A Constant Nymph

I’ve been busy with work again lately, so the next few posts, if I get time to post what I plan to, will be quick recaps of some recent reading.

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph, VMC 2000; first published 1924

This is another of those novels that most reviewers have raved about; I struggled with it, and nearly gave up after thirty or so pages. I simply didn’t relish reading about ‘Sanger’s circus’, the chaotic-bohemian ménage in the Austrian Tyrol of English avant-garde composer Albert Sanger. This neglected, wayward genius and his tribe of shabby, barefooted feral children (by three different mothers; certain British prime ministers come to mind) are supposed I think to be charmingly alternative, spontaneous and precocious – a sort of antidote to the saccharine von Trapps. Instead I thought their spiteful anti-Semitism and careless selfishness repellent.

One of the male characters, a Jewish suitor of the oldest Sanger girl, is portrayed in unpleasantly negative stereotypical ways, and is treated by many of the others, including his lover, with undisguised contempt.

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph cover

It wasn’t me who made the image blurred: it’s that way on the cover. It’s by the Swedish photographer Irmelie Krekin.

A budding composer called Lewis, one of the central characters, is a friend and disciple of Sanger, and another less than charming figure. He’s anti-social to the point of misanthropy, another supposedly eccentric genius – in fact he’s just another selfish boor.

When his new wife tries to tame him, make him presentable in chic London society as a means of promoting his stalled career, he rewards her by becoming romantically attached to one of the younger Sanger girls, Tessa (the nymph of the title) – just 14 when the novel opens. She’s been hopelessly in love with him since she was a little girl. She’s an unlikely mixture of shrewd precocity and naiveté, and Kennedy just about succeeds in making her an attractive, increasingly confident and rounded character.

Tessa’s is easily the most successfully drawn character in the novel. She’s described as plain and skinny, but also vivacious, witty and charmingly ingenuous, the only one who can handle the irritable, moody Lewis. But this Lolita-like relationship is worryingly one-sided: she’s far too young for such a committed affair with an older man whose interest in her isn’t surely as pure or innocent as hers in him. Kennedy doesn’t shy away from the sexual element, either, and this too is troubling. All the older Sanger children show unabashed awareness of their sexuality. It’s probably this frankness that contributed to the novel’s being a huge best-seller in its day.

I enjoyed the scenes by the Thames at Chiswick; I’d been walking there with friends the week before reading them. It’s a lovely part of outer London.

The ending is predictable and disappointing, and shows perhaps a loss of nerve by the author in her daring plot and unconventional protagonists.

No, I’m afraid this novel left me feeling rather irritated with most of the characters, particularly the odious Lewis.



19 thoughts on “A Constant Nymph

    • Very much a personal taste thing, I suppose, Lisa. Maybe I’m too ‘woke’ (that awful expression seen as a sign of unreflecting, knee-jerk liberalist snowflakery by the Trump/nationalist brigades.)

    • Lisa PS To be fair I’ve seen reviews by fans of this novel that acknowledge the unfortunate aspects I perhaps foreground too much. But is it enough to say ‘That’s how people thought in those days’? Doesn’t excuse it, or endear me to such literature today.

  1. I read this last year. It’s a very well written book and I enjoyed some aspects of it. But, I agree with you Simon, there are some very unpalatable attitudes on display that make it very hard to feel much empathy towards several of the main characters.

  2. I think I would definitely struggle with this too, Simon, despite liking what I’ve read by her. There seem too many elements which have aged badly – and in fact which I would have been uncomfortable about in the past. I think these would make it very difficult for me to engage with the book.

  3. Hm, a mystery here: I know I’ve read this and I’ve loaned my copy to Ali and had it back, but I don’t recall re-reading it. I do remember it being a bit distasteful way back when, the 14 yo bit being particularly unappetising. So I’m with you there and don’t think I will re-read now even I still have my copy. Thank you for speaking up on this stuff!

  4. So glad to hear how much you disliked this book — I absolutely hated it. I thought the Jewish suitor had the most possibilities as an interesting character, but, as you say, he was just a cypher and a stereotype.

    I didn’t like Tessa either. Ugh. That type in books is usually a male fantasy and completely unrealistic. But it was written by a woman here, and it felt more like a kind of wish-fulfillment. Ugh, again. I felt sympathy for Lewis’s wife, but she was also turned into a trope and not a flesh and blood creature.

    I’d heard the title of the book floating in the ether, so I read it. I also watched the movie (Turner Classic Movies happened to play it not long after I’d read the book). If anything the movie was worse than the book. And the ending was changed to an even sappier and more saccharine one. HATED it.

  5. I’ve had a few books by Kennedy, including this one, for some time now. I had intended to read this one first, as I had read so many favorable reviews. Perhaps I’ll now begin with The Ladies of Lyndon!
    BTW — I don’t mind a negative review at all, as I appreciated (and enjoyed) your honest reaction!

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