When it came time for Jane's Margaret Kennedy Reading Week, I was spoiled for choice, since I had stockpiled some of her books in anticipation. While I'm glad to learn that Virago is reprinting a selection of her novels, it is also fun to find older copies still available (and reasonably priced). I chose this one because I remembered it had something to do with a film production in a small town. As I discovered, that's true, but it's rather like saying War and Peace has something to do with a battle.
The film in production is a Victorian melodrama, about the life and loves of Dorothea Harding.
[In] her day [she] had been an immensely popular novelist. She wrote very moral romances with historical or classical settings, but her vogue was long since over and all her books were out of print. Her literary reputation, such as it was, now rested upon some poetry, discovered and published after her death, which had at one time created a considerable stir and which still commanded a few adherents.I immediately pictured Charlotte M. Yonge, but with a whiff of scandal.
Dorothea Harding lived all her life near the coastal town of Beremouth. There a production team from the Blech Bernstein British film company has gathered. Adelaide Lassiter, who wrote a successful play called The Wild Swan, wants to soak up local atmosphere as she adapts her play for the film. The critic Alec Mundy has been brought in to ensure the accuracy of Miss Lassiter's screenplay. He is considered an authority on Dorothea Harding, since he edited and published her poetry. His work demolished her image as "this spinster lady, so very prim and proper, living in the dear Vicar's pocket and writing prissy books for kids." Instead, he argued, the poetry proves she was a woman of deep passion. Based on references to "G." in the poems, he identified her brother-in-law Grant Forrester as her lover. The team also includes Roy Collins, a rising young man at B.B.B., brash and cynical, who will eventually turn Miss Lassiter's screenplay into a workable script. Meanwhile, he is there to help the work along.
One of his tasks is to arrange a visit to Dorothea's home at Bramstock, where a later generation of the family still lives. Along the way, Roy sees swans flying overhead, and in the beat of their wings he hears the word "Never," just as Dorothea described them in one of her poems.
The fact that she must have been here took him so much by surprise that he paused and stood still. Hitherto he had always seen her as Kitty Fletcher [the actress who will play her], capering in a crinoline. But now he perceived her as a real person, and wondered, for the first time, what kind of person that was.Roy's curiosity about the real Dorothy becomes almost an obsession. He feels for her "a kind of wondering sympathy," and later he channels a "helpless, hopeless despair." In the second section of the book, we the readers are given many of the answers Roy is seeking, as the story moves back in time. We meet Dorothea at age twenty, just as her older sister Mary is preparing to marry Grant Forrester. It is immediately clear how wrong both Adelaide Lassiter and Alec Mundy are about her. I suspected from the start that Miss Lassiter was completely off base, once I read that "She always referred to Dorothea as Doda, insisting, upon no evidence at all, that this had been her family nickname." (It was Thea.)
But if the 20th-century characters misjudge Thea, so too do those around her in the 1850s and 1860s. Here I think is a common thread in Margaret Kennedy's stories, at least those I have read: how we can misunderstand what is happening to us at the time, blinded by our own prejudices and interests. But the past can equally be misrepresented and misinterpreted, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately. Memories are fallible, documents are lost. The poems that Alec Mundy discovered profoundly changed how people saw Dorothea Harding, but his interpretation created a false image of her. At the same time, there is a packet of Thea's letters and manuscripts floating around, which could upend everything and wreck the film project (I do love books that turn on archival documents). The British title of the book, The Heroes of Clone, alludes to the manuscripts, lost for a century.
This aspect of the story reminded me of A.S. Byatt's Possession, another story of Victorian poets revealed. But it is only one aspect of Kennedy's complex story. There is Dorothea herself, who is told far too many times that women cannot write poetry. She does not accept that verdict, yet she gives up poetry for her own reasons (and takes up prose for someone else's). Through Roy and his co-workers at B.B.B., Kennedy explores the work of a film studio, which she also knew from her own experience as a screenwriter. Based on this book, I'd say she didn't have a high opinion of the films of late 1950s, when this book was published. Yet Roy has written a short feature, an avant-garde work that shows real promise. This delights his aunt May Turner, a retired school teacher living near Beremouth (a lovely character). It confounds Cecilia Harding, the great-great-grandniece of Dorothea Harding. Her family needs the £500 they have been offered for the use of their house in the film, but they resent and dislike the project and the team. Cecilia, planning to go up to Oxford on the proceeds, initially snubs Roy, in part because he looks like "the plumber's mate" and also because he openly admits his lack of education. She believes that only "people with a cultivated background" are able to appreciate literature or its creators. Yet they unexpectedly find some common ground in Roy's quest.
I enjoyed this book very much, both Dorothea's story and the 20th century adaptations of it. Dorothea and Roy are in their different ways very sympathetic characters, struggling to make their voices heard, to realize their visions. Both in their own way are held back by a system that discounts their talents, though Roy will have opportunities Dorothy never did, as a man in the 20th century. I am glad that Jane's reading week led me to this. Now I'm off to read her review, and to consider which of Margaret Kennedy's books I will be reading next.