The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

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This review of Margaret  Kennedy’s ‘The Constant Nymph’ is in celebration of Margaret Kennedy Day, hosted by Jane from Beyond Eden Rock’s Blog.

The Constant Nymph is Kennedy’s most celebrated novel. Published after the First World War, in 1924, it was met with much critical acclaim. It is certainly a well written novel and the storyline is smooth without any stops and gaps. The subject matter is a little sensitive but quite intelligently written.

The story for the most part is set in Austria, in the Tyrolean Alps and I must say that the setting was one of my most favourite things about the book. It tells the story of the Sanger family. The father, the avant-grade composer Albert Sanger, is an unusual man. A gifted but not very successful English composer he has spent most of his life in exile, inhabiting various European towns and cities and simultaneously acquiring a large host of wives, mistresses and children.

Sanger, finally settles down in a remote chalet, high up in the Tyrolean Alps, in a location that can be accessed only by train, boat and a steep climb. Here, he lives with his slovenly mistress and seven children in a lively cohort frequently referred to as ‘Sanger’s circus’. Many of Sanger’s artistic friends, mostly bohemian in temperament, visit and stay with the family.

One of them is the talented composer Lewis Dodd, a young man who is a regular visitor and is so well loved by the family that he almost seems part of it. In particular Lewis and fourteen year old Teresa have a very close relationship. Teresa worships Lewis and Lewis is very tender and loving towards Teresa.

 She was guided by the constant simplicity of her young heart. He was himself the only man who could ever betray it and she had been his, had he known it, as long as she could remember. Her love was as natural and necessary to her as the breath she drew…

The family is considerably disturbed when Sanger quite suddenly dies. The orphaned children look towards their maternal relations for support and are sent to English boarding schools, much to their disgust. Prior to their dismissal, a maternal cousin, Florence visits them up on the alm. Beautiful, sophisticated and well educated, she beguiles Lewis and the two of them decide to marry after a quite short courtship. Teresa, heartbroken, watches as Lewis is swept off his feet.

In England, Florence and Lewis settle down to married life which Lewis quite quickly finds very stifling. He realizes the mistake that he has made and looks again to fifteen year old Teresa, for comfort. Constant in her love for him, Teresa must choose between the calling of her heart and her moral obligation towards her cousin.

One cannot but help draw mental comparisons between Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and Kennedy’s ‘The Constant Nymph’. I will not say more, but I do believe that Kennedy has dealt with a very sensitive topic with great skill.

I find the love triangle at the heart of the novel to be quite unique. The different people in the novel have quite unusual, unconventional relationship dynamics amongst themselves. Teresa’s love for Lewis can be likened to that of a teenage infatuation but what makes it unusual is that it remains quite strong and that it is equally reciprocated by Lewis.

 

Lewis and Florence have an unusual relationship as well. Lewis is mesmerized by Florence’s beauty and sophisticated demeanour and Florence is drawn to his passion and talent for music. Lewis holds great power over Florence and knows it all too well.

The story I think is quite modern. Nearly a century later, the bohemian lifestyle of the Sangers’ seems quite unconventional  to say the least.

There are frequent references to the importance of the need of formal education in a person’s life. Though Kennedy advocates it, she also shows us that it is not a requisite for forming a moral sense of right and wrong and steadfastness of character.

I find the title to be quite curious. When I look up the exact definition of nymph in the dictionary it refers to ‘a mythological spirit of nature imagined as a beautiful maiden inhabiting rivers, woods, or other locations’. As I ponder over the meaning I realize that the title is so very apt.

The beauty and spirit of this book lies in the Tyrolean chapters, where the children roamed free and uninhibited in the bosom of nature. Teresa, whilst described as being far from beautiful by Kennedy, is always described in the most loving terms by Lewis. Teresa’s constancy of heart can be witnessed at every step of the story, proving to us that this  blessed trait can be found in the very young too. It is a valuable lesson to be reminded of.

