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.