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Kennedy Bookhighlight
Article Fiction

Invitation to the Feast

Amy Welborn

Margaret Kennedy, The Feast, 1st ed. 1950 (Faber & Faber, 2021).

But they all alike began to make excuses. (Luke 14:18, NRSV)

It is the fall of 1947 on the ruggedly picturesque Cornwall coast, and Reverend Bott must write a sermon. A normal part of the job, yes, but the minister is struggling with this one, for the occasion is particularly challenging. People were dead, others had survived, but he could not exactly deliver a funeral sermon. The bodies in question were already irretrievably buried under a massive, collapsed cliff. All had been guests or employees at the ramshackle seaside hotel at the base when, not without (unheeded) warning, the cliff had fallen, engulfing the inn and all who were inside. What could anyone say in the face of such a tragedy?

He begins to type: Be still and know that I am God. But that does not seem quite right, not enough. Those survivors who had left the inn for another gathering that night—a feast high above the sea, near, but not on the cliff—straggle into the church. Perhaps if he related their stories, he might approach an understanding of the mystery of who died, who lived, and why.

Thus begins Margaret Kennedy’s novel, The Feast, originally published in 1950 and reprinted by Faber and Faber in 2021. Who lived? Who died? We do not know until the end—it’s a reverse mystery, somewhat like Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey or the more recent The White Lotus on HBO/Max. However, Kennedy is up to something other than contemplating the apparent randomness of life or excavating the escapades of the craven wealthy, and the introduction of the tale through the Christian minister’s eyes hints at her purpose. In her entertaining, knowing novel, Kennedy explores not only human foibles, but the very nature of sin: its effect on us and our relationships to each other, creation, and, implicitly, to God.

No matter where [the image of the feast] appears in Christian experience—the prophets, Jesus’ parables, Revelation, Eucharist—it evokes not only eternal life with God after death, but the joy, richness, and fulfillment found in communion with God within the limits of this present life.

The story, which begins a week before the tragedy as guests gather for the holidays, is related through third-person narration, journal entries, and letters. The guests and employees are a mixed lot, from various classes, including some minor aristocrat types, a blousy female writer with her gigolo assistant, an emotionally abusive clergyman and his browbeaten daughter, as well as two groups of children, who, in their losses, interests, obsessions, and idiosyncrasies reflect the cost of recent war. This varied group of characters live out their eccentricities, personal foibles, and tragedies-in-the-making amidst the particularly painful context of recent trauma, family strife, dislocation, and continuing shortages of the post-war context. All under the shadow of a cliffside weakened by the recent explosion of a leftover German mine.

Despite the horrifying event we know is coming and the often bothersome people, in the spirit of the English middlebrow novel, this is an amusing, knowing book. Kennedy writes her characters honestly and with affection, giving most dimension, history, and invitations for growth and redemption. The central question then, is, who of this group will accept that invitation to reach beyond themselves, who will decline, and what will be the consequences?

Two sets of children are among the inn’s guests: the well-off Griffiths, who spent the war in America, and the impoverished Coves. The Cove family consists of three daughters and a widowed mother, a nasty piece of work, covetous, grasping, and controlling. Nonetheless, the Cove sisters, while emotionally beaten down, are cheerful and curious, nourished by rich inner lives and sustained by each other.

The dream that sustains the Cove children is the notion of a feast. In their reading and imaginative play, “the feast” has grown into a cherished ideal. But this is not, crucially, a desire to attend a feast, but to give one. More than anything else, the girls yearn one day to have enough of their own to share a glorious banquet with others.

The word feast had a magic significance for the little Coves. They had never been at a feast but they had read about such doings. They had a book called The Madcap of St. Monica’s in which dormitory feasts were held at midnight. The word conveyed to them they knew not what of hospitality and convivial enjoyment. And their favorite game was to plan feasts which they would give if they were rich. A difficulty in collecting guests (for they knew very few people) had been overcome by Beatrix, who suggested that a notice might be put up on their house door saying: A GREAT FEAST IS TO BE HELD HERE. ALL ARE INVITED. And then everybody would come.

