By just about any measure, Agatha Cocks is lucky in her marriage. Sir John Clewer, while older, is kind and seems fond of Agatha, and she will have the honor of becoming the mistress of Lyndon, a grand country house. John’s extended family are, for the most part, welcoming, and there’s every reason for her to believe that she will have a good life ahead.
However, John wasn’t Agatha’s first choice. Before her marriage, she had a brief flirtation with her cousin, Gerald. Now a doctor, Gerald was deemed an altogether inappropriate choice for marriage, and Agatha’s mother was quick to put a stop to the relationship.
While Agatha is the central character in Margaret Kennedy’s 1923 debut novel, the rest of the family is important at rounding out the picture, not just of what Agatha’s marriage is like, but of what marriage in that era could be. There’s the couple that bonds over intellect, and another that seems to bond over social status. They both seem happy, in their way, but it’s a happiness that, I think, comes from acceptance of their situation. The happiest marriage is the one that is most unexpected, the one between John’s younger brother and a servant. James, John’s brother, is an artist and presumed by the family to be mentally deficient. The nature of his supposed disability is never clear, and Agatha herself questions whether there is actually anything wrong with him.
As the book goes on, Agatha becomes increasingly discontented with her own marriage. It’s not that John is cruel or unpleasant or that she dislikes her life at Lyndon. It just doesn’t make her happy. But chasing after her own happiness brings complications that may in fact lead to her unhappiness.
I found a lot of what this book is trying to do to be pretty interesting. For instance, being able to see different couples coming together, each in their own way, gave the whole story a pleasing sense of texture, but only those of Agatha and of James are well-developed. Of course, not all characters can be central characters, but it wasn’t always clear to me whether this was meant to be an ensemble piece or a book mostly about Agatha. By the end, Agatha’s centrality is clear, but there were points when it looked like other characters were going to get a more extensive treatment, and their stories ended up petering out. There are also several sudden leaps in time where it seemed like important events were simply glossed over. Maybe I would have liked it more if the book had either been more ambitious, with a large ensemble rendered in detail, or less ambitious, with a character study of a single woman.
That’s not to say I didn’t like the book. I liked it quite a bit. I just found it easier to put down and harder to pick up than I wanted it to be. I was interested, but only toward the end did I feel much tension regarding where the story was going.
But toward the end, the book does pick up. And at this point, I especially liked that Agatha’s choices are allowed to be complex. I think the book leans in a particular direction regarding what is the right choice for her in the end, but the dilemma is real. There’s a genuine tension between whether to make the choice that is emotionally satisfying in the moment yet full of risk or to make the choice that is safe but less thrilling. By the end of the book, the choice that on paper would seem most responsible starts to look unwise in the long term. (Here’s where the leaps in time serve the story well, because Agatha is dealing with the consequences of a choice that looked good on paper.) And the final moment provides that gulp of suspense I’d been hoping for all along.