24 August 2021

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

The teaser on the front cover of this recently reissued novel from 1950 by Margaret Kennedy reads Cornwall, summer 1947.  A buried seaside hotel....

I've previously read two other novels by Margaret Kennedy but remember almost nothing about The Ladies of Lyndon or Together and Apart.  This is no reflection on the writing but more likely a case of having read them too quickly several years ago.  The Feast seems to be a favourite of others reading Margaret Kennedy's books but for me it was about having a vicarious holiday, albeit of literary sort.  Given that we know from the outset that this group of holidaymakers are unknowingly under a cloud of doom is another matter altogether.

Taking place over the course of one week, the first imminent arrival we encounter is Lady Gifford.   She has sent a letter outlining the requirements of her family to Mrs Siddal, owner of Pendizack Manor.  In comic form, Kennedy has created a divine spectacle of entitlement in Lady Gifford.  Due to a mysterious digestive ailment this lethargic visitor submits her dietary requirements, a list that would frazzle anyone during the austerity of 1947.  There is to be no powdered eggs, corned beef or dried milk but haddock would be fine with plenty of butter.  Lady Gifford and Sir Henry will arrive at the manor and then joined by their four children arriving separately.   

In a case of contrast, Pendizack Manor's housekeeper Dorothy Ellis writes a letter to her friend describing the hotel's leaky roof and run down surroundings with only a single bathroom.  Gossip has it the Siddal's have lost all their money.  As such, opening up their large home to paying guests is simply a means of survival.  In any case, Dorothy enjoys seeing wealthy people brought down a peg....or three.  Ellis (as she is referred to) is the dark to Nancibel's bright and optimistic light.  A longtime friend of the Siddal family, Nancibel is working at the hotel until she figures out which direction she should take after her ATS work during the war.  

The Siddals have three grown sons they rely on to help with the running of the family business but for how long?  Gerry has qualified as a doctor and is interested in applying for positions, possibly far from  England's borders.  Mrs Siddal seems to be the driving force behind the running of the hotel while her husband has more of a 'head in the sand' approach to responsibility.  His level of neglect increasingly frustrates his wife, with good reason.  Among the boxes of unopened mail is a letter stating concern over the instability of the cliff behind his property since a mine washed into the cove.

Mrs Cove and her three children have boarded the same train as the Giffords' offspring.  Relations are fraught from the beginning when Mrs Cove slyly maneuvers her family into seats belonging to the Giffords and refuses to budge.  Blanche, Maud and Beatrix have the residual look of shell shock about them but it has nothing to do with the war.  Their mother is something of a wolf in sheep's clothing with a streak of spitefulness layered with evil.  

Other guests include a foul tempered Canon Wraxton and his skittish daughter Evangeline, Mr and Mrs Paley (a massive favourite of mine), and author Anna Lechene with her chauffer Bruce.

On the surface (and the vintage holiday poster look of the cover) the initial atmosphere of this story is one of typical character clashes with a potential for romance, tennis games and sunburn.  But on either side of that are moments of hilarity, sweet episodes of Swallows and Amazons -esque playfulness, and a slightly disturbing scene in which a minor is plied with cigarettes and alcohol.  The Feast isn't a book that is easily labelled for a particular reading audience but for me, that's part of the attraction. 

A couple of months ago I read The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim as a way of experiencing a bit of armchair travel to Italy and it was sigh-inducing.  The Feast started out with the same mandate but made me feel as though anyone who missed out on a holiday at Pendizack Manor, actually lucked out.  A very enjoyable midsummer read that has made me glad about the languishing copy of The Constant Nymph waiting on a shelf upstairs.  

 The Cornish Coast by Dame Laura Knight (1877 - 1970)


  1. This sounds wonderful, Darlene. I've had very mixed success with Kennedy, but everybody seems to be reading this one and getting a lot from it.

    1. Perhaps it's down to being a holiday setting during these days of limited travel and we're simply desperate! But I really did enjoy the charm of a vintage story combined with the tension of wondering who wouldn't be returning home. Give it a couple of months and you'll probably see this in an Oxfam shop at a price you can live with if you're a bit 'meh' on Kennedy.
      Hope your day is a lovely one, Simon!