I’m not quite sure what to make of The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy, and I’m not even sure I like it – but despite my reservations I sat up until 3 am to finish it, so it can’t be all that bad! It is, I think, a difficult book for modern readers. For a start there’s the vexing question of the relationship between a 14-year-old girl and an older man, not sexual, but disturbing nonetheless. Equally unsettling is the casual anti-Semiticism, which was surprisingly widespread when this novel was published in 1924. And the racism extends to a more general xenophobia, where foreigners are viewed with great suspicion by all true Englishmen – and Englishmen who consort with these strangers are the subject of even greater distrust. Additionally, there’s a pervasive ‘classism’ which I find very distasteful; for example, working class characters and peasants are regarded as stupid and hardly human, and are treated accordingly. To be honest, I feel a little mean highlighting class and race issues because they are not themes within the book – this is just the way people are, part of everyday life, and no-one questions it.
The story itself gets a little convoluted. Albert Sanger is a brilliant, tempestuous, avant garde musician living out the final years of his life in the Austrian Alps, with his mistress, a collection of children by various mothers, and a motley crew of hangers-on. The children are known collectively as ‘Sanger’s Circus’ because of their:
“…wandering existence, their vulgarity, their conspicuous brilliance, the noise they made, and the kind of naptha-flare genius which illuminated everything they said or did. Their father had given them a good, sound musical training and nothing else. They had received no sort of regular education, but, in the course of their travels, had picked up a good deal of mental furniture and could abuse each other most profanely in the argot of four languages.”
The description seems more than a little unfair on Caryl and Kate, the children of Sanger’s first wife (who died) as they are by far the
most sensible members of the household, doing their best to keep things running smoothly and care for everyone else. Antonia, Teresa, Paulina and Sebastian are the offspring of Evelyn, his second wife (also dead), while Susan is the daughter of his current mistress, the stunningly beautiful but enormously fat Linda, who spends all her time in bed or in a hammock.
When Sanger dies unexpectedly, the children are left penniless, but the family of Evelyn, Sanger’s second wife, step in to help, and Cousin Florence is dispatched to bring the four orphans to England so they can be sent to school. Florence is beautiful, wealthy, well educated, and well dressed. Gentle, polite and sensible, she’s a devoted daughter – she’s looked after her father since her mother died. However, there are hints that Florence is not quite the paragon of virtue she appears to be, and her father’s reflections on her behaviour do not bode well for the future:
“From infancy she had always done exactly what she pleased with a persistance which belied the sweet placability of her manner. In the face of criticism or protest she exhibited none of Evelyn’s flaming defiance, only a pleasant disregard which had always vanquished him. Sometimes, viewing her unswerving pursuit of a chosen course, he was compelled to liken her to something slow, crushing, irresistible – a steam-roller.”
Florence, at almost 28, is on the verge of becoming an old maid but she falls in love with composer Lewis Dodds, a friend of the Sangers. The couple marry, and back home in England Florence packs the children off to boarding schools (with the exception of Antonia, who marries another family friend, Jacob Birnbaum, a wealthy Jew, who has seduced her, on the grounds that if he doesn’t someone else will). Florence determines to to establish a kind of musical salon, using her connections to further Lewis’s career. But Lewis doesn’t want his career furthered. And, having opted out of polite society, he has no intention of rejoining it. A battle of wills develops, and to make matters worse the children run away from their schools, and the schools refuse to take them back…
In fact, the marriage is doomed to failure, as everyone except Florence realises, for not only are their values and outlook on life very different, but Lewis is in love with Teresa, and Teresa (or Tessa as she is generally known), is in love with him, although she is only 14. As I said earlier, there’s no sexual element – their relationship is a a kind of pure meeting of minds. They are soul mates, destined to be together (think Cathy and Heathcliff rather than a conventional love story).
When the two are together even Charles, Florence’s father (and one of the nicest characters in the book) can see that Tessa and Lewis are a perfectly well-matched couple with the kind of rapport that Florence and Lewis can never achieve. Considering the situation he tells us:
“Teresa was, probably, the only woman in the world who could manage this man; she would respect humours without taking them too seriously, she would never require him to behave correctly, and, if he annoyed her, she would reprove him good-humouredly in the strong terms which he deserved and understood. How could they have failed to see it? Lewis was a fool! If he had married little Teresa she would have made a man of him, whereas mated with Florence he was nothing but a calamity.”
It’s a clash of worlds as much as a clash of personalities: natural versus artifice; conformity versus rebellion; order versus disorder; outsiders versus those who belong… Lewis, Tessa, Tony, Lina and Sebastian are wild, anarchic, passionate creatures who know no rules and trail chaos in their wake. Set against them is the conventional, well ordered society created by Florence and her friends, where appearance is everything, and talking about feelings is more important than the feelings themselves. The difference is shown in their approach to music: for Lewis and the Sangers music is part of the air they they breathe or the food they eat, and is every bit as necessary, but for Florence it is something to be taken up and enjoyed on special occasions, like a best dress. And there’s a poignant moment when Lewis recalls a magical moment in his childhood, when he heard a bird’s wings, and the response of the two women is very different, for while Tessa can feel the beat of the wings, Florence can only ask about the location.
It’s difficult to like the characters. On the whole they are not kind people – they are insensitive, thoughtless, and cruel to each other and to other people, and they are contemptuous about anyone they regard as less clever, or of a lower social order. But they drag you into their story whether you will or not, and although I didn’t enjoy this as much Troy Chimneys, there’s a lot to enjoy and admire, and Kennedy can be wonderfully satiric about people and situations.
I read this a while ago, but posted it today so I can take part in Margaret Kennedy Day, which takes place today, and is being hosted by Jane, at Beyond Eden Rock.