Tag Archives: Margaret Kennedy

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry by Margaret Kennedy

I have a long-standing interest in the history of the war years, especially of the home front. I guess it is because, being of the ‘boomer’ generation and born after the war, it influenced so much of my formative years. Yet we knew so little of what our parents had done. Many of us had mothers who were silent about their experiences, which we sometimes later discovered had been rather racy; our fathers in the armed or reserved services were hard to imagine. My own father hid behind the Official Secrets Act if we asked him about his war years.

And there is the added interest of our current troubles, the pandemic, which has many parallels with the war. One overwhelming difference is that our ‘enemy’ is a microscopic virus, while in the Second World War it was Hitler and his followers and their malign beliefs. The reactions of the home population during the war have many similarities to our thoughts today, which I find comforting, not least the belief that we will get through it.

Margaret Kennedy’s memoir of the summer of 1940 is therefore a boon to people with my interests. It was published in America in 1941, and has been made available to us today, reissued in a handsome edition by Handheld Press in March 2021. (My thanks to Handheld Press for a copy of this book.)

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry

She writes about the people she meets, friends she corresponds with, the decisions she makes and how the war progresses over the next six months. The immediate fear was of invasion, but also bombardment of the kind seen in Guernica in Spain in April 1937. By September 1940, when the Blitz was well under way, it seemed unlikely that an invasion was imminent.

My story begins at six o’clock on an evening in May 1940 when the BBC announcer told the British people that the situation of our army in Flanders was one of ‘ever-increasing gravity’.

Those three words banished for ever the comfortable delusion that we were ‘certain to win’. And from that moment, the war took on a new character in our minds. (10)

During those months ‘we in this country were living through a supreme experience’, she wrote.

Many of us were more frightened than we ever expected to be. Many, before the year was out, found themselves being braver than they had ever expected to be. We discovered unsuspected passions and loyalties. We realised which things we valued most. […] The story of last summer is the story of forty million people, each one of them taking that journey. Each had to find his own path back to faith and sanity, each had his own unuttered fears, each found his own source of courage. (3-4)

In our own case, the pandemic brought similar experiences of fear, unsuspected bravery, passions and loyalties. And we have each needed to find our own resources to deal with what the pandemic has thrown at us.

Margaret Kennedy writes about the fall of Belgium that occurred soon after that BBC announcement. The situation was indeed increasingly grave. The British army became trapped at Dunkirk and was rescued, France was invaded and capitulated, and Paris was occupied. A German invasion was expected every day.

During that time she and her husband had to make decisions about where to live: she moved with the children from Surrey to ‘Porthmerryn’ – St Ives, Cornwall, where she had spent much of her childhood;  her husband stayed in London as an air raid warden. Later they decided not to send the children to Canada for the duration. This decision was partly motivated by egalitarian principles. Instead they helped with the hundreds of evacuee children who were sent west to Cornwall. 

The children went to Cornwall by train and saw another train full of soldiers rescued from Dunkirk.

While they were waiting on the platform a train full of soldiers came in. The men were filthy and ragged and unshaven, many of them wounded and hastily bandaged up, They were shouting and cheering wildly, and all the people on the platform were cheering and rushing forward with coffee and rolls and fruit and cigarettes. A huge, north-country giant jumped down on the platform and kissed Lucy; pressing a Belgian franc into her hand. (32)

Later as she followed them the writer met a train full of French soldiers, who were much less cheerful for they were going into exile.

Margaret Kennedy’s skill as a writer is in evidence throughout this memoir. I enjoyed her sketches of people, such as the woman who posts pro-German leaflets (like an antivaxxer on social media); the refugee couple from Vienna who have seen terrible things; her friend who denies that anything bad is happening.

For another example, she goes into the garden to find Cotter, the gardener, after that BBC news announcement.

He too had heard the six o’clock news and he looked perturbed but not flabbergasted. But it would take the last trump to dismay Cotter, and even then he would probably appoint himself an usher and marshal us to our places before the mercy seat. He runs the entire village, the British Legion, the Cricket Club, and the Parish Council. It’s my belief that he was born giving instructions to the midwife. (15)

She comments upon class issues, pouring scorn upon the ‘Gluebottoms’ who arrive seeking safety and expecting service they had enjoyed before. They do not muck in. The attitude to the evacuee children is not always generous. We read of the general suspicion of the French, the preparations for invasion and bombardment; rumours that spread and get distorted, and reactions to the first alert.

There are some interesting and amusing details. There are no boats in the Porthmerryn harbour when they arrive because they have not yet returned from Dunkirk. They go for a walk on the seemingly unprotected cliffs and are surprised by hidden soldiers. There is Lucy’s postcard to a school friend:

The waw is getting very bad and we are lerning to nit.

If you think of it as the waw it does not seem so frightening somehow. (32) 

She is exceptional for presenting, along with her own thoughts, the variety of attitudes, arguments, dogmatisms about Belgium, France, the US, bombing, evacuating children to Canada and so on.

By the end of the summer, like us, she and the British public have learned to live normally in an abnormal situation; to keep the children safe and educated, to keep in touch with friends. She repeats the general admiration for the RAF, reminding me of the admiration we feel for the staff of the NHS. She believes that the British will carry on, and even create a better world after it’s over, although the fight is likely to be long and bloody. It lasted for another four and a half years. Let us hope our ‘duration’ is nothing like as long.

Margaret Kennedy

Margaret Kennedy, Smithsonian Institute via WikiCommons

Born in 1896 Margaret Kennedy attended Cheltenham Ladies College and then shared her time at Somerville, where she read history, with Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Hilda Reid and Naomi Mitchison among others. Her first book was a history book and she went on to write 15 novels. Her brother was killed in Palestine in 1918. She died in 1967.

