Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Constant Nymph: Love and Loathing in Bohemia

The Constant Nymph: Love and Loathing in Bohemia

Margaret Kennedy’s 1924 bestseller combines psychological acuity with romantic idealism. It also betrays some shocking attitudes to social class in pre-war England 

When The Constant Nymph was published in 1924, its author, Margaret Kennedy, achieved what most novelists dream of: literary acclaim followed by huge commercial success - on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a bestseller that earned praise from, among many others, JM Barrie, John Galsworthy, AA Milne, Cyril Connolly, and Thomas Hardy. It was adapted as a stage play starring Noel Coward, and there were three separate films made of the novel in 1929, 1933, and 1943. It is a clever and occasionally poetic novel, emotionally shrewd and sardonically observant, dealing elegantly with grand themes and contrasts: love and lust, beauty and cruelty, jealousy and trust, art versus ‘culture’, security versus freedom. 

Yet today, if not actually forgotten, The Constant Nymph barely features in most people’s mental lists of significant 20th century novels. 

The most obvious reason for this is that the story centres on a love affair between Tessa, a 14-year-old girl, and Lewis, a man twice her age. And in contrast to Nabokov’s Lolita, published over 30 years later, this age gap is not even placed at the heart of the story. The mutual love between Tessa and Lewis (which is not consummated), is presented by Kennedy as something inevitable, unshakeable, and pure. Tessa
’s extreme youth is an inconvenience, a practical obstacle blocking the path to the couple’s predestined union, but it is not really depicted as a moral problem - certainly not in the way it would be today. 

This makes it an intriguing example of a novel that is more risky to recommend or dramatise in 2015 than it was back in 1924. 

Another difficulty with the novel is that it is deeply veined with snobbery and the permutations of class (some crude, some exquisitely subtle). It also includes some frank anti-Semitism. 

The anti-Semitism tends to appear in what the characters say, rather than in the author’s own voice, so arguably Kennedy is simply reflecting the common unexamined prejudices of the time, like many other writers of the same period. This view is supported by the portrayal of Jacob Birnbaum: the children call him ‘Ikey Mo’ (a derogatory nickname for Jews), but Birnbaum is actually one of the book’s most likeable characters. 

The treatment of class, however, is more insidious and thus more interesting. Rather than seeing the snobbery as problematic, I think it opens a window on the nuances of social hierarchy in pre-war England, and this is fascinating. The novel simply oozes contempt: the lower middle class, the pretensions of the upper middle class, the socially ambitious, the fat and awkward, the ‘refined’, those who aspire to be ‘cultured’ – all these and more are in the firing line. But the harshest contempt is reserved for those who, like Lewis’s wife Florence, try to harness the purity of art to some external purpose, whether this is money, success, social improvement, or, in Florence’s queasy words, “the business of living beautifully”.

Kennedy implicitly criticises the pretensions of Florence and her circle, and this is very effective. But she also reveals plenty of social disdain on her own account, expressed in her authorial voice.

I was 14 when I first read The Constant Nymph, exactly the same age as Tessa, the novel’s young protagonist. At 14, I used to read uncritically. That is to say, I had complete trust in an author’s authority. If something sounded odd, unfair, or even wrong, I unhesitatingly put my doubt aside, attributing it to my own lack of understanding. In many ways I still think this is the right way to read fiction – to surrender your scepticism for the duration. But as an adult, regardless of how immersed you are, there is always a second voice whispering underneath the text, quietly taking notes, swimming to the surface on the final page with a list of queries and objections. So I thought it might be interesting to compare my reaction to the book at 14, with my re-reading of it as an adult.

The Constant Nymph: the 14-year-old's 

I came across the novel via another novel. I had just read, and loved, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (1945). In the latter, the narrator, Fanny, has an aunt who is about to marry. Fanny says that a cousin is “now teasing me with The Constant Nymph. She read aloud the last chapters, and soon I was dying at a Brussels boarding house, in the arms of Aunt Emily’s husband”. The fact that Nancy Mitford assumes her readers will be familiar with the novel’s plot is some measure of its former ubiquity. 

Intrigued, I had to read about this nymph.

I never questioned the ethics of the age gap between Tessa and Lewis, other than feeling incredulous that a mature man could find a 14-year-old schoolgirl interesting in any way, let alone fall in love with her. I remember admiring Tessa’s self-possession in adult company, I was impressed that someone my age could make such intelligent contributions to a conversation, and thought Tessa seemed far older than her years: “Her trouble was not the bewildered groping of adolescence for a goal in life, but rather the sad finality of a woman who has beheld her destiny too young.” 

While I could not really relate to this, my sympathy for Tessa took off when she is uprooted from her continental gypsy life, separated from Lewis, and sent with her sister to an English boarding school, Cleeve (based on Cheltenham Ladies College). 

