I’m sneaking into the final moments of Margaret Kennedy Day – an annual event organised by Jane of Beyond Eden Rock – with a novel that I’d intended to read for the 1951 Club: Lucy Carmichael. The only thing that put me off then was its heft (it’s just under 400 pages) – but I managed to read it over a few days, and can throw my hat into the ring.
Lucy Carmichael is a slightly misleading title because, while she is certainly central to the novel, I’d argue that it’s almost as much Melissa’s book – and it is certainly she who opens up the first chapter, in this rather beguiling paragraph:
On a fine evening in September Melissa Hallam sat in Kensington Gardens with a young man to whom she had been engaged for three days. They had begun to think of the future and she was trying to explain her reasons for keeping the engagement a secret as long as possible.
She tells her fiance about her best friend Lucy, whose wedding is coming up soon – to an explorer who wants to be a botanist. Melissa describes her to a sceptical fiance – because the description doesn’t make her seem as pretty or wonderful as Melissa clearly thinks (and Melissa’s brother, Hump, has been similarly unimpressed in the letters she sends, thinking of her as Bossy Lucy). The reader sees this doubt, and finds themselves wanting to side with Lucy before she arrives on the scene.
One thing leads to another – I won’t say what – and the scene shifts: Lucy is now working at an institute that a kindly benefactor has built in a remote area for the benefit of the dramatic arts. The drama becomes about the Committee, and which play the young people should perform. This is perhaps the mainstay of the novel – this, and the will-they/won’t-they between Lucy and Charles, the son of Lady Frances – doyenne of arts and general social queen on this small stage. It means that we don’t see much more of Melissa, which is a shame, because she was that rare thing: a successfully-drawn witty character. Lucy herself is also winning – kind and wise and impulsive and thoughtful; an intriguing mix – but I still don’t think she deserved having the novel named after her.
I’m not sure this novel entirely knows what it wants to be. It feels rather as though Kennedy picked a setting and a plot – Lucy becoming part of a dramatic institute in a provincial community with much in-fighting – and decided to extend at both ends. We see how she ended up there; we see what happens afterwards. Lucy Carmichael, in short, is too long. It’s also too loose and baggy. There is the making of a truly exceptional 250 page novel within these covers, but I felt like the structure needed tightening. In fact, almost every scene needed tightening; it came across like a draft where Kennedy put down everything that came to her, and it should have had another winnowing.
That sounds like I didn’t enjoy the novel, which isn’t true at all. In fact, I rather think that I might end up liking it more and more, the further away I get from it, when I forget the bits I found slow. And, indeed, when I forget everything except the impression it had on me – this is my third Kennedy novel, after Together and Apart and The Forgotten Smile, and I can’t remember even the tiniest detail about either of them.
This isn’t the glowing review that perhaps Margaret Kennedy Day should inspire. I don’t think I’m quite in the camp that adores her – but I also realise that it’s not the sort of novel that should be read so quickly. The writing is great, there is wit and thoughtfulness; Kennedy is clearly trying to inherit the mantle of Jane Austen (and there are many references to Austen throughout; Melissa and Lucy are both aficionados) and that’s an admirable intention, even if it highlights the disparity between their achievements are ‘structurers’. There is a lot to love here, and I did love the final chapter so much that I almost forgave everything else – but it’s always a shame when a novel doesn’t quite become (in my opinion, at least) quite the success it could have been.