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.