I have been meaning to read a lot more of Margaret Kennedy’s work for quite some years now, ever since the lovely Jane launched her Margaret Kennedy Day, to celebrate the author’s work. I only managed to participate a couple of times, but thoroughly enjoyed the experience of tracking down a couple of out-of-print tomes, one of which I had to stumble through online.
The Feast has always been on my radar, particularly as I know the novel is so well-loved by Kennedy’s fans. Thankfully, it has been recently republished by Faber, and I was able to pick up a copy far more easily on this occasion. The novel, which has been described as ‘magic’ by The Guardian, and as having ‘the miniature charm of a baby Austen’ by the Observer, was first published in 1950. The Faber edition also contains a new introduction written by Cathy Rentzenbrink.
The Feast is set in Cornwall during the summer of 1947. Pendizack Manor, which overlooked the coast, has just been buried after a cliff collapse, and we are made aware from the outset that seven of the guests ‘have perished, but what brought this strange assembly together for a moonlit feast before this act of God – or Man?’ This is what we, dear reader, learn as the narrative shifts back to one week before the collapse. Over the course of this week, which has been split into separate days, we learn about each character.
Those staying in Pendizack Manor are certainly rather eclectic: ‘the hotel guests in all their eccentric glory: the selfish aristocrat; slothful hotelier; snooping housekeeper; bereaved couple; bohemian authoress; and poverty-stricken children.’ They form friendships and even romances with one another over the course of this week, but Kennedy is also clear about revealing their many sins, and those things which they would surely prefer to keep hidden.
Each character has a personal tragedy of some sort. Mr and Mrs Paley have lost their daughter. Lady Eirene Gifford can only eat a very specific diet, her doctor tells her, filled with such things as ‘Poultry, game… fresh vegetables, green salads, fresh eggs, milk, butter’, but ‘Nothing out of a tin i.e. no powdered eggs, dried milk, etc., and no corned beef.’ In a time of shortages due to postwar rationing, this proves rather difficult to provide. The three impoverished Cove children make friends with the well-to-do Gifford offspring, and are soon initiated into their ‘secret society’, named the Noble Covenant of Spartans.
Kennedy is quick to expose the rifts between characters, and what can be hidden within the family unit. Whilst in church, for instance, Sir Henry Gifford reflects of his children: ‘They meant very little to him. They were Eirene’s affair. Only one of them was his, and she was the least attractive.’ A young woman named Evangeline, as another example, dreams of killing her difficult father by putting ground up glass in his food.
The novel is loosely based upon the seven deadly sins – pride, gluttony, covetousness, lechery, wrath, envy, and sloth – and there are characters which correspond to each of these. It opens with the Reverend Bott – in his ‘late fifties, Anglo-Catholic, celibate, and disconcertingly sincere’ – in September 1947. Bott has been tasked with looking back at the disaster, in order to write the funeral sermon. In quite a vivid scene, he goes to visit the site with his friend, Reverend Seddon: ‘There was a choking pall of dust which met them as they came down the hill to the cliffs, and they could see little. The hotel drive plunged downwards in steep zigzags, through trees and shrubs beside a little ravine. The silence below had already begun to chill his heart before he turned the second bend… A hill rose in front of him. There was no road down any more.’
We learn not only about the guests, and all of their many foibles, but also about those who work at the hotel. The discerning Dorothy Ellis is one such character. A week before the disaster, she writes to a friend: ‘Well, this is not a hotel at all, only a boarding-house – all falling down and the roof leaking, you can see there has been nothing spent on it for years… They have lost all their money, so she [the proprietor, Mrs Siddal] got the bright idea to turn this into a boarding house because of course her darling boys have got to go to posh schools, just the same…’. Mrs Siddal is firmly in charge, and her husband is forced to ‘live on his wife’s labour – accept bread at her hands. He has no position here. He receives no respect.’
Rentzenbrink writes that Kennedy is ‘clever to name the victim and let us know there are lots more, but also survivors with stories to tell’ at the outset. She goes on to say that The Feast is set up as something rather akin to a crime novel; we wonder who has survived, and who has not lived to tell their tale. She also mentions the many devices which Kennedy uses to explore her characters, from letters and diaries, to monologues delivered to other characters, which results, for her, in a novel with ‘such immediacy and texture’. I was interested in what Rentzenbrink had to say, but I must admit that I found her introduction rather too brief.
The Feast is described both as ‘a glorious portrait of a seaside holiday in post-war Britain and a wise, witty fable.’ There is comedy here, but I was struck that it was so well-balanced with the more serious aspects of the plot. The structure which Kennedy has chosen to use, with its use of more personal artifacts such as diary entries, proves to be highly revealing of her characters from the outset. I liked the way in which I knew what was going to happen, but not whom it would affect the most.
The omniscient narrative which occurs in every other chapter is another device which works well here, particularly alongside the other narrative techniques which Kennedy explores. Despite the many characters who are introduced in quick succession, the narrative is well controlled, and the story never feels overwhelming. The more serious elements of the story are peppered with amusing details, as well as a valuable commentary on postwar politics, and what it is like to live in a world which is trying to get back to what it was before.
Whilst I liked The Feast well enough, and was drawn to Kennedy’s writing, I did not find the novel’s ending particularly satisfactory. There was a lot of interest here to me as a reader, but I must say that I felt a little underwhelmed when I closed the final page. I expected that I would enjoy The Feast more than I did, and I have had this feeling with Kennedy’s other books in the past, too. Many readers seem to adore her stories, but there is just something about them that does not quite come together for me. The Feast certainly has an intelligent idea at its heart, but I do not feel as though it quite sustained my interest.