The Perfect Stranger by P.J. Kavanagh
The Swan in the Evening by Rosamond Lehmann
On a whim, after reading Tony’s excellent review, I sent off for a copy of P.J. Kavanagh’s memoir “The Perfect Stranger”. I was intrigued by his glowing write-up, despite never having read anything by Kavanagh, and by the fact that the stranger of the title was the author’s wife Sally, daughter of Virago author Rosamond Lehmann. And since I have Lehmann’s memoir “The Swan in the Evening” too, it seemed ideal to read them side by side.
I should say straight up front that it’s going to be impossible to write about these two books without spoilers, so if you plan to read either book yourself and don’t know anything about the circumstances, please LOOK AWAY NOW!
Kavanagh has had a varied life, taking in acting, broadcasting, lecturing and of course poetry. His memoir is of a young man coming of age in the 20th century with all that involves: growing up, public school, national service, working as a Butlins redcoat. There is a sense all the way through that Kavanagh is trying to find himself, and a spell fighting in the Korean War had a dramatic effect. He returns a wounded veteran, and there is a sense that he’s drifting, unsure of himself and somewhat detached from reality. As an ex-service man, he is able to get into Oxford and it is here that his life changes as he meets his first wife, Sally. Love is indeed a transformative thing, bringing Kavanagh alive, and he and his wife embark upon a brave new world together, ending up in Java and Bali. It is here that the cruellest blow falls…
“The Perfect Stranger” was a wonderful book on any level: well written, engrossing, a fascinating view of life just post-WW2 and the changes taking place. Kavanagh is an engaging, self-deprecating narrator, also very funny in places, and his prose can be beautifully poetic. The story of his love for Sally is moving and terribly tragic, particularly as she seemed to have inspired him to take his writing seriously and this is a book that will haunt me.
I moved straight onto “The Swan in the Evening” straight after reading the Kavanagh, as this is Lehmann’s memoir of her early life, her recollections of Sally and her thoughts on life after death. As with all Lehmann’s work it’s beautifully written, and the early glimpses of Rosamond as a child with her later-to-be-famous siblings are lovely. Lehmann’s love for her child is strong, and her comments on the marriage to Kavanagh generous. In fact, she refers to his beautiful memoir in her book (his was published first) and it’s obvious that the Lehmann family welcomed Kavanagh into the fold.
The third section of “Swan” is a difficult one to discuss, dealing as it does with Lehmann’s descriptions of her psychic experiences after she lost Sally. Your reaction to this will depend, I suppose on your beliefs; I’m not someone who subscribes to theories of an afterlife, but I accept that Lehmann firmly believed what she believed and I won’t argue with that.
No individual appears the same to everyone; nevertheless, Sally seems to have been something of a golden presence in the world, beloved by both her husband and her mother, and there is a consistency between the two portraits of her. Kavanagh went on to continue his career and carve out a new life for himself; Lehmann lived for a long time after Sally, sustained by her faith and producing more novels. These two books give a wonderful picture of a woman who had so much life force and so much to offer to the world; and I’d highly recommend reading them together.