The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph (1924) was Margaret Kennedy’s most commercially successful novel, spawning both a play featuring Noel Coward and a film starring one of my favourite actresses, Joan Fontaine. As a book, it shares much with another of my recent reads, Edith Wharton’s 1928 novel, The Children: a man who enters into a relationship with an underage girl; an unconventional family living a bohemian lifestyle; and a brood of rather engaging, precocious children to name but a few. While the Wharton explores these issues from the male perspective, Kennedy’s novel places a young girl at the centre of its narrative. The individual in question is Tessa, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Albert Sanger, a brilliant yet difficult composer who lives in a rambling chalet in the Austrian Alps.

As the novel opens, Lewis Dodd, a young English composer of some promise is travelling to Austria to visit the much-feted Sanger, whom he views as something of a mercurial genius. With his rather conventional upbringing, Lewis finds himself attracted to Sanger and his ‘circus’ – an assortment of children from various marriages, Sanger’s current wife, the beautiful but lazy Linda, and various hangers-on. Their lifestyles are free-spirited and unconventional with little regard for the customs of the broader society at large. For instance, it is Sanger’s eldest daughter, Kate, who manages the household, her desire for some degree of organisation far outweighing that of Linda.

Younge Tessa is the constant nymph of the novel’s title, a wonderfully unfiltered, warm-hearted girl, who at fourteen is already wildly in love with Lewis and his passion for the arts. Lewis, for his part, is also attracted to Tessa with her wild, unfettered innocence, viewing her as the most interesting of Sanger’s daughters.

He has always thought her the pick of the bunch. She was an admirable, graceless little baggage, entirely to his taste. She amused him, invariably. And, queerly enough, she was innocent. That was an odd thing to say of one of Sanger’s daughters, but it was the truth. Innocence was the only name he could find for the wild, imaginative solitude of her spirit. The impudence of her manners could not completely hide it, and beyond it he could discern an intensity of mind which struck him as little short of a disaster in a creature so fragile and tender, so handicapped by her sex. She would give herself to pain with a passionate readiness, seeing only its beauty, with that singleness of vision which is the glory and the curse of such natures. He wondered anxiously, and for the first time, what was to become of her. (p. 68)

Tessa longs for a time when she is grown-up, a point when it will be possible for her to enter into a more fulfilling relationship with Lewis; and while nothing is explicitly said, there is a sense that Lewis understands this too, casting an air of destiny over their connection.

Nevertheless, when Albert Sanger dies, this idyll is fractured, and the family is at risk of being split up. The two eldest children, Caryl and Kate, are old enough to fend for themselves, leaving their younger siblings – Tessa included – to be catered for elsewhere. As a consequence, Florence and Robert Churchill – who are related to Sanger’s second wife, now deceased – travel to Austria with a view to bringing the children back to England.

With her traditional breeding and refined lifestyle, Florence is enchanted by the young Sangers. Nevertheless, their wild, unconventional existence proves something of a surprise, prompting Florence to decide that the children should be sent to boarding school where they will receive a proper education.

In a further unexpected twist, Lewis is drawn away from Tessa by the beautiful Florence with her sophisticated lifestyle and strong standing in society. Florence, for her part, is seduced by Lewis’s artistic temperament and role as a musician. However, their sudden marriage is not a great success, primarily as a consequence of unrealistic expectations and subsequent frustrations for both parties. While Lewis feels constrained by the conventions of London society, Florence finds her new husband rather challenging to fashion. It’s a conflict captured in the following passage, which touches on the balance between art and civilisation/humanity – one of many sets of opposing forces in the novel.

[Florence:] “Your attitude is completely wrong. You put the wrong things first. Music, all art…what is it for? What is its justification? After all…”

[Lewis:] “It’s not for anything. It has no justification. It…”

“It’s only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully. You can’t put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilization, as your precious Sanger seems to have done. Human life is more important.” (p. 209)

Meanwhile, Tessa and her siblings are also finding it difficult to adapt to a new life, highlighting the tension between an ordered, conventional lifestyle and an unstructured, bohemian one. The constraints of boarding school prove unbearable for Tessa and her sister, Paulina, prompting them to run away with their brother, Sebastian. The relationship between Lewis and Tessa is rekindled when the latter returns to the Dodds’ London home, a move that reveals the intensity of Florence’s jealousy towards her young cousin.

