I just finished my first of the two Margaret Kennedy for the Margret Kennedy Week that Jane is hosting. I read “The Feast”, published in 1950, has had been in my TBR for a VERY LONG TIME! And now that I have read it, I cannot help but kick myself and think – why the hell did I wait so long to read this novel????!!!! It has completely blown me away!
The story begins with Father Bott putting off his age-old ritual of playing chess when his dear friend Reverend Seddon visited him. Father Bott explains that he has to prepare for an unexpected Funeral for 7 people, who died when the edge of the cliff collapsed over Pendizack Hotel. The narrative then reverses back to the last 7 days preceding this event. Pendzac kHotel is run by the Siddals – rather Mrs. Siddal who is a lady and forced to convert her husband’s property into a hotel to educate her sons because her husband, though perfectly intelligent, with all functional limbs is incapable of earning or maintaining his family’s livelihood. It becomes clear right at the very start, that Mrs. Siddal though proclaiming that the conversion of the house to the hotel is an effort to improve the lives of all her three sons, it is actually to put her youngest and favorite son Duff through to Oxford that is her primary concern. In fact she is so determined and engrossed in making this happen, that she is ready to sacrifice the lives of her other sons including her eldest son’s marriage to make this happen. Gerry is the eldest of Siddon sons and a doctor by profession – responsible, sincere and self-effacing; he bears his mother’s inattention to him with equanimity. He tries to help out in the running of the hotel as and when possible and accepts that his income is critical to make his mother’s ambition a success, regardless of his own wishes and aspirations. The hotel is run with the help of Nancibel and Ms. Ellis. Nancibel is a lovely, generous local girl who worked in ATS during the war and was on the brink of getting married when her fiancée cried it off. Now she lives with her parents at the cottage and works full time at the hotel. Ms. Ellis is an impoverished gentlewoman who feels the loss of her status bitterly; she believes herself superior to performing such menial tasks as changing beds sheets and often shy’s away from all work and spends her time in malicious gossip. The guests occupying the hotel at the time of this event include Canon Wraxton and his daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Paley, Lord and Lady Gifford and the Cove family. They are soon joined by Anna Lechren and her secretary cum chauffer Bruce. Cannon Wraxton is a loud, unhappy quarrelsome man who argues and contests everything and constantly bullies his daughter. Evangeline Wraxton is his young daughter who abides by her quarrelsome father, because of a deathbed wish made to her mother, that she would always take care of Cannon Wraxton; however this has unexpected results as Evangeline slowly succumbs to neurosis caused by her father’s temperament and bullish behavior! Mr and Mrs Paley, an unhappily married couple who no longer find any joy or companionship in each other’s company especially since the tragic death of their daughter. Sir Henry Giffordis an aristocratic upright kind gentleman, who takes interest in his work and understands his obligation to the country as a statesman, though he is no longer happy in his marriage. Lady Gifford is a lazy hypochondriac woman who lives beyond her means and flouts all laws, believing that nothing can touch her because of her place. They have three children, of whom three have been adopted. The Coves family consists of a mother and three daughters who seem to live on the strictest economy as funds for them seem scarce. Finally this motley crew is joined by Anna Lechene, a famous novelist and her secretary cum driver cum aspiring writer Bruce. Over a period of 7 days, this group interact with each other, through incidents and daily lives routines, that propel the story forward with wonderful re-grouping of old loyalties and changing of dynamics – there are two romances, several friendships, self-realization and freeing oneself form his/her “prison soul”! On the 7th day, the poor Cove children who always dreamt of holding a feast, are finally able to organize one, with help of others. There are invitation cards sent out, fancy dresses selected and a whole range of food and wines! Everybody who attends gets into the swing of this grand party and then…the cliff collapses!
This is a social drama, a morality tale, a romance and so much more! Ms. Kennedy draws complex characters that have their whimsical follies and non-sense as well as a realization of self-worth through daily everyday occurrences and no miraculous fictional turn of events. They are all rich, powerful and intriguing characters that draw you to the tale and keep you glued on. It’s the characters more than the events that actually propel the story forward. More than anything else, Ms. Kennedy understood both the most noble and the very base instinct of the human heart and her characters brought them forth with force and unerring honesty! Simple percepts on human behaviors’, like the less you have the more you give and the more you have the more you covet, is brought out beautifully through the story, without once steering to a high moral tome or sounding even remotely pedagogic. The book was written in the back drop post World War II when England was recovering from the aftermath of the War and the left inclining Labor Party was in power; this change in political – social order is beautifully portrayed through the everyday lives and decisions made by the characters. And then there is the language of the novel, such beautiful metaphors – such lovely phrases, Ms. Kennedy sure knew what would touch the reader’s hearts – “Their shoulders hold the sky suspended. They stand and earth’s foundations stay!” or “We are members of one another. An arm has no integrity if it is amputated. It is nothing unless it is part of a body, with a heart to pump blood through it and a brain to guide it.” And my favorite “Do you pay enough? Does anybody pay enough? Has any man repaid a millionth part all that he has received? Where would you be without us? Did you ever read Helen Keller? Blind, Deaf, Dumb…a soul in a prison, an intellect frozen by solitude….unable to reach us! All alone!”
This one of the best books I have ever read and going by this and my previous experience of Ms. Kennedy’s work, she is soon joining my personal high gods of best-loved authors! Viva Ms. Kennedy, you were truly marvelous!!
P.S. I am now about to start The Wild Swan!Yay!