I read The Ladies of Lyndon as part of Margaret Kennedy Week, hosted by Fleur in Her World. Kennedy is a new-to-me author, and I enjoyed her first novel. The Ladies of Lyndon tells the story of one generation of the Clewer family and their home Lyndon in Edwardian England.
The reader is introduced to the Clewers through Agatha, who is about to marry John, the heir of Lyndon. He is twelve years her senior, and it is clear right from the beginning that the marriage is not built on a very solid foundation. John is reserved and looking for a woman who is level-headed and composed, while Agatha is enjoying the “passion of early love” to get over her cousin Gerard, with whom she had a brief affair two years ago. While Agatha knows all the right things to say and seems to act like the perfect Edwardian hostess, she is also a supporter of John’s odd brother James.
James is eccentric and unconventional. While the reader initially expects him to be ugly and dull, it turns out that he merely does whatever he pleases and ignores society and its rules. He marries Dolly, the housemaid, despite his family’s outrage. James is certainly the happiest among the characters of the book.
The reader also gets introduced to Clewer daughters Lois and Cynthia and their marriages—each with varying success. Yet the focus of the novel remains on Agatha, who is increasingly unhappy in her marriage. It doesn’t help that she reunites with her cousin Gerard and is constantly reminded of what might have been. She finally runs away with him, but her family keeps the scandal quiet. This offers her a second chance when she returns to England several months later. At the end of the novel, it is unclear whether Agatha will remain with Gerard or return to Lyndon. I really had no idea what Agatha’s decision about her future might be, which worked for the novel, but left me slightly frustrated. The ending was a little too open for my taste.
Kennedy does a wonderful job describing the family dynamics. The four children in the family don’t much like each other and so they are constantly trying to balance “sticking together” with outdoing each other. I enjoyed Kennedy’s sense of humor and her subtle way of gently ridiculing one or the other family member and the way they insist on following the rules while breaking them at the same time. As there wasn’t much action in this book, Kennedy’s astute observations are what drives the book, and I thought it worked well.
The next day was bitterly cold and [Hubert] was very anxious that they should set forth upon a Winter Morning’s Walk of their own, but [Lois] would not be persuaded. In the afternoon, therefore, feeling every inch a country gentleman, he set off by himself. He strode through several farmyards and looked severely at some pigs. He thrashed with his stick at such poor weeds as the season had spared. His hope was that if he crossed a sufficient number of fields, and climbed a few score stiles, he might, permeated by the beauties of the wintry landscape, achieve that mood of philosophic reverie which gives distinction to the poets of Cowper’s age. If fields and hedges failed to produce the right effect he might try a country churchyard.
Overall I wish Kennedy had focused either on Agatha or on James, rather than splitting her attention between them. Both are very interesting characters, yet I felt like I didn’t really get to fully know either one of them. According to the foreword, Kennedy wanted to make James the center of the novel but didn’t quite have enough courage, since this was her first novel and James was such an unconventional character. I can’t blame her for that, and so I am looking forward to reading one of her later novels to see how Kennedy progressed as a writer.