A novel about a circle of bohemian adults and children in the months following the death of their father and mentor, a brilliant but little-known English composer. 1924.
This is a very, very hard book to describe. That single-sentence synopsis (see above) has taken me quite a few tries to get something I’m happy with. Meh, not happy…Satisfied. This is a novel that contains so much, and contains it in such a ramshackle way—-rather befitting the lifestyles of the characters—-that a single-sentence synopsis does it very little justice.
And if the synopsis was hard to write, I’m not sure how this review will go!
I went into The Constant Nymph with pretty high expectations. This was my third Margaret Kennedy novel. The first two, The Feast and Lucy Carmichael, set an entirely new standard for literature in my life. They’re the #1 and #2 best books I’ve ever read. And that’s saying something, my friends.
Before I started reading, I did some research on The Constant Nymph, and I discovered that although it’s Kennedy’s best-known work, it’s not necessarily her most-loved.
And I must say that I agree. It is, however, still some really solid literature, and an eloquent, moving, and entertaining depiction of the 1920s European bohemian lifestyle. Plus, at the core it’s a Kennedy novel, which means the story is about a slightly random group of people experiencing life and evolving together. See? It’s hard to do justice with one sentence.
So let’s add some more sentences! The Constant Nymph begins in Austria at the home of Albert Sanger. Sanger is a brilliant, temperamental English composer who’s known among only a very select group of European artists and musicians. At the novel’s opening, two such admirers, a fellow composer and a ballet designer, are heading to spend some time with the “Sanger circus”: Sanger himself, his third wife, and his seven children.
The children, ranging widely in age, personality, and talents, are a considerable force in this novel. For instance, when the guests arrive there’s a hubbub because one of the older daughters hasn’t been seen for a week. It turns out she’s gotten cozy with another of Sanger’s admirers, a fat, wealthy young man with some appreciation for the arts, but more appreciation for the artist’s daughter.
Sanger’s wife, the stepmother to six of the children, natural mother to one sniveling little child of her own, is another source of instant drama. She’s a spoiled woman, more than a little sluttish; she sees her grown stepdaughters as competition for male attention, and she treats them with open contempt.
We also perceive, early on, that another of Sanger’s daughters is in love. She’s 14-year-old Teresa, one of the quieter members of the family circus. Ever since she was a little girl she’s been in love with Sanger’s composer friend, Lewis Dodd. With this visit of Lewis’s, we see that Lewis is totally oblivious to his influence on Teresa. Teresa herself is only a teenager, and Lewis is a grown man. All the same, something’s going to happen between these two, someday. We just don’t know what will happen, how, or when.
Then Sanger dies, very suddenly, while all of these people are crowded together under the same roof. Now the action really kicks off. Quickly, everyone perceives that the circus has to scatter; Sanger has left nothing but some music and a whole lot of debts.
As it turns out, Sanger’s second wife, long since deceased, came from a good English family with connections. That family now hears about Sanger’s demise and steps in to take care of their relatives. The narrative now expands to include these long-lost relatives who travel to Austria to check out their young cousins. Among the new arrivals is Florence, a woman who’s well on her way to spinsterhood…and then she meets Lewis.
Very quickly, a connection forms between Lewis and Florence. Quiet Teresa witnesses it all, powerless to speak her feelings to anyone besides her sister Paulina.
At last Paulina look sharply at her sister and said:
“There’s no use crying about it.”
“No use,” agreed Teresa.
But the tears poured down her face, whether she would or no, until she conceived the happy idea of trying to water a primula with them. Immediately the flood was dried, after the manner of tears when a practical use has been found for them.
“And it would have been interesting,” said Paulina sorrowfully, “to see if it would have made any difference to the primula.”
This is Kennedy’s wonderful style, through and through: an unpredictable plot, characters who remain true to life, and prose that is beautiful, profound, and often unexpectedly whimsical.
Sanger’s grown children are old enough to support themselves, but the younger ones cannot be independent yet. So Teresa and her younger siblings are brought to England, where their mother’s family plans on turning them into proper little English ladies. Unfortunately, this is a losing battle almost from the beginning…and then of course there’s Teresa, always subtly in love with Lewis.
To me, Teresa is the true star of this story. I love that she’s quiet, loyal, and wise beyond her years. There’s a whole cast of superbly drawn characters here, though, so if Teresa doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, there’s bound to be another who catches your heart and imagination. In fact, there are many characters, like Teresa’s uncle, who I would’ve loved to see more of, even if they aren’t crucial to the plot. For instance, there’s this conversation in which the uncle tries to convince Teresa not to run away from school again. Teresa demands:
“Are you so very happy? Happier than an uneducated man?”
“I’ve been singularly fortunate in my life, Teresa. I’ve had remarkably little to bear; less I daresay than you have had already. But I can honestly say that, in such trouble as has come to me, a philosophic outlook, which is the fruit, one of the fruits, of a good education, has been of use to me.”
“Can’t an uneducated person have a philosophic outlook?”
“By the light of natural wisdom? Yes. But it’s harder and slower. And you must realize this, Teresa. Unhappiness is, to a certain extent, the sure lot of every one of us. We cannot escape it. We can only brace ourselves to endure it. But we have it in our power to do a great deal towards securing our happiness. That does lie in our hands. We can enlarge our tastes and interests and perceptions. That is the chief use of education, to widen the resources.”
In all, The Constant Nymph doesn’t set a new standard for good literature, but it does maintain that standard. It reminds me in many ways of Susan Ertz’s After Noon, probably because they were written two years apart and feature young English women who, lacking role models, are trying to figure out what kind of women they want to become.
If you’re waiting for the perfect time to give Kennedy a go, this October has been declared Margaret Kennedy month! Also, as with Tregaron’s Daughter, I was able to read this book while visiting the place I was reading about. This time the country was Austria…And here’s a photo to prove it!