The Feast (1950): Margaret Kennedy

★★★★

It’s the summer of 1947 and a small community has been shaken to its core (literally). Pendizack Manor Hotel has just been obliterated in a landslide, buried beneath the cliffs that once loomed over it. Reverend Bott, who has the unenviable task of writing a funeral sermon for the unrecovered victims, thinks back over what he has heard from the survivors. Through their stories, we revisit the week leading up to the disaster, day by day, watching as the various characters arrive and get to know one another. To some extent, this is the same kind of awkward cheek-by-jowl holiday community of strangers that we see in works such as The Fortnight in September (though that puts a much more positive spin on the experience). Romances blossom; old grudges linger; and plots are hatched, both malicious and benign. But this isn’t just the story of a Cornish summer holiday gone horribly wrong. Kennedy is, in fact, doing something much cleverer and more sophisticated – offering us the chance to solve a very unusual kind of mystery.

The Manor was once a grand house, but the Siddals have fallen on hard times and so they’ve converted their home into a hotel. Mrs Siddal does most of the work, occasionally helped by her generous but least loved son Gerry (her favourites, Robin and Duff, are fairly self-centred). As for Mr Siddal, one barely sees him: he spends his days lounging around in the old boot-room, abdicating all responsibility and avoiding all work. Miss Ellis is nominally the housekeeper, but she’s fed up of the whole lot of them: she’s just biding her time until she finds something better, and spends her time fuming at the way that so many other people seem to coast along in life with opportunities that should have been hers. Fortunately, the kind-hearted maid Nancibel takes up the slack, longing for the day when Miss Ellis really will leave and just let her get on with things.

So much for the staff. The guests, when they arrive, are a motley bunch. First, there’s the Giffords, a wealthy family with a tribe of four children (most adopted), who come with a long list of dietary requirements for Lady Gifford, a self-proclaimed invalid. She can eat only the richest, most luxurious foods – by doctor’s orders, you understand, her poor digestive system being quite unfit for cheap substitutes – and has soon installed herself in bed, where she languishes, showing no sign of moving thereafter. Her relationship with her husband, Sir Henry, is rocky for numerous reasons, chief among which is that he simply won’t agree to move to Guernsey in order to avoid income tax and take advantage of the excellent local cream. Lady Gifford is baffled (‘Why shouldn’t I? I can afford cream. Why shouldn’t I go to live where the cream is?‘). But Sir Henry can’t forget that, while Lady Gifford and the children saw out the war in comfort in America, he experienced the horrors of the Blitz, and now he feels a responsibility towards his countrymen: he can’t just abandon them and head off to live a blissfully luxurious existence under tax-haven skies, no matter how good the cream.

Responsibility for others has never troubled Mrs Cove, who arrives with her three undernourished and threadbare children. She spends her life making do, eking out their daily lives by spending as little as possible and hoarding ration points, always alert to the possibility of being cheated. Her daughters, by contrast, are sweet and loving, and the book’s title derives from their one great desire: to give a grand feast, sharing all that they have with others, inspired by the midnight feasts in their favourite school story, The Madcap of St Monica’s. There are the Paleys, a husband and wife whose marriage has been strained almost beyond endurance by Mr Paley’s superiority and the way he nurses his old grudges, silently, shutting out his long-suffering wife.

There’s the lady writer, Anna Lechene, an old friend of Mr Siddal’s who always has a new young man hanging on her arm. This time it’s Bruce, a would-be writer, who joins the household under the pretence of being her ‘secretary-chauffeur’, hoping that his liaison will smooth his path to publication and useful networking. And, finally, there are the Wraxtons: the red-faced, irascible Canon and his timid daughter, whom he seems to have cowed into incoherence. But holidays bring people together, and offer the possibility of escape from one’s family. Before long, the Cove and Gifford children have formed a gang – the Giffords, naturally, leading the wide-eyed, admiring Coves – and shy Miss Wraxton has founded a friendship with Christina Paley, who turns out to have unexpected reserves of joy, adventurousness and vision.

If you’re like me, you probably skip introductions (lest they spoil the story), but this is one case where it’s really very useful. This Faber & Faber edition has a foreword by Cathy Rentzenbrink and I strongly recommend you read it, because it transforms the book from a story about a doomed seaside holiday into something else entirely. Rentzenbrink tells us that the novel grew out of Kennedy’s idea to write a story in which the Seven Deadly Sins were personified. In essence, this is an updated medieval morality play. Seven of the residents at Pendizack are embodiments of these pernicious vices: gluttony; lust (or lecherousness); sloth; pride; covetousness; envy; and wrath. But which character represents each Sin? Some are easy to identify, but, if you’re having trouble, have a look at the initials of the characters’ surnames: you might find that this gives you a bit of a clue.

I went down a rabbit hole with this, and ended up trying to see if I could also identify characters who correlated to the Seven Heavenly Virtues, the antithesis of the Sins. I succeeded to some extent, although one particular character could come under several headings, but maybe you can help me out. Obviously, there’ll be spoilers ahead for the identity of our Sin characters, so you might want to skip ahead if you want to do that detective work on your own. Now, technically, if the Virtue is paired with the Sin, then we should seek for it nearby. Wrath, for instance, is paired with Patience, which we find in Evangeline Wraxton; Sloth is paired with Diligence, and who is more diligent than the overworked Mrs Siddal? Covetousness is paired with Charity, and that’s manifest in the three Cove children, who are eager to share what little they have with others.

I’m less confident about Humility, which is paired with Pride and should, therefore, be awarded to Mrs Paley; but is she humble? According to Wikipedia, ‘bravery, modesty or reverence’ are also possible embodiments of this virtue, and from that angle I think we’re probably on firmer ground. And then there’s Kindness, the opposite of Envy, and here I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have to look to Nancibel, the generous heart of the household, and the bright mirror of twisted, envious Miss Ellis. We now have only two Virtues left. Gluttony is paired with Temperence, which is presumably Sir Henry – he is indeed humane and fair. But the one that’s really bothering me is the pair of Lust and Chastity. Lust is Anna Lechene, no doubt of that. But who is Chastity? It can’t possibly be Bruce, can it? He doesn’t make much of an effort to resist Anna’s lure, not at first anyway. Perhaps we’re meant to consider him chaste after he leaves Anna’s service and devotes himself to becoming a better man, and worthy of Nancibel? Hmm. And I found myself prodding for other levels of meaning where there were, perhaps, none. Is it significant that the two characters who start going up to the cliffs – setting, if you like, the pattern of salvation for the others – are called Christina and Evangeline? And is it significant that the disaster happens on a Friday? Or is that going too far?!

So you see, this isn’t just a story – if it were, I probably would have enjoyed it less, because so many of the characters were so profoundly unsympathetic, and there were some parts of the narrative which I found rather strange, like Hebe’s unpleasant adventure with Anna. But Kennedy’s concept adds something fresh: it becomes a theological puzzle, a race against time (if the characters only knew it). Of course, it doesn’t have to be read in that way: there’s nothing sententious about it, and the moral allusions are worn lightly. You can simply read the book and marvel at how nasty some of the people are, and hope that they get their come-uppance – for who will end up buried underneath that cliff, and who will be saved? For me, though, the Seven Deadly Sins idea added a fascinating extra layer of meaning, and drew me into an unexpectedly engaging literary game.

Clever, witty and unusual.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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