The Constant Nymph was Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, and probably her most successful and well known. I absolutely loved it, at once fully involving myself with the characters, as I became immersed in the world of ‘Sanger’s Circus’. I think Margaret Kennedy might be an author whose work I will have to read much more of.
As the novel opens Lewis Dodd a gifted English musician arrives in the Tyrol to stay at the home of unconventional bohemian composer Albert Sanger and his unusual family. Lewis is already an old friend of the family, a family known as ‘Sanger’s Circus’ by their many friends and acquaintances across Europe, whose hospitality they frequently take advantage of. The family consist of six of Sanger’s seven children – the fruit of several marriages and mistresses, – and Sanger’s current mistress Linda. The Sanger family living in a rambling chalet high in the Austrian mountains is a retreat for all sorts of people who land on them with little or no notice.
“Few people could recollect quite how many children Sanger was supposed to have got, but there always seemed to be a good many and they were most shockingly brought up. They were, in their own orbit, known collectively as ‘Sanger’s Circus,’ a nickname earned for them by their conspicuous brilliance, the noise they made, and the kind of naptha-flare genius which illuminated everything they said or did.”
Teresa, the fourteen year old second daughter of Albert’s second marriage, is Lewis’s particular little friend – her devotion to him constant and unwavering. Tessa never questions her love for Lewis, she awaits the day when she will be old enough to take her place at his side. Lewis is all too aware of this, and although neither of them ever speaks of Teresa’s feelings it is an excepted thing within the whole family.
Teresa’s older sister Antonia has already entered into a relationship with a business man friend of her father’s, despite only being sixteen, happy that her future will be that of the wife she feels destined to be. Teresa is delicate, warm and irrepressibly untaught, there are moments when like her sister Toni, she seems older than her years, and at other times fragile and childlike. Teresa spends much of her time with her younger sister Paulina, the two looking out for one another amid the chaos of their home. At just ten Sebastian is the youngest of Teresa’s full siblings, another gifted musician of the future. Sanger’s eldest two grown up children are Caryl and Kate, Caryl about to find his own way in the world, and Kate who capably and quietly runs the household while Linda lies around not doing very much, while her child Suzanne spies on her half siblings and runs telling tales at the least excuse.
Very shortly Albert Sanger dies unexpectedly, leaving no money for his family to live on. Florence Churchill, the children’s cousin, and her Uncle Robert travel to the Sanger’s high Austrian home, and begin to make arrangements to take the family home to England. Florence is twenty eight, beautiful and pretty certain of what she wants, and that very soon turns out to be Lewis. Florence is captivated by Lewis, and Lewis is quickly drawn to her too. Florence has little understanding of Lewis and his ways, she fails to see that the two of them are really not very well suited. Their rapid engagement and marriage is greeted with some shock by everyone, and Teresa is particularly pained, though her love for Lewis remains undimmed. The Sanger children, feel drawn to their beautiful graceful cousin, wanting to impress her, and with prompting from Lewis, agree to go to England and be sent to school.
After a honeymoon in Europe, Florence and Lewis settle down to life in a house that Florence had set her mind on in London. Cracks appear, Florence and Lewis begin to argue over family matters, and the marriage is soon seen to be in some trouble. Meanwhile, Toni married now to Jacob Birnbaum, is living in London too, but her younger siblings are not so happy. Teresa and Paulina run away from their school and Sebastian flees his own school – the three turning up, inevitably on Lewis’s doorstep while Florence is away visiting her father. This begins the trouble between Teresa and Florence, Teresa so certain of her right to feel the way she does, and Florence, suspicious and jealous, soon finds herself hating her young cousin and never really trying to hide it. A s Florence starts to feel more and more excluded from the world of ‘Sanger’s Circus’ and Lewis draws further away from her – Teresa, although still only fifteen is made to feel her rightful place is with Lewis. Like Albert Sanger before him, Lewis is a creative genius, and a man not always easy to live with, Florence has not had time to learn how to handle him, whereas Teresa it seems has always known.
“[Teresa] was, probably, the only woman in the world who could manage this man; she would respect his humours without taking them too seriously, she would never require him to behave correctly, and if annoyed her, she would reprove him good-humouredly in the strong terms which he deserved and understood.”
The stage is set for drama, and Margaret Kennedy certainly gives us that, quite unexpectedly, although I had a funny feeling which direction we were headed. However I wondered if Margaret Kennedy’s choice of ending reflects perhaps the times in which the novel was written, I doubt we would have such an ending written today. (I am being quite deliberately vague; I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone)
Margaret Kennedy week coming along has given me the perfect opportunity to read the work of an author I feel I really should have encountered before. The writing is superb, Kennedy handles her characters with understanding and skill, their world is perfectly drawn. I am hoping, to get to read The Ladies of Lyndon after my current read, it looks very good too.