I read this in a Dial Press edition of the Virago reprint, with Nicola Beauman’s sound introduction from 1981. It is the most satisfying English society novel I’ve read in a long time, yet is also flawed in its last third with too much exposition, as if Kennedy (this was her first novel) did not have the confidence in her characters to let their actions speak for themselves. But it’s a terrific read, with excellent themes and some pointed and memorable things to say about art, families and marriages.
Lyndon is the country seat of the Clewer family, whose head, Sir John, is about to marry Agatha Cocks, a beautiful and rather vague debutante many years younger than he is. She is marrying from one matriarchy into another: Mrs Cocks is a domineering figure in London’s Edwardian marriage market, and Lady Clewer, her husband’s step-mother, is the dominant force in county society. Mrs Gordon Clewer, Lady Clewer’s blisteringly intelligent and chilly sister-in-law, is also in residence more or less all the time. There are also John’s sisters, Lois (unmarried, over-chaperoned and bored), and Cynthia (not yet out, but totally ready for it). In the background, cleaning hearths and carrying trays, is Dolly Kell, the third housemaid at Lyndon whom nobody ever notices or thinks of, who will become the next Lady Clewer.
The route by which the honourable, respectable (which is almost as bad as being middle-class in the Clewers’ eyes) and thoroughly decent Dolly becomes the reluctant lady of a great country house is a winding one that depends upon the marital propensities of the Clewer men. Sir John likes a trophy, and Agatha is a perfect chatelaine, hostess and foil for his great possessions and national position. His mother thinks he ought to go into politics, but then the First World War intrudes, and gives him gas and a bad heart. James, his younger brother, is perpetually descibed as ‘a little queer in the head’ and ‘abnormal’, and cannot be allowed to circulate in society. From a modern perspective his condition reads as nothing more than a mild case on the Asperger’s spectrum. The rumours of his mental impairment are circulated busily by his unloving step-mother, who never bothered to have James seen by a specialist, simply relying on the opinion of one doctor who was clearly repeating what she wanted him to say. Yet James is happy, in his own way. Having all the money he needs, and living in a house big enough to avoid his managing and disapproving relations, he becomes an artist, gets away to Paris as soon as he is of age, and makes friends with the sort of people his family would never consider important, including the servants. He also becomes friends with Agatha, which surprises them both, as they expect each other to be what they have been told by the family they will be, and they are not.
Agatha precipitates the action, by agreeing to marry John when she is still in love with her cousin Gerald, an innovative mental health specialist. By immersing herself in the hypocritical and shallow world of the Clewers, for whom appearances are all, and divergences from the conventions are suspect, she changes her life, but loses all self-respect. But will eloping with Gerald bring her any more happiness? Will finding out that John’s heart problem is dangerous make a difference? Will the shocking frescoes that James paints in the vulgarly ostentatious mansion of Cynthia and her revolting war profiteer husband Sir Thomas be recognised as his judgement on his family? Will Dolly consent to leave Hampstead?
I found what Kennedy had to say about art, artists, critics and patrons more interesting than the ups and downs of Agatha’s marital history, since she almost makes the validity of modern art the central argument of this novel. She is also excellent at depicting the viciousness of deliberately propagated rumour. The hypocrisy of social recognition is beautifully worked out, in a family where one sister-in-law is no longer recognisable in public and the other used to serve your tea in the morning. There is a certain confusion about the clothes, as if Kennedy, writing in the 1920s, hadn’t remembered the corsets, huge hats and restrictions of women’s wear in the pre-war era. But overall, this is a novel to keep and reread, to savour the battles royal between rival ladies, and to marvel at the strategems that adults contorted themselves through on whether to say hello to a relation or not.