The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

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Apparently this was a best-seller in its time. It was published in 1924. However, I only read it because it was supposed to be set at the Achensee, but it turned out that the Achensee wasn’t mentioned at all: the Austrian scenes were just in AN unspecified part of the North Tyrol. Really, it’s one of those emperor’s new clothes type books: I feel as if I should say how deep and meaningful and impressive I found it, because it’s supposed to be a modern classic, but, whilst it was OK, I didn’t really find much about it to shout about.

It starts off with an unconventional British family living an undisciplined life in the said unspecified part of the Austrian Tyrol. The dad, a composer, then dies, and his children, by two late wives and a couple of other women, have to be provided for. Two of them, Tessa and Sebastian Sanger, are taken in by Florence, their late mother’s niece, an upper-middle-class, fairly conventional woman who, when she comes out to Tyrol to collect them, becomes involved with and marries another British composer, Lewis Dodd, a friend of the family.

However, 14-year-old Tessa, “the constant nymph”, is in love with Lewis. Apparently this was considered all terribly shocking as it shows adolescent sexual awakening and what-have-you, but, TBH, it didn’t really come across as anything more than a typical teenage-girl-crush-on-older-man. They all go back to England, Tessa doesn’t like the school they send her to, Florence and Lewis don’t get on because she wants to be conventional and he doesn’t and, eventually, Lewis goes off with Tessa … but, before anything’s happened, she drops dead. Er, and that’s it.

OK, the idea’s quite interesting, but I wouldn’t class the book as a “modern classic”. Also, there are some very unpleasant anti-Jewish remarks (Tessa’s sister’s husband is Jewish) in it, and some silly stereotyping of Russians and Italians. And apparently we’re supposed to regard the Sangers’ lives in Austria as “noble savagery”. I don’t like that expression anyway, but I don’t really see what is noble-savage-ish about the Sangers. That some of the kids a) don’t wear shoes and b) use a lot of bad language?! What’s “noble” about that?!

About the most interesting thing is the idea that although in Britain – in South East England, in particular – one has to behave Very Properly, whereas Abroad one can do whatever one likes, which, to get back to the Achensee thing, rather contrasts with the Chalet School books where the North Tyroleans are generally more prim and proper than the British. Otherwise … read worse, but read considerably better too.

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