The Constant Nymph was wildly successful in the 1920s. A bestselling novel! A popular play! A Hollywood film! And yet it disappeared. Fell out of print, until Virago picked it up and made it a Modern Classic – number 121!
There was an intriguing love triangle at the centre of the story, set against a colourful backdrop.
Lewis Dodd was a young composer, hugely promising and already enjoying a degree of success. He came from a conventional English family but he was drawn to a freer, more bohemian way of life. And he was particularly drawn to ‘Sanger’s Circus.’
Albert Sanger was a musical genius, a feted composer, but a difficult man. He expected attention, expected the world to revolve around him, and he had the charm, and of course the success, to make it so.
He lived high in the Alps with the six children of his two marriages, an idle mistress and her baby, and a stream of visitors to pay court to the great man.
The two children of his first marriage were virtually grown up. Caryl was a gifted musician who was beginning to follow in his father’s footsteps, and Kate was a capable young woman who brought order to the chaotic household and had musical and theatrical talents too. Their futures were assured.
The children of his second marriage were just a little younger, but much less grown up. They were children still, bright, free-spirited, open, honest, and completely unfettered by convention.
Toni knew that she was destined to be an adored wife, or failing that a courtesan.
And Tessa was the constant nymph of the title. She hads loved Lewis for as long as she could remember and was waiting to grow up and into an adult love with him. And though nothing was said he knew that too, understood that it ws right, and what should and would be.
Tessa was young and yet that didn’t seem wrong, because she had seen and heard so much of life in her father’s household, and because both she and Lewis tacitly recognised that their love was something still to come. something in the future.
And then there was Pauline, younger, more forthright, and still very much a child. And Paul, younger again but wiser, secure in the knowledge that he would be a musician one day and that he would work towards that.
A wonderful cast, a wonderful setting, and there could have been a simple, classical romance set against that colourful background.
But Margaret Kennedy did something different and took her story on a much more interesting direction.
And at this point I should say that she told her story beautifully. I appreciated her clear understanding of character, her mix of intelligence and empathy, her lovely way with metaphors, and her ability to move her plot at a steady pace.
Albert Sanger died. Suddenly, unexpectedly, and leaving not a penny.
Caryl, Kate and Toni find their own paths, leaving Tessa, Pauline and Paul to be ‘rescued’ by their mother’s family. Because, of course, a conventional English family will do the right thing for their young relations.
Florence Churchill, a bright, educated, modern young woman was despatched to sort things out. She was charmed by her young relations, but she was shocked by their bohemian lifestyle. And it was quickly decided that the children must be sent to school to prepare them for the future.
And Florence fell in love with Lewis, and he with her. They marry, but their marriage is not a success. Each had been drawn to an idea of the other but neither had really understood the other’s way of life, what that meant, what compromises might have to be met.
The viewpoint shifted between them and I found that I could understand both, though I found both infuriating and wished that I could make them see the reality of their situation.
But their lack of sight, lack of understanding, set off Tessa’s clarity perfectly.
And though Tessa remained in the background, the perspective moving between Lewis and Florence, I found that I understood her perfectly.
She was desperately unhappy. She hated school, she missed her home, she didn’t know where she was going. Though still believed that she and Lewis were meant for each other.
When Tessa’s younger siblings persuaded her to run away from school that cat really was put among the pigeons. Florence said they must go back, but Lewis said no. It was easy to find alternatives for Paulina and Paul, but not for Tessa. She had one ambition but she knew she could not say what it was.
And so the stage was set, for a most unexpected ending.
It left me not knowing what to say.
Except that I liked the book, I can understand its success, but I was sorry that I didn’t see a little more of Tessa’s siblings in the second half of the story.
Good though it was I can’t help thinking that there was a bigger, richer story that might have come out of ‘Sanger’s Circus.’