I first learned about Margaret Kennedy's books from blog reviews. I didn't get very far with the first of her novels that I tried, The Ladies of Lyndon, but reading Jane's review of this book on Fleur in Her World, I had that immediate feeling of "I need to read that too." Neither of our libraries has it, but I was able to get a copy through interlibrary loan. I enjoyed it so much that I found a copy for myself, which arrived today, so I can give the library theirs back (that's the only drawback to libraries: they do want their books back, often all too soon).
We first meet the title character at second hand, through her friend Melissa Hallam. I liked Melissa immediately, and for a while I thought she might be the central character. She is newly-engaged to John Beauclerc, a rather serious young man, a research chemist, very different from her usual escorts. There are hints of an unhappy family situation, but she assures John there are two people she loves very much: her brother Hump, currently studying cattle diseases in Africa, and her college friend Lucy. Melissa gives John a vivid description of Lucy:
"Lucy's nose is aquiline, not retroussé, and her eyes are grey. She has a very delicate skin, too pale, but that's easily remedied. I wouldn't call her pretty. When she is well and happy she is extremely beautiful. When she is out of sorts or depressed she is all nose, and dashes about like an intelligent greyhound after an electric hare. She has a natural tendency to vehemence which is unbecoming to one so tall, but under my influence she occasionally restrains it. She believes me to be very sophisticated - a perfect woman of the world. She admires my taste beyond anything and does her best to imitate me. She is incautious and intrepid. She will go to several wrong places, and arrive at the right one, while I am still making up my mind to cross the road. She is my opposite in character. She is cheerful and confident and expects to be happy. She taught me how to enjoy myself. Until I knew her I had always been convinced that I must be destined for misery. I thought it safest to expect the worst. I suppose it was because everything in my home has always been so stormy and insecure; I was brought up never to expect anything to go right. Lucy forced me to believe that I might be happy. I don't expect I'd have had the courage to marry you, to marry anybody, if it hadn't been for Lucy."John says in reply, "I shall have no difficulty in loving her," and I felt exactly the same. I was half in love with Lucy before I ever met her, just from that wonderful description.
But Melissa is not happy about Lucy just at the moment. Lucy is also engaged, to Patrick Reilly, a practiced charmer with more than a touch of the blarney, an explorer who writes best-selling books about his adventures abroad. Melissa distrusts him, not least because he has been seen around town with his former lover, and people are talking. When she travels down to Lucy's home in Surrey, the day before the wedding, she has decided to say nothing about it. She finds Lucy waiting feverishly for a call from Patrick, which never comes. And the next day, Lucy waits, again in vain, for the groom to arrive. She is left at the church, with no word.
Lucy is naturally devastated, by her private grief and by the public humiliation. Trying to put her life back together, on a visit to Melissa she hears of a job at the Ravonsbridge Arts Institute. On impulse she applies for it, and gets it. It takes her to the town of Ravonsbridge, in the Severn valley (I never quite worked out where that was meant to be). The Institute was founded by Matthew Millwood, a local industrialist who made a fortune with his auto factory. He wanted the people of the town, particularly the working people, to have "the best of everything in art and culture." The Institute offers classes in art, music and theater, with regular performances and exhibits. Millwood died soon after his project opened, and his wife Lady Frances and their children now lead the council that oversees its work. When Lucy arrives, she finds the work a welcome distraction. Equally distracting are the conflicts she soon discovers between faculty members and with the council. Then there are those in the town who feel the Institute is too much under the control of the Millwoods, a drain on the town rather than a benefit.
There is so much to enjoy in this story. Though my heart broke for Lucy, and it was difficult to watch her struggling with despair and loneliness, it was lovely to see her take the first steps back to life. Even if they lead her sometimes to those wrong places that Melissa mentions, they bring her right in the end. The Institute with its artists and actors is a fascinating place, even as factions and intrigues threaten to tear it apart. I wouldn't want to work there, but I loved reading about it. And there are such wonderful characters, particularly Lady Frances Millwood, whom Lucy expects to be a modern Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but instead turns out to be much more like Mrs. Croft and Lady Russell. The book is full of Austen allusions, by the way, which made me love it even more (I learned from Simon's blog that Margaret Kennedy wrote a biography of Austen).. At one point, on a visit to Ravonsbridge, Melissa asks, "Where are we? At Rosings? In the shades of Pemberly?" The part of Fitzwilliam Darcy is played by Lady Frances's son Charles, handsome, rich, and inclined to sulkiness, who is drawn to Lucy in spite of himself. But Melissa has other plans for her friend.
This is such a lovely book, which kept me wondering til the end where Lucy's life would take her. I really hated to see it end, having grown very attached to Lucy and Melissa. Any suggestions on which of Margaret Kennedy's books I should look for next? I do plan to try The Ladies of Lyndon again.