As the novel’s denouement plays out, Tessa must try to reconcile her love for Lewis – something she views as her destiny – with other complicating factors, most notably her ties to the family and the constraints of a conventional society. By the end of the narrative, Tessa is only fifteen, a factor that dictates society’s view of any sexual relationship she may wish to have with Lewis.

While Kennedy has created a very interesting moral dilemma here, I feel she could have gone a little further in exploring the psychology of her characters, particularly in the case of Lewis. It’s something Wharton delves into quite deeply with The Children, probing Martin Boyne’s state of mind in her characteristically incisive style. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s central characters are recognisable, believable and beautifully drawn, factors that add an extra layer of poignancy to the novel’s ending which I would rather not reveal.

There is some terrific humour here, too. Kennedy has a sharp eye for an amusing scene, highlighting the absurdities of the Sangers’ unfettered existence and the moral outrage of Florence’s family at the prospect of her marriage to Lewis.

[Robert:] “I can’t think what her father will say. If he’s got any sense, he’ll forbid it! He’ll forbid it! But I suppose he’ll blame me. How could I have prevented it? How could I have foreseen it? Who could have thought that Florence, FLORENCE, a sensible woman like Florence, not quite a young girl either, would dream of doing such a thing. A delicate-minded, well-bred girl, to take up with a wretched mounteback, a disagreeable, ill-conditioned young cub, with the manners of…of…well, he hasn’t got any manners. And goodness knows if he ever washes.” (p. 154)

Tessa’s siblings are another source of joy, especially Paulina, whose wonderfully unfiltered letter to Lewis on the trials of boarding school life is one of the book’s most amusing highlights.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this novel, the marvellous Backlisted team covered it in one of their recent podcasts, which you can find here. It’s well worth a listen to hear more about some of this novel’s rather controversial elements, particularly the depiction of an underage relationship and the anti-Semitic sentiments the book contains. (Very much a reflection of the era in which it was written, but it’s certainly something for contemporary readers to bear in mind.)

The Constant Nymph is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

36 thoughts on “The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

  1. Brian Joseph

    This is a difficult subject that often makes for good literature. I have not read Edith Wharton’s The Children but now I want to read this book and that book. It would be interesting to read them back to back.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Definitely – they make a great pairing. I think you should probably read the Wharton first as you’re already familiar with her work. Then you can consider reading this as a comparison. There’s something very unwholesome about these misguided relationships, and (as ever) Wharton delves into the psychology of her characters very well.

      Reply
  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Another excellent review Jacquiwine! I’ve had my copy of this novel gathering dust on the shelf for more years than I like to think; it’s been one of those interesting books that never quite make it to the top of the TBR pile (the same is true for some of Kennedy’s other novels. Didn’t she write “The Ladies of Lyndon”? That’s another shelf ornament of mine). As you point out, Constant Nymph provides a very interesting contrast to Wharton’s The Children — did you plan this or was it serendipity? (I’ve sometimes found myself, purely by chance, on a streak where my reading choices tie in or contrast to each other). The Wharton angle made me think of her very dear friend Henry James, who also did a couple of books on “the innocent young girl in a morally questionable society” theme: What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age. It’s been so long since I’ve read either I remember very little (except that both were something of a slog) so the likeness to either Wharton or Kennedy may not be there (if so, it’s probably closer to Wharton, since James was interested, I think, in criticizing the society in which his young girls found themselves). I do find it curious, however, how this female innocence theme seems to pop up. Would it be too much to say that the Nabokov’s nymphet Lolita is just at the very far end of this spectrum?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it was planned – in fact, it was the Backlisted podcast that prompted it. When Alexandra Pringle talked about The Constant Nymph on the edition in question, she also mentioned Wharton’s The Children as having covered very similar territory. (Interestingly, the Kennedy was in fact published first – 4 years before The Children — but I don’t know if Wharton had read it or been aware of it when she wrote her own novel on the subject.) Anyway, it’s an interesting pairing, for sure. James I need to get to at some pointy, but I have seen the contemporary film adaptation of Maisie, which I liked quite a bit – anything featuring Julianne Moore is always worth a look!

      Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    Interesting that you mention Alexandra Pringle in your reply to Janakay. When I read your opening paragraphs, Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney popped into my head. It’s published by Bloomsbury (Pringle’s company) and explores the underage theme but from a contemporary perspective.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How funny you should mention Zinovieff’s book! When I tweeted that I was reading The Nymph, Alexandra replied to say great, glad you’re enjoying it, etc, etc, together with a recommendation for Putney as a contemporary spin on the same theme. What did you think of it, Susan? I’m guessing you’ve read it…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Actually, now that I think about it, this might have come about when I tweeted my review of Edith Wharton’s The Children – another book that Alexandra had referred to in the podcast because of the similarities with the Nymph. Anyway, I agree – her admiration for these books may well have played a part in Bloomsbury’s acquisition of Putney. Great to hear that you would recommend it, Susan, I shall head over to yours for a closer look…

          Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    The Tessa/Lewis relationship does make me a little queasy, but I do have ‘The Children’ on the TBR list partly because of the physiological depth and partly because it’s Edith Wharton. But having the story told from Tessa’s viewpoint does intrigue. Maybe I’ll give the Wharton a try and go from there. I appreciate your thoughtful and sympathetic posts on both.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Children is the better of the two, I think – partly because Wharton probes the psychology of her characters more effectively than Kennedy and partly because of the quality of the prose. As you say, give it a go, especially as you have an interest in Wharton. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. Wharton is a brilliant writer, one of the all-time greats. That said, I would suggest you start with another novel as The Children is probably second-tier. Maybe The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth? Either of those two would make an excellent introduction to her style!

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I can see why you have referenced The Children in this review the two novels do share certain themes. I loved this book, in fact I really enjoy books about chaotic families, children having to drag themselves up etc. I would recommend Margaret Kennedy’s The Oracles if you can find it, I am fairly sure it’s not been reissued.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really enjoyed the depictions of the sprawling, chaotic families in these two novels. They’re beautifully done! Many thanks for recommending The Oracles as another Kennedy to consider – I’ll definitely take a look.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Very thoughtful review, Jacqui. In my (limited) experience of Kennedy, she writes beautifully and I always intend to explore more. The knotty topic here is a difficult one, because I can remember (yes, really!) being 14 or 15 and pretty much thinking I was an adult and knew what I wanted and was definitely more interested in older men because boys my age seemed so immature. And I don’t know without reading it how much of that Kennedy gets into her story. Certainly I think I would nowadays be more interested in reading about that kind of relationship from the point of view of the girl – less risk perhaps of objectification? I’m keen to read this one day, though, because I enjoyed my experience of Kennedy’s “The Feast” very much!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think there’s an element of that here, but I wanted more insight into Tessa’s inner life – the psychological insight into her motives etc. There seemed to be a lot more of that in The Children, albeit from the male perspective as Wharton focuses on Martin and the moral dilemma he faces in relation to Judith. Wharton also avoids falling into the trap of depicting Judith as an object of sexual desire, which is good to see. As for Kennedy, that’s a very timely reminder about The Feast. I recall you mentioning it before!

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    The anti-semtism of these between wars writers is problematic for me. This has completely turned me off Dorothy L Sayers and as for men falling in love with nymphets… It is quite common; think of Picasso, Lucien Freud, the Pre Raphaelites, but such a product of narcissistic male egos that I have no sympathy for it. I read other reviews that expressed the view Kennedy had not made the relationship between Tessa and Lewis at all convincing. What do you think?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I wanted a bit more on that front to be honest, a greater insight into Tessa’s mind and motivations. It’s a very well-written book, but the relationship between Lewis and Tessa is highly romanticised and lacking a little in psychological depth. That’s where the Wharton wins out, I think. And yes, I hear you on the antisemitism. It jars, especially when viewed from a 21st-century perspective…Not one for you, I suspect!

