Reviewed by Lyn Baines
Together and Apart is a novel about marriage and divorce and about how events can very quickly run out of control. Betsy Canning is bored with her life, her three children and her marriage. Her husband, Alec, is a successful librettist, a career he fell into after a more conventional career in the Civil Service. Betsy writes to her mother that she can’t respect Alec now, “as much as I did when he was at the Ministry doing an obscure, dull, but useful job, ‘helping to get the world washed and dressed.’” Now, at their summer house in Wales, Betsy and Alec have come to an amicable agreement to get a divorce. Alec doesn’t find it quite so amicable but Betsy has forced the issue by writing to her mother, Mrs Hewitt, telling her everything. Mrs Hewitt’s horror at the thought of divorce brings her rushing back to London from her Swiss holiday to bring Betsy to her senses. Arriving home with incipient flu, Mrs Hewitt is forced to confide in her long time antagonist, Alec’s mother, Emily Canning.
In the meantime, Alec has persuaded Betsy to think again about divorce. They decide to go away for a while alone to talk it over. However, Mrs Canning’s arrival at Pandy Madoc antagonises Betsy, and her efforts to reconcile the couple only drive them further apart. After a bitter argument, Alec agrees that divorce is the only option. Betsy rushes back to London to look after her mother, now dangerously ill. When she returns, Betsy finds that the presence of her shrewd and manipulative mother-in-law has changed the atmosphere of the house.
There was something evil in the air, hanging about like a bad smell. She felt it, though she could not locate it. Half a dozen small things worried her, but these could easily be set right and could have no possible connection with one another. The house was dirty and untidy. The staff had grown slack. Joy had a headache. Kenneth was sulky. And Alec was not himself at all – still suffering, probably, from an excess of lobsters and bismuth. But none of these things, not all of them together, could account for this premonition of disaster.
After a bitter argument, full of misunderstandings, Alec allows himself to become entangled with Joy Benson, the young woman staying with the family as housekeeper and au pair. Their brief physical attraction flares up and is soon over, leaving them with nothing in common. However, Joy is pregnant and Alec feels committed to her. Betsy, meanwhile, turns to her cousin, the wealthy but incredibly dull Max, and, although she doesn’t love him, drifts into an engagement.
The Canning’s friends take sides, increasing the rift between them. Alec’s writing partner, Johnnie Graham, is appalled by what he’s done and breaks up their partnership. Alec has given Betsy money and the house in Wales and finds himself in financial trouble. Joy’s infatuation with Alec annoys and irritates him and she becomes paralysed with feelings of inferiority. The Canning’s children are forced to choose between their parents. Eliza decides to live with her father, Joy and the new baby, and becomes a domestic tyrant. Kenneth, always his mother’s favourite, is confused and traumatised by seeing his father kissing Joy. He gets involved with an older boy at school, Beddoes, a sadistic bully who dominates Kenneth and gets him involved in potentially criminal activities. It’s also implied that their relationship is sexual, increasing Kenneth’s confusion and self-disgust. Both Eliza and Kenneth are neglected by their parents and it takes a potential disaster to shock Alec and Betsy out of their self-absorption and come to terms with the unhappiness they’ve caused.
Together and Apart is a subtle and involving novel. Betsy’s dissatisfaction seems to be caused more by a dislike for Alec’s friends and a vague feeling of shame at the popular musicals he writes than any more definite cause. Alec recognizes that he and Betsy are drifting apart. He’s been having a half-hearted affair with an actress, although Betsy knows about it and seems uninterested. Alec’s adultery isn’t the reason for the divorce, it seems to be an accepted part of the marriage. The interference of Mrs Canning and Joy turns a situation that could have been easily resolved by two people who loved each other into one that has its own momentum, driving Alec and Betsy apart. After the divorce, both Betsy and Alec regret what’s happened but they’ve taken irrevocable steps towards new lives with no room for the past. The first time Alec and Betsy meet after the divorce, they pass each other on escalators in an Underground station. They don’t speak but each can read the other’s thoughts by the look on their faces. The sudden intimacy and the remembrance of their past together make this a poignant moment, even as they’re inevitably moving in opposite directions. One of their friends expresses this in a letter to her husband.
I don’t see how any of them can ever be happy again. You say it is love gone bad. Do you think that is because they are all denying the truth? Love doesn’t go bad, however unhappy it makes you, unless you poison it yourself. It isn’t the injuries and wrongs that they can’t forgive; it’s because they know, Alec and Betsy know, and Joy does too, that in spite of everything, in spite of all they’ve done and said to hurt each other, they can’t bear to be apart.
Margaret Kennedy had a great success with her second novel, The Constant Nymph, which has been filmed several times and has never been out of print. She was one of the so-called Somerville novelists, a group of writers including Dorothy L Sayers, Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, who were at Somerville College, Oxford in the 1920s and 1930s. Kennedy wrote more than fifteen novels but, until recently, only The Constant Nymph was available. Virago reprinted several novels in the 1980s and then Faber and now Vintage, have reprinted her other books. I have several of the reprints on my shelves and I’m looking forward to reading more of Margaret Kennedy’s work.
Margaret Kennedy, Together and Apart (Vintage: London, 2014) 9780099589785, 381pp, paperback
Lyn blogs at I Prefer Reading, has no hope of ever getting through the tbr shelves but refuses to let this worry her.