The Constant Nymph
by Doubleday, Page and Company. 1925. 12mo. viii+344 pp. $2.00.New York:
READERS of The Ladies of Lyndon will recognize with delight the features of the problem presented to them by the opening chapters of The Constant Nymph. You may or may not have got taken in by James; in either case experience will make you pleasantly suspicious of the very obvious staginess of Sanger’s Tyrolean establishment. The illiterate elegance of those green-eyed children— their distinction of feature and accent, their unsullied passion for the only art they recognize, their accurate (and usually profane) choice of the mot juste — is matched against the combination of indolence, coarseness, and rapacity presented by Madame, to produce an effect of which the luridity is on the whole heightened by the faint (but compelling) reminiscence of The Pillars of the House afforded by Kate and Caryl.
When Florence sets her neat and determined foot in its ‘expensive low-heeled shoe’ upon the Sangers’ flowery Alp, she brings with her a stabilizing sense of reality. To her young cousins she exhibits the dignity and kindliness proper to the dea ex machina she plays, to Lewis the enchanting novelty of a Lady in love, to the reader the compelling force of a clear and orderly mind.
This, of course, is all Miss Kennedy’s artfulness. She implies assent to your instinctive belief in the reality of Florence’s world with all its kind decency and ordered security — just as she implied assent to the popular conception of James — in order that, lured by her Socratic wiles, you may be the more unresistingly led into the sudden discovery that you don’t think at all what you thought you thought. In the first place, reality is the last quality to be associated with Strand-onthe-Green and its life; in the second place, say what you will of Antonia, staginess is the last quality to be associated with the green-eyed Nymph.
The conception of a fifteen-year-old coping adequately with great passion is not admitted easily. The mind evinces a stubborn desire to reduce Teresa to the terms of Elizabeth when, prior to German Garden days, she manicured her nails out of unreciprocated affection for the organist. And Teresa refuses to be so reduced. Her ‘solitude of spirit’ is proof against our ridicule as against Florence’s hatred, Madame Marxse’s vileness, or Lewis’s insufficiency.
A barefoot figure in a magenta apron, satisfying her sense of the comic with a freshly butchered pig in the decent attire of Fräulein Brandt; debating the propriety of Antonia’s choice of a lover on the æsthetic ground of the young man’s figure; lying out under the cold night sky in the pass, entranced with the passionate hope that ‘if she could ever see one thing properly she might quite easily see God’ — Teresa’s first appearance presents incongruities enough. But at the foundation of her fantastic world lies the idea of Lewis, and the force of that idea is sufficient to carry her through Lewis’s marriage to Florence, through the small daily martyrdom of Cleeve Ladies’ College (Jane Eyre at least had Helen and Miss Temple!) and the bitterness of Florence’s ‘silver sty. ‘
Would it have been sufficient to carry her through the fulfillment of her desire, face to face with the real Lewis? At any rate, her prayer would appear to have been answered. The scene in Madame’s dingy bedroom, where her life with Lewis begins and so briefly ends, carries extraordinary conviction with it.
Miss Kennedy shares with her heroine that rarest of qualities, distinction.