Tessa writes to Lewis: “. . . truly the only place where you can be alone here is the lavatory, which is not very comfortable, and they come rattling at the door if you stay there too long . . . our chief business here is to be always running as there is some place, on a timetable, that we must be in every minute of the day”. 

I never went to boarding school, but Tessa’s italicised emphasis of “every minute of the day” conveyed the imprisoning horror of constant supervision and, combined with the denial of privacy, this has remained with me as an idea of hell. 

Margaret Kennedy, 1896-1967. Interestingly, Margaret Kennedy was herself a pupil at Cheltenham Ladies' College, the school on which 'Cleeve' is based. Her characters, Tessa and Paulina, hate it so much they run away. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Florence’s slow transformation from benevolent older cousin to shrill and resentful persecutor is frightening, but at 14, the threat to send Tessa back to school after she runs away seemed scarier than the attempt to split her from Lewis. I applauded when Lewis and Tessa fled England for Brussels on the boat train, and while the ending was sad, it seemed romantic; Tessa “slept on, where they had flung her down among the pillows, silent, undefeated, young.” It seemed preferable to the alternative. 

One incident in the novel offers a perfect definition of imaginative understanding between people, and the difference between this love and mere liking. Tessa, Lewis and Florence are sitting on a mountainside, and Lewis describes a childhood memory of sleeping out on some cliffs in Cornwall, hearing birds flying out to sea just before dawn. Tessa’s mind “swung back to meet the mind of that lost boy who had lain awake upon a high mysterious cliff, beside a whispering sea. She too, heard wings.” Tessa recognises the memory as one of those rare fleeting experiences that become “the inspiration for a lifetime”. Florence, however, merely asks Lewis a banal question about whether he had ever lived in Cornwall.

Achensee near Pertisau, in the Austrian Tyrol. The first part of the novel takes place in this area.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This made an impression at 14, and still does. It also foreshadows a more sinister moment near the end of their story, when Lewis and Tessa are on a tram in Brussels. Tessa is looking at “a menacing sky: rags and banners of red cloud hung above the noisy streets and lit the faces of the people with an angry flame. The cries and shouts of the city sounded like cries of danger, warnings called forth by the wild light.” She turns to Lewis, wondering if he has noticed, and finds him “gazing at the bright sky with the extreme concentration of purpose which he used for all important things . . . gathering in that noisy radiance and stowing it away in his mind.” 

As for the question of mutual contempt among the characters, I simply accepted it. When Kennedy does not actually tell the reader what to think about a character’s social position, she nudges you firmly in a certain direction. And when she is not doing that, her opinion of the characters emerges clearly in what they say. As a 14-year-old, I obediently went where the author told me, but the book left me feeling ambivalent and vaguely uncomfortable, and now I can see why. 

Re-reading The Constant Nymph as an adult . . .

The “fat Slav”
Even at 14 I had found the introduction to the Sanger family a little confusing. Re-reading it later, I’m not surprised. The first characters the reader meets are Lewis Dodd, a youngish composer, and Kiril Trigorin, a choreographer, in the Tyrolese Alps. They are on their way up from the valley to visit Albert Sanger, an eccentric musical genius and patriarch, in his remote mountain retreat. Lewis is going as a beloved friend of the family, Trigorin as a eager (and as it transpires, unwelcome) guest. 

It seems as if you are being invited to despise Trigorin, via Lewis’s reactions, but it is not clear why this should be. Trigorin is richly dressed, but “his eyes, which should have been bold and greedy, were strangely unhappy and disclosed, in their direct gaze, an unexpected diffidence, an ingenuous modesty, entirely out of keeping with the rest of him”. 

Which sounds vaguely sympathetic. It is true that Trigorin is embarrassingly effusive. He lavishes praise on Lewis, who obviously finds him a crashing bore: “this fat person must be going to stay with Sanger; there was no other explanation for him. For the rest of the journey they would be compelled to travel together.” But it gets worse. Trigorin praises Lewis’s artistic work, but Lewis says to himself: “it was not for the appreciation of people like this fat Slav that he [Lewis] had written the ‘Revolutionary Songs’.”

“Are you a Jew?”
This situation continues when we meet Teresa (Tessa) and Paulina, two of Sanger’s seven children, ragged figures waiting on the lakeshore. They both greet Lewis with enthusiasm, but poor Trigorin is welcomed with rudeness.  
“ ‘Can he eat bacon?’ whispered Paulina in an audible aside . . . he looks a little like a Jew. ”  Tessa “turned to Trigorin and enquired baldly: ‘Are you a Jew?’ ” (He isn’t). 

