Joan Fontaine received an Oscar nomination for her role in the third (1943)
Copyright © the Wildfire Club
The Constant Nymph by Miss Margaret Kennedy is what might be called a current book from the Secessionist point of view. That is to say, you can buy it in bookshops every where. There is probably not a town in Britain where you cannot pick up a copy for a shilling or two. I am, of course, speaking of the sort of bookshop you and I frequent:— second hand bookshops, which are the only sort a decent person can enter without being violently ill.
From its easy availability, it is clear that the book once enjoyed a very considerable vogue. It was first published in 1924, and took the nation, as they say, by storm. Nearly every one read it; it was made into three films and a stage play with Mr. Noël Coward in the leading role as Lewis Dodd — who might perhaps be described as one of the earliest "anti-heroes" in British fiction.
Do I alarm you? Do I hear you ask: "Is this book sound?" Of course I do, for that is the sort of question one must ask about a current book which one sees everywhere. Ought we to be reading it or treating it with the same Olympian contempt with which we regard the wares of those other shops where the books have repulsive bongo jackets and the assistants, as often as not, have no jackets at all?
I should begin by telling you that this book has a certain notoriety. It is said, by its lyrical beauty, to have wooed certain numbers of the British middle class to the view that illicit love — at least among Bohemians — is a charming, and even perhaps an acceptable, thing. We do not consider that this was any part of the authoress's intention. The British (and American) middle class has always had an intuition that it must be rigorously guarded from anything which was not utterly correct and conventional; from anything into which the existence of immorality intruded as anything but a cautionary picture in a very overt moral fable, else they might be corrupted utterly and the civilised decencies of ten generations evaporate overnight;— and any one who is remotely familiar with the deplorable social history of the late 20th century will be aware that this intuition, absurd as it may have seemed, was absolutely correct. Miss Kennedy, adding her stone to the early stages of the avalanche, may have known that; but there is no reason to suppose that she did.
Mr. G.K.Chesterton one of the staunchest defenders of decency between the wars, said on more than one occasion that a book which treats of immoral themes is not necessarily an immoral book. It may, as in the case of Vanity Fair, be a highly moral book. The Constant Nymph is not, I think, that, but it is certainly not a simple case of recommending immorality. The essential conflict of the book is between Bohemianism and "convention". Up to a point the former may be identified with immorality or amorality and the latter with morality, but really the book is rather subtler than that.
Reading the book from a post-Eclipse point of view, it is easy to misunderstand it in the light of later and grosser ideas; for it is important to note that modern propaganda has, in many ways, distorted the perspective even of those who have rejected it; and learning to read real books in an un-Eclipsed way is one of the best exercises for recovering a more normal perspective.
The book, then, opens in a mènage which will be familiar to those who have suffered the 1960s and their noxious fallout — the household of Albert Sanger or "Sanger's Circus", as it is more familiarly known, has much in common with the "commune" (pron. commyeen) of a later and lower age. Bad manners, bad language and alley-cat morality are the rules. The girls share a common wardrobe of crumpled, dirty clothes lying in heaps on the floor of their common bedroom. We do not actually hear the bad language at any point, which makes the book readable and allows the menage to retain a certain charm. Is this hypocrisy? The "whitewashing" of the unjustifiable? We think not. Only the shallowest and most inattentive (or pre-conditioned) reader can imagine that this is being seriously recommended as a pleasant way of life. We are told how each of Sanger's previous wives has died in poverty and neglect and the Circus breaks up at the end of the first book when Sanger himself dies alone and unattended in his room. Alone and unattended because his present common-law wife, the sluttish Linda Cowlard, has been closeted for days with one of his guests and his children are so afraid of his violent and uncontrolled temper that they dare not enter his room even though they suspect that something is wrong.
No intelligent reader can imagine that the authoress is peddling such sophomoric '60s-ish (or '20s-ish) nostrums as "If only we could get away from the Artificial Constraints of Society and live according to our Creative Emotions and Free Love. . ." We are shown exactly what life is like when we try to live like that.
