The Outlaws on Parnassus by Margaret Kennedy

I’m in one of those moods where – though there are book group books and Shiny New Books I should be reading – I am impulsively picking up other, non-essential books, and reading them instead. Once I get them in my head, nothing else will quite do. Which is why I’ve recently read The Outlaws on Parnassus (1958) by Margaret Kennedy – which I bought when Jane ran Margaret Kennedy Reading Week.

The Outlaws on Parnassus

It’s non-fiction – more specifically, a look at the art of the novel. In case the opaque title isn’t immediately clear, this is the opening paragraph, which might help:

The status of the novel, as a form of art, has never been clearly determined. No particular Muse was assigned to story-tellers. There are no Chairs of Fiction at our Universities. Criticism has never paid to the novel the degree of attention which it has accorded to other kinds of literature.

So, Kennedy’s title suggests that the novel is something of an outlaw among the other forms of literature, waiting for the gods on Mount Parnassus. While her opening statements are no longer true (there are plenty of Chairs of Fiction) and probably weren’t quite true in 1958, the doesn’t take away from the interesting discussion Kennedy launches into – interesting both on its own merits, and as a snapshot of literary opinion in the mid-century.

The Outlaws on Parnassus starts by looking through a brief history of the novel, dwelling on those names that were only a century or so old in the 1950s. (Indeed, throughout the reference points are intriguing – we expect to find Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf – and do – but how many books about the novel written today would return so often to Joyce Carey?) Kennedy writes some very interesting things about the difference between plot, story, and comment – not all of which I agree with, but it’s interesting nonetheless – and includes some very adroit comparisons of the skeletons of novels, convincingly identifying the same plot structures in Vanity Fair and To The Lighthouse, for instance.

But most of the book, Kennedy looks at different approaches to narrative forms and narrator personae. The latter she divides into autobiographical, author-observer, impersonal narrative, realist, and egocentric. I can’t imagine her categories becoming lasting pillars of literary criticism, but she argues her points well, giving specific examples for each of these styles of a woman entering a room and being found beautiful by those in it.

I’ve read quite a lot about realist fiction in my studies, as you might expect, having written about fantastic literature – and I wish I’d come across this earlier. It pretty much sums up what happened with realist fiction (and the backlash against it) in the early 20th century. I can’t work out if the echoes of Woolf’s ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ are intentional or not, but it plays out less condescendingly that Woolf’s (excellent and witty, but, yes, condescending) essay: (oh, by the way, the hypothetical Flora and her activities form Kennedy’s exemplar throughout the book)

In the early realistic novel Flora’s validity was established by surrounding her with intensely valid detail, of a kind which the reader could readily endorse from his own experience. If she cooked cabbage the house smelt of it. If the weather was warm she sweated. If she went to Penzance she started from Paddington and took a train which could be verified in Bradshaw. If she died she did so of an authentic disease described in clinical detail. Any doctor, reading an account of her symptoms, would agree that she had to die. No author could save her after ‘a coffee grounds vomit’.

This detail need not necessarily be sordid or disgusting; it was a matter of plain accuracy. The whole technique however came to be identified with this unseemly statement, because it was this aspect of it which most struck the average reader. He had never met such things in a novel before; a ‘realistic novel’ not only mentioned a privy but described minutely what went on there. Many realistic novels used such material sparingly, but liberty to employ cloacal, physical, or sexual detail was interpreted, by so many inferior novelists, as licence that the whole nature of the technique came to be misunderstood.

And then there are sections wherein Kennedy looks back at specific moments in critical history, as the novel began to be understood (or misunderstood) by a wider public. She is particularly reproving of those, in the 1930s, who chose to turn their focus away from the qualities of art:

A distinction between art and non-art may be useful, but it is not the most vital distinction to be made. The major service of criticism is to distinguish between bad art and good art, and, above all, to help us to understand why good art is good. It was a great misfortune for the cause of the novel that criticism should have gone off on a witch-hunting excursion, just when novelists had a chance of securing serious attention. They were not the only sufferers. Some attempt was also made, in the 1930s, to screen the poets for suspicious intentions and cynical attitudes, but the poets are better established. Enough sense has been talked about them, in the course of 2,500 years, to enable them to stand up against an occasional bombardment of nonsense. The case of the novelists was not so robust. Their public, long accustomed to think of them with a certain degree of disparagement, would have been reluctant enough, in any case, to changes its ideas. An opportunity was missed of establishing an art, claimed as great, by defining those qualities which make it so. It was neglected in favour of denunciations against naughty boys.

The only curious misstep in The Outlaws on Parnassus, to my mind, is the late chapter where Kennedy writes at length about the plot of The Odyssey without, so far as I can tell, much of a wider point to make. She makes a half-hearted attempt to call it the world’s first novel, but the chapter still feels a bit like she wrote it for something else, and thought she might as well include it to bulk out the number of pages.

But, that aside, it’s a really fun, interesting, and engaging little book. It’s no surprise that it didn’t revolutionise the world of literary theory, but those of us who love novelists like Margaret Kennedy and reading about novels (as well as reading novels themselves), then this is a bit of a find.

