18 October 2014

Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy

There is so much more to this book than initially meets the eye.  Knowing absolutely nothing about Margaret Kennedy's writing it was bought on the strength of some key words within the synopsis...middle-class, between the wars, Hampstead, domestic life, disastrous consequences...and all set in 1936.  Delightfully, the dedication is to a writer I do know something about, Rose Macaulay.

The story begins with Betsy Canning's lengthy letter to her mother relating the facts of her withering marriage to a man who has changed and no longer suits her.  There is going to be a divorce.  Mrs Hewitt's reply by telegram is short and to the point...'do nothing irrevocable till I see you...'.

Surrounded by old-fashioned values this story must have been shocking when it was first published; just the sort of book hidden behind the sofa cushions.  Alec is just the right age for a mid-life crisis and has an affair with the children's governess, Joy.  At the same time, Betsy feels as though she has never known real happiness and at thirty-seven feels nearly ready for the scrap heap.  If there is any excitement to come from life she had better do something daring and soon.  While feeling it's perfectly all right to contemplate allowing the wealthy Lord St. Mullins to take her away from it all, Betsy is horrified to learn that Alec and Joy have run off together.  Eventually, Joy discovers that she is pregnant.

Left to cope in the wake of their parents' separation, the three children, Kenneth, Eliza, and Daphne, struggle and I felt quite sorry for them.  In one of my favourite scenes, Eliza takes the bull by the horns and decides to defy her mother and find her father's new home.  As she navigates her way through London to end up near Gloucester Road station in the 'middle-class slum' that is Gladstone Square, Eliza realizes that her father's life is forever changed.  And yet, despite the implied penury...there is still, of course, a maid to answer the door.  While waiting for her father, Eliza spies a wicker basket on the floor...

'Oh, Father!  How...I never...What a darling little baby!'
He smiles.
'Didn't you know that you had a little brother?'
'A brother?'
The word was like an electric shock.  Could there be any brother except Ken?'
'Was he...how old is he?'
'Just a fortnight.'
'Was he...born here?'
'No.  In a nursing home.  We brought him here yesterday.'
'Then...he's...Joy's little baby?'

And your heart breaks for this young girl who has to figure everything out for herself and realizes that her father has a new family.  Rather than break her spirits, Eliza becomes quite the house manager and decides that her father and Joy need her help in the daily running of things which in turn gives her a purpose.

In another scene involving Eliza, Margaret Kennedy's humour and powers of observation shine through when Max shows up unexpectedly and there is a mishap with make-up...

'Eliza's powder advertised the fact that the poor girl had no mother to guide her.  It was of the wrong colour, far too light a shade for her warm brown skin.  She liberally dusted her own face and that of her stepmother, and they both went nervously downstairs looking as if they had just emerged from a flour mill.'

In the introduction by Kennedy's daughter, Julia Birley, she writes that the idea for Together and Apart was conceived while she watched a man and woman pass each other on opposite escalators in London's Underground.  A last minute look of recognition and then they're absorbed by the crowds.  This scene is recreated in the book between Betsy and Alec after a long absence and when feelings of regret and loss regarding their divorce have crept in.

This story delivers far more than the light read I initially bargained for and is almost epic in scope; it's a book buyer's dream.  Due to an unexpected redecorating project I missed out on Margaret Kennedy Week but I am so glad to have discovered an excellent author and look forward to following up on posts from that endeavour.

The Arrival of the Jarrow Marchers in London, Viewed from an Interior by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale 


  1. Isn't she wonderful? I vote that we have Margaret Kennedy reading YEAR because my first time reading her was so incredible and now I want to read this one, too.

    1. Oh, she really is, Audrey, so we must be sure there's some space on our shelves for more! I can pretty much guarantee that you will enjoy this book so don't hesitate...and those Vintage editions are lovely.

  2. I am so pleased that you like this. I have a copy, but I'm in the idle of The Shuttle (which is lovely) and The Paying Guests has finally arrived at the library with my name attached. We need more reading hours in the day!

    1. Well you have some excellent reading ahead of you then, Fleur! I can't wait to read your review of The Paying Guests and yes, The Shuttle is lovely. Thanks again for bringing attention to Margaret Kennedy - she's a new favourite so clearly there's a need for another bookcase!

  3. What a lovely review, Darlene! I agree, it feels very epic - somehow much longer and encompassing than I'd imagined when I picked it up.

    1. We can't spill any beans here...just in case someone new to MK should happen by...but I was not expecting the incident with the car at all! It was like opening a window on the plot involving everyone's relationship and completely worked, I thought.
      Hope all is well with you!

  4. I have never read Margaret Kennedy and am so glad to find out about this book. I was spellbound by your synopsis. She sounds like a writer I would enjoy. I can't wait to get my hands on one of her books. Thanks so much for the intriguing review!

    1. You are in good company with Audrey and me then! Vintage has reissued some of Kennedy's work so finding a book or two will be no problem and this title is a good place to start. Take a look at Audrey's post about The Ladies of Lyndon; she says it's 'Downton Abbey-esque'! That was all I needed to know...

  5. Ooh I like the sound of this. Did she write The Constant Nymph?

  6. She did! Someone must have been having a clear out and both The Constant Nymph and Together and Apart were on the shelf...black Viragoes! I'm looking forward to reading that one as it seems to be the book she's most well known for.