The nymphs of the book — Sanger's daughters — have, it is true, a curious charm, half feral, half artistic, as a direct result of having been reared away from the influences of conventional civilisation; yet they, more than any, are painfully, half-consciously, aware of the value of what they have not. The contrast in attitude between Antonia, one of the nymphs and Florence, a well-bred girl temporarily infatuated with Bohemianism, is both touching and instructive:
"[Antonia] was convinced, though she could not put it into words, that no sort of love ought to be despised, since, despite its rude beginnings, it is the first source of civility But then civility was to Florence a commonplace, while to Antonia it was a thing rare and admired, so beautiful as to cast a radiance over its own base and humble origins. Only she could not explain herself."
This is not, of course, to say that there is no positive value in the Bohemian revolt against "convention". At its best it is a revolt of art against philistinism, of beauty against banality; but in order fully to appreciate this it is necessary to set aside the preconceived ideas of late 20th-century pseudo-Bohemianism. The real Bohemian is very far removed from the flabby poseur of the 1960s and after, with his drivelling, journalistically-originated maunderings about peace, love, equality and "creativity". The real Bohemian is, before all else, an artist, and if in some respects Sanger's Circus may resemble a "commyeen", the most radical difference is that nearly all its habitués are subject to a genuine and extremely rigorous artistic discipline. It is also important to free one's mind from the sanctimonious late-20th-century-liberal reinterpretation to which any "rebellious" movement of the past is subject. The late 20th century has been anxious to co-opt all such movements into the great stream of "progressive radicalism", which, swelled by hundreds of imaginary tributaries, has been artificially expanded into one of the major currents of recent Western history. The truth of the matter, as is becoming more widely recognised, is that the anti-bourgeois reaction of the 19th and early 20th centuries was, in most cases, very far from being an egalitarian, leftist rebellion, but was largely an élitist revolt against democracy. The bourgeois is pre-eminently the democratic type of man, and the contempt felt for him was, until the final triumph of mass propaganda over independent thought, largely the contempt of the "higher man" for the drabness of a civilisation governed by the petty prudencies and providencies of the "inferior man".
We must beware at all times of reading a book like this in the light of the liberal clichés through which the past is now habitually filtered. When, for example, two of the nymphs are sent to an English girls' school and rebel against it, their reasons for doing so have nothing in common with the stock bongo dislike of discipline and hard work:
"They had, it seemed, gone there with every intention to be good, prepared for inhumanly strict teachers and a great deal of hard work. They were really anxious to be educated and might have done well if the place had not been utterly beyond the scope of their imagination."
If it was not discipline or hard work or even severity which was beyond the comprehension of these young Bohemians, then what was it? In a word, it was democracy:
"They would have suffered at any school; but at Cleeve, which was admittedly democratic, their personal habits and their ready mendacity made them the butt of every amateur reformer. The business of baiting them had a moral sanction behind it. They were persecuted for their own good and the honour of the school until they scarcely knew if they could call their souls their own. They could discover no smallest loophole of respite or escape; in class. at games, at bed and board, the tyrannical, many-eyed mob were always with them."
The easy, obvious, exterior things about Bohemianism - its apparent casualness, its naturalness, its (sometimes) charming disregard for common order — these are things which attract the dilettante like Florence, just as these are the things aped by the modern pseudo-Bohemian. But these things alone are nothing. They are merely symptoms of an inner state, and the dilettante becomes alarmed as she sees the fierce hatred of the democratic mentality, and the fierce, seemingly fanatical, dedication to art. In the following interchange, Florence begins to see some of the underlying fire of Bohemianism:
"What is the Guild of Beauty?' he asked unpromisngly.
"Those people who give those concerts down in the slums. You must know! They have quite a good choir; and they practically run the 'Nine Muses'. Their idea is to educate the popular taste in the Arts, beginning with the proletariat; that's such a much more promising field than the middle classes. They try to give the people really good music. That concert we went to at Notting Hill Gate was got up by them."
"Call that really good music ?"
