After seeing this described as "a hilarious evocation of an Edwardian houseparty invaded by an amorous prima donna," I put in an inter-library loan request for it, and a copy arrived just before Christmas. I read it over the weekend, and while I enjoyed it very much, I found it anything but hilarious. That isn't to say there aren't lighter moments - there are, quite a few - but this is a much more serious story than I was expecting.
It is divided into three parts, two short sections framing the central part of the story. In the first, "Sunday Morning," we are introduced to Ellen Napier at her home, Cary's End, in a small village. Though she has been a widow for seven years, she is still sometimes overwhelmed at the loss of her husband Dick. Staying with her for the week-end is her daughter Hope, who settles down with her library book while her mother goes out to garden. The book Hope is reading is a memoir by the singer Elissa Koebel. "It was only just published, and she had been longing to get hold of it for two reasons: because it was said to be very scandalous and because it revived an episode in her own past." She finds one chapter, "A Summer, in Ireland," which she realizes, "must be about us!" Kennedy includes this chapter in its entirety, and I think she had great fun writing it. It shows Elissa Koebel to be shallow and self-absorbed, rather amoral, overtly sexual, self-dramatizing to the point of tedium, and a writer of very little talent.
Thirty years ago, Hope with her siblings and her parents spent a summer in Ireland, living in a small castle in the middle of a lough with aunts, uncles and cousins. Elissa Koebel, staying in a cottage on the shore, invited herself to the island one day and became part of the group, fascinating more than just Hope with her unconventional behavior and her singing. Hope never forgot that summer, but what she did not know until now was that during those days Koebel had an affair with her father, who left the castle for her cottage. As Hope is reading this, her uncle Kerran is on his way over to Cary's End from his near-by home, to find out how Ellen is bearing up under the scandal of the book. Their older sister Louise and sister-in-law Maude, who were on the island that summer, want to have the book suppressed. Kerran is relieved to find that Ellen knows nothing of the book, but he is taken aback to find his niece brandishing it at him, demanding to know why no one ever told her any of this. In trying to calm Hope down, Kerran lets it slip that he has a cache of letters written during that summer by the various family members to their own mother, discussing the situation (and each other) with sometimes brutal frankness. He offers to let Hope read the letters, to give her a better understanding of what happened.
The second and longest section moves back in time to that summer (a reference to "the King's" appendicitis suggests it is set in 1903). I won't say too much about what actually happens at the castle and the cottage, to avoid spoilers. This section is told mostly in the third-person, shifting in point of view between the family members. In addition, the group includes Muffy, the family's long-time nurse, and the only outsider other than Elissa: a guest actually invited (unlike Elissa), Guy Fletcher, an Oxford colleague of Louise's husband Gordon. This section also includes the letters written to the absent Mrs. Annesley, which give sometimes very different perspectives on the events that occur, and also shed some interesting lights on the writers themselves. At the same time, the reader can compare their version of events, and the narrator's, with Elissa's account from the first chapter. Myself, I distrusted Elissa's from the start, and I was interested to see the differences, the contradictions, in the others'.
I think Margaret Kennedy is saying something here about the limited understanding we may have of events even as they happen to us, let alone as we look back on them over the years. Neither the letters written at the time, nor the later memories of those present, are complete or free from error. Each member of the family has preconceptions, prejudices, blind spots. All of Ellen's siblings have settled opinions about her marriage and her husband, for example, but they see only from the outside and therefore they're all mistaken, to one degree or another. Kennedy's story is also an exploration of marriage, the bonds that draw couples together, which ones hold and which don't. Here she contrasts Ellen's marriage with that of Louise and Gordon, as well as Maude and their brother Barney - while the reader can't help remembering that it's Ellen's husband who has the affair with Elissa.
In the midst of all of this, Ellen is also struggling with a spiritual crisis - an aspect of the story that took me completely by surprise. It isn't a major plot element, but its resolution does have an important and lasting impact on Ellen. For one thing, it moves her beyond her rather confused understanding of God.
For she was a religious woman, a communicant, and she believed in four Gods, or rather four Persons who bore the same name. She believed in the God of the Old Testament . . . He had nothing to do with the Presence lurking in the background of the Gospel story, an impersonal and unsatisfying Divinity . . . Nor could she identify either of Them with Jesus, the Man of Sorrows . . . And fourthly there was the Holy Ghost, a mere name . . . [She] could not escape from the feeling that her prayers were being heard by a committee . . .
I found Ellen a very sympathetic character, in surprising ways, and as I said at the beginning, I did enjoy this book. My only quibble is the tendency of many of the characters to launch into interior monologues of some length, which I found a bit unrealistic. They tend to slow the story down, and even worse, sometimes they start to sound a bit like Elissa's memoir!