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!