"N-no. . . It was a good level for amateurs, and—"
"Amateurs," said Lewis, pronouncing the word as if it made him a little ill, "have no business to have a level. Is this Leyburn an amateur?"
"Don't talk in that tone of voice about amateurs. I'm one myself. Yes, he is. He sings very nicely too. And he's done a lot of splendid work bringing music to the people."
"What's he want to do that for?"
"My dear Lewis! Why do you write music ?"
"Don't to you want to give pleasure to people?"
"That's a pose."
"It's not! I'll swear it's not. I tell you this Florence. The sight of a lot of them listening to my work, or Sanger's work, or anything decent, makes me sick. I swear then I won't write another note, if that's what it's for. Sanger too! I know how he felt. Once I remember they made a demonstration round the door of a hall when he came out, shaking hands with him and so forth, and an old fellow came up and said: 'Mr. Sanger. I'd like to tell you of the pleasure that you've given to a poor working man.' 'Oh ?' said Sanger. I suppose you think I ought to want to please every son of b— who can pay for a sixpenny ticket'."
The rancour against amateurs has not, it need hardly be said, anything in common with the current Americanised cult of "professionalism". On the contrary, Dodd has nothing but contempt for the concept of a "career", and refuses to advance his own by the slightest real or imaginary compromise with his principles or sensitivities. The Bohemians regard successful career-musicians, who sell their work for the admiration of the many, with utter contempt. As the authoress comments after one conversation:
Thus they dismissed a man who was still the most renowned of British composers. In their circle however, Lucius Simon was hardly considered worth a malediction.
Both the amateur and the "professional" are despised, because neither is a member of the soul-dedicated élite for whom, art, art alone, art with no ulterior aim, is the purpose of life. If their hatred of the "establishment" is in some respects reminiscent of shallow hippie-ism (the authoress even wryly comments on this dismissal of Lucius Simon "perhaps he was the wrong age"), it must be understood that their revolt, even if in many respects misconceived, is a real revolt, not a flabby acquiescence in the weary journalistic clichés of off-the-peg "radicalism".
The sickly, ersatz, self-abasing cult of the proletariat ("such a much more promising field than the middle classes"), is precisely the sort of thing that makes the Bohemian despise the bourgeoisie — not (as with the tamed pseudo-Bohemian of a later age) because it is "patronising", but because it is bilge; and also because the real Bohemian has no interest or belief in society, high or low, and disdains all such things as schemes for social reform. A socialist millionaire, especially when socialism is the current instrument of power, is a logical development, but a socialist or a democratic Bohemian is a contradiction in terms (this alone is sufficient to expose the falsehood of the "hippie" movement, a toy rebellion which never possessed a single idea which was not originally pumped into its members by the "establishment" broadcasting networks and orthodox-radical schoolteachers).
Not being besotted with "the social" or with the prefabricated preoccupations of mass-society and the mass-media, the real Bohemian does not for a moment consider recommending his way of life to others as an "alternative" to conventional social mores. On the contrary, Bohemian society is, in its way, as exclusive as aristocratic society. It is, in its own terms an aristocracy. It is certainly what the tamed pseudo-Bohemian would call an "elite", and no real Bohemian could even conceive of apologising for the fact, and certainly not of using the word as a term of automatic derogation. For the real Bohemian art is the highest value and genius the highest qualification; and after genius, absolute dedication — a dedication that the dilettante cannot understand, as Florence finds to her cost:
. . . they made no comment, but their contemptuous surprise was galling to her. It was impossible always to remember how seriously they took themselves. Her own standards were high but they were perfect maniacs. It was one of the thousand occasions upon which she was made to feel that four people in the house were united in a point of view which was. to her, partially incomprehensible.
There is nothing bogus about this dedication. Unlike the "hippie" whose passions for "free love", " social justice" or whatever are essentially excuses for physical self-indulgence and the mental laziness of the brainwashee, the unconventionality, self-indulgence, and even unpleasantness of the Bohemian turn about the axis of a genuine dedication to art and a real belief that nothing else matters.