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No Comfort at Cold Comfort Farm

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This was my second experience with reading Stella Gibbons, the first book being Nightingale Wood.

Nightingale Wood had enchanted me. It was such a romantic, Cinderella-like story and so intelligently written. I was naturally very eager to read more Gibbons and so all my bookish friends recommended ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ to me. I expected the same soft, dulcet toned storyline but I was quite surprised with the strangeness of Cold Comfort Farm.

It was cold, there was no comfort and it was extremely raw.

If I were to describe Cold Comfort Farm in a single word, suitable descriptions might be: parody, satire and melodrama.

The story centres around the adventures of city-bred, sophisticated Flora Poste. Born of affluent parents and blessed with a sound education, Flora finds herself orphaned in her twentieth year, when both her parents die during the annual epidemic of Spanish flu. Her parents leave her penniless except for a small annual income of one hundred pounds. Flora though highly educated is completely uneducated in the ways of the world and means to earn a living.

She is full of ideas though, which she propounds to her friend Mrs Smiling. One of them is to unburden herself onto one of her distant relatives. There are several options: a Scottish bachelor cousin of her Fathers, a maternal aunt who breeds dogs in Worthing, a female cousin of her Mothers who lives in Kensington, and a motley band of relatives who live on a decaying farm in the depths of rural Sussex.

The only positive invitation arrives from the depths of rural Sussex. Flora trying to put a positive outlook on the rather bleak prospect of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ comments to her friend Mrs Smiling:

“Well, when I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say, ‘Collecting material’. No one can object to that.”

“You have the most revolting Florence Nightingale complex,’ said Mrs. Smiling.

It is not that at all, and well you know it. On the whole, I dislike my fellow beings; I find them so difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind and untidy lives irritate me. Also, they are uncivilized.”

Flora bundles up her Florence Nightingale complex and heads to the farm on a mission to resurrect the fortunes of the farm and the lives of her rustic relatives. She feels excited to embark on this unknown rural adventure.

“On the whole, Cold Comfort was not without its promise of mystery and excitement.”

On arrival at the farm, she finds that the Starkadders are a strange cast of characters, each more unusual than the last.

There is the aged matriarch of the family: Aunt Ada Doom. She could not have been more aptly named. Continually haunted by memories of a traumatic event from her childhood she is wont to say, in times of trauma,

“I saw something nasty in the woodshed.”

We are not privy to the nature of the nastiness in the woodshed but Aunt Ada certainly knows how to use this proclamation to her own benefit. Whenever, any of the Starkadders threaten to leave Cold Comfort she goes into a frenzy of hysteria and recalls past memories of the woodshed.

Another character is Ada’s daughter Judith Starkadder, married to Amos. Judith, perpetually depressed, just wants to be left to wallow in her own misery. Her son Seth, a prime example of manhood is the apple of her eye and her daughter Elfine, a free wandering spirit seems to have slipped out of a scene from  Wuthering Heights.

There is sad Reuben, Adam the helping hand on the farm who washes the dishes with a twig and last but not least a bevy of unfortunate cattle, aptly named Feckless, Graceless, Aimless, Pointless and Big  Business. All these characters, suffused with the heady aroma of the profusely growing sukebind, a sign of fertility and growth, make for the dramatic cast of characters that render Cold Comfort Farm so memorable.

Of course there are extraneous characters: like the author Mr Mybug who add even more variety to the story:

“The trouble about Mr Mybug was that ordinary subjects, which are not usually associated with sex even by our best minds, did suggest sex to Mr Mybug, and he pointed them out and made comparisons and asked Flora what she thought about it all.”

The story is based on how and if Flora can change the course of the lives of each of the members of the Starkadder clan.

Fraught with extreme melodrama, comedic moments, strange situations and very memorable one-liners it is a very unusual book. Not at all what I was expecting. Very, very strange but so very memorable.

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