As the critic Compton MacKenzie analyzed in 1923, The Constant Nymph published by Margaret Kennedy in 1924 was popular to young women and men over forty because of its scandalous affair between a budding teenage girl and her father's lifelong friend. A secondary tribute to its best selling success would be Kennedy's somewhat witty underlying satire of Victorian society. A look at the history of the mid-1920s suggests that regard for the working man increased in popularity over traditional ways of English behavior and extravagance.
There was a worldwide boost in the period after World War I. The United States, for example, only had a five per cent unemployment rate for 1924 (the year that The Constant Nymph was on the Publisher's Weekly best seller list). Spirit, morale, and employment was up even in England. During this time the Labour Party was formed by collaborating groups of socialists that were trying to gain more reforms for working-class families in England. By 1925, the Labour Party had acquired approximately one-third of the democratic votes in its attempt to overcome the regulations of the Conservative Party. These historical facts of increased prosperity and social reforms for working-class people could account for the appreciation of the satire of Victorian society by Margaret Kennedy's audience.
Kennedy uses characters such as Florence Churchill and Lewis Dodd's family to mock the rules of Victorian society. When the wealthy, highly educated Florence Churchill marries the penniless, introverted genius composer named Lewis Dodd, she assumes that she may use her stature and connections to secure a respectable position for her husband. Essentially, she does not believe that his extraordinary work will gain merit, rather that her attempt to mold Lewis into her class of people will again acknowledgement for him. "?she made up her mind that she must give a party?it had great strategic importance?.[Lewis] must be allowed to have a solitary and retiring disposition. To her first party she only meant to invite people whom she knew rather well, and these were chosen upon two grounds, music and influence"(269). Florence Churchill Dodd intends to orchestrate her husband's performance and introduce him into her world of elitists. Lewis Dodd, however, is a mere rugged composer that will not conform. He succeeds in embarrassing his wife and making a mockery of his guests and their trivial conversation. Kennedy succeeds in making the reader sympathize with Lewis because of his wife's malicious intent.
Lewis Dodd also has to contend with family members with unlovable qualities characteristic of Kennedy's high society examples. When Lewis was just a budding musician, his father Sir Felix Dodd, another influential and respectable person, attempted to ignite his son's career by asking professionals to edit his compositions. " Simon was one of my father's friends. Bound to be! An obscene, loathsome, complacent, self-advertising maggot if ever there was one! Just the sort of fellow my father would take to?. And then I saw my manuscript in his pudgy paws, and my father said: 'I've sent your little Sonata to Mr. Simon, Lewis, to see if he could make anything of it for you"(240). Again, like Florence, Sir Felix uses his connections to shape Lewis' career instead of letting him control his own work. In the previous quote, Kennedy describes the respectable people that Sir Felix associates with in an unfavorable way. By reading this section, one knows that the infraction is conducted in secret by two despicable men, which does not add favor to the overall opinion of high society people.
In a more understated context, Lewis' sister supports Margaret Kennedy's depiction of English aristocrats. Millicent, Lewis' sister, is a constant gossip who spreads vicious rumors regardless of whether they are true or not. "Millicent could be very disagreeable sometimes?. Nothing would interest her. '?he can't behave like that. The whole of London is talking about it?. [but] I wouldn't dream of repeating gossip'"(344-345). Although Millicent claims to not repeat gossip, she has plenty of false information about Albert Sanger, the famous dead composer and his children. She also happens to know the whereabouts of the runaway Lewis and the people he's associating with even before Florence does. Through Millicent, Margaret Kennedy paints a picture of a well-groomed lady, like Florence, that means to do more harm than good. Characters like Millicent, Florence, and Sir Felix Dodd exemplify English aristocrats as evil people, which allows the working-class reader initiating social reform to better identify with the more passionate Sanger children.
