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Archive for the ‘Margaret Kennedy’ Category

Another odd reading year for me, as my reading – and certainly reviewing – continues to take a backseat to the other goings on in my life.  But it was a wonderful year by any measure: I embraced a new and challenging job, travelled to some beautiful countries, explored my own city and its wild surroundings, and, amidst all this, managed to read some very good books.  Here are my ten favourites from 2014:

Top Books 2014 - 3

10. The Virago Book of Women Gardeners (1995)
An inspiring and eclectic collection of garden writing from the 17th Century to the 20th.

9. On the Other Side (1979) – Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
I have had a number of underwhelming encounters with Persephone books this year – but this was not one of them. On the Other Side, a collection of letters Wolff-Mönckeberg wrote for her adult children to explain what it was like to live in Germany during the Second World War, is one of the most thoughtful and important books I have read in a long time.

8. Lucy Carmichael (1951) – Margaret Kennedy
I swore up and down from February to November that I was going to review this but it never quite happened. I have made my peace with that now but still feel it is a shame that I wasn’t able to do justice to this delightful novel about a young woman who, when jilted at the altar, sets about making a new life for herself. I think it is too long and wanders about a bit during the middle but, nevertheless, I could easily see it becoming one of my favourite comfort reads in years to come.  It is full of nice people and everyday intrigues, written in an effortlessly entertaining style, and all neatly tied up with the perfect happy ending.  And it contains the most winning piece of advice for a trouble soul I have ever come across:  “Read a nice book.  Read Emma.”

Top Books 2014 - 2

7. Drawn from Memory (1957) – E.H. Shepard
A very charming, very poignant childhood memoir from the beloved illustrator. The sequel, Drawn from Life, was also very good.  

6. To War with Whitaker (1994) – Hermione Ranfurly
A wartime memoir unlike any other I’ve read – and goodness knows I’ve read too many. Ranfurly’s wanderings during the Second World War as she was posted through the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe made for absolutely fascinating reading. They exposed me to a theatre of war I’ve read far too little about and focused on the sort of details I love best: fascinating people, major world events, and behind-the-scenes insights.

5. Mike and Psmith (1953) – P.G Wodehouse
I chose to start 2014 off in style, with the story in which P.G. Wodehouse introduced his finest creation, Psmith, to world. My great dilemma in life is whether I wish to be taken under the wing of a Psmith-like creature or to be Psmith-like myself. I struggle with this daily.

Top Books 2014 - 1

4. Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940) – Angela Thirkell
Not Thirkell’s best Barsetshire novel but, nevertheless, one of my personal favourites as it follows my favourite Thirkell characters (read: Lydia) through the first months of the Second World War. Structurally it has some obvious flaws and its un-Thirkell-like jingoism is jarring but it has more than enough emotional heft to make up for these shortcomings. I am willing to forgive a lot – including Thirkell’s patriotic sentimentality – for the sheer joy expressed by Mrs. and Mr. Birkett in the opening pages as they prepare to offload their featherbrained daughter Rose.  A book that never disappoints no matter how many times I reread it.

3. A Long Way from Verona (1971) – Jane Gardam
Reading this back in January started off an obsession with Gardam. Though some of her other novels are equally excellent (God on the Rocks and Old Filth in particular), this was my first and remains my favourite. The story of a precocious school girl during the Second World War, it is inventive, terribly funny, and more than a little bit bizarre.  I adored it.

2. The Past is Myself (1968) – Christabel Bielenberg
Bielenberg’s chilling, thriller-like memoir of life in Germany during the Second World War.

TheSmallHouseatAllington

1. The Small House at Allington (1864) – Anthony Trollope
The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.

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I had never heard of Jane Austen by Margaret Kennedy, published in 1950 as part of a series called ‘The European Novelists’, until Simon reviewed it last month but when I did, I knew immediately that I had to read it.   In just over one hundred pages, Kennedy absorbingly describes Austen’s literary predecessors, her life, her novels, and her place in literature.  It may lack the depth of other more definitive Austen books but it is a wonderful addition to any Janeite’s collection.

Kennedy never pretends to be anything other than a Janeite herself, which is part of what makes this such an engaging book.  She cares.  She not only wants to tell us what happened in Austen’s life but wants to know how it impacted Austen, imagine how she must have felt.  Examining the letters, Kennedy looks at the abrupt change in their author after the move to Bath, contrasting the joyous girl of the pre-Bath letters –one Kennedy could cheerfully imagine and love – with the more subdued, enigmatic woman she quickly became:

The pre-Bath letters were written by a girl with an enormous capacity for enjoying life.  Her high spirits dance through every line.  She can cry with joy at a sailor brother’s promotion.  She prefers that people should not be too agreeable, as it saves her the trouble of liking them very much in a world which is full of things to like.  She shares a bed with another girl and they lie awake, gossiping and giggling, until two o’clock in the morning…And then, after one or two letters describing the removal, the long silence descends.  We never meet this girl again.

