Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph (1924)
Last month saw the birth of a wonderful event called The 1924 Club, which encouraged reading and posting about books published in that year. The result was a marvelous mix of titles familiar and obscure, from many different genres, giving an eclectic and sometimes eccentric snapshot of the literary life at the time. You can read the round up at the link above, and watch for more such events in the future; I do hope they will become a regular occurrence.
Just before the launch of the Club I had coincidentally just bought a copy of The Constant Nymph, a bestseller in 1924 and an enduring favorite since its reissue by Virago Modern Classics, so that became my reading for the event (although I wasn’t able to write my review till now). It was my introduction to Margaret Kennedy, an author I’ve been interested in for some time, and I’m sure I’ll be looking for more of her work. This was her second novel and her most complete commercial success, as it was adapted into no less than two plays and three film versions.
I found the novel a fascinating window into a time when the world had been shaken by one war but was not yet foreseeing the next, when social and artistic certainties were being questioned in all sorts of ways. The main characters belong to a Bohemian artistic circle centered around an expatriate English composer living in the Alps, and the first part of the book introduces us to his extremely unconventional menage, including a brood of children by various wives and mistresses. The “nymph” of the title is one of these, Teresa (known as Tessa), a waif type who suffers from a silent passion for a younger composer-friend of her father’s, Lewis Dodd. Lewis loves her as well but doesn’t yet realize she is his perfect mate — she’s only fourteen!
When her father dies, Tessa’s comfortably unkempt and eccentric world is invaded by the forces of conventionality and good breeding in the form of her cousin Florence, who comes to rescue the children and take them away to be properly educated. When she takes Lewis as well, though, the trouble begins. Back in England, the children can’t be forced into the mold of proper society, and Lewis starts to feel the prison bars closing in too. A startling denouement left me with the feeling that Kennedy didn’t quite know how to finish off the situation she had gotten her characters into. I could have wished for a more complex conclusion to a work that started off in such a promising way.
Just before things unraveled so unsatisfyingly, there were interesting intimations that the struggle between Tessa and Florence reflected a larger, almost mythic battle. Stories have always been woven about the conflict between the forces of nature and spontaneity, life-giving but formless, and the civilizing, domesticating impulse that is meant to channel those forces in a positive way, but which threatens to harden into a deadening mania for control. The Constant Nymph shows how the tales of nubile nymphs and enraged goddess-wives live on in our own times, as those ancient forces still slumber within us all. How do we deal with them in the modern world? It’s an interesting question, but one that Kennedy didn’t quite answer.
I’m interested now in seeing a film or stage version — Kennedy’s characters remained a bit remote for me somehow, and though she described them in a stage-direction-like way, I had trouble fully picturing their qualities. These could be filled out by a good actor who would enliven the role with personality. In a story largely occupied with music and composers, it would also be wonderful to hear some music — the Eric Korngold score for the 1943 film seems quite highly acclaimed. Has anyone seen this version? I’m curious to know of your experience, if you have.