This is far from being a piece of flabby self-justification: it is a dedication all too real and even, to the uninitiated, frightening, as Florence realises upon the occasion when she hears Dodd playing the piano part in the Kreuzer Sonata among a group of Bohemian friends:
He certainly knew the piece. There was a peculiar passion and sadness in it which plucked at her very heart strings, as though she herself was an instrument for his cruel, clever fingers. And he gave her besides a conviction of restrained power; she felt that he had mastered all emotion and turned it to his own ends. It was outrageous that he could do it. She knew him to be hard, lustful and unstable; he had no business to command such effortless beauty. Playing like this required noble thoughts and unflinching aims. But then this was his real life. And it was so with all of them. She watched as they listened; even old Rachel, gross and ugly as she was, had a strange light on her face as she leant against the door, smiling and watching the violinist. Teresa and Sebastian were fixed and intent. Jacob had forgotten wife and child, had turned away from them and was staring through the room, all dim with smoke, as though he could see some lost vision beyond the window, among the dark trees of the garden. And Tony, though she pressed her baby in her arms, had wandered in her mind elsewhere. Her lovely eyes had an inward, brooding look. Music, with all these people, came first. that was why they talked as if nobody else had any right to it. Once Florence had liked them all too well; now that she understood them better she was frightened of them. She wanted to challenge them, to make a demonstration of her power, to call them back to that world of necessity and compromise which they so sublimely ignored, but with which they would have ultimately to reckon. After all, she was the strongest. She had order and power on her side. They were nothing but a pack of rebels.
Here is an important point. In the '20s there was still a genuine opposition between the Bohemian and "conventional" worlds; there really was order and power ranged on one side and actual rebellion on the other. In the world of the '60s this opposition, while still maintained in fantasy, was — and is — no longer there. On the one hand a watered-down and meaningless version of Bohemianism is everywhere accepted as "respectable"; the unshaven, foul-mouthed pseudo-rebellious "rock" singer is greeted by presidents and honoured by royalty. The so-called "fringe" at the Edinburgh festival is as much a part of the festival as the rest. The patronage of Arts Councils and similar bodies is reserved exclusively for the "radical" pseudo-Bohemian. "Alternative" comedians share air-time with "conventional" comedians-provided, of course, they do not break the real tabus on race, equality, or other subjects; which, of course, they would never dream of doing. For the other side of the equation is that the modern Bohemian or "alternative" world has been fully and completely co-opted into the liberal bourgeois establishment. It shares every liberal-leftist-egalitarian notion, merely pushing them all a stage or two further: which is precisely its assigned and accepted function in the scheme of things. The arrogance of the "anti-sexist" "alternative" playwright derives not from a conviction of genius or dedication or intellectual superiority or artistic purity, but precisely from the certainty that "he has power and authority on his side".
For the true Bohemian, the very concept of an "anti-sexist playwright" would be beneath contempt. He despises the notion of art as "socially useful" or useful in any other way. Above all he despises the utilitarian and liberal preoccupations of the middle class, which the modern pseudo-Bohemian has imbibed so thoroughly that he can conceive of nothing else. The two attitudes are thrown into stark contrast in the following dialogue between Dodd and Florence:
"Your attitude is completely wrong. You put the wrong things first. Music, all art . . . what is it for ? What is its justification ? After all . . ."
"It's not for anything. It has no justification. It . . ."
"It's only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully. You can't put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilisation, as your precious Sanger seems to have done. Human life is more important."
"I know. You want to use it like electric light. You buy a new saucepan for your kitchen and a new picture for your Silver Sty. I've seen it. My father's cultured. He . . ."
"It's a much abused word and one is shy of using it. But it means an important thing, which we can't do without."
"Can't we? I can! By God I can! Why do you suppose I ran away? To get free of it. Why do you think I loved Sanger?" He broke into a wild tirade against those who would chain him and his labour to the wheels of a social structure. He tried to urge his own conviction that beauty and danger are inseparable: that ideas are best conceived in a world of violence; that any civilisation must of necessity end by quenching the riotous flame of art for the sake of civic order. But he could not say what he meant. He was not furnished with any of the right words for such a discussion, and he used, moreover, so many inexcusably wrong ones that she lost the thread in her indignation.
