The manuscript of an unpublished novel whose author died many years ago automatically triggers a certain degree of pathos. When that manuscript derives from the days before word processing, even its material aspects evoke something of feeling: the uneven saturation of the letters produced by a manual typewriter with dirty type and an old ribbon; the crinkle of typing paper; the faint musty fragrance of long-stored pages. The typescript for The Duchess of Angus was bound in two volumes, each with a brown embossed pressboard report cover and a Duo-Tang twin-prong fastener; the paper watermark is Eaton’s Corrasable Bond, a brand of correctable typing paper. Occasional errors have been corrected with eraser and pencil. But all of these details become inconsequential as soon as we encounter the arresting voice of the novel’s narrator: a first-person voice inflected with some of the flat affect and disturbing candor found in the fiction of J. D. Salinger and Sylvia Plath. This is a live piece of writing, a novel not just of historical interest but of significant literary power and force in its own right.

The author was Margaret Brown Kilik, and she must have finished writing the novel sometime between 1955 and 1960, since the label on the cover gives Kilik’s address as Readington Road, Whitehouse Station, N.J., where the Kilik family (wife Margaret, husband Gene, sons Mike and Jimmy) lived for five years at what Gene later always just called “the farm,” an old wooden clapboard-style house with an apple orchard and a small flock of sheep who regularly made themselves sick eating windfalls. My mother, Caroline, married Jimmy many years afterward. I only met Margaret, my step-grandmother, once before she died in 2001, but Gene became my much-loved step-grandfather, and it was after he died in 2017 that this manuscript came into my
possession.

The story of how the novel came to be remains a mystery. What steps did Kilik take to get the work published, and what led her to put it aside? There must have been correspondence that would fill in some gaps in the story of the work, but it is unlikely that the missing pieces will emerge. We are left instead with this remarkable piece of writing, and with the lost time and place and people it brings so effectively to life.

I want to know who the Duchess of Angus is…