Back in the 1920s Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, ‘The Constant Nymph’, was a huge, huge success. It was one of the bestselling novels of the decade, it became a successful stage play and then Margaret Kennedy was called upon to write a screenplay. That led her to more work in Britain’s film industry, and that experience underpins this novel.
Roy Collins had been smitten with photography and cinema since boyhood, and when he grew up he set about working his way up in the cinema business. He had secured a job working on scripts for BBB – Blech Bernstein British!
Dorothy Harding had been a Victorian novelist. She had never married but she had supported her family, writing moral tales that were popular in their day but would quickly be forgotten. Dorothy would have been forgotten, had her diary and her poems not come to light after her death. They revealed a very different side of the author, and literary critic Alec Mundy published a book suggesting that the ‘G’ Dorothy wrote of with such passion was the man that she had loved and her sister had married. Playwright Adelaide Lassiter had taken that theory and turned it into a grandly romantic film that had become a huge hit and was going to be turned into a film.
And that was where Roy came in!
He had an uneasy feeling about the job. He was disappointed that the Harding family were only interested in the income that that film would bring them, he was interested that the there was such love for the author in the countryside around her home, and he began to wonder if the critic and the playwright had got things wrong.
Roy was right. The story stepped back into the past to tell Dorothy’s story.
The earlier chapters had been wonderful. A lovely introduction, as Roy visited the schoolteacher aunt who had understood him better than his parents ever had and spoken with her about what he was doing, set the story up beautifully. The gentle but knowing satire of the film business was so very well down. And Harding family, living in genteel poverty in a run-down country house, quite oblivious to the fact that the world had changed, were captured beautifully.
The interlude in the past was even finer; I thought that I might have met the loveliest Victorian novelist I had encountered before; I realised that Margaret Kennedy had planned her story so very, very cleverly.
Dorothy’s real story was much deeper, much more moving than the story that the critic and the playwright had spun; and yet it was understandable that they had drawn the conclusions that they did. Dorothy had grown from an imaginative child into an intelligent woman, but her life had been sheltered, she was naïve about so any things, and her family and others had exploited that, and her good nature.
Margaret Kennedy’s work is informed by her love of Jane Austen, but Dorothy’s story suggests that she knew and loved the Brontes too ….
Roy loved his job, but he knew that he had to do the right thing; he had to clear Dorothy’s reputation of the romantic fantasy the poet and playwright had concocted, even if it did cost him his job.
I loved that way that the story played out. The playwright was disappointed that the truth failed to live up to her romantic fantasy, but she decided that she had to represent her heroine honestly. That was lovely. The film company and the leading lady pulled back from the project. That was understandable. And the critic – who surely should have done a little more research and a little less speculating – was determined to suppress the truth and preserve his reputation. That was worrying.
Margaret Kennedy is wonderfully clear-sighted and unsentimental, and not at all judgemental. She just presents that characters and tells the story, and yet I knew that she knew. And I agreed.
I loved Roy, I loved Dorothy, and I loved the way their stories were woven together.
This proved to be a story for the head and the heart.
There is much to reward careful reading; lovely details, allusions, and themes that echo through Margaret Kennedy’s work.
And the story of an woman whose reputation many are ready to tarnish, who accepts what life offers her and finds peace is both moving and memorable.