For me though, the absolute highlight was reading Kennedy’s thoughts on Austen’s novels.  As you know, I can never read or hear enough of other people’s reactions to Austen.  Kennedy manages to be affectionate yet insightful, to voice her admiration as well as her criticisms.  I didn’t necessarily agree with all of her opinions but her points are well-considered and intelligent – I could always see the appeal of her argument, even when it didn’t win me over.

Considering the early novels, Kennedy adores Elizabeth Bennet and has a fair amount to say on Pride and Prejudice, is quite brief on Sense and Sensibility (though I deeply enjoyed her distaste for Edward Ferrars, ‘a poor stick’), and admires Henry Tilney and the technical skill of Northanger Abbey.  These are the ‘fun’ novels, the bright, exuberant stories from Austen’s youth, and Kennedy is happy to treat them as such, saving her more detailed consideration for the later novels.

Persuasion and Emma are both intelligently discussed (though there was not enough on Emma for my tastes, but then there never is) but Kennedy saves her energy for another book.  She is an admirer of Mansfield Park.  Which, in and of itself, is unexceptional.  But I think where we disagree is in Kennedy’s assertion that:

It is the most important of the novels, the most ambitious in theme, and the best example of her powers.  She put all that she had into it.  As a work of art it heads the list, and if it is not the universal choice, that is because so many people do not ask that a novel should be, primarily, a work of art.

That statement alone almost sent me back to my bookshelf to grab it for a reread.  ‘The best example of her powers’?  Admittedly, it has been a few years since I last read it but…no.  Not for this reader.  For me, there is a bitterness at the heart of Mansfield Park that saw Austen create a singularly unbalanced cast of characters.  She divided virtue and wealth so that they were never distributed equally and were always, unsubtly, in opposition, with the virtuous, impoverished Fanny’s moral superiority clearly on display.  It is a forceful, effective message but I think too forceful to match the skilful, balanced execution of either Persuasion or Emma. This is one argument Kennedy was not able to sell me on.

But she did persuasively discuss the merits of Fanny Price.  Now, I’ve never hated Fanny as some readers do; I’ve just been generally indifferent towards her, though on some readings my feelings warm to border on mild fondness, mostly for the reasons Kennedy highlights:

In every way she is of finer grain that Edmund, her guide and mentor.  He recommends books to improve her mind: she reads them for pleasure.  He tells her the names of the stars: she finds them beautiful.  And to her exclamations on the glories of a summer night he can only rejoin, with patronizing indulgence: ‘I like to hear your enthusiasm.’  He is pitched in too low a key for her, and it is one of the subtleties of the book that Henry Crawford, had he been a better man, would have been the right man.  With him she would have developed her latent capacities more fully and they might have read Shakespeare together for a better reason than self-improvement.  With Edmund she secured happiness at a cost, the sacrifice of certain possibilities in her nature.  For Mansfield Park is not a fairy story.

The final section, dealing with Austen’s place in the literary world, her importance to readers from her time until Kennedy’s, is wonderful for how Kennedy contrasts the reception Austen received from 19th Century female readers intent on breaking out of their homes with happily domesticated mid-20th Century ones:

Jane Austen described the life of women who must live at home, quiet and confined.  The women of the nineteenth century were occupied in claiming the right to live elsewhere, if they liked, to be heard, to be free, to possess other privileges than that of hopeless love.  They could have little patience with girls who were so well content to dance and wait for husbands.  Even so late as 1915 the Principal of an Oxford women’s college was heard to condemn Jane Austen ‘because all her women were so trivial.’  The women of our own time are, perhaps, more sympathetic.  A home in which to live quietly is often, now, the object of their highest ambitions.

She also intriguingly remarks on the abundance of male champions Austen has, in comparison to the disdain she often received from influential female readers:

Her best supporters have always been men.  The leading women of the Victorian age, occupied in the struggle for the liberation of their sex, found less to appreciate in her.  Even where they praised, they did so with a touch of patronage, a frequent suggestion that she was a little old-fashioned.  She was ‘dear Jane Austen,’ a favourite maiden aunt, a relic of yester year. ..And this notion of a lavender-scented, unsophisticated day-dreamer in a vicarage still persists, thanks to the motion pictures and the dramatic critics.

Some things don’t change, do they?

Kennedy has so many fascinating thoughts and so much clever analysis to share, the kind that can only come from a passionate reader.  She clearly finds her topic endlessly engaging and exciting, which makes for a truly enjoyable reading experience and one that any other Austen fan will find easily relatable.  There is no distance here between the author and the reader: we are all Austen admirers.   Kennedy’s passion is the same as ours.  There are better biographies out there and more thorough volumes of criticism but, as a compliment to those, as an expression of one reader’s love of Austen and her work, this is perfect.

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