Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

Warning: minor spoilers!

This is my first book for the Classics Challenge, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn, and also a contribution to my Century of Books. The Constant Nymph was published in 1924 and, if you weren't expecting it, could be quite a surprise. It was a huge success when it appeared, and Kennedy adapted it as a stage play (one production included Noel Coward and John Gielgud) and in 1943 a film was made which starred Joan Fontaine as Tessa, the main character. The incredibly lush film score was written by Korngold - Tessa is the daughter of composer Albert Sanger, a Bohemian type with innumerable children by different wives, and the love to whom Tessa is constant is family friend Lewis Dodds, another musician.

I knew the play from my teenage years, when it was done on the radio, and I think both time and medium made the plot more accessible than it may be today. Because, for a twenty-first century audience, there may be a major stumbling block - Tessa is 14 when the book begins, and within a year the very adult Lewis is contemplating running away with her. Her (just) elder sister Tony has already been married in haste to her lover, Jacob Birnbaum. When Sanger dies, three of the children are "rescued" by their cousin Florence, who regards Tessa as a little barbarian and insists they go to boarding schools, where they are intensely unhappy - especially Tessa who, emotionally, is no longer a child, even though she has an essential innocence which is part of her immense charm; eventually, all three make their escape. Lewis, meanwhile, has married Florence and, under her influence, is finally enjoying a measure of success as a composer.

Here's a description of Lewis at the start of the book:
His young face was deeply furrowed, nor was there any reassurance to be found in his thin, rather cruel mouth, nor in light, observant eyes, so intent that they rarely betrayed him. His companion,distrusting his countenance, found, nevertheless, a wonderful beauty in his hands, which gave a look of extreme intelligence to everything he did, as though an extra brain was lodged in each finger. Their strength and delicacy contradicted the harsh lines of his face...
You can see from this that Lewis is an ambivalent character, someone we may only occasionally sympathise with - indeed, I found him pretty hard to like at all, although, in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classic edition, Anita Brookner thinks men may do so more easily. Similarly while the sophisticated Florence, pleasant if rather bossy at first, becomes increasingly unlovable as she grows more and more unkind towards Tessa, there are moments when her distress touches us.

Kennedy writes always with tenderness towards her characters, even when they are at their most despicable, so that the reader can understand them on their own terms but is never told what to think. Putting the age-disparity theme aside, this feels like a very modern novel: it's immensely readable with an intimate writing style that pitches you right in amongst Sanger's extensive, racy menagerie. I was so caught up in the story that I found Tessa's experience of boarding school utterly chilling, I could so readily put myself in her place.

A little more on the writer, for the Classics Challenge: Margaret Kennedy was born in London in 1896, and attended Cheltenham Ladies' College, a school not unlike her Cleeve in The Constant Nymph:
The staff were not at all strict; for the most part they were lively young women, fresh from the University, with a strong faith in hockey and the prefectorial system.
Margaret Kennedy
She was amongst the earliest of a line of notable novelists (Winifred Holtby and A.S. Byatt to name but two) who attended Somerville College in Oxford, where she read Modern History, but her first book was a history text. I struggled to find a picture of her. She seems to have been both a comfortable part of the establishment (she married a barrister in 1925) and a forward thinker: while her female characters aren't career women as, for instance, Sarah Burton in Winifred Holtby's South Riding, they are independent thinkers who expect moral autonomy even if their actions are circumscribed by society. She's a sharp observer of the foibles of both men and women - I can't help imagining that she must have had to bite her tongue a good deal in company, and it might have been something of a relief to write her incisive prose. Remarkably, considering some of subject matter she touches on, she always avoids the slightest hint of vulgarity or prurience (I can just hear a critic in the 1930s making that same assertion!) or even the suggestion that there are things a "lady" shouldn't know about; equally, however, there's no sense of a dispassionate detachment from her description of Sanger's menage, or Tony's behaviour with Birnbaum. With Kennedy you get a feeling that good writing transcends all.

8 comments:

  1. Sounds really good, although I can understand why you think readers might have reservations. Fourteen is awfully young, but now that I've been forewarned, I will be prepared for the shock.

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  2. I never heard of Margaret Kennedy. She sounds like an excellent novelist. I will check her out.

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  3. Margaret Kennedy is an author new to me, too but your post makes me want to make her acquaintance.

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  4. Emily, when I first heard the play I was a lot closer in age to Tessa than I am now! which made me able to empathise with her, and I probably thought Lewis was romantic and tortured - reading it now, I can sympathise with her and feel quite impatient with him.

    Judaye and Cat, VMC also publish The Ladies of Lyndon which I've read and recommend.

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  5. What a lovely review. I've wanted to read this for ages, but knew nothing about the author. I have a huge gap in my knowledge when it comes to female writers from the first part of the 20th century, and was trying to catch up, but I'be been sidetracked back to older writers - including Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent for this classics challenge.

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  6. I'm another one who hadn't heard of Kennedy - thank you for bringing her to my attention. She sounds like someone I'd really appreciate.

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  7. Chris, you've some very good writers to look forward t!

    Nymeth, I think you would really like her.

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  8. I'll have to check this book out. I've never heard of her, but she's quite lovely. Not many of the classics writers are, for some reason! And I love the name Tessa. My whole comment sounds shallow, but truly I'm not!

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