More Margaret Kennedy

Where Stands a Winged Sentry (1942)

The Feast (1949)

The Ladies of Lyndon (1923)

All by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Novelist by Violet Powell (1983)

Following on from this week’s look at The Constant Nymph in popular culture….

I recently did a post on WW2 Home Front literature, and one of the joys of such posts is other people coming in with their recommendations. One that came up, from Christine Poulson, was Margaret Kennedy’s Where Stands a Winged Sentry, an odd title if ever I heard one. It’s an edited diary covering the first years of the war, and was originally only published in the USA – it had its first UK publication very recently via the Handheld Press.

[***ADDED LATER: The line There Stands a Winged Sentry comes from a song called 'My Soul There is a Country' by Hubert Parry. It is based on a poem by Henry Vaughan, a 17th Century metaphysical poet, and has been described as an anthem of farewell and of great hope. By coincidence, it was sung at Queen Elizabeth's funeral a couple of weeks after this post originally appeared]

Kennedy heads out with her children away from the danger zones of the London area, and they end up in Cornwall. She is also looking after the child of an ill friend, and although all names are changed, the mother turns out to be the writer Helen Simpson, who died of cancer in 1940 (a small roundup about her included in this blogpost, and a book she wrote with Clemence Dane is here).

Kennedy describes their life day-to-day, a magical mishmash of dealing with children and hearing of major world events and trying to predict the future. The book was published in 1942, and makes for a fascinating read, giving a truly convincing picture of how she and her family felt and reacted in real time. Very much recommended. Picture from the Imperial War Museum shows mothers and children evacuated from London to Penzance.

Kennedy’s novel The Feast was republished by Faber last year, and had a definite moment: a lot of people were reading it. (And a young woman in my local Waterstone’s was doing a great job of hand-selling it to customers). It first appeared in 1949, and is a strange combination of realism and allegory, with personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins enjoying everyday life in a Cornish hotel. When you read Winged Sentry you find the original of the hotel… (though not necessarily of the Sinners, or their fate).

My interest in Kennedy re-awakened, I then got hold of The Constant Novelist, by Violet Powell, which combines biography and literary assessment in a most satisfactory manner, although I was surprised, at a very basic level, by how badly Powell wrote. She was one of the Pakenham family, all of them educated intellectuals, and was married to the novelist Anthony Powell. On the first page alone, she uses ‘mitigated’ where she clearly means ‘militated’, and brings in the wince-making cliché ‘an author whose name needed no introduction’. However I did still enjoy the book very much and felt it told me most of what I wanted to know about Kennedy. Powell’s descriptions and critiques of the books, which often run to several pages, were very helpful and readable. I had been planning to re-read Constant Nymph for the n+1th time, but felt I didn’t have to after reading Powell’s synopsis.

So I read The Ladies of Lyndon instead – this was her first novel, published in 1923, which got little attention until Constant Nymph had its huge success. I realized that I had always assumed it was a historical novel, that the Ladies of the title might be Regency wives and mistresses – I think I had confused it with her later Troy Chimneys. But it was a contemporary novel, starting in the 1900s and going more or less up to 1923, and I enjoyed it enormously. Rich people behaving badly, closed-up emotions, and a look at some unexpected subjects.

One of the benefits of reading novels from all eras is that you realize that people always complained about the same things – the great-grandparents of those now complaining about young people were doing the same back in the day. In this case there is some horror about the way young people dance. ‘Why are they not talking, why don’t they change partners, they look dazed.’

There is a character, James, to whom we can apply the safe modern label of Special Needs, as it is not clear what is meant to be wrong exactly with him – we just know he has been hidden away by his embarrassed family. He turns out (slight SPOILER) to be tremendously gifted artistically, though not everyone can see this (traditional trope, judge people by whether they can see how good he is). There is also a strongly-hinted-at, but never spelled out, reason why he might be so very talented. His story reminded me very much of recent tosh-find The Crusader’s Tomb by AJ Cronin – very interesting to compare the lives of the two artists, and that blogpost has a roundup of some artists in literature. (James and Stephen have remarkably parallel lives - perhasp they knew each other!)

When he is just seen as a slight nuisance, I was interested in this turn of phrase, the ‘warehousing’ (which in context means taking him into her own house, nothing worse):

She had offered to warehouse James for a time until the young couple, comfortably settled at Lyndon, could make up their minds what to do with him. Agatha had a secret fear that they might have to invite him to live with them.

I’m always on a very low-key FurnitureWatch, (see for example this post and this one, and here) and I loved this: ‘her rooms were always so very full of chesterfields’ – and indeed they turn up throughout the book.

There is a character called Griselda Pyewacket, though sadly not much is made of this splendid name – I actually had to check that no such character turns up in the Harry Potter books, it sounded so very JK Rowling.

There are some wonderful setpieces: a wedding; a teaparty in the garden for which I chose the top picture (tea in the garden File:Legouteraujardin.jpg - Wikimedia Commons); the lunch to launch James’s new murals; the literary party. Best of all was the young man bullied into giving a talk on Dante (about whom he knows nothing) and who uses the opportunity to further his romance - hilarious from start to finish. (Kennedy appears to forget that romance-ee and key character Lois has the last name Martin, and she introduces one Stella Martin, apparently no relation, much later in the book at the literary party.)

It is full of witty asides – “‘Well, I don’t want to criticize,’ said Marian, who liked nothing better” – and is an entertainment from start to finish.

It covers some of the same ground as Vita Sackville-West’s The Edwardians, but I liked it much better: both books take people’s lives and decisions very seriously, but Kennedy is much more questioning of the world, and much much funnier.

Mind you The Edwardians has this favourite piece of cynicism in it: A young woman in love with a penniless artist is told by a family friend to marry the Lord who is also on the scene and, with a hideous wink, ‘we’ll see what can be done about the painter afterwards.’ An attitude that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in The Ladies of Lyndon.


  1. Interesting how Powell would write the way she did, and still offer really informative background on Kennedy, Moira. At any rate, I love it when people who lived through something like WWII write about those experiences, so that you really get a sense of the times. The more you write about Kennedy, the more interesting she seems. 'Deep dives' into an author's life and work can bring up some fascinating stuff!

    1. It's fun to do now and again, Margot, I enjoy it when I suddenly get interested in an author. And of course there is nothing like contemporary reporting to find out what people really thought and felt, without the benefit of hindsight.

  2. I think there may be a witch's cat called Pyewacket somewhere in fiction - there is a cat called that in one of Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings books.

    1. Oh thank you, I just looked it up after reading your comment and there is obviously a long tradition as a cat's name, with links to witchcraft....(probably not featured in Jennings)

  3. Georgette Heyer used Stella Martin as a pseudonym for a very early historical novel, The Transformation of Philip Jettan and I think Pyewacket was the name of the cat in the film, Bell, Book & Candle.

    1. Thank you - two golden bits of info! I had not idea Georgette Heyer ever used another name.


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