"I can't stand this obscene language any more " she said, jumping up. "And I'm sure the world would he an unspeakably awful place if you could have your way in it."
"If you had yours the only people who could enjoy themselves would be sick persons and young children."
The Bohemian looks upon the democratic world and sees it as a world ordained for the weak and the stupid; a world unfit for the élite. That is the primary reason for his rebellion. As we see the two points of view counterpoised, we see that they are in real opposition, so much so as scarcely to be capable of comprehending one another. We see also that there is right on both sides. This stands in contradistinction to the modern world, in which the pale parodies of "Bohemianism" and "conventionalism" are able only too well to understand one another, both being based upon the same system of flaccid falsehoods.
Essentially, the problem of the artist derives from the nature of an untraditional society, in which art is increasingly seen as "mere decoration". In traditional societies, such as pre-industrial India or Japan, or mediaeval Europe, art was seen as a sacred function; music was the attempt to translate for human ears the "unheard music" of the spheres; painting was the depiction not of "things as they are", which, as Plato said, would be to make "a copy of a copy", but of the celestial Archetypes which lie behind manifest things. It is the intuition of this which leaves the artist frustrated and furious in the face of the democratic-rationalist trivialisation of art. Traditional art has its place in society, but it is a sacred place within a society that has not itself become de-sacralised. "Art for art's sake" has always been somewhat absurd as a doctrine, but it is a natural, if untutored, reaction to the reduction of art to a commodity, made for sale on the market-place or for distribution to the masses by the welfare state. The complete loss of the traditional doctrine of art took place over several centuries, culminating in the latter 19th and early 20th; and no real resolution between the "Bohemian" and "civilised" viewpoints can be reached without, on the one hand, a restoration of the traditional doctrine of art, and, on the other, a more traditional view of society as a whole, which can allow it to discharge the functions of serving every section of the community without degenerating into democratic utilitarianism.
How this might be done under modern conditions would take us far beyond the scope of this essay, and is, indeed, the principal problem of our times; the return from a fragmented to an organic social order. Without such a restitution we are condemned either to fruitless oppositions between partial visions, or worse, to a false restitution, based upon the inferior aspect of each point of view. It is the latter which holds sway today. It is significant that the characters in this book, holding as they do, opinions which are but fragments of the jigsaw puzzle, are continually unable to express themselves properly or to understand one another or make themselves understood. In the passages cited in this essay, we note that Antonia, moved by deep feelings on the nature of love and civility "could not explain herself'; that the girls found their English school "utterly beyond the scope of their imagination", that Florence finds the Bohemians' perfectionism "partially incomprehensible", that Dodd, trying to explain his deepest feelings on art and society, "could not say what he meant". Between the two worlds is a barrier. In a traditional society, they are parts of an organic whole, but in the modern, democratic world, the key has been lost.
Before closing, we must return to the question which was posed implicitly at the beginning of this discourse. Is The Constant Nymph an immoral book? Does it condone or glorify illicit love? We should say: No. It is, before all else, a tragedy. The doomed marriage is one which began in misunderstanding; the misunderstanding between a Bohemian husband and a dilettante wife, who can say:
"I want this house to look like us . . . pleasantly Bohemian . . . a sort of civilised Sanger's circus. don't you know, with all its charm and not quite so much . . . disorder."
Such misunderstanding is one of the central themes of the book, and that it leads to a disastrous marriage is natural, and that the husband should behave immorally is only in character. The elopement with a child is in many ways charming and wistful (although Dodd continues to behave boorishly almost to the end) even though it ends tragically; but to imagine that the authoress is for a moment suggesting that this is how people ought to behave is entirely to misread the book. In this connexion it is also interesting to note that even the girl brought up in an atmosphere of absolute moral licence and with no understanding of conventional mores, behaves with more decency, self-discipline and instinctive morality than many well-brought-up late-20th -century girls would think of doing.