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week

Are you joining in Margaret Kennedy Reading Week? All the info you need is here on Fleur Fisher Reads, and it’s all very exciting. I’d thought I would read Red Sky at Morning, because I started it months ago, but instead I read Kennedy’s final novel – The Forgotten Smile, published in 1961.

It has just been reissued by Vintage Books, along with a whole bunch of other Kennedy titles (some of them POD) and I read it for Shiny New Books – so I’m going to point you over there. (And I actually did finish it this week – on Sunday afternoon.) I’ll just say that she does such interesting things with chronology, and it works – and her characters are brilliantly realised. Read on…

So… are you joining in Margaret Kennedy Reading Week?

Together and Apart – Margaret Kennedy

I think Together and Apart (1936) by Margaret Kennedy might just be the most 1930s novel I have ever read.  Not that it is the best (though it is very good) but that it is somehow quintessentially 1930s, stuffed with all the ingredients I have come to expect – marital politics; sensuality tempered by an intrinsic conservatism; a sense of change which is both progressive and nostalgic; fraught family gatherings; women discovering their voices, but torn between the roles of wife, mother, and independent woman; people explaining their feelings to each other at elaborate length.  Of course, none of these themes are unique to the 1930s, but they recur so often in novels of that decade that, together, they evoke the 1930s for me.  (Before I go any further – thank you Rob, who gave this to me in the Virago Secret Santa back in 2011, making Together and Apart possibly my only black Virago Modern Classic.)

It all starts off with that touchy-for-the-1930s topic of divorce, with Betsy writing to her mother about her proposed separation from her husband, the celebrated librettist Alec, and it’s worth quoting at length…

Well now Mother, listen.  I have something to tell you that you won’t like at all.  In fact, I’m afraid that it will be a terrible shock and you will hate it at first.  But do try to get used to the idea and bring father round to it.

Alec and I are parting company.  We are going to get a divorce.

I know this will horrify: the more so because I have, perhaps mistakenly, tried very hard to conceal our unhappiness during these last years.  I didn’t, naturally, want anybody to know while there was still a chance of keeping things going.  But the fact is, we have been quite miserable, both of us.  We simply are unsuited to one another and unable to get on.  How much of this have you guessed?

Life is so different from what we expected when we first married.  Alec has quite changed, and he needs a different sort of wife.  I never wanted all this money and success.  I married a very nice but quite undistinguished civil servant.  With my money we had quite enough to live on in a comfortable and civilised way.  We had plenty of friends, our little circle, people like ourselves, amusing and well bred, not rich, but decently well off.  Alec says now that they bored him.  But he didn’t say so at the time.
Divorce was no longer the great unthinkable, but you don’t have to be cynical to detect a hint of false brio in Betsy’s assured tone.  The respective mothers leap into action – and they remind me rather of the mothers in Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout.  Betsy’s mother is weak and anxious; Alec’s mother is domineering and formidable.  Neither, it turns out, is particularly good at bringing the separated couple back together, and there is rather a sense that they might have inadvertently accelerated the split…

From here, Margaret Kennedy weaves a complex and evolving pattern.  I expected the novel to focus on the married couple, seeing whether or not they could mend their rift, but Kennedy’s world is far wider than that.  I might even criticise it for being a little too wide, in that it occasionally seems to lose focus a bit as she tries to encompass a school, four or five households, and the minds and opinions of a dozen or more principal players.

As with the G.B. Stern novel (and because I’m rushing up so many posts!) I don’t think it’s worth elaborating at length about the plot.  Kennedy shows us the consequences of actions, and movingly depicts the ways in which separation affects everyone – not just the ‘think of the children’ angle (although this is shown a fair bit, the children are all quite flawed of their own accord) but the married couple themselves.  The split between Betsy and Alec is never final and certain in their minds – both are plagued by regret or, more to the point, uncertainty about their decision (regret would be a form of certainty which neither can reach).  I have never been married, and of course never divorced, but I was still impressed by the nuances in Kennedy’s writing…

…with the caveat that this is the 1930s, and I often find that the dialogue in 1930s novels is never quite as nuanced as one might wish.  People do explain their emotions at length, and have oh-gosh-darling moments, but that all adds to the good fun of it all.  My first Margaret Kennedy book was her biography of Jane Austen, and it is interesting to see how her own fiction compares.  Well, of course Austen is better – but you can see where Kennedy learnt a bit about portraying human nature in its complexities, and I think Jane would rather have enjoyed reading this if she’d been around in 1936.

Jane Austen by Margaret Kennedy

One day in, and the first book for A Century of Books is completed.  Truth be told, I read the first two-thirds in 2011, but spent this afternoon finishing it off.  It’s a bit of a cheat, because although it was published 1950, it’s one of those not-very-of-its-time books – being Jane Austen by Margaret Kennedy.

