The wonderful Jane at Beyond Eden Rock has decided to host another Margaret Kennedy Day, and I jumped at the chance to take part. I was initially unsure as to which Sharp book I would try, as my county library system only stocks paperbacks of hers which I have already read. Thankfully, Jane took the time to type out all of Kennedy’s publications, so I had a wonderful list to work from. The first title which caught my interest was Lucy Carmichael, Kennedy’s tenth novel, which was first published in 1951. As soon as I started to read the blurb, I knew that Lucy Carmichael was the one for me. I was surprised to find a hardback first edition on AbeBooks for less than £3, and three days later, it was added to my collection.
To date, I have enjoyed Kennedy’s writing, but have found that a couple of the plots which I have encountered did not quite suit my reading interests, despite appealing to me on the face of it. From the very beginning, though, Lucy Carmichael felt different. Kennedy’s wit and dry humour appealed to me, and I found myself very much invested within Lucy’s story.
The novel is split into seven distinct parts, and opens with a quote from Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The first chapter proper deals with a couple, John and Melissa, who have just become engaged. Whilst sitting in Kensington Gardens, Kennedy writes of them: ‘John Beauclere had only just learnt that he was to have a father-in-law. He had always supposed that Mr. Hallam, whose name was never mentioned, must be dead. But it appeared that he had merely left his family, and was living by himself in a hotel at Budleigh Salterton’. Melissa’s mother, too, is drawn in rather an interesting manner when the couple first speak of her, and it is made clear that there will be no objections to her choice of husband: ‘My mother believes that life ought to be tense and dramatic. She would prefer one’s choice to be disastrous. If you had been born in the gutter, or were tubercular and couldn’t support one, she would be most sympathetic’. Of her relationship with he parents, Melissa goes on to disclose that, ‘For years I’ve been so perfectly exasperated with both of them that I might say I’m usually fondest of the one I’m not with’.
Lucy Carmichael is Melissa’s friend, and the initial description of her which Kennedy gives is marvellously exuberant: ‘I wouldn’t call her pretty. When she is well and happy she is extremely beautiful. When she is out of sorts or depressed she is all nose, and flashes about like an intelligent greyhound after an electric hare’. The pair met at Oxford, and of this, Melissa says, ‘I thought she was the only female in sight who didn’t remind me of an earwig. She thought the same of me’. Lucy herself springs into the tale a day before her wedding, to explorer Patrick Reilly, is due to take place. Opinions about her impending marriage come from all sides; Lucy’s mother, for instance, states that, ‘she may be sorry she married him, but she will never be sorry that she loved’.
When she is jilted at the altar – a perhaps inevitable plot device in a mid-twentieth century story about a woman who is determined to remain independent in a male-dominated world? – Lucy faces the situation with courage and determination. She tells her mother: ‘I shall be all right… I shall get over it. People seem to get over things, don’t they? I don’t know how, but they do – ordinary people… I’m very ordinary, so I expect I shall do what they do’.
Along with our protagonist and her friends, Lucy’s teenage brother, Stephen, is rather an endearing character – perhaps the most so in the novel. When asked to open a bottle of champagne which had been reserved for the wedding party, the following occurs: ‘A little champagne had lodged upon the ceiling but on the whole he had acquitted himself very manfully’.
Almost, perhaps, another inevitability, Lucy decides to give up her life with her family, and moves to the countryside for a job at a mysterious drama school, the Ravonsbridge Institute. The man who recommends her as a suitable candidate for the job tells her, in his customary slightly-camp manner, ‘My dear, it’s no use asking [what they do there], for I don’t know…’. The second part of the novel is consequently comprised of letters written by Lucy to those at home. This simple technique effectively builds a marvellously three-dimensional picture of our protagonist.
Whilst I very much enjoyed the first two segments of Lucy Carmichael, I found that Lucy became far less compelling as a character as soon as she got into the swing of her job. She seemed to lose her individuality, and the plot soon became saturated with repetitive details, which I felt rather let the whole down. The second half of the novel was sadly rather underwhelming – indeed, it felt as though two entirely different books had been sandwiched together at times – and I came away from my read feeling a little disappointed. The plot never regained my full interest, which was a real shame, as I was very much expecting to give it a four – or perhaps even a five – star review, and then to recommend it to every reader I know. Whilst there is a lot to like in Lucy Carmichael, it perhaps was not as well plotted or constructed as it could have been, and for a tenth novel by such a formidable author, this surprises me somewhat.