In any case, the pseudo-Bohemianism of Florence is a subtler thread than a superficial reading might indicate. It is ironic, but not at all surprising, that the wife who wants "a sort of civilised Sanger's circus, without the disorder" rapidly finds herself succumbing to the very reverse. The disorder encroaches upon her personality, while her understanding of the true dedication which underlay that disorder remains as blank as ever:
"[Roberto, the servant from Sanger's circus] stole out and stumbled over something on the floor; it was the new dress, flung down as not even a petticoat should have been flung. Roberto, lately converted to neatness, was shocked. He picked up the gown and spread it over a chair; next he rescued a silk shift. Then, realising that the unaccountable disorder which had overtaken the room was something significant and past his mending, he smiled broadly and slid out on tiptoe . . . Nor was his peace of mind shattered when, a week later, he was aware of a dispute. a quarrel so formidable that the house literally rang with it . . . To Florence, however this quarrel was another step in the slow process of defeat. It was devastating to her, this sudden discovery that her temper could be ungovernable."
"The fight became unbelievably fierce, until Florence noticed an inflection in her voice which reminded her of the railings of Linda Cowlard. She fell silent, horrified and ashamed, and Lewis got in the last word."
It is significant that Florence should begin to bear some slight resemblance to Linda Cowlard, the one member of Sanger's circus who was not a genuine Bohemian, but merely an ordinary slut, tolerated only for her physical attributes. There is a kinship between them. Both are attracted by the exterior of Bohemianism; its freedom and unconventionality, with little understanding of the fierce, beating heart within it, without which it would be nothing — or rather, would be mere "hippie"ism.
The degeneration that takes place in Florence is very similar to the degeneration of a middle-class "hippie" and his successors; the decay of standards, physical and moral, the undermining of character by a false conception of "freedom from convention" which has no serious purpose or dedication behind it. Of course, the analogy can be pressed too far. Florence does not consciously accede to this degeneration as the "hippie", and his heirs, does, and her decay is only partial. She continues, in most outward respects to remain the perfect English lady, so much admired by the Bohemian nymphs. Nonetheless, the degenerative effects of this "spineless Bohemianism" are the final cause of the book's whole tragedy. It is only when Florence loses control of herself, unleashes a Linda Cowlard-like tirade upon the innocent nymph, and ends by using a foul word of the sort that she has always so hated in Lewis, that the final crisis is precipitated.
"Tomorrow she would probably blush to think that she could have screamed such a word out through the house, but filthy language was the only sort of speech which the Sangers understood."
But Florence has no idea how deeply she has shocked and terrified a girl who has heard such language all her life, — how to hear such filth from a lady has shattered all her confidence in the world:
"Teresa was, indeed, nearly shocked to death. Her fear was like a nightmare, she did not know where to turn or how to protect herself from this horrible woman who looked like an angel and talked like a devil. Uncle Charles might prate about the merits of civilised life, but there was no safety in it. If Florence, who had seemed so beautiful and good, was really like this, there was no safety in it."
Florence, thus reduced might almost be taken as a paradigm of the late-20th-century world which is so much the product of people of her sort — decent, middle-class people ruined and distorted by an ignorant, unprincipled dalliance with rebellion; a rebellion which has no real basis other than a selfish attachment to self-gratification, and which imagines that one can attack the very bases of civilisation with no serious consequences. The result, of course, is an ugly, uncontrolled priggish insanity; a distorted caricature in which the worst elements of convention are married to the worst elements of Bohemianism, precisely because one is divorced from the true principles of both. That is the ultimate tragedy of the book, as it is the ultimate tragedy of Western civilisation.
The Constant Nymph is remembered, or half-remembered, if at all, as a sentimental story which enjoyed a brief vogue in the '20s. It is far more than that. It is an intelligent, witty, lyrical book which, read with an eye freed from the prejudices of the post-Eclipse world, forms a splendid exercise in cleansing and deepening the mind and the emotions.
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