The presentation of this memoir in this new edition is excellent. There is a useful and interesting introduction by Faye Hammill. 

The title comes from a poem, My Soul there is a Country, by Henry Vaughn.

My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wingèd sentry 
All skilful in the wars: (set to music by Parry, in Songs of Farewell, during the First World War)

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry by Margaret Kennedy first published in 1941 but only in the US, reissued by Handheld Press in March 2021. 201pp

Related posts on Bookword

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (1924) from April 2018

Maidens’ Trip: A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal by Emma Smith (1948) from January 2020

Themed review: novels from the Home Front in WW2 from November 2019

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The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

This post about The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy celebrates the birthday of another neglected female writer. Born on 23rdApril 1896 Margaret Kennedy was well known between the wars. Her most famous, even infamous, novel was The Constant Nymph. It was made into a stage play, a silent movie, and two further film adaptations in 1933 and 1943. Among people I asked, the book is well known but not well read.

The story of The Constant Nymph

Albert Sanger is a composer who dominates his family. He has rejected England and has taken his Circus, mistress and seven children of two marriages, to live in the Austrian Tyrol. The children grow up rather wild, living a life of freedom, running away, swearing, bathing in the nude, on familiar terms with adults.

Lewis Dodd is a composer as well as a disciple, who also enjoys the unpredictable Sanger family life. During Lewis’s visit Sanger dies and the Circus is broken up. Florence, the aunt of some of the children, arrives to resolve the issue of what to do about the children. The two older children go off to earn their living, and four of the younger ones, Pauline, Sebastien, Teresa and Antonia, are to be taken in by their mother’s family. But Antonia, who has recently returned from a short visit to Munich, where she lost her virginity with Jacob Birnbaum, decides instead to marry Jacob.

Lewis falls for Florence struck by the order and control in her life. She in turn is attracted to the bohemianism she finds. They marry quickly and organise the remaining children into schools in England.

Although initially in awe of Florence, her poise, her capable manner, the children find school impossible and run away to find Lewis, the only sympathetic person they know. By now it has become clear that Teresa although only fourteen is in love with Lewis.

With so many conflicting outlooks, in particular the cultivated versus the bohemian, relationships do not work out well. Florence soon comes to distrust Teresa, and then becomes jealous of her. Lewis will not conform to her life and expectations for him, and comes to disregard her.

Over time the love grows between Lewis and Teresa, becomes acknowledged, feared and finally overtakes them all.

Reading The Constant Nymph

The contrasts and tensions that play out in this novel begin with the title. A nymph, after all, is not normally regarded as constant, more as a flighty creature. But Teresa is steadfast in her affection for Lewis. She is presented as naïve and innocent in this.

Even when she has had some contact with the civilising influence of school and London she remains innocent as her uncle observes.

He found her very entertaining. Her way of talking had a turn that was at once innocent and shrewd, infantile and yet full of observations, adorned with quaint, half literary idiom, and full of inflections borrowed from other languages. She was refreshing, after a long surfeit of cultural provincialism. He saw ignorance in her, and childishness and a good deal of untutored passion, but of pose there was no trace and she was without small sentimentalities or rancours. (251)

The novel explores the many contrasts between convention and nature, art and practicality, and above all education in the proper ways of cultured society and the acceptance of feelings as an honest basis for action.

And, as the extract suggests, the tensions are not only between the characters, but also within them. Florence, for example, is the epitome of acceptable culture, but is challenged by her attraction to Lewis the composer, and by the children’s lack of appreciation of the proper way to do things. Lewis only begins composing again when Florence brings order to his life through their marriage, but he loathes her conformity and longs for the anarchism of the Sanger Circus.

The bohemian household of the domineering Sanger in The Constant Nymphreminds us of the notorious arrangements of the artists Augustus John and Eric Gill. Forty years later, in 1968 Elizabeth Taylor portrayed a similar household in The Wedding Group.

And what challenges accepted norms more than the sexual transgressions of bohemians? This is the core of the novel. Teresa’s sister Antonia had just escaped social opprobrium. She was sixteen when she ran off with Jacob, so not a minor, and they were pressured into marriage. In contrast, Teresa is fifteen when she and Lewis abscond, and he is already married. Although we are invited to have sympathy for their rather innocent involvement (he has not ‘made her his mistress’ before they leave England) Margaret Kennedy was not able to allow them to continue with their misadventure. However the failure of their escapade will bring no satisfaction to anyone.

The description of Jacob Birnbaum, who is frequently referred to as a Jew, is shocking, and of its time. He is a generous and perceptive person, who supports his wife and friends in practical and emotional ways. But his portrayal, and that of some of other characters are of stereotypes. Linda the slatternly mistress of Albert Sanger, the fat Russian choreographer Trigorin and even Sanger himself are much less nuanced as characters than Lewis, Florence and Teresa. Margaret Kennedy demonstrates psychological insight into the conflicts of these characters.

This novel deserves to be better known, even if we are less shocked by some of the activities of the children, instead would condemn Lewis and his self indulgences.

Margaret Kennedy

Margaret Kennedy, Smithsonian Institute via WikiCommons

Born in 1896 Margaret attended Cheltenham Ladies College and then shared her time at Somerville with Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Hilda Reid and Naomi Mitchison among others. Her first book was a history book and she went on to write 15 novels. She died in1967.

Related posts

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authorswhich caught my eye. I support her suggestion that we celebrate birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

The Constant Nymphby Margaret Kennedy, first published in 1924. I used the edition published by Vintage in 2014, with an Introduction by Joanna Briscoe. 362pp

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