Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast is the first novel of hers I’ve read, and also a novel I was tempted to buy because of its sumptuous cover. I read it during my holiday in Prague and Cesky Krumlov which was kind of fitting since the novel is set in a seaside hotel which brings together a motlew crew of characters who are on vacation. Luckily, the content inside was wonderful too and I’m eager to explore more of her work particularly The Constant Nymph and Troy Chimneys both of which I have.
With its combination of wit, social commentary and mystery, The Feast by Margaret Kennedy is a terrific novel; an excellent upstairs-downstairs drama and comedy set in Cornwall post the Second World War featuring a seaside hotel in danger of being buried, an eccentric ensemble cast with hidden secrets, and the high voltage interactions and tensions between them.
The book begins with a prologue where Reverend Seddon pays his regular annual visit to Reverend Samuel Bott of St Sody, North Cornwall. It is a time of relaxation for both the priests, enjoying the fruits of their friendship and indulging in their hobbies. But this particular holiday turns out to be different because Seddon much to his chagrin realises that Bott has to write a sermon for a funeral. It’s not something that Bott can get out of either given the strangeness of events leading up to the tragedy, the details of which he proceeds to narrate to Seddon.
The facts are thus – The Pendizack Manor Hotel lies buried in a mound of rubble after a huge mass of cliff collapses on it. Seven guests perish, one of whom is Dick Siddal, the owner of the hotel, while the others survive. At that point, the identities of the casualties as well as the survivors are not revealed to the reader, and that in essence forms the mystery element of the plot. We are told that some months ago before this tragedy, a mine had exploded, and cracks had developed in the mass of cliff over the hotel, although the hotel at that point was unaffected. A survey man, subsequently, examines those cracks, is convinced that it is unsafe, and conveys his findings in a letter to Dick Siddal who doesn’t bother to respond.
Thus, Reverend Bott is now busy scribbling a sermon for the funeral; he describes these developments as an Act of God, but it could very well have been called an Act of Man, given the owner’s irresponsibility in not taking action when required.
After the prologue, the reader is then taken back to a week earlier, from whereon the book charts the arrival of the guests at the Pendizack Manor Hotel, its other inhabitants, as well as the chain of events leading up to the tragedy in question.
We now come to the principal characters of this tale. First and foremost are the Siddals who own the Pendizack Manor Hotel and reside there with their children Gerry, Duff, and Robin. Mrs Siddal is an overworked woman who does most of the heavy lifting concerning the management of the hotel, the guests, as well as preparation of daily meals. Her husband Dick Siddal for the most part loiters around in his boot-hole refusing any form of work and responsibility, and when he does make an appearance in front of his guests, it is to deliver his off-kilter opinions on a variety of topics. Dick Siddal displays a keen perceptive mind and is a man of strange, singular worldviews but he could not be bothered about the daily working of the hotel, a fact that plays a crucial role in his downfall.
But he enjoyed the sound of his own voice, and nobody was likely to interrupt him. ‘I daresay,’ he said, ‘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, as Lot was in the doomed city. 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.’
As far as the children are concerned, Mrs Siddal is partial towards Duff and Robin, the apples of her eyes, and she has ambitions of getting them into top-notch colleges. Of Gerry with his stocky build and propensity to bore her, she remains a tad contemptuous (“Of her three sons he was the most loving and least loved”), and yet she heavily depends upon Gerry to help around the hotel and bring in the moolah that will fund Robin and Duff’s education.
We are also introduced to the domestic help – the housekeeper Miss Ellis is a spiteful woman prone to poking her nose into other people’s affairs and gossiping about them, with a remarkable flair to shirk her duties. Then there’s the conscientious and straight-talking Nancibel who stays with her extended family nearby and drops into the hotel every day to do the bulk of the work given Miss Ellis’s inclination to avoid it. Very soon, tensions begin to simmer and erupt between the two women given their contrasting personalities and general attitude towards work.
We then come to the guests. There’s Lady Gifford, her husband Sir Henry Gifford, and their children Hebe, Caroline, and twin boys Luke and Michael. Lady Gifford grapples with poor health, confined to the bed for most of their stay, while her children run wild. The wildest of the lot is Hebe, an adopted child, and who is aware of her adopted status that grieves her greatly. Hebe’s actions often shock Henry Gifford who struggles to bring her under control, a task made difficult by the fact that his wife does not see things his way. Cracks in the relationship between husband and wife are also evident – Henry Gifford believes himself to be a man of principles and cannot fathom his wife’s shallow personality and her craving for the finer things in life.
