This week Jane of Fleur in her World has been hosting a Margaret Kennedy Reading Week. Margaret Kennedy is a new author for me so I could have chosen to read any of her books (they all sound intriguing in different ways), but I decided to go with The Constant Nymph, as I’d received a copy from NetGalley a while ago. The Constant Nymph was published in 1924 and is probably Margaret Kennedy’s best-known book.
At the beginning of the novel, Lewis Dodd, a talented young composer is on his way to the Tyrol to visit his friend and fellow musician, Albert Sanger, who lives in a chalet in the Alps with his large family. Sanger has seven children – with three different mothers – and they are known collectively as ‘Sanger’s circus’. Lewis has been a frequent visitor to the chalet for years and the children consider him almost part of the family, but for fourteen-year-old Teresa (Tessa) he’s something more than that: he is the man she has loved for as long as she can remember. Lewis loves Tessa too, but as he is more than twice her age, they don’t tell each other how they feel.
When Albert Sanger dies unexpectedly, Sanger’s circus is broken up; the two eldest children, Caryl and Kate, decide to start new lives elsewhere, while Sanger’s current mistress, Linda, moves out of the family home with her young daughter, Susan. Tessa’s sixteen-year-old sister, the wild and free-spirited Antonia, marries her lover Jacob Birnbaum, so that only Tessa and her two younger siblings, Paulina and Sebastian, remain. Their relatives in England come to the rescue, with the children’s cousin, Florence Churchill, setting off for the Alps to see what she can do to help.
Florence is a well-educated, beautiful and refined young woman of twenty-eight and is shocked by the Sangers’ unconventional, bohemian lifestyle. She immediately makes plans to bring Tessa, Paulina and Sebastian to England and send them to school. Before she leaves Austria, however, she finds herself falling in love with Lewis Dodd who is still at the chalet. Despite his feelings for Tessa, Lewis is also drawn to Florence and the two are soon married.
It may seem that I’ve given away a lot of the plot here, but all of this actually takes place in the first half of the book. The remainder of the novel describes the marriage between Lewis and Florence, which as you might expect, is not a very successful one as Lewis really wants to be with Tessa – who is still in love with him. The viewpoint shifts from character to character so that we can understand the emotions and motives of all three (I never managed to warm to Lewis at all, but loved Tessa and had some sympathy for Florence). As the story starts to move towards the final chapters it’s obvious that things aren’t going to end happily for all of them – and maybe not for any of them. The ending, when it does come, is unexpected and not very satisfying. I felt that the characters deserved a better conclusion to their story.
I was also a bit disappointed that so many of Tessa’s other family members and friends disappeared in the middle of the book; Kennedy had gone to so much trouble to introduce us to Caryl and Kate, Linda and Susan, the Russian Trigorin and others, it seemed a shame not to develop any of their stories any further (though I’m aware that there’s a sequel, The Fool of the Family, where we might meet some of them again).
I did enjoy The Constant Nymph, though! The book hasn’t aged very well in some respects (the portrayal of Antonia’s Jewish husband, for example) but then, I read a lot of older books and can accept that sometimes they do feel dated. I loved the setting, the characterisation and the elegant, engaging writing style and am looking forward to reading more of Margaret Kennedy’s books. Thanks to Jane for hosting the reading week and introducing me to an author I might never have thought about trying!