The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

Reviewed by Harriet

Margaret Kennedy has appeared a few times before on Shiny: two of her novels in 2014 [here] and [here] and more recently my own review of her non-fiction war memoir Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry (1941). It was interesting for me to read The Feast (set in 1947, published in 1950), newly republished, as it is set in Cornwall, where Kennedy lived during the war. Though the two books could not be more dissimilar, on the surface at least, it’s possible to see some of the concerns that troubled Kennedy during the early part of the war reappearing in a different form in the novel.

The Feast starts by telling you what’s going to happen at the end. In the Prologue, a couple of middle-aged clergymen – ‘both in the mid-fifties, Anglo-Catholic, celibate, and disconcertingly sincere’ – discuss a funeral that Reverend Bott is trying to write a sermon for. 

Not an ordinary funeral’, he complained. ‘Not a funeral at all, really. We can’t bury the deceased. They’re buried already, under a cliff’.

His friend Reverend Seddon has heard of the disaster. A huge mass of cliff side has fallen into a small cove, obliterating the hotel that stood to its east.  Everyone who was in the hotel died, but a number of other guests survived, and told their stories to Bott. The rest of the novel covers the seven days that led up to this event, and introduces the people involved, both the dead and the living. By the end, it’s clear not only who perished but also, if it’s not too much to say this, the reasons why they had to do so.

Pendizack Manor Hotel was once a private house, but it’s become a guest house, run by a couple, Mr and Mrs Siddal. They’ve opened it because they’ve gone broke, and are just about keeping going with the help of their three sons. Although Mr Siddal is nominally one of the proprietors, he does absolutely nothing to help his hardworking wife. As Mr Paley, one of the guests, writes in his diary:

[N]ow that he has lost all his money he must live on his wife’s labour – accept bread at her hands. He has no position here. He receives no respect. He lives, so they tell me, in a little room behind the kitchen, a room which, in the old days, was used by the boot boy….How can Siddal endure such a life?

The guests are soon introduced. Genial Sir Henry Gifford has arrived with his supposedly ill wife, who lies in bed eating rich foods all day long, and their four children, three of whom are adopted. Another family, the Coles, consists of a mother and her three daughters: Mrs Cole soon reveals herself to be profoundly uncaring – she sends the girls to the sweet shop with instructions to use their ration allowances to buy delicious marshmallows, which she then sells to Lady Gifford without letting her children taste them. She’s a deeply unpleasant woman, and shows herself at her worst when the girls are swept off a rock into the sea and nearly drowned – she’s spotted standing on the cliff path watching, quite unmoved. Canon Wraxton, who turns out to be a defrocked clergyman, is in a state of almost perpetual rage, which he generally takes out on his sad, long-suffering daughter Evangeline. Then there’s a writer, Anna Lechene, accompanied by her handsome chauffeur Bruce, one of a long line of toy-boys; and Mr and Mrs Paley, a supremely unhappy couple who have never recovered from the death of a beloved daughter:

The Paleys always gave off this suggestion of a violence momentarily suspended. They would eat their breakfast every morning in a sombre, concentrated silence, as though bracing themselves for some enormous effort to be sustained during the day.

The servants also have a part to play: Miss Ellis, the housekeeper, is a bitter, resentful woman given to prying into other peoples’ business and gossiping about it, and the maid, delightful, kind-hearted  Nancibel, who lives with her mother in the village.

Every one of these people will undergo some kind of change, for the better or the worse, during the course of the week. Silent Mrs Paley comes out of her shell and befriends downtrodden Evangeline, who blossoms and finds love. Miss Ellis gives in her notice but refuses to leave. Nancibel falls for Bruce, who realises what a corrupt life he’s been living and walks out on Anna. As for the children, their stories are really central to the plot. The Gifford children have been hopelessly spoiled, having spent the war years in luxury in America, while the Cole girls have never had any treats or pleasures in their short lives. At first, feisty Hebe Gifford rather looks down on them, but over the week – having had a very scary experience of her own – she comes to like them more and more. In fact the feast of the title, actually a grand picnic complete with lobster and hock, is Hebe’s idea, arranged for the benefit of the Coles, and it’s while they and a selection of the adults are out enjoying themselves that the cliff falls in and destroys the hotel along with those who chose not to attend the feast. 

So the reader knows from the start that a number of people will perish in the disaster, making the novel resemble a mystery story, as we try to guess who will survive and who will die. It’s not too hard to work this out, however, as there is a clear split between good and evil here. Indeed, as the introduction explains, the germ of the novel began in 1937, when Kennedy and a group of her friends talked about writing something to illustrate the seven deadly sins. I half wish I hadn’t known this as I spent too much time trying to match the people with their sins, but it does add an interesting layer to the story. 

However, this is far more than just a simple morality tale. Kennedy’s emphasis on the essential innocence of the children reminded me of several passages in Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry where her anxiety over the fate of her own children and those of others threatens to overwhelm her.

And I must say a word about Mr Siddal who is the only character we know from the start to be one of the dead. Terminally lazy, he refuses even to open his post, which in fact precipitates the disaster. Intelligent, well read and cynical, his philosophising punctuates the narrative, and is full of thought-provoking utterances:

I daresay..that mankind is protected and sustained by undeserved suffering; by all those millions of helpless people who pay for the evil we do and who shield us simply by being there… If any community of people were to be purely evil, were to have no element of innocence among them at all, the earth would probably open and swallow them up. Such a community would split the moral atom.

So overall a highly enjoyable novel, and highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Margaret Kennedy, The Feast ( Faber and Faber, 2021). 978-0571367795, 435pp., paperback original.

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Comments

  1. Lovely review, Harriet – you remind me how marvellous this book is. So brilliantly structured and cleverly written. Even though we know who *should* survive, there’s always the tension as you read that they might not!

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