One aspect of The Constant Nymph that critics applauded was the vivacious nature of the Sanger children. When Florence and Robert Churchill first meet the children to pick them up after their father's death, they are found having a wonderful time bathing in a lake, enjoying lunch, and visiting the cinema. "? the delightful bathers in the old boat?. In their clothes or out, they attracted attention. Though dressed like peasants, they looked wilder than the wildest mountain people? They walked, too, with lightness and pace"(126-127). From this initial impression, it is hard to see why someone would treat four abandoned children and their temporary caretaker, Lewis Dodd, with any cruelty. Multiple children living in peace in the mountains of Germany with a love of music and a love of their father are easier to like than a few rich relatives who try to forcefully impart Victorian societal values, which Margaret Kennedy obviously dislikes, judging by her intentional demeaning tone in regard to most of her affluent characters. Sanger's musical protégé is also a hero in this novel. Although Lewis Dodd's musical career is controlled by his father and his wife, he resists this domination for a short time by enjoying the passion for life with Sanger's children. Obviously, any character in this novel that is responsible for destroying their honestly peaceful lifestyle is going to be a villain in The Constant Nymph.
Another reason that this novel should be moderately successful is its unforgettable love story. Tessa Sanger has been in love with her father's musical successor for most of her life (although she is only fourteen at the start of the novel). Tessa and Lewis share a special bond that only Tessa realizes. Florence Churchill, Tessa's cousin, comes to take the children to England and simultaneously falls in love with the quiet musical composer. Much of the novel deals with Tessa's heartbreak and emotional distress that she suffers at the hands of her cousin Florence. In the middle of the marriage, Lewis realizes that his educated, wealthy, beautiful wife is trying to make him an aristocrat. Constantly defending himself and Tessa, Lewis finally sees that it's the warm, honest Tessa that he's always loved. After directing his breakthrough performance in front of hundreds of the "right" people, Tessa and Lewis run away together to escape Florence's treachery. Less than twenty-four hours after his performance, however, Tessa dies from a concealed medical condition. This love story is interesting and tragic, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and the carnal love that the lovers almost shared. However, as critics say, the story lacks depth and the satire could use more wit and humor. These factors combined yielded a book that sold less than a million copies. The love story was enough to attract the public's attention for twenty weeks (the time that it was on the Publisher's Weekly best seller list), but not enough to sustain adequate printing of the book. The only trace of The Constant Nymph in the public's memory is the success of the subsequent play versions produced in numerous languages. The sequel, published a year later, did not get much attention and did not spark any accountable resurgence of The Constant Nymph. Overall, Kennedy's novel was lovely enough to be number one in Publisher's Weekly for four weeks, but not interesting enough to reach high sales figures.
This novel, nearly a year after the minimal to mediocre success of Kennedy's first book, The Ladies of Lyndon, tells us that good love stories between pure, innocent girls and rugged men were popular even in the mid-1920's. Examining at the novel from a purely superficial level, one can make a comparison between this book and many modern day romances. The plot of this novel has many aspects of a movie screen play (which might explain it's success in the theatre in it's dramatized version) with it's rebellious hero and virgin heroine. Stylistically and literally, The Constant Nymph is not a success. Therefore, books, at least those written in the early twentieth century, do not have to be well written to be popular. This statement is upheld in modern day society as well. Many romantic authors, such as Danielle Steel, publish novel much faster than on an annual basis (as was the case for much of Margaret Kennedy's literary career) and concentrate less on the complexity or intelligence of the plot or characters, but they focus more on the tragedy of the love story. In conclusion, although The Constant Nymph may be a bestseller, it was also a poorly written love story that failed to provide a more in-depth exploration of the satire of affluent Victorian society. Therefore, as with many easy-to-read bestseller love stories, The Constant Nymph was popular for a few weeks before becoming a faint memory in the literary community.
Powell, Violet. The Constant Novelist: A Study of Margaret Kennedy 1896-1967. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1983.
Compton MacKenzie, "Literature in My Time," A Library of Congress Criticism: Modern British Literature (New YOrk: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1966).