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.

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