This is my very, very late contribution to Margaret Kennedy Day, which is hosted by Jane over at Beyond Eden Rock. It took place on 20 June but Jane very kindly said that latecomers were welcome 🙂 Do head over to Jane’s blog to check out the other, more timely, contributions to Margaret Kennedy Day 2017!
Firstly, The Constant Nymph (1924). This was a bestseller in its day (more than any other novel in the 1920s), adapted for stage and screen but fell into obscurity somewhat until Virago republished it in 1983. In all honesty, I’m still working out how I feel about it. To me it was an odd novel, well-written and psychologically astute, but a strange, unsettling tale and tonally difficult to place. I do think my struggles with it show its worth though – better to be a challenging novel than one easily dismissed. (I felt very uncomfortable that a grown man was sexually interested in the fourteen-year old nymph of the title, but Kennedy deals with this carefully so I’ll leave this to one side for the rest of the discussion, along with the anti-Semitic opinions voiced by various characters which were just horrible).
Albert Sanger is an unpleasant, selfish composer living in the Austrian Alps with his “Circus”: his most recent mistress, children by 3 different women, and assorted hangers-on. Amongst the rabble, fourteen-year old Tessa is quiet and steady and knows herself to be different:
“Living in a family of artists she had come to regard this implacable thing which took them as a great misfortune. Oddly enough it had missed her out; alone of the tribe she was safe from it. She did not believe that she would ever be driven to these monstrous creative efforts.”
When Sanger unexpectedly dies, leaving his huge family destitute, the Circus are split up. Tessa’s cousin Florence arrives on a mercy mission to rescue three of her relatives. Unfortunately for Tessa, this brings Florence into the orbit of Lewis, an aforementioned hanger-on, who Kennedy doesn’t even try to make appealing, and with whom Tessa has been in love since she was a child. Florence and Lewis fall in love, although there is a good mix of ambivalence in there too. Having proposed to Florence in a church, Lewis reflects:
“Once outside in the sunlight and traffic he could hardly make out how it had happened. The thing was absurd, unforeseen and unreasonable. But irrevocable now, and, on the whole, very pleasant. He was betrothed. Also he was very thirsty…”
Tessa is inconsolable, and yet the melodrama is tempered with humour and everyday considerations amongst the high-flown feelings:
“the tears poured down her face…until she conceived the idea of trying to water a primula with them. Immediately the flood was dried, after the manner of tears when a practical use has been found for them.
‘And it would have been interesting,’ said Paulina sorrowfully, ‘to see if it would have made any difference to the primula.’”
The novel follows the love triangle back in England, as Tessa and her siblings try and adjust from their free-living Bohemian lifestyle to the strictures of an English boarding school, and Lewis and Florence’s marriage begins to disintegrate. Even Florence’s father sees how ill-matched they are:
“Lewis was a fool! If he had married little Tessa she would have made a man of him, whereas mated with Florence he was nothing but a calamity.”
The characterisation is excellent: Lewis is a distinctly unheroic, petulant protagonist and completely believable as a musician who struggles against his own shortcomings to realise his talent. Florence is complex; initially sweet-natured and gradually challenging our sympathies as she deals with her jealousy by being vicious to the blameless Tessa. Although Tessa is in many ways an archetypal faithful virgin, Kennedy stops her being emblematic by the gentle humour poked at the earnestness of adolescence.
The novel is also not wholly a romance, but also a consideration of art and how to create it, how to pursue it, the value we attach to it and the various ways in which it is consumed. This is done with a lightness of touch and Kennedy never lets the broader themes get in the way of the plot:
“Music, with all these people, came first; that was why they talked about it as if nobody else had any right to it. Once Florence had liked them all too well; now she understood them better she was frightened of them.”
The Constant Nymph is an intriguing novel, and I suspect one that I won’t entirely work out my feelings for until I re-read it. It’s certainly impressive, and Kennedy’s talent, for me, was never in doubt.
“She tilted her face up and they kissed, a clinging embrace that was more like a farewell than a greeting. To her than instant brought a pang, a dim echo of times past; to him, an apprehension of change, a foreshadowing of loss and grief to come.”
The Constant Nymph was made into a film four times. Here is the trailer for the 1943 version with the lovely Joan Fontaine as Tessa:
Secondly, Together and Apart (1936).
This sat more comfortably with me than The Constant Nymph and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yet again, Kennedy manages to populate a novel with not very likeable people, but they are so wholly believable that the fascination is in witnessing their interactions and how situations play out.
Betsy has a privileged, comfortable life married to Alec. For reasons which are never entirely clear, she asks him for a divorce. She doesn’t care about his long-running affair, but feels she wants more from life and Alec is in her way:
“Now she was thirty-seven and she had never known real happiness. She had been cheated. Life had left her always hungry, always craving something and unable to put a name to it. She was perpetually craving for something that never happened. She looked forward to events, they happened, they were past and it was if nothing at all had happened.”
From my twenty-first century perspective I would say Betsy needs a job, and something beyond herself to think about…
Alec is, as he admits himself, an incredibly weak person who is steered by others, and so he grants the divorce despite not really wanting it, and promptly begins an affair with the children’s nanny. What follows is a brilliant study of the fallout of this everyday sadness on the couple, their new partners, their children and their friends. It is set in a time when divorce was becoming more common but still unusual, when attitudes were markedly different to today:
“Every petty grievance is raked up, even to little things that must have been forgiven and forgotten years ago. In 1920 he pushed her and she fell downstairs. Good heavens! One push is surely allowed in every marriage. I nearly told her that I once knocked you out with a hot water bottle.”
The children are spoilt, but also suffer, and Kennedy is brilliant at showing how the divorce causes their son Kenneth to unravel:
“He accepted nothing and pitied himself hysterically. He felt a grudge against the world because it had turned out to be a less pleasant place than he supposed.”
While their daughter Eliza grows up too quickly, forced into a domestic role she isn’t quite ready for.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say everything works out in the end. Which is not to say things work out perfectly. Lives are messy and Together and Apart shows how much of that mess is of our own making, but how we are myopic regarding our own situations and so clear-sighted regarding others. Once again, there are piercing, but sympathetic psychological insights:
“His body was always betraying him like this. It would not take fences which his soul so easily could have cleared.”
And some beautifully phrased observations, like young Kenneth and his friend on the beach:
“Even in bathing suits they had certain clerkly traits, a forward hitch of the shoulders as though long scholars gowns should have been streaming behind them in the salt wind.”
Margaret Kennedy is such an astute, funny and profound writer. I’m grateful to Jane for introducing me to her 🙂 And next Margaret Kennedy Day I’ll try and be on time!
To end, continuing the theme from last week of strange 80s spin-off pop groups (The Jam/The Style Council, now The Specials/Fun Boy Three), here is a wonderfully cynical take on marriage set to a tango: