I’m back from a very fun holiday in New York during which I had planned to read Patti Smith’s quintessentially New York memoir Just Kids.
But for one reason or another I set off having just begun Margaret Kennedy’s 1920s classic The Constant Nymph and so read this rather eccentric, incongruous book while I was away, only beginning Patti Smith’s on the plane home. A rather out-of-sync reading experience, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. There will be more on New York and Patti Smith next week, but for now I shall write about The Constant Nymph.
I better begin by saying that I think it impossible to read a book with such a daft title without expecting it to be quite silly. But the wonderful and surprising thing about this novel is that it is not at all as silly as it sounds. It is also not nearly as girly as it sounds. In fact, the main character is not the nymph of the misleading title but a man – troubled young composer Lewis Dodd.
The Constant Nymph begins as Lewis Dodd arrives at ‘Sanger’s Circus’, a hut in the Austrian Tyrol where Sanger – another composer – goes every summer with his ‘circus’ of musician friends and children begot from several wives. It is a very Bohemian setup, with various skinny young teenagers running around doing things like looking at badger holes and performing operas and not having enough to eat. It is a wild place and a wild way of living, unfettered by social mores, where everyone is doused with creativity and wanders across mountains in the moonlight.
But then – and we know this from the very first line, so this isn’t a spoiler – Sanger dies, and his children are left penniless. English relations are written to in the hope that they might take responsibility for them, and so we meet cousin Florence, nearly twenty-eight, the daughter of a Cambridge don, who determines to go to the Tyrol and sort everything out.
While Florence is the perfect prim, proper, respectable young English lady, Margaret Kennedy has drawn her with sufficient independence of spirit to make her rather a sympathetic character:
Florence, having finished her breakfast, went about her household duties with the methodical but unenthusiastic efficiency of a woman who is too intelligent to neglect such things. Then she put on her hat and went out to practise string quartets with some friends. Unlike the rest of her circle, she had no profession, but she was a busy young creature. Since she left College there had been so many attractive things to do, books, music, exciting vacations abroad, eventful terms full of political meetings and Greek plays, charming friends and, above all, so much to discuss that she scarcely noticed the flight of time. But it had gone on quite long enough. Sometime, quite soon, she meant to put an end to it. She would settle down to some serious work, or, if she could find a man to her taste, she would marry. At present, her most favoured cavaliers were in their sixties, and for a husband she wanted someone younger than that.
Yes she sounds a little silly with her string quartets and Greek plays, but she is also evidently intelligent. Perhaps occupying herself with these ‘attractive things’ is an attempt to put off the constraints of society for as long as she can.
So Florence and an uncle set off to the Tyrol, where their encounter with the wild life of the Sanger children reminds me very much of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. Again, two prim English people journey to a foreign place of freedom, where they struggle to impose order on a wildness that they can’t understand. In both novels the men are utterly at sea, whereas the women are seduced by this exotic new way of life:
Florence woke every morning, rapturously, to the tune of cow bells … She was so much aware of the impermanence of her pleasure that she was no sooner awake than a longing would seize her to jump up and run out into the mild warmth of the early sun.
Like Caroline Abbott in Where Angels Fear to Tread, Florence has fallen under the spell of an exotic, un-English life. She also falls for Lewis Dodd. And Lewis Dodd falls for her.
So far so silly, I hear you think. Yes, here is a perfect love story and, indeed, it transpires that Lewis is even from the right class:
“I’d have married him,” she thought, “if his father had been the hangman; but this does make a difference…”
But the Sanger children are dismayed at the news of their engagement and Tessa – one of the children and the nymph of the title – suffers actual physical pain from it. For we know already that Tessa, although only fourteen, is utterly in love with Lewis.
The plot thickens when they go to England. Florence and Lewis are married and Florence sets up a home and determines to make Lewis a success. The Sanger children are sent off to boarding school. But whereas Florence, having found her man, is quite happy to slip back into English life, the others rail against its constraints. Lewis receives this letter from the Sanger girls:
Will you please come and take us away from here? It is a disgusting school and we have endured it for as long as we are able … We would never have come if we knew what it would be like. We shall kill ourselves if we are not soon taken away; we cannot exist here, it is insufferable. The Girls are hateful, they say we don’t wash and are liars. The governesses are a Queer Lot and not fitted to be teachers, I’m sure. They think of nothing but games …
Silly and childish as the letter it is, the girls are obviously desperately unhappy. And amidst the histrionics, Paulina has pinpointed the problem: they simply ‘cannot exist here’.
Lewis soon comes to realise he can’t exist there either. This wildness cannot be allowed to exist in England. And so the rest of the novel has an alarming, entropic feeling as Florence struggles to keep control while the wildness of ‘Sanger’s circus’ spins more and more recklessly out of it.
It must be because of this feeling of chaos, genius and creativity struggling to break out of the confines of English society that Anita Brookner, in her introduction to this Virago classic, calls Margaret Kennedy ‘not only a romantic but an anarchist’. This spirit of anarchy transforms the novel from a delightful little story into something troubling, disturbing and very powerful, and all the more so for erupting from its disguise of such a silly title.
Florence has got herself into an impossible situation. She has tried to bring genius to English society when neither genius nor society wants to accept each other. Yes, this is a fascinating depiction of the struggle of creative genius, but it is also a vital questioning of the value of society. Lewis, Tessa and the other members of ‘Sanger’s circus’ are wonderful, fun, talented, fascinating characters. What is our society worth if it can’t accommodate them? Why is there no place for genius in England? Why can it only flourish abroad?
I wonder if Margaret Kennedy felt something of this disjuncture within herself. She was creative and yet also took her place in society as the wife of a Q.C., living in Kensington. Perhaps, not unlike Florence, she spent a little while dallying with string quartets and talking about politics and Greek plays before settling down to marry, and perhaps writing was her way of endeavouring to continue with her independence of spirit. Or perhaps she felt rather ambivalent towards her boarding school, where they concentrated so resolutely on hockey, and fantasised about a free-spirited Sanger-like upbringing.
In any case, in The Constant Nymph, Margaret Kennedy certainly highlights the shortfalls and prescriptive narrowness of her society. Ninety years on and things have changed somewhat, but the essential idea of how we confront and deal with difference remains relevant and utterly compelling.