Margaret Kennedy’s novel “The Feast”, which I’ve chosen for the Reading Week hosted by Fleur in her World, was published in 1950 and is set in 1947. Located on the Cornish coast, the story centres around the Pendizack hotel run by the Siddals, which is filled with a motley crew of guests.

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The book opens with a prologue in which the vicar of St. Sody, Rev. Bott (who is prone to Popish practices in his Anglican services) is attempting to write a sermon. He tells his visiting colleague that he is struggling with this, as it is meant to be read at a memorial for those killed recently when a portion of the cliff collapsed on the hotel. Bott reveals that the survivors made their way to him after the disaster, and talked – telling him more than perhaps they should. He begins to relate events, and then we flash back to the start of the week leading up to the tragedy.

The book is then divided into seven daily sections, each containing short chapters which introduce the various characters, letting us find out exactly what kind of people will be staying at the hotel. There are the Paleys, a couple with a shell of a marriage who’ve never recovered from the loss of their child; Sir Henry and his invalid wife Lady Gifford plus their four children (three adopted); Mrs. Cove and *her* three impoverished and neglected daughters; Miss Ellis, the bitter housekeeper; Nancibel, the kind-hearted maid; Anna, a hack novelist and family friend of the Siddals, along with her current toy-boy, Bruce; and Canon Wraxton, a fearsome, bullying and troublemaking preacher, accompanied by his downtrodden daughter Evangeline.

All of these characters are at, or reach, some kind of crisis point during the week. Miss Ellis goes on a kind of strike; Nancibel loves and loses; Evangeline achieves a kind of liberation; several relationships come to a head; the Cove children, mistreated and unloved, find the outside world and affection; and so on. It is the Cove girls who plan the feast of the title, as their dream is to be able to dispense bounty to others so some of their fellow guests conspire to help their dream come true – and it is the feast that will be pivotal to who survives and who does not.

“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.”

In some ways, the book’s format is rather like that of one of those disaster movies which became so popular during the 1970s, in which a group of characters is set up in a situation where a dreadful event will take place and the entertainment as such is in seeing who will make to the end of the film and who will not.

Certainly, that’s a motivation here, and the suspense during reading builds dramatically towards the event at the end. But “The Feast” is much deeper than just a tacky movie – there is meditation on good and evil, some appalling people behaving very nastily, and a sense that the world has survived a War in which ‘good’ won, but that humanity has been tarnished and the Seven Deadly Sins are still very much alive and well. The strong War influence, with rationing still in place and a reference to the horrors of Belsen, informs much of the discussion in the book, and its effects have touched several people: Nancibel, who through her war work has stepped outside the confines expected of her to have a wider outlook on life; Lady Gifford, who fled to the USA and has no commitment or loyalty to her country; Sir Henry, who found a kind of freedom during the war years.

Siddal is the dispossessed head of the family who own the hotel, lurking in a back room in his dressing gown. He is also the slothful philosopher of the book, and despite his grumpy negativity and cynical viewpoint, is one of the most thought-provoking characters.

“I don’t think that man is going to survive. There is this fatal flow in our construction; a kind of moral imperviousness to a truth which we can perceive intellectually. Reason tells us that we should be grateful. Reason tells us that, if we were, we might be able to co-operate in the pursuit of happiness. But reason can’t run the machine. It can only draw up blue prints. Civilization after civilization has gone down into the dust because we cannot manage to be humble.”

He is the one character we know from the start will die, and it is his idleness that is also vital to events in the book…

The sufferings of the various children are a dominant factor in the story, particularly Hebe Gifford; bitterly aware of her adopted status, wise before her years owing to what she’s witnessed Lady Gifford getting up to while they were in America escaping the war, she’s ripe for exploitation by the unscrupulous Anna. In fact, the chapter where Hebe is whisked away by Anna into some extremely unsuitable company is brilliantly and subtly written. Hebe, like the three Cove girls, has suffered much and it is their future which is at stake during the week leading up to the collapse of the cliff. It is the yin and yang of life that Kennedy is depicting here, good and evil balanced against each other. As Siddal comments in a key passage:

“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.”

It is in fact when the evil, as seen through Kennedy’s eyes, are left alone at the hotel that the atom splits and destroys them…

margaret kennedy

Kennedy’s characters are beautifully drawn and very believable. I got thoroughly involved with them; with their lives and their problems and their loves and desires, ending up knowing exactly who I hoped would survive the disaster and who I hoped wouldn’t. Watching them develop through the week was fascinating as Kennedy’s writing brilliantly brought each invidual to life. Seeing Christina Paley emerge from her self-imposed stupor was marvellous, as she started to take control of herself and try to help others; her input allows Evangeline to begin to gain a sense of self and this in turn enables Gerry to escape the smothering control of his family. I don’t want to say too much as giving away any hint of the richness of this novel might spoil it – I just recommend that you read it yourself.

Reading “The Feast” was a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience and I’m so glad I chose it. In fact, I think it will benefit from a re-read as I was so anxious to reach the conclusion that I’m sure there are many profound little bits I’ve missed. Many thanks to Jane for hosting the week and prompting me to read my first Margaret Kennedy – wonderful stuff!

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