called Porthmerryn but in her descriptions of the town and its landscape as well as the use of the terms ‘Downalong’ and ‘Upalong’, it is much more clearly St Ives. It is clear too that much of ‘The Feast’ draws from the experiences Kennedy puts down in ‘Wingèd Sentry’. The roots of the various classes of characters are all here, from the wealthy ‘Gluebottoms’ “sitting on the sands until it is time for them to go back to their comfortable lives” to the idealistic Communists and the impoverished, near feral children that must have inspired the Cove’s. It’s notable too that whilst ‘The Feast’ refuses to celebrate any ideological extreme in its optimism for a more equitable society in the UK, Kennedy’s stance in the middle ground is absolutely made clear in her memoirs. Continuing on her riff on ‘the Gluebottoms’ Kennedy suggests that “It’s well that there is such a strong feeling in this country for tolerance and common sense. England (sic) after the war is going to belong to the shelterers. And it won’t be the England that [the Communists] want, or the Gluebottoms’ England either. It will be a land fit for human beings.”

That particular outpouring is stirring and optimistic, yet in truth such stoicism is mixed with a hefty degree of pessimism throughout ‘Wingèd Sentry’. Written mostly in 1941, the memoirs see the author reflecting on the events of Chamberlain in Munich and these early years of the war with what often borders precariously on a defeatist attitude. Such thoughts illustrate the stress and depression of the times that many must have felt, and there is a sense that Kennedy’s writing in itself is the process through which she regains both stability and optimism. There is something too in the way her balancing of despair and resolute belief in salvation might have been artfully drafted with an eye to the American market, for the memoirs were published at the time in that country (UK publication had to wait another 80 years until this 2021 edition from Handheld Books). It is a marvellous slim little book and highly recommended.

Delving even further back into the past, it is now nearly a century since Kennedy’s ‘breakthrough’ novel, 1924’s ‘The Constant Nymph’, was published. It’s a curious artefact viewed through a 21st Century lens and I have to say that the novel leaves me for the most part cold. There are some intriguing eyebrow raising elements, most particularly the whole premise of the book being ‘about’ a fourteen year old girl being in love with an older man. In some respects then it reads like an inverted ‘Lolita’ some thirty years ahead of its time, although judging from what I can gather about the book’s original reception, this particular theme of seduction/love between a child and an older man seems hardly to have ruffled a feather. Instead, the novel’s depiction of romanticised bohemianism is what seems to have captured audiences’ attention, and it is this that, to me, seems to have lasted least well. To this particular 21st Century eye the book feels laboured and painfully tortured, which perhaps is intentional as some kind of sardonic commentary on the mediation of ‘the artistic temperament’ but whatever… I admit that it was all I could do to skim and Skip To The End to see if anyone might Live Happily Ever After. I won’t drop any spoilers as to whether they do or don’t, but given that the book is clearly fired through with that whole Doomed Romantic flavour, you can probably guess which outcome Kennedy favours. Given too that the book was written when Kennedy was in her mid to late twenties, this preoccupation with the mythology of Artistic Genius and the incendiary appeal of individualism is entirely understandable, as is that aforementioned anguish of fevered Romantic love and obsession. With a purely objective hat on my head I can see why the book might have proved to be such a best seller in 1924. Yet that hat of objectivity can be so crushingly uncomfortable and hideously unattractive and so, with a head once more open to the elements, I would recommend leaving ‘The Constant Nymph’ on the shelf for a while yet.

Better by far for me is ‘Troy Chimneys’. Originally published in 1953, this sees Kennedy playing with form and time by positioning the book as a series of Regency era correspondences and diaries discovered by a Victorian gentleman. The correspondences and diaries purport to belong to one Miles Lufton, a Member of Parliament who exists in a kind of existential duality alongside his alter-ego, the populist pleasing ‘Pronto’. The play between the two sides of his character are deftly treated by Kennedy who treads the line between humour, tragedy and philosophical observance in a measured and mature manner. As in ‘The Feast’ there is much in ‘Troy Chimneys’ that allows Kennedy to illustrate her faith in an equitable society, even whilst that faith might be questioned by some of the traits of humanity that she sees around her, and I spent much of my time gleefully scribbling notes and jotting down lines from the book. One that leapt out at me was this, relating to the unpleasant character of ‘Mrs Ned’: “for [her] this principle [of looking after the poor] does not exist. If there is an ought for her, it is that she ought to drive the hardest bargain that she can. To give anything is impossible to her. She feels no duty whatever towards the poor people here, will not allow that they have any rights, and the result is that they starve.” That it is far too easy to substitute ‘Liz Truss’ or ‘Margaret Thatcher’ for ‘Mrs Ned’ surely says as much for the brilliance of Kennedy’s insight as it does the nature of history and our human frailties.

There’s a nagging sense however that a bare four years after ‘The Feast’ Kennedy’s optimism for the future may already be fading. The use of the Victorian gentleman ‘discovering’ these Regency texts is a neat way of making the point about history being coloured by the media through which we view it, as well as by our own particular contexts. He observes that the Regency period “was a melancholy age” and that “to survive it one had to be thick-skinned, or a fanatic, like Wilberforce, able to hammer away at one point and overlook the rest.” Kennedy then allows this Victorian documentarian to note that “Reforms of every kind were overdue” but that “it was the less sensitive, the men who did not suffer from too much imagination, who took the first steps.” When he concludes that “The poets secluded themselves, or got out of the country, and the humanitarians blew out their brains” it is easy to transpose the Victorian character to the middle of the Twentieth Century. Indeed, in one final move, Kennedy has the character pronounce: “thank heaven that I was born in 1850! So much has been accomplished, that we may be sure the rest will follow. We have got rid of oppression, injustice and tyranny. Another fifty years may see the whole Continent as far advanced as we, and then we may hope to ‘Ring out the thousand wars of old, – Ring in the thousand years of peace!’” The sardonic irony drips from the page like congealing blood.

There are many more of Margaret Kennedy’s books out there to explore, and I am intrigued to see if further reading cements my suspicion that her post WW2 work to be vastly superior to the pre-war. Yet even if that proves to be correct I suspect too that ‘The Feast’ will continue to haunt me; that it will be the Kennedy novel to which I shall often return.

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