It would have been Margaret Kennedy’s birthday today and she is the next author to be featured in Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Having only read three Margaret Kennedy novels – The Constant Nymph, Lucy Carmichael and Troy Chimneys – I still have a lot of her books to choose from, but I decided on The Feast for this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day as I’ve seen several people name it as a favourite. Now that I’ve read it myself I can understand why!
The Feast was published in 1950 and is set three years earlier, in the summer of 1947. The novel follows a week in the lives of a group of guests who are staying at Pendizack Hotel on the coast of Cornwall. The week will end in tragedy when part of the cliff collapses on the hotel, killing everyone inside. This is not a spoiler because the book opens with a prologue in which we see the Reverend Bott attempting to write a sermon in memory of the dead. We also know that there will be some survivors – but the identities of those who will live and those who will die won’t be revealed until the end of the book.
The hotel is owned by the Siddals, although it’s Mrs Siddal who does all the work while her lazy husband does nothing at all and their three sons, now adults, make their own plans for the future. The housekeeper, Mrs Ellis, is a bitter, resentful woman who spends most of her time gossiping about other people, so the Siddals are relying more and more on the maid, Nancibel, a friendly, kind-hearted local girl.
The guests are a varied and not particularly pleasant group of people. They include Sir Henry Gifford, his selfish wife and their four children (three of whom are adopted); Mrs Cove, a cold and heartless woman who has very little affection for her three neglected daughters; the Paleys, a couple whose marriage has been strained since the loss of their child several years earlier; bad-tempered, overbearing Canon Wraxton and his long-suffering daughter Evangeline; Anna Lechene, an unscrupulous, irresponsible writer who is working on a new book about the Brontës, and her chauffeur, a handsome young man called Bruce who tells lies to make himself sound more interesting.
I was aware before I started the book that Margaret Kennedy had based the personalities of some of her characters on the Seven Deadly Sins and this added an extra layer of interest as I matched up different characters with different sins as I read. There are some obvious villains in the novel – Mrs Cove, Lady Gifford and Canon Wraxton are particularly nasty – but others have a mixture of good and bad qualities. I knew which characters I wanted to survive and which I didn’t, but life is not always fair and people don’t always get what they deserve, so there was still an element of suspense as the story moved towards its tragic conclusion.
I loved following the lives of the Siddals, their guests and their servants. Bearing in mind that the whole story takes place over the course of just seven days, there’s an impressive amount of character development with people making life-changing decisions, searching for happiness and taking control of their own futures. With over twenty characters all playing important roles in the novel, some authors would have struggled to make each man, woman and child different and memorable, but Margaret Kennedy succeeds and the result is a really enjoyable and absorbing read. It’s probably my favourite of her books so far – although I did love Troy Chimneys as well!