Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy (1951)

Margaret Kennedy is probably best-known for her 1924 novel The Constant Nymph. It’s a pretty strange novel, about a bohemian English family living in the Austrian Tyrol. The ‘constant nymph’ is Tessa, who is 14 at the beginning of the novel, and only 15 when she runs away with an adult family friend. It is full of precocious sexuality, and was a huge best-seller when it was published. (See Geranium Cat’s review here.) However, I didn’t really enjoy the novel, finding it long winded and the depiction of Tessa strange and rather disturbing.

The novel Lucy Carmichael sounds very different, and this review has persuaded me to give Kennedy another go! It is in print with Faber.

Review by Helen C:

On second reading, this book turned out to be enjoyable and worthwhile and I followed Lucy’s fortunes with interest, and particularly liked the author’s many humorous turns of phrase.

The two friends, Lucy and Melissa, are, as Melissa tells her fiance, “opposite in character”.  When they met as freshers at Oxford, Melissa

“thought she was the only female in sight who didn’t remind me of an earwig…she is cheerful and confident …and taught me to enjoy myself … 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 … 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”.

The book has several themes:  love, marriage and friendship to start with, as Melissa and Lucy are both engaged, but Lucy is jilted at the altar (it turns out that her fiancé has been unable to resist a previous lover) and it is partly her friendship with Melissa, and their correspondence, that help sustain her through the next difficult year;  Lucy describes her new job and Melissa keeps Lucy up-to-date with the exploits of her beloved brother Humphrey, an intrepid biologist, searching for a cattle-destroying fly in Africa.

The independence of women is valued:  Lucy deals with her heartbreak without self-pity by taking a job as a drama teacher at the rural Ravonsbridge Arts Institute, founded and endowed by a local working man-turned -millionaire, who married the aristocratic Lady Frances, who is herself devoted to the Institute. Lucy throws herself into the work, and is helped too by the friendships she makes with a variety of lecturers and townspeople, including eccentrics like the brilliant émigré artist Angera and the histrionic ‘mad Ianthe’.

When Melissa’s brother ‘Hump’ hears about Lucy’s determined efforts to sort out the internal politicking she becomes embroiled in at the Institute, his reaction – teasingly perhaps? – is “What I say is, women ought to be clinging, dishonest little things” to which his sister retorts: “I suppose you think the girls (by which you seem to mean the whole female sex) had better stand by with balm and bandages while their men come smackers?”

When Lucy, who is approved of by Lady Frances, meets her handsome, eligible son ‘Terrific Charles’, you guess that love may be in the air again, and the suspense of whether Charles will demean himself sufficiently to propose (against his better judgement) and whether Lucy will be persuaded to accept (against her better judgement) continues almost until the end.

Social class comes up too:  Melissa’s mother considers Lucy an unsuitable friend for her daughter and is “very supercilious about her, simply because her father … was only a chartered accountant, and her mother is a woman doctor in Surrey” (a background which would hardly be a disgrace nowadays).  The author pokes gentle fun at Lady Frances’ aristocratic background, where daughters have been brought up “to believe that it is not only wrong, but very vulgar, to waste time in pleasure or spend any money on themselves.  They were Earl’s daughters;  God had given them rank and wealth in order that they might do good, and they must never forget it.”  But there is an acknowledgement that times are changing when Lady Frances does not realise that her own daughters “suffered from social uneasiness, whence most vulgarity springs.  She herself never did.  All her principles were founded upon an unshaken belief that earls are superior to commoners.  This belief her children could not share, though they wished to do so.  The spirit of the age had got at them and they could not be perfectly certain that they were better than anybody else.”

Lucy’s own character and development are the mainspring of the story;  in spite of constant heartache, which she conceals, she manages to revive the enthusiasm of her students, to learn from her colleagues, in their honesty or duplicity or confidence or timidity, and she values – as she tries to explain to ‘Terrific Charles’ (who has no interest in the Institute) – the aspirations of his father, the founder, in “trying to see how much can be done by quite ordinary people in a small place”.  She becomes aware of the Institute’s rivalries, manipulations and hidden agendas (many a modern institution of higher education would recognise itself – particularly in the amusing descriptions of the supposedly democratic council meetings, where the Director and Lady Frances make all decisions.)  Eventually, she realises, after the resignation (subtly forced?) of some eminent lecturers, that the charming Director is behind it all, intent on “getting the Institute into his pocket.  Of that she was perfectly sure, though she could not guess his motive”.  She makes sterling efforts to remedy matters by approaching staff and Lady Frances with her suspicions, but nasty rumours arise in college and town, some even blaming Lucy for being interfering or over-ambitious, culminating in a rowdy and violent public demonstration.  Lady Frances, and other longstanding Institute supporters, are underhandedly voted off the Council, and Lucy resigns, realising she cannot continue to work in that environment.

She takes a job re-activating a community centre in rural Lincolnshire, near Melissa’s marital home, and there regains some ‘joie de vivre’, refusing Charles’ proposal again, and we are reassured that she is ‘her own woman’ at last.  The story ends when ‘Hump’ returns from Africa and he and Lucy – who both know all about each other through Melissa – meet by chance for the first time.  Has Lucy, who has proved that she can manage her life without matrimony, finally met her match?  We are left to guess, but with a positive feeling!

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7 thoughts on “Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy (1951)

  1. I like the sound of this much more than The Constant Nymph – seems to have a bit more depth and exploration of women’s issues!

  2. It looks as though I’m going to be rather a lone voice in support of The Constant Nymph – though I’d certainly agree that it’s disturbing and I guess it’s really not the place to start with Kennedy. I liked The Ladies of Lyndon (1923), which is similarly concerned with the tensions between bohemianism and respectability, but the later date of Lucy Carmichael suggests that it might be a bit livelier. Shall definitely be looking for a copy.

  3. I love The Constant Nymph too: I keep finding new, intriguing (and, indeed disturbing) things in it. I agree with Helen about the humorous turns of phrase… I also liked ‘The Heroes of Clone’ (about someone trying to make a big film about the life of an obscure Victorian ‘poetess’) – quite absorbing; and Troy Chimneys, about a Regency politician. I agree The Ladies of Lyndon is the place to start with Kennedy though.

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