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.