It emerges that the girls have put a pig’s carcase in the cart that is to carry them all up the mountain: “draped in a tartan rug and crowned with Teresa’s straw hat, it was a horrible object, but not unlike a stout German lady.” Again, we seem to be invited to find this funny rather than macabre. I don’t remember what I felt about “Are you a Jew?” at 14, but I do remember being struck by the rudeness, and repelled by the dressed-up dead pig. I thought there must be something wrong about Trigorin that had somehow escaped me. 

To be fair, Tessa does suffer some pangs of conscience over the treatment of Trigorin: “She found herself wishing, absurdly [why absurdly?] that Lewis had been kind to the poor fat person,” and tries to reconcile the completeness of her love for Lewis with the cruelty and arrogance she discerns in him.

Trigorin is used partly as a literary device – his questions and Lewis’s answers provide information about the cast for the reader. But his treatment sets the tone for the whole novel – he is one of the crowd of outsiders who are ruthlessly excluded from the enchanted circle that surrounds Tessa, Lewis, and Tessa’s full siblings, the ‘natural aristocrats’ of the book. It is an exclusion that is echoed, much later in the novel, when Lewis’s wife Florence arrives home to find the Sanger children with her husband: “Her first impression, as the party round the fire rose up to greet her, was that she was an intruder. The children flung themselves upon her with every appearance of joy, but, for a fraction of a second, she knew that their faces had fallen.”

Temperament and ‘breeding’
Kennedy then gives a satisfyingly full description of Tessa and Paulina, using precise physical detail to establish personality. “Teresa was the fairer and the plainer; her greenish eyes had in them a kind of secret hilarity, as if she found life a very diverting affair. But she had begun lately to grow out of everything.”  The girls are barefoot and dressed eccentrically, half peasant, half gypsy. But Kennedy adds this: “Both contrived to have, at unexpected moments and in spite of their rags, a certain arrogance of demeanour which proclaimed them the daughters of Evelyn Sanger, who had been a Churchill.” So while the girls dress in peasant clothes, Kennedy is careful to separate them from the real peasant class of Austria. 

At the Karindehutte, the house in the mountains, the sublime beauty of its situation in a flowery meadow with the sound of cow bells “rising very faintly like single drops of music distilled into this upper silence” contrasts with the seething emotional tensions in the ramshackle family group. Tessa’s older sister Antonia has grown beautiful, a fact that irritates her father’s mistress, Linda Cowlard, “a vast dazzling blonde” who likes to spend the day resting in a hammock. ‘Cowlard’. . . Linda’s surname, which unites the cow with pig-fat, encapsulates how Kennedy wants you to see the character. Linda’s lower class is confirmed when Kennedy says that “her origins were obscure, but it was believed that she had once been the daughter of a tobacconist in Ipswich.” 

But it is the description of Linda’s daughter Susan, the youngest member of the Sanger family, that delivers the most violent blast of snobbery: 

“It [sic] was a wholesome, plebeian-looking brat, pink and formless as a wax doll . . . Linda was very fond of it, dressed it in white with pink ribbons.” It? Not content with this, Kennedy goes on to underline where the difference lies between Susan and her half siblings: “The child did, in fact, look something of a stranger among the others; her healthy inferiority especially distinguished her beside the brood of the ill-starred Evelyn, with their intermittent manifestations of intelligence and race.” 

Here we are being told by the author to despise the child Susan, as her half-siblings do, before Susan has said or done a thing. She implies that distinction is a matter of inheritance or ‘breeding’. After this, though, the snobbery in the book becomes more subtle, expressed mainly through Florence and her social ambition. 

Florence, the cultured steam-roller
When Sanger dies, the children are left homeless and penniless, and their older cousin, Florence Churchill, comes out to Austria from England to rescue them. Florence is the the most interesting character in the novel, partly because the author does not tell us what to make of her. She is multi-dimensional, changes frequently and develops the most, and her true nature is betrayed by her words and thoughts, rather than her origins. Florence is intelligent, cultured, educated, well-connected and beautiful. She travels to the Tyrol full of benevolent intentions, and is seduced first by the beauty of the landscape, and then by Lewis. 

There is one early hint of the darker, relentlessly controlling aspect of Florence’s character, and this comes from her father: “Sometimes, viewing her unswerving pursuit of a chosen course, he was compelled to liken her to something slow, crushing, irresistible – a steam-roller.”

With Florence’s arrival, the novel gains pace and homes in on Lewis’s failure to understand his own feelings for Tessa, and the consequences of his mismatch with Florence. His attraction to Florence is highly sexual, and he is also touched by her apparent concern for Tessa’s welfare. By contrast there is no discernible sexual element in his relationship with Tessa, who represents a sort of wild purity. 