      Reply
  8. madamebibilophile

    I enjoyed this when I read it as Kennedy wrote so evocatively about that chaotic family! The central relationship is an uneasy one and I totally agree it would have benefited from a bit more consideration as to the psychology behind it. Joan Fontaine is so lovely and watchable – I’ll see if I can hunt down the film!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the family are wonderfully wild and unfettered – a real joy to read about as characters but somewhat frustrating to encounter in real life, I suspect! The film sounds worth hunting down, doesn’t it? Anything starring Joan Fontaine has got to be worth a look.

      Reply
  9. Liz Dexter

    Well I have read this myself but many moons ago – the only mention of it on my blog is lending a copy to Ali in 2014 (when my tbr was one shelf!). I do remember it though and the uneasy theme.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is a rather troubling scenario, especially as the relationship is romanticised (more so here than in the Wharton). I’m glad I read it though, a very engaging novel!

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. moirar2

    It had never occurred to me to compare The Children and The Constant Nymph until recently, it illuminates both books. I love both authors but in general would put Edith Wharton on a much higher level than Margaret Kennedy. However Constant Nymph I read at an impressionable age, one of those books that as a teenager I thought was the height of romantic drama, I think I was quite uncritical. Coming back to it later there is a lot to enjoy but also a lot that is problematical. I wrote about this on the blog a few years ago, as (hem hem) mentioned in the backlisted podcast. I have read a few other MK books, and enjoyed, and have noted down a few more from the comments above…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I recall you getting a mention on the podcast! How lovely of them to reference your blog – you write so beautifully about so many different aspects of various books, not just the clothes. I agree that Wharton is a better writer than Kennedy and that The Nymph is a novel probably best read as a teenager when the thrill and excitement of first love would resonate so strongly. It made an interesting read, especially alongside the Wharton!

      Reply
  12. BuriedInPrint

    She’s an author I’ve done a better job of gathering than I’ve done of reading, and everytime I see a mention of her books I want to read them all, and all at once. *giggles* This is such a fascinating age for a heroine. I feel as though many people do not want to admit that girls of that age can be very certain and secure about what they want in a relationship (I was that way myself and I’ve observed my stepkids feeling just as convinced); it’s easy for those of us who are now older to believe that we “know better” but older people are just as likely to make poor evaluations and risky decisions, aren’t we? :) It sounds like I might enjoy the Wharton more, for explorations along these lines?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think the Wharton is the more accomplished of the two, for sure. It’s sharper and more incisive, psychologically speaking. And yet the Kennedy is fascinating too, not least for its insights into the social context at that time. Sadly, I didn’t have that same sense of confidence and certainty about my feelings as a teenager, although I very much envied those around me who did! You’d find it an interesting read, I think, particularly given your own personal experiences of youth! :)

      Reply
  13. Susan Kavanagh

    I have gotten far behind with reading my favorite bloggers and am just getting to this now. I read the Constant Nymph recently and the Wharton a few years ago. What a wonderful review of the Constant Nymph! I agree with you that the Children is the better written of the two. Even second tier books by Wharton are very, very good along with her short stories. I liked the Constant Nymph. So interesting how we see it through the eyes of a teenager. It surprised me that it was a best seller. Where were the censors who seemed to be busy around the time of publication? I felt uneasy during the last third of the book but will nor discuss it because of spoilers. Have you read the Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard? It contains a love story between a teenage girl and an older soldier just after World War II.Thanks for your wonderful blog

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I agree with you about the surprising lack of censorship given the period in which The Nymph was published; although maybe the cultural climate in England in the 1920s suited the novel’s tone? I wonder if it might have received more attention from the censors had it been published in the early 1930s when the political landscape in Europe was beginning to change? It’s an interesting point to consider, for sure…

      As for Shirley Hazzard, no I haven’t read anything by her, although she has been on my list of ‘writers to try’ for quite a while – ever since Backlisted covered her a few years ago! Thanks for recommending The Great Fire, particularly given its connection to the Kennedy and the Wharton. I will definitely take a look…

      Reply

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