Next up is Mrs Cove, the most disturbing character in the book, and her three daughters Blanche, Beatrix, and Maud. Mrs Cove is a cheerless, strict woman who rules her meek daughters with an iron fist. She’s deeply stingy with an ascetic worldview, flaunts the family’s poor circumstances which she believes gives her the right to be acquisitive, and often denies her daughters the simplest of pleasures. There’s something about Mrs Cove’s actions that is quite sinister, particularly when it comes to the bizarre treatment of her daughters, her ulterior motive is gradually revealed to the reader later on. Blanche, Beatrix, and Maud don’t love their mother, but they fear her. However, while they remain deprived of material comforts and bear the brunt of their mother’s cruelty, what sustains them is their imagination – rich, vital, and vivid. The three girls strike up a friendship with the Gifford children and are enamoured by them, their wealth, and their general appearance of well-being. One of their greatest wishes is the desire to do something good for the residents of Pendizack Manor, something like hosting a feast – the central event that lends the novel its name, and is held on the very same day that the landslide strikes.
Then there’s the morally dubious writer Anne Lechane and her chauffeur-secretary Bruce who is kind of a reluctant toy boy. Anne has some kind of hold over Bruce forcing him to remain indebted to her. But the other reason that compels him to work for Anne is his aspiration to become a writer himself, although these state of affairs greatly complicate his budding romance with Nancibel. We are also introduced to the belligerent and controlling Canon Wraxton, notorious for picking up verbal fights at the drop of a hat and making scenes much to the embarrassment and terror of his daughter Evangeline.
Rounding off this oddball lot are the bereaved couple Mr and Mrs Paley, who are initially reserved and largely keep to themselves. The Paleys lost their daughter several years ago, but it’s a grief that runs deep and the two haven’t entirely gotten over it. What’s more, theirs is a shaky marriage, with not much scope for communicating and navigating their personal tragedy. Indeed, at one point Mrs Paley driven to the brink of suicide, has an epiphany, and thereby resolves to take charge of her life beginning with helping the residents of the hotel in any way that she can. And so her role transforms to that of an agony aunt; certain members confess to her their hopes, secrets, and desires whether she offers any advice or not. She particularly makes a big difference in the way Evangeline’s life takes a turn for the better.
Each guest had retired, as an animal retires with a bone to the back of its cage, to chew over some single obsession.
Thus, as the novel progresses various developments occur along the way – a series of petty squabbles between the guests, the blossoming of two romances, a police visit, a near-drowning incident, a stolen artifact, and some other elements that spice up the story as it reaches its inevitable finale.
The Feast excels in that through a rather engaging tale it explores a slew of themes such as greed, evil, sloth, class wars, neglect, bereavement, unexpected friendships, and even romance. The introduction to the novel talks about how the various characters epitomize the Seven Deadly Sins, an interpretation that did not occur to me, although a couple of them are obvious (greed and sloth).
Greed drives the actions of the frightening Mrs Cove, a sin that is also central to Lady Gifford’s wish to relocate to a place where she can avoid paying taxes. On the pedestal of sloth sits Dick Siddal whose actions, or should we say non-action leads to the landslide that buries seven of the hotel guests. Anne Lechene is the embodiment of lechery given her unhealthy designs on Bruce as well as one of the Siddal men, Colonel Wraxton with his bombastic temperament stands for wrath, and so on. The class differences and the characters’ widely differing views on this topic are revealed through myriad heated exchanges between them as they argue about inequality, the rights of the working class, and the entitlement of the upper class among other things. Neglect is also another theme that comes to the fore exemplified by the wild behaviour of the Gifford children, the shabby appearance of the Cove girls, as well as Dick Siddal’s laziness when it comes to the safety of the hotel. It’s a novel of darkness and light, alternately showcasing the darker side of human nature with its generous side, as well as moments of subtle comedy with pure evil.
Displaying a sharp, astute vision, Kennedy’s writing is top-notch as she weaves in elements of a social satire and morality fable with those of a thriller. Her gimlet-eyed gaze on the foibles and failures of her finely etched characters make both the endearing as well as the horrible ones pretty memorable. In a nutshell, this is a wonderful novel with an array of rich themes and interpretations; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Highly recommended!