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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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