Midway through the week, the girls surprisingly get their chance. Amid other dramas among the guests and staff, a tragedy involving the Cove children is averted. The girls maintain their usual quiet cheer in the wake of the near disaster, but this only serves to highlight their difficulties, which then moves a guest and a staff member to impulsively suggest that now would be the perfect time for the joy and communion that a feast would provide. The feast would be lovely—at night, on the top of the rocks, and under a sky twinkling with stars. There would be marvelous food and drink—lobster!—a procession, and costumes, with one of the children suggesting that everyone should come dressed as characters from an Edward Lear poem.

So these children who are, in a sense “the least” of any of the other characters: the least in age and power, with the least family support, the least resources—it is they whose hearts are most generous, bursting with the desire to gather, give, share, and celebrate. It is they who instinctively know that for all to be welcome, all must be invited.

The image of the feast and the generous invitation to take part in it is familiar. No matter where it appears in Christian experience—the prophets, Jesus’ parables, Revelation, Eucharist—it evokes not only eternal life with God after death, but the joy, richness, and fulfillment found in communion with God within the limits of this present life.

Why would anyone decline the invitation to such a feast? Let’s see:

Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ (Luke 14:16–20)

The excuses are prosaic but have been interpreted in creative ways over the centuries. St. Augustine of Hippo relates them to various sins: the desire for dominion, curiosity, or a preference for the pleasures of the flesh rather than the spirit. Whatever the specifics, though, pride lies at the core of the refusal. Pride, as the foundation of sin, moves us to decline the divine invitation. This, of course, is why we call the sins “deadly,” holding on to them, we choose to forgo the nourishment offered in the heavenly banquet, or as Augustine puts it, “…the supper by which we may be made fat within.”

All are invited to the Cove’s celebration, but as with the other famous feasts, not all accept. Some remain behind, under the shadow of the invisibly collapsing cliff, rather than risk venturing above, closer to the light. We won’t know their fate until the last chapter, but perhaps what we’ve learned about these characters through the course of the novel has given us hints.

Each of those who decline is motivated by a choice that places their cramped, narrow concerns above the call to love. Imprisoned fundamentally by pride, which is then expressed in a particular way in the life of each of the seven doomed characters.

Yes, seven distinct manifestations of sin growing from that foundational sin of pride. Kennedy does not offer a chart, and the character shades are subtle, but the correlations are there, indicated most clearly by the first letters of their surnames, each corresponding to one of the seven deadly sins: wrath, sloth, lust, covetousness, gluttony, pride, and envy. The signaling is clever, but not intrusive or strained, and the humanity with which Kennedy marks these characters—they are terrible, but they have their reasons, and they certainly have their opportunities to change—gives them depth and pathos.

Throughout the novel, as the week progresses, we see the consequences of these sins. We see how these characters close in on themselves and away from others, how their own choices have blinded them to what has been prepared in generosity and love: “...a great supper, a great house,” as Augustine puts it, in which God “... cannot suffer any place to be vacant….”

The germ of The Feast lies in a conversation Kennedy had in 1937 with writer friends. The group played with the notion of writing a collection, each focusing on one of the seven deadly sins. That specific project never moved beyond the stage of an idea, but Kennedy continued to mull it over until in those post-war years, she found her angle. The Feast is an illustrative sketch of postwar England, a clever theological puzzle, and a suggestive invitation in its own right.

It’s an invitation to the reader to imagine the collection of characters squabbling under the looming cliff, imagine their virtues and vices, and then consider her place there. For in a sense, we are all dwelling under a sort of cliff, one that is bound to collapse at some unknown, surprising moment. We are all invited, as well—invited to the life-saving and life-giving feast hosted by the One the world holds in the least regard. Do we accept? Or do we remain in the inn, as one character thinks as she makes her way up the cliffside to the feast—All alone. All shut up alone in their rooms, yet none of them at peace.

Amy Welborn is the author of over thirty books on Catholic life, practice, and spirituality. She writes regularly at her blog and currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

Posted on May 16, 2024.

Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
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