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Troy Chimneys is a novel I have loved from the very first time I read it. It has taken me a long time to decide to review it here. I think that is because I have shied away from the task of trying to isolate its particular charm – but here goes. I have also been waiting for it to come back into print again, but it seems I could wait for ever. Virago Modern Classics rescued it in the 1980s, but it has sadly not held its place on the list.
The novel’s Georgian hero is Miles Lufton MP; there are two heroes for the price of one, as he has an alter ego, and it is their interplay and Miles’s final failure to integrate the two parts of his personality that lead to a tragic and shocking outcome.
The structure of the novel is complex and may possibly be rather too tricksy for some readers – a Victorian gentleman through illness finds himself in enforced idleness, and amuses himself by calling for some family papers from his Irish gentry cousins. They are bundled up and sent to him, but when his aged aunt finds out she is distraught, as they contain a shameful family secret. Better not say what that is … although by the time we get to the end we can see that we have been prepared for it at the beginning. Letters, journals, and an autobiographical note written out of boredom while its subject was laid up after a hunting accident, are arranged into a story of the short, eventful life of Miles Lufton MP.
Miles Lufton’s parents are a country clergyman of modest origins and his wife who comes from a rather better family than his. He holds a family living in an idyllic country setting, they live cheek by jowl with cousins of Mrs Lufton, and the children of both families grow up together. There is a long Lufton family – eldest son in the navy, another brother a clergyman and his father’s curate, at least four sisters, and Miles, who must make his own way, as there is no family fortune. So far, so rather Jane Austen, as you can see. Miles is educated at Winchester and Oxford thanks to his family connections, and makes friends while at Oxford with a young and eccentric aristocrat, Lord Chalfont, whose family take Miles under their wing. Chalfont is a strange creature, so asocial and exquisite that he can scarcely take his place among his powerful family without Miles to support him and earn their eternal gratitude. The Amersham family and their connections smooth his path into politics, and it is under their tutelage that Miles’s alter ego emerges. The Miles of old is open-hearted, serious, thoughtful, studious; the person who emerges is ‘Pronto’ – never called that to his face, except by accident, Pronto is witty, lively, always attentive and entertaining, a wonderful singer, obliging to ladies old and young, a delightful reader, and every mother’s perfect ‘extra man’. He makes himself so agreeable to all the right people that before long he is MP for a safe seat, and by his thirties the holder of a post in the Exchequer worth £4000 a year. All the time, Miles dreams of the time he can part company with Pronto for good; Pronto’s moral standards are rather more lax than Miles’s, and his pleasures more frivolous. But without Pronto, this young, clever man without fortune would not make his way in the world, and he has to put up with the knowledge that his nickname is pin-sharp in its patronage of someone who is more of a lackey than an equal. Mostly, then, he compromises with Pronto, security always just around the corner, always dreaming of the time he can become Miles again. The focus of this dream is the country house he buys in Wiltshire, Troy Chimneys (Trois Chemins, from the three lanes that meet at its gate). He lets the house for a school for delicate boys, and waits ….
From time to time his peace is disturbed by an incursion of Miles. He keeps up his friendship with another poor scholar from Oxford, the Revd Mr Newsome, who marries his sister – Pronto helps secure him a living from his aristocratic friends, but Miles finds his refuge in staying with them, and there meets an authentic hero figure for Miles (there are shades of Cobbett in William Hawker, the radical farmer-fisherman he befriends. For me, there really is something of all that I love about this period in history in this book). The Miles who has not had to change or grow since he was 21 fails to understand the virtues that Pronto has, assumes that any right thinking person must despise Pronto as much as Miles does, and over and over again his failure to integrate the best of Miles with the best of Pronto sees him disappointed and thwarted – I had better not say any more, or there’ll be nothing left to tell.
What do I love about Troy Chimneys? Well, it is unique tale – I know of nothing like it. If you do not enjoy the hearty Victorian voices of the preface, please stick with it – they may well be irritating, but they do not last long. Thereafter, it is brilliantly told from the hero’s point of view, and I have found it is impossible not to love him and at times grieve for him. His life spanned the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century – he is an almost exact contemporary of Jane Austen, and the family story of the Luftons has many parallels with that of the Austens, but all with a twist, which is a fascinating impression that gradually steals over a Janeite reader and is one of the singular pleasures of the novel for me. However, this could not be more different from a Jane Austen narrative – it is full of action and inhabits the sort of male preserve that Jane Austen undoubtedly knew all about but merely hinted at. There is a wonderful Jane Austen mot, an opinion of her work expressed by one of the characters, Caroline Audley – I cannot resist quoting it.
Over books we constantly fell out … over novels she was obstinate; she could not like them. Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent pleased her and she admired Defoe, but she objected strongly to anything sentimental, nor would she listen to pleas for my favourites: Emma and Mansfield Park, of which she complained they kept her continually in the parlour, where she was obliged, in any case, to spend her life. A most entertaining parlour, she allowed, but:
‘That lady’s greatest admirers will always be men, I believe. For, when they have enough of the parlour, they may walk out, you know, and we cannot.’
Delicious – and just right for this novel, which is about what men do and see when they walk out of the parlour. This is an unfamiliar period for historical fiction – bridging Georgian and Regency – and yet with these echoes of the world of the contemporary writers of the time, Austen, Cobbett, the Romantic poets, there is that degree of familiarity mixed with freshness. Set during the Napoleonic wars, the reader does not have to suffer too much implausible scene-setting. Like all my favourite novels, in this one the characters don’t tell the 20/21st century reader things they would never have felt the need to tell their contemporaries. In mood and tone and lightness of touch it reminds me very much of another favourite: Still She Wished For Company.
Margaret Kennedy was a prolific novelist in the mid 20th century whose books have mostly fallen out of print and out of fashion (a couple are available at a rather stiff price through print-on-demand Faber Finds, but sadly not Troy Chimneys). I have read only a scant half a dozen of them, and what I love about her is that she never writes a novel like her last one. So refreshing. She is best known for her classic of bohemian melodrama The Constant Nymph, which almost alone of her books remains in print. This novel was a runaway hit, with wildly successful stage and film versions, and I love it for its overblown charms. The Ladies of Lyndon is a novel of a unique blend of country house and bohemian life. Lucy Carmichael is rather odd, and The Feast is frankly weird: all are well worth reading, though. Troy Chimneys won for its author a James Tait Black Memorial Prize, always a guarantee of something distinctive and wonderful. It is a little classic, and well deserves to be rediscovered and brought back into print. Amazon resellers and AbeBooks have reasonably priced secondhand copies right now, and I hope that it can be borrowed from your local library. This really is one of my most dearly cherished novels, and I should love to think that some new readers will discover it because I have finally summoned the courage to review it.
Margaret Kennedy: Troy Chimneys. London: Virago, 1985. 245pp
First published: Macmillan & Co, 1953.