Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

published 1951

[Joan is to be bridesmaid at her cousin Lucy’s wedding. She and her mother are not happy]

The sight of the bridesmaid’s dress, laid out on the bed, did nothing to sweeten their tempers. It was primrose-coloured and chosen to suit Melissa. They had protested, but Lucy had been adamant, assuring her mother that no colour really suited Joan and that the shell-pink, for which Mrs. Rawlings clamoured, would have been worse.

“I’ll never wear it again, never!” mourned Joan. “A hideous rag I wouldn’t be seen dead in…”

[her mother replies] “I always have said, and I always will say, that Lucy needs her bottom smacking. She’s so dreadfully conceited. Of course, she’s been spoilt. Nothing’s ever been good enough for her. Such nonsense, sending her to this college, when she could have got a job and been off her mother’s hands years ago. And now …” Mrs. Rawlings was obliged to pause, for Lucy’s marriage was hardly a retributive climax.

“Now,” she said darkly, “it remains to be seen. Have you sewed in dress preservers?”


“Well, you ought to do. You know how you perspire.”

“I don’t care. I’ll never wear it again. I’ve said.” 

“Sit down and sew them in now, do! There won’t be time after lunch.”

observations: I recently got a rather wonderful Tweet from @skiorouphile. It read

@ClothesinBooks: Idea? In Margaret Kennedy's Lucy Carmichael there's a bit on "dress preservers", "sewed in" as "You know how you perspire."
Then MJIBrower, tweeting as @VintageReader, told us:
They still make dress preservers: … :-)

Well!! Obviously I had to get hold of Lucy Carmichael immediately. My Margaret Kennedy reading up till now was confined to the luscious Constant Nymph, a terrific melodrama with a rather uncomfortable plot involving an over-young woman and an older relation-by-marriage. Kennedy tilts the authorial scales so you can convince yourself that this – including breaking up a marriage – is all perfectly fine (the abandoned wife is treated most ruthlessly), although also tragically sad. It has been beloved by teenage girls and many others since it was first published in 1924, when it was a massive and rather risque bestseller.

So Lucy came 27 years later. It has been republished by Faber, and is a splendid read in the Persephone/Virago reprint mode – there are bits to make you wince and pass swiftly over, but I enjoyed it hugely.

There has been quite a wedding theme on the blog recently (Guardian books piece, and click on the labels below to see more) so this fits in a manner of speaking: poor Lucy is about to be jilted, at the altar, by a caddish fiance who doesn’t turn up because he has run off with someone else. She goes to work at an arts and educational institute in the West Country: endowed by a local boy made good, and still connected with his family, it offers culture to students and supposedly to the local townspeople. The central section of the book largely deals with the internal politics of Ravonsbridge, which is simultaneously boring, convincing, and strangely gripping. There are lots of heavy-handed jokes about politics and the arts, and some quite funny ones too. The millionaire’s widow was an Earl’s daughter:

Lady Frances was, it seems, rather a problem daughter; she took up women’s suffrage and insisted on going to prison, which Mrs. Mildmay says was probably a good deal more luxurious than anything she was used to at Ravonsclere Castle.
There is a long description of a local election, again not as boring as it sounds, and a description of canvassing: something that doesn’t come up in books much, but hasn’t changed over the years. And bearing out my long-held theory that canvassing is exactly the same whichever party does it, no matter how far apart their beliefs.

Although slight and unimportant in the history of literature, this book has such good clothes in it that there will be more entries.

The top picture shows bridesmaids from a New South Wales wedding in 1931, courtesy of the lovely Sam Hood collection at Flickr. (Doesn't the chief bridesmaid look like a young Margaret Thatcher?)

The second one shows the very preservers discovered for us by Vintage Reader.

And thanks again to her, and above all to skiourophile for the excellent tipoff. 


  1. Gender bias to the fore......Douglas Kennedy or Adam, but not Margaret!

    1. I looked for Adam Kennedy on your blog, but he doesn't seem to appear. Douglas K I do know. Perhaps you should try Margaret after all....

    2. Adam Kennedy is someone I only discovered this month. I was doing a bit of web browsing and as is usual for me, I look for one thing and get my head turned by something else. I got a second hand copy of his 1970 novel - The Domino Principle after reading about it and liking the premise of it, being cheap and available was also a factor. I'll be featuring the book or a photo of it at least in the next day or two. He was also an actor, screenwriter and painter as well as a novelist.

      Douglas Kennedy, I haven't read for a few years now. He seemed more edgy in his early books, but seems to be a "literary" author now - nothing wriong with that, but I wouldn't be looking for him in the crime section of Waterstones. I did like The Dead Heart many years ago.

    3. Douglas Kennedy I've read a couple by - I'd say he was very much on the cusp of our interests, wouldn't you? Adam sounds interesting, I'll look forward to hearing more/.

  2. Thank you for the mention - the clothes are wonderful. I also loved that bit about Lady Frances' stay in prison being more comfortable than home.

    1. Thanks again for the reco, I was delighted to read this book.

  3. Moira - As I was reading this, I kept thinking about bridesmaids' gowns, and how often they really are hideous. Not sure why that is. I know that when I got married, I had quite the time choosing gowns that wouldn't be awful. I know that's not the main theme of the novel, but still...

    1. Yes, I thought it was a great touch - I know in my generation there was a great thing about the hideousness and uselessness of bridesmaids' dresses, so I was really intrigued to find a mention of it in the 1950s - nice to know that the idea existed then. I wonder how far back it goes...

  4. Lovely picture at the top. I look forward to more about this book. Is it a very long book? It seems to cover a lot of ground. (And if I missed that in the post, I apologize.)

    1. Not short, not too long, and very readable. There'll be more entries so more chances to make up your mind!


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