Florence, for her part, wants to tame Lewis, to publicise his musical genius, using her contacts to launch them both into London
s artistic high society. This leads to some devastatingly acute observations on different views of the purpose of life and art. Lewis wants to create music, Florence wants to create an effect. They buy a house by the river near Kew, in London, taking Roberto, the Italian servant from the Tyrol, with them.

Florence: “He’s exactly the kind of servant I’ve always wanted. . . Really feudal. He gives the right tone to the house.”

Lewis (puzzled): “The right tone?”

Florence: “He’s the sort of servant we ought to have. He goes so well with the sort of effect I want to produce.”

Lewis: “Why should you want to produce any sort of effect?”

Florence: “. . . I want this house to look like us . . . pleasantly Bohemian . . . a sort of civilized version of Sanger’s circus, don’t you know, with all its charm and not quite so much . . . disorder.” 

Florence also believes that influential people, however unpleasant, must be made use of. Lewis has a spiteful, petty-minded sister called Millicent. Florence wants to invite her round, because “She carries a good deal of weight in some quarters. It wouldn’t be at all difficult for her to put a spoke in your wheel.” “I haven’t got a wheel,” retorts Lewis, who believes that art has no purpose, that “ideas are best conceived in a world of violence, that civilization must of necessity end by quenching the riotous flame of art for the sake of civic order.” 

So the philosophical cracks in their marriage are more like canyons, and they exist long before Florence is properly aware of the threat posed by Tessa. 

Nowhere is the difference in world-view between Florence and the Sangers more brilliantly captured than in chapter 21, in which Lewis gives his first concert. The Sangers make no distinction between the great opera houses of Europe and their own home; music is life and vice versa. Florence on the other hand, “possessed a special concert room demeanour – a still, serious, attentive carriage which sometimes, on special occasions, showed itself quite early in the day, as though she were practising inwardly.” What a superbly acid description of unconscious social and artistic pretension. 

Kennedy allows the reader to feel some sympathy for Florence, who, after all, finds herself in an impossible situation which distorts her better nature. She also has enough self-awareness to mourn her own transformation: “What had happened to her? Life had become a shipwreck, a desperate, snatching , devil-take-the-hindmost affair.” However, she sabotages the reader’s sympathy because, in the end, what matters to Florence far more than love or pride is social position. Even when Lewis tells her plainly that he loves Tessa, not her, Florence will not let go. And at the end of the book, in the midst of tragedy, she is full of coldly practical strategies for hushing up the scandal, and, rather like Scarlett O’Hara, laying bleak plans to reunite herself with Lewis, “to build upon wrecked love a monument of worthy achievement.”

Strand-on-the-Green, on the Thames in London, where Florence and Lewis begin their rocky married life. Florence wants the house to be an exquisitely tasteful backdrop to their entry into London artistic high society. Lewis sees it as a 'silver sty', and himself, presumably, as a trapped pig. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Constant Nymph today
This article has focused on some of the more troubling aspects of this novel. Is it worth reading in 2015? Certainly, for its precise, entertaining, and often uncomfortable human insights, its memorably poetic images, and the array of original characters (many of whom I haven’t even mentioned here). Is it a period piece? Again, yes, but the assumptions about class in the novel are worth noting for their own sake, as is its passionate perspective on the role of art in society.

I have not yet seen any of the three films made of The Constant Nymph (they are rarely shown and difficult to come by), so I can’t comment on their interpretations. I think the book could be dramatised as a modern TV serial, but it would take a brave scriptwriter to do it. They would somehow have to deal sensitively with the problem of Tessa’s age, as well as preserving the idealism that gives the book its heart, the sharpness of the psychological insight, and the snobbery that (hopefully) pins it to a period in the past.

© Josephine Gardiner 2015 

Some interesting footage on YouTube of Brussels in the 1920s, where the story ends.
(Thanks to 'StephendelRoser' for putting this on YouTube.)


  1. Intriguing piece - I remember the cover of this book quite well, but have not read it, I might do now. Interesting if it could be made into a tv adaptation ..there are a few clips of the early films on youtube, one with Joan Fontaine.

  2. Hello, thank you for commenting...

    The book is definitely worth reading, it is very entertaining, clever, and memorable, even if parts of it seem peculiar to the modern reader as I said in the article.

    I haven't seen any of the films, as I said (it might be interesting to review and compare all three of them in the future). I think Joan Fontaine must have been around 26 when she played Tessa in the 1943 version, which is quite a jump from 14/15 (I don't think it ever really works when people in their 20s play teenagers!).

    Yes I think it could make an excellent TV series, but it would be very tricky to do and would need an intelligent scriptwriter and director.

  3. Have just ordered it - thank you for making it sound so interesting. I had to get it right away.

    1. Thank you for commenting, and please let me know what you think when you've read it. It's a strange book.

  4. This is a very well-written unflinching blog post about a difficult book, by which I mean to say your impressions are precisely the same as mine.