I was sorting through my books in Somerset and found a paper bag filled with books from my aunt, which she was either lending or giving to me back in 2004 (Jacq – which was it?!) and discovered this book in it.  I’ve yet to read anything by Margaret Kennedy (despite getting a lovely copy of Together and Apart for Christmas) and I had no idea that she’d written a book about Jane Austen.  Being in the mood for a little quirky non-fiction, I picked it up and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Apparently it was the first in a series called The English Novelists, and it is part-biography, part-criticism.  In fact, it’s mostly an assessment of Austen’s various novels – written by an unashamed fan, but one who is not incapable of pointing out what she believes to be areas for improvement.  Her views are unusual – how many of us would call Mansfield Park ‘the most important of the novels, the most ambitious in theme, and the best example of her powers’? – but it’s a good look through the eyes of an perceptive reader of the 1950s, to see how Austen was estimated sixty years ago.

Jane Austen is scarcely more than a hundred pages long, but Kennedy packs a lot in, with precise organisation.  In fifteen pages she covers ‘The Background’; a wonderfully informative summary of the novels which preceded Austen’s.  Then Kennedy covers ‘The Life’ in fourteen pages, thereby providing as good an overview as you’re likely to encounter in many books ten times that length.  It is a more modern phenomenon to elaborate where details are not known, or invent suppositions where discretion is more flattering.  Austen’s momentary engagement, for example, is not mentioned.  Was it not known in 1950?

The next sections onto ‘The Letters’, which are often held up simply as an example of the biographer’s disappointment.  Kennedy is no different:

To search through these letters for any trace of the novels is a most disheartening task.  It is not merely that the books themselves are scarcely ever mentioned; there is so little trace of the material from which the books were made.  We feel as some archaeologist might, who comes upon some large and promising mass of fragments buried under a lost city once famous for its art, and finds that they are all shards of coarse kitchen ware; that every trace of sculpture, urns, tiles, tablets and inscriptions has been scrupulously removed.  It is with gratitude that we identify a few cooking pots.  There is a Moor Park apricot tree at Chawton; we remember one at Mansfield Parsonage.  Isabella Thorpe advised Catherine Morland to read The Midnight Bell; here is Mr. Austen reading it at an inn.

I do not entirely agree with this estimation of Austen’s extant letters, but I love the image Kennedy devises.  I also love the sensitive way she explores the difference between Austen’s early and later letters.  Like everything else in Kennedy’s book, it’s a speedy but excellent summary and assessment.

And then the chapters for which I was waiting.  ‘The Novels – First Period’ and ‘The Novels – Second Period’; ‘Some Criticisms’ and ‘Jane Austen’s Place in Literature’.  It’s no secret that I love Austen’s novels, and I especially like reading about her novels – an area understandably skirted around by those with a strictly biographical outlook.  In these, Kennedy gives quick outlines of the novels, before delivering her own verdict – always admiring, but never gushing.  She knows Austen’s characters as well as her own friends and family – watching their actions, carefully considering their qualities, and understanding the work of the author all the while.

At twenty-one she has served her term.  She knows what she wants to say.  She has discovered how to say it.  First Impressions, afterwards called Pride and Prejudice, is written with all the fresh exhilaration of that discovery.  It has faults which are to disappear in the later books, but never again is she to write with quite the same vitality and high spirits as she does in this first spring of her powers.  They give it a quality which makes very many of her readers choose it as their favourite.

We are told that it was extensively polished, corrected and revised between 1796 and 1813, when it was published.  But its great merit must have been inherent in the first draft, since characters spring to life at once or never, and truth is one of the things which cannot be “put in afterwards.”I’m not sure I agree with this somewhat whimsical statement, but I would very much like to.  However, what makes Kennedy’s analysis of the novels so worth reading is her own status as a novelist.  She writes of the characters with an authorial eye; she critiques their well-roundedness or believability with the voice of one who has striven at the same tasks and encountered the same obstacles.  I especially liked her imagined scenario of Austen considering Jane Fairfax as a heroine, and being gradually swayed to focus instead upon Emma Woodhouse.

In the final sections of the book, Kennedy considers views of Jane Austen from her death onwards, and is especially good on Charlotte Bronte’s notorious bad-mouthing of Austen (without getting as vicious and biting as I would.)  I’m once again amazed that Kennedy can write so economically – covering such ground in so few words.

I cannot think of a better person to write a book like this.  Being both a novelist and an Austen addict, she has both the authority and the affection to write a book which is knowledgeable and perceptive, but never cold or detached.  Anybody who could write the following wins my approval:

Kitty is better managed; her complete insignificance is so well relieved by the untimeliness of her coughing fits.

Austen isn’t lacking in admirers and there is no shortage of words written about her.  A slim 1950 hardback will probably get lost amidst the Tomalins, Jenkins, Le Fayes etc. – but I would definitely encourage you to seek it out.  As a reader and a writer, Kennedy has written a beautiful little book which is a stone’s-throw away from an appreciation – but with an authorial acumen which prevents it being the enthused ravings of someone like me, who, without Kennedy’s restraint, would doubtless fill all 107 pages with the single sentence I LOVE YOU, JANE AUSTEN, I FLIPPIN’ LOVE YOU.